Natalie Davis and Nils Bendix turned a historic location into a wonderland for their two boys.
THERE’S NOT MUCH TO SEE OF EWING FARM from the road, except the little colony of high-pitched rusted roofs peeping over a straggly hawthorn hedge, but that’s enough to hint of a place steeped in history. Ewing Farm in Tylden, central Victoria, was built in 1862 and now more than a century later, cloaked in antiquity, it’s a place that captures your imagination. That history is what fifirst attracted Natalie Davis and her partner Nils Bendix to the place four years ago. At the time the couple lived on the other side of the continent in Shoalwater, south of Perth. But they’d been searching along the east coast for an old house in the country where their son Wolfgang, now six, and since joined by Hugo, three, could explore. A more easterly location also suited Nils, who is a contract rigger, working in the fifilm, television, oil and gas industries all over the country. Meanwhile, Natalie — a chalkboard artist and sign-writer who is currently designing wine labels — knew she’d fifind demand for her work in a region with such a rich food industry. Most of all, they wanted to be surrounded by history. “We wanted to be in the hinterland, we needed to be near an airport for Nils, and we needed age,” says Natalie. “I love all kinds of old things, not just houses.” When Nils fifirst visited Ewing Farm with an agent, the 1.2-hectare property hadn’t yet been listed for sale. “Nils came here to look, and then he called me to say, ‘I think I’m standing in our house!’” says Natalie. “Wolfie and I flflew over from Perth two days later. We walked around the garden and it was so overgrown with periwinkle and it had more work to do than we planned, but we loved the rabbit warren of the house, where you forget what direction you’re going in.” The original owner, Thomas Ewing, was a civil engineer who came up from Melbourne to build the road from Tylden on to Daylesford. In 1862 he built the fifirst two-roomed building with an adjoining dairy, scullery and tack room under skillion roofs. He followed with a second house in the 1870s, with separate school and governess rooms, and fifinally sent for his family who were waiting in Melbourne. The buildings clustered on three sides around a narrow courtyard. “They found gold at Glenlyon and Thomas Ewing had a toll house on the road and was allowed to charge a toll, recouping money for his house,” says Natalie. “There’s also a Ned Kelly story that I’ve heard a few times. Ned was being accommodated in one of the fifive pubs in
Tylden while he was on trial in Kyneton, but he’d get into bar fights and ended up sleeping under a tree. Mr Ewing said Ned could sleep on his floor, so he stayed here when he was too naughty to stay in pubs!” Natalie and Nils moved in three months after they bought the property in 2013. Both love a cold rugged climate but their first spring in Victoria’s central highlands surprised even them. “I’m originally from Jersey, in the Channel Islands, so I’m used to windy places and like being on the top of hills. But that November was the coldest on record and I thought, ‘What’s winter going to be like?’” says Natalie. The previous owner bought the house after it had been abandoned for years and used it as a weekender. He had joined all the wings with a conservatory roof over the courtyard, and turned the dairy into the kitchen. However, while work had been done on a few rooms, there were still holes in some of the walls. At some stage the hallway in the 1870s house had been lined with old tea chests. “It was to cover the termite damage,” says Natalie. In Hugo’s room she covered the holes in the walls with masking tape and hung pictures over them until they could replaster. “The house was unsafe,” says Natalie. The walls were off the end of the governess’s room and schoolroom and the roof was held up by one acro prop. The ceiling had fallen in, and the couple could see a shingled roof above it, which they thought would look great exposed so they went about restoring it. “We put trusses up and lifted the iron off the roof, built a framework and insulated underneath,” explains Natalie. “We blew the cobwebs out of the shingles and sealed them. Then we put in French doors to the verandah and that’s our summer living room now.” With tradespeople coming and going for over a year, they also repaired columns on the verandahs, and replaced the skillion on the scullery, now Natalie’s studio, with a new pitched roof. They lifted every smooth-worn flfloorboard in the 1862 wing to restump and lay particleboard flflooring underneath to stop the wind coming through the gaps. “We numbered every board and put them back exactly where they came from.” A friend and colleague of Nils who is a scenic artist applied distressed paint finishes to old doors and timber dados. Eventually the couple decided to finish building the guestroom with ensuite that the previous owner had started in the 1870s wing — calling it the Rose Suite — as well as a new bedroom they named the Magnolia Suite, after the Vivienne Westwood wallpaper Natalie bought online for the sitting room. Initially intended for family to stay, these rooms (plus a third called the Japonica Room) are now offered as accommodation on Airbnb. Establishing a kitchen garden was another of Natalie’s projects, adding to the already established orchard and courtyard garden planted with crabapple varieties, rosemary, lavender and poppies. Many of the original plantings remain in the front and side garden, including an Irish strawberry tree and giant box hedges following the old garden lines. It’s a wonderland for Wolfgang and Hugo, who have swings hanging from big old tree limbs, as well as pet sheep — twins Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday — and chickens to play with. Natalie and Nils, too, have found there’s a lot to love about the place that they now call home. “We feel like it’s not really our house because it’s so original — we’re just looking after it.” For more information about accommodation, visit airbnb.com.au/ rooms/4944894 and airbnb.com.au/rooms/5480818. Follow Natalie on Instagram @chalkysigns