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Some say a spell living in Aro Valley is the rite of passage that qualifies you as a true Wellingtonian. Mention of Aro Valley evokes assorted reactions – a nostalgic sigh, a shiver, or sometimes an activist’s swagger. Or even an assertion that if you don’t know it you don’t “get” Wellington.
We asked Sharon Greally to look into “the valley.” She talks to long time resident and friend, Hannah Fraser.
The Frasers are known historically for their fighting spirit. At the Siege of Inverness in 1562, Clan Fraser fought valiantly, taking Inverness Castle for Mary Queen of Scots. And during the Jacobite Rebellion, they fought to help the Stewart monarchy regain the throne at the Battle of Killiecrankie.
There’s not a lot otherwise in the history books about collusion between the Frasers and the Stewarts, but in a wee Scottish town downunder, there was a historic meeting of the clans in 2012 at a mega concert in Dùn Èideann, or Dunedin as we know it. Multi-instrumentalist Hannah Fraser played violin in a backing trio for Rod “The Mod” Stewart at Forsyth Barr stadium – “one of the highlights of my musical career.” She has also played with Trinity Roots at the Opera House more recently, “But Rod’s concert was out of this world”.
Fraser was thrilled to be asked to perform with Stewart. She recalls him as a lovely “sunny guy”. As for the performance: “We had to wear short tight dresses, and played I’m too sexy, with transparent chairs and music stands. The whole thing was surreal and seamless.”
Fraser is a quintessential Aro Valley character. A musician, jewellery maker, and signed-up member of the liberal, artsy community inhabiting the urban enclave, she adorns her surroundings with her artisan style and personalised bike.
Aro Valley is known for its old, quirky wooden houses and colourful characters. It was built by Wellington settlers as a working-class residential suburb around 1860. Over time it developed a distinctly bohemian vibe. The quirky houses attracted quirky people, and the narrow valley is beloved of artists, activists, and alternative thinkers. Lively embellishments include bus shelters painted by local artists.
The house Fraser lives in is up fifty-one steps, hidden away in a lush garden with a fig tree, camellias, a “jungle fernery garden”, and a swing. The garden attracts birds, especially tui. It backs onto the local dog park, where Hannah’s dog “Lady Lacey of Levina” loves to explore. “It’s beautiful – you can see the sunsets and the moon rising, and there’s a big community garden too, and then there are the magnificent views out over the city.”
The house is a single-story classic villa, built around 1910. Levina Avenue was named after the wife of an early land-owner of the area, and apparently backed on to the now long-demolished Central Park Hospital. The house is full of surprises, one of them being the original coal range, in good working condition.
Many artists and creatives have lived in the house. “When I first came here to visit artist friend Stephen Templer I thought, ‘I’d love to live here one day’. He had lots of friends come and go and there was a long stream of artist friends renting here over about a decade. Eventually I got a spot and moved into the small room, then worked my way up to having a room that I could fit into with a grand piano, although I’ve still got heaps of giant things that don’t fit in.”
Fraser’s influence is apparent on the walls, in the form of posters for gigs she has played at over the years, and promos for events in the valley, such as the Aro Fair, and the infamous Aro Olympics.
She lives with two flatmates – an electrician from Denmark, and a chef – and her piano-playing dog. They have been sharing the house for about a year. Hannah says they get along well, hanging out around the fire, sharing meals and yarns and entertaining friends. The surrounding area provides pine cones and waste wood to burn in the original brick fireplace, and sometimes friends who pop in for the craic will bring a log.
The neighbours are “artists, writers, scientists, musicians, lots of self-employed people with interesting jobs like a colours consultant, and there’s a great community feel.” Fraser moved from Mt.Victoria to Aro Valley– “all the bohemians live here now” – and finds it a “lively, friendly community.” Favourite local haunts are Aro Bake and Garage Project’s Tap Room.
Fraser teaches piano to some of the local kids, and the house is always filled with music. She always has a craft activity on the go – creating her jewellery range, Honey Bee Creations, leather purses, or repurposing clothes.
It wasn’t necessarily the plan to get a grand piano, but Fraser saw the six footer on Trade Me and fell in love. It came from Marlborough Boys High School, where they needed something louder (think a thousand boys’ voices), and more transportable.
But getting a grand piano from the South Island to Aro Valley and up those 51 steps was not easy. Rough weather and cancelled crossings meant a repeat trip to bring the instrument back on the ferry. Then professional piano movers, four of them, had to get it up to the house: “It was hard to watch – a bit bracing!” The piano, which features a hidden drinks cabinet, dates from 1910, the same era as the house. “Meant to be.”
Fraser is from a family of four – “We all play something musical”. Lady Lacey trots out a dog song or two as we sit chatting, tickling the ivories of the new grand with her front paws.
Recently Hannah composed, arranged, and provided the instrumentation for a musical score for a film by local filmmakers Angelo Giannoutsos and Anna Matsis about the Greek Orthodox Church’s involvement in orphanages in the Pacific.
Hannah’s life is permeated by music. She studied at Wellington’s Jazz school, and has a degree in musical composition from Victoria University. Before Covid hit she had a weekly gig playing piano at the Wellesley Club, where she had a group of regular fans. “I really miss it.”