Home de­sign:

a ru­ral re­treat

Australian Women’s Weekly NZ - - NEWS - AWW

The first time Ca­tri­ona Rown­tree clapped eyes on the blue­stone build­ing that would be­come her fam­ily home, it was de­serted, all but derelict, and lit­tered with the odd dead bird.

That was more than 15 years ago, when Ca­tri­ona vis­ited her new boyfriend’s his­toric fam­ily prop­erty south-west of Mel­bourne in Aus­tralia. Just a short walk from his par­ents’ homestead, he showed her the old man­ager’s cot­tage – with sheep and emus graz­ing around it and barely a tree in sight. One day, he de­clared, he would do the place up. Ca­tri­ona was smit­ten with the dash­ing young gra­zier, but she wasn’t stupid.

“I just looked at him and said, ‘Well, I hope your new girl­friend just loves it,’” she says, laugh­ing.

Back then, Ca­tri­ona was trav­el­ling 42 weeks a year as a pre­sen­ter on Aus­tralian travel show Get­away – the dream job she landed in 1996 – and hav­ing a long-dis­tance re­la­tion­ship with James Pet­tit, whom she had met through friends.

For years, the con­firmed city girl and glo­be­trot­ter re­sisted coun­try life – but love even­tu­ally won out.

“I was sure it was just a fling,” re­calls Ca­tri­ona, now 45. “I was like, as if I’m go­ing to be a farmer’s wife! But I found out the hard way that you have no say where Cupid’s ar­row will strike.”

Ca­tri­ona and James mar­ried in 2008, and sons An­drew and Char­lie soon fol­lowed. Now she wishes she’d had six kids. “I spent so long fight­ing get­ting mar­ried,” says Ca­tri­ona. “I was never clucky, but the mo­ment I got mar­ried, I started to grow feath­ers.”

Which seems an ap­pro­pri­ate segue into her splen­did chook shed. Since Ca­tri­ona’s move to the coun­try, she has set about putting a distinc­tive, fem­i­nine stamp on her six-bed­room home, even com­mis­sion­ing a builder to de­sign a “mini-Ver­sailles” to house

her four hens. “I’ve painted sten­cils on the side,” she says, “I’ve made sure they’ve got pretty plants to look at out the win­dow – all of which my hus­band thinks is com­pletely ridicu­lous.”

The Arau­cana chick­ens, a Chilean breed, were a gift from a lo­cal friend after An­drew’s birth, and lay beau­ti­ful pale-blue eggs. “I only do pretty,” says Ca­tri­ona. “I’m not in­ter­ested in prac­ti­cal chooks.”

In fact, the ren­o­va­tions have been “a con­stant bat­tle of the pretty ver­sus the prac­ti­cal,” she says. Ca­tri­ona’s first tar­get was the guest­house, and she told James to stand aside.

Dec­o­rat­ing with pieces she’d found in French an­tique shops and lo­cal mar­kets, Ca­tri­ona cre­ated her fan­tasy ho­tel suite, with a claw­foot bath­tub.

Back to bare bones

Over the past 150 years, the home has been through a num­ber of in­car­na­tions, but Ca­tri­ona and James have stripped it back to its orig­i­nal de­sign. “It was a chal­lenge ini­tially to see the beauty, but now I’m com­pletely in awe of what that orig­i­nal ar­chi­tect cre­ated,” says Ca­tri­ona. “It’s got these thick blue­stone walls, so it’s beau­ti­fully cool in the sum­mer and it re­tains the heat in the win­ter.”

The sheep and grain prop­erty has thrived since the 1860s and, more re­cently, was used as a lo­ca­tion for the films Ned Kelly and The Dress­maker. Ca­tri­ona’s par­ents-in-law bought the prop­erty about 30 years ago and still live there, which means the boys have their grand­par­ents – and the cou­ple has babysit­ting – on tap.

With a soc­cer field in the front yard, An­drew, seven, and six-year-old Char­lie spend most of their time out­side. “Tech­nol­ogy is a chal­lenge in our lives, too,” says Ca­tri­ona, “but I’ve got some pretty good diversions.”

As well as sheep, chooks, five adopted cats and two work­ing dogs, the boys have had a se­ries of pets, but haven’t had much luck with high-main­te­nance rab­bits and guinea pigs. “I came back from one trip,” re­calls Ca­tri­ona, “and asked Char­lie, ‘Where have the guinea pigs gone?’ He pointed to the sky and said, ‘They’ve gone to Kevin.’”

Ca­tri­ona is still work­ing on her ru­ral cre­den­tials, but says she has ad­justed to life in the coun­try, buy­ing most things on­line, in­vest­ing in a bread­maker and slow cooker, and im­prov­ing her skills in the kitchen.

She can whip up a cake at a mo­ment’s no­tice, but ad­mits that’s only be­cause she has a pantry full of packet mixes.

“I’ve only been asked to cook for the shear­ers once,” says Ca­tri­ona, “and I think ‘once’ is the op­er­a­tive word.”

Great es­cape

The con­ver­sion to coun­try girl, it seems, is not quite com­plete. “I do get a bit of cabin fever if I’m here for too long,” she says. “In one sense, I adore the peace, but I also crave con­ver­sa­tion. So I’m for­tu­nate with my job that – in the nicest way pos­si­ble – I can es­cape.” With a re­gional air­port a quick drive away, she says, “I dodge the ’roos on the way out the back gate and I’m in Syd­ney in an hour.” Ca­tri­ona, who is an am­bas­sador for Ziera shoes, still spends half the year trav­el­ling the world with Get­away and although it was tricky when the boys were younger, she has never tired of the job. “Ev­ery jour­ney I en­joy and I learn some­thing,” she says, and names Bhutan as her favourite des­ti­na­tion. “I eat a meal that blows my mind or I meet some­one, whether it’s a bus driver or a Bhutanese monk, that I’m hum­bled by. I think it’s very healthy for all of us to have some­thing to look for­ward to, so that’s why I say, just book that trip, and when you go, take

“I am an ob­sessed shop­per. If you can fit it in the over­head locker, just buy it.”

that cook­ing class, talk to the lo­cals, ex­pand your mind. The worst thing that can hap­pen is that you’ll come home and be grate­ful for the fresh wa­ter you drink, the bed you sleep in. With­out a doubt, we live in the best coun­try in the world, but I can only say that be­cause I travel.”

Sou­venirs from Ca­tri­ona’s trav­els are all over her home, from her col­lec­tion of tra­di­tional hats to the pretty blue tiles she picked up in a ro­man­tic Por­tuguese vil­lage. “I’m an ob­sessed shop­per,” she says.

“My at­ti­tude is, if you can fit it in the over­head locker, just buy it.”

After our photo shoot, the fam­ily is due to leave on the chil­dren’s first over­seas hol­i­day – a sur­prise trip to Dis­ney­land and then to the Ba­hamas, where they will head out to The Ex­u­mas, a string of is­lands famed for their “swim­ming pigs”.

For more than two decades, Ca­tri­ona has doc­u­mented it all in a se­ries of Mole­sk­ine jour­nals, and these days she also shares sto­ries on her travel web­site, Jour­neys to Come.

One day, as an old woman, she hopes to tell tales from her ex­tra­or­di­nary life to a gag­gle of lit­tle people on her lap. “I write with my un­born grand­chil­dren in mind,” she says. “I want them to know that their grand­mother ab­so­lutely lived it.”

TOP RIGHT: Ca­tri­ona’s son An­drew play­ing out­side the chook house with an Arau­cana chicken. RIGHT AND OP­PO­SITE: Pierre Frey fab­rics, which Ca­tri­ona spot­ted in Rouen, France, cover the sofa and cush­ions in the sun-soaked con­ser­va­tory.

LEFT: Ca­tri­ona with her sons, Char­lie, left, and An­drew. OP­PO­SITE, CLOCK­WISE FROM TOP: Ca­tri­ona’s walk-in robe room boasts full cur­tains, or­nate carved fur­ni­ture and a vin­tage chan­de­lier. The ro­man­tic guest bed­room has the glam­our and el­e­gance of a Parisian boudoir, but the rough ren­dered walls also lend it a re­laxed, rus­tic air. Orig­i­nal tongue-and-groove walls in the guest and main bath­rooms have been painted white for fresh­ness and light.

CLOCK­WISE FROM ABOVE: Ca­tri­ona and her two sons, shar­ing cake and straw­ber­ries on the ter­race. A lit­tle coun­try gar­den cor­ner. With tim­ber, old-fash­ioned taps and blue­stone walls, the kitchen is a modern take on ru­ral style.

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