Living their best(friend) lives

A home overlooking Kelburn bush is a haven for two retirees who are housemates and best friends.

By Sarah Catherall
Photography by Anna Briggs

Featured in Capital #64
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Carolyn Mark and Jen Calvert are embracing retirement in their 1960s home nestled above Kelburn bush with sweeping views over Wellington.

Describing themselves as best friends, they first pooled resources to buy a Kelburn villa about 12 years ago. However, as they moved towards retirement, they realised the house was too big. The access was difficult, up dozens of steps, and they wanted a home they could lock and leave to travel.

Says Carolyn, known as Cadge: “We both do think that it is a great idea for older people, especially women, to throw their lot in with each other for financial and companionship reasons. It has certainly worked brilliantly for us.”

“By combining our incomes, we could afford to buy this house. We are able to combine our lives in a very amicable way,” says Jen, who adds “We have a lot of fun.”

The 1964 house they found is a treasure trove of art and objects acquired in their interesting lives and travels. At the top of Kelburn, it is on a private road dating from the 1960s, when most of the houses on the street were built.

Cadge and Jen were drawn to the neighbourhood, the house’s easy access, and its sublime, sweeping views. It has a pitched roof, and sunlight streams in through the picture windows in the living room with sweeping views over the Kelburn bush, to Mount Victoria in the distance to the right, and to Matiu/Somes Island in the harbour.

The big windows pull in the morning sun, heating the house all day. When Cadge and Jen are not travelling or enjoying their other hobbies, they love watching the views. “We never get sick of it. We waste far too much time sitting here looking out the window,” says Cadge, who worked in recruitment for VSA before she retired. “It’s a really nice house to live in. Its one of those houses where we live in every inch of it.”

Another favourite room is their den/library. Since retirement, Cadge has gone back to knitting, and a couple of her colourful knitted rugs sit on Danish leather chairs in the den. It is lined with bookshelves. They relish both fiction and non-fiction, and had to get rid of boxes of books when they downsized. “Cadge says that Jen – who used to work in human resources – is the cook of the house,and collects recipe books. She makes their meals in a small, practical kitchen tucked behind the living area – a separate space, which is the way kitchens were designed in the 1960s.

Cadge and Jen haven’t done much to the house since they bought it (they’ve spent more time tackling the garden) apart from updating the rundown bathroom and laundry. ‘The bathroom was a bit of an old dunger before,” says Jen.

Describing themselves as collectors, they have amassed applied art, glass, and ceramic works over the years. Some pieces have been inherited, while others were acquired during their travels. Supporters of New Zealand artists, they have works by Fata Feu’u, Gavin Chilcott, Toss Woollaston, and Sarah Hillary on walls.

Jen inherited a William and Mary sideboard from her parents, which is now in the living room, holding their pottery pieces. Her mother, Julie Calvert, lived in Thailand in the 1960s, and many of the pieces she acquired are now in the Kelburn house. Cadge’s brother is an Auckland photographer, so some of his works are on the walls. Colourful glass pieces are on the sideboard. There isn’t a lot of beige or neutral in this house.

Jen’s work at VSA in the 1980s involved extensive travel through Asia, Africa, and the Pacific. “When I left after 12 years, I worked out I had spent a total of four years travelling.” She regularly returned home with pieces she had acquired.

Travel is one of the hobbies they share today. On a recent trip to Spain, they met a Spanish artist and bought a couple of her pieces which are reminiscent of Picasso. Carpets from their travels in Morocco and China are scattered over the floorboards.

“We thought we could be minimalists but we’ve abandoned that,” laughs Jen.

Their bedrooms reflect their personal tastes. Fortunately Cadge wanted the smaller, cosier bedroom, which has an Asian feel to its decor. The stylish septuagenarian is never seen without a colourful, chunky bracelet designed by her sister, Liz Mark, a jeweller and interior designer. On Cadge’s bedroom table, a bowl of bracelets adds a splash of colour. Sally Burton art works hang above her bed, flanked by red lacquered Chinese cabinets.

Jen’s room is bigger, and its decor is more low-key. She bought an art work from a women’s collective in India, and a Ralph Hotere print not long after they moved in. “We said we would never have room for more art, and guess what, we’ve bought more art,” she laughs.

Part of the delight of the house is its setting and section. Jen’s bedroom opens out on to a deck, at the top of a bank of pittosporums and other natives.

After they moved in, they took a couple of years to slowly clear the sloping section, and replanted the lower garden with natives. They put in a path, which their next-door neighbour continued, so three households can now walk through the bottom of the garden to the street.

Four houses now have blurred boundaries, laughs Jen, so much so that they don’t know where their sections actually end.

It’s a sign of how close the neighbours are in this community. They know everyone on their street, getting together several times a year with others in the dozen or so houses. Before Christmas, they set up trestle tables and 34 residents had a long lunch on the street. Says Jen, “We continue each other’s planting, and planting over each other’s properties too. Its one of the things we love about living here. We keep an eye out for each other and feed each other’s cats. It’s a lovely feeling to be part of this community.”

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