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Aro Valley has a strong and nostalgic place in Wellington folklore, often as a great place for short-stay youthful hi-jinks. Melody Thomas visits a couple who came, stayed and grew.
Driving from Te Aro up the winding road towards Karori, you might have looked back towards the city and spotted a rambling two-storey house sitting high on the hill above Holloway Road. Surrounded on all sides by dense bush, the old house perches perilously, paint peeling and washing flapping from the second-floor balcony. Maybe, like me, you’ve wondered who on earth lives there, how they get their shopping up the hill, and whether that washing ever gets dry.
If you had time to look more closely, you might also have noticed two smaller houses just below the big one, similarly enmeshed in greenery. These three buildings come as a set, sharing a single address, and are colloquially identified by those who live there as Top House, North Cottage, and South Cottage. Over the years a roster of interesting, unusual, and sometimes down-and-out characters have lived in them and the tiered garden surrounding them have expanded and contracted accordingly. But for 40 years they have all orbited around one constant: Rebecca Hardie Boys.
You might recognise the name. Rebecca is the brain behind Hardie Boys Beverages. Actually, she’s the brawn too, spending her weekdays out at the factory in Wainuiomata brewing up effervescent treats including her natural ginger beer, or hauling great crates of bottled brews to 80 or so cafés all over Wellington.
But evenings and weekends find Hardie Boys at home on the Aro hillside with her partner, artist, cabinetmaker, film-maker and chief fixer-upperer George Rose, fermenting great ceramic jars of sauerkraut, knocking off one of the thousand jobs on the to do list, or getting wrist-deep in the earth alongside the others who make up this flourishing little community.
This part of Aro Valley was once known as Mitchelltown, and it was the first suburb established by settler Wellingtonians. The first cottages here, including the North and South Cottages, were built in the 1860s and 1870s. But by the 1970s many of them, at this point belonging to the Crown, had begun to succumb to rot, neglect and fire. An article from The Evening Post at the time described Holloway Road as “sagging stairways with most of the tread rotted away”, leading to “sagging, open doors and damp, musty rooms where glass from broken windows crunches underfoot.” In the late 70s the community began to reestablish itself, with people moving back into the dwellings and, eventually, beginning to negotiate the possibility of tenants purchasing houses from the Crown.
Rebecca first arrived here in 1982, on the run from the “claustrophobic” towns (Nelson and Palmerston North) where she’d spent her childhood and university years, “carrying a broken heart in my backpack”. A friend was living at Top House with her two young children, and offered Hardie Boys a bed for the weekend while she looked around for a flat. “I arrived in the middle of the night to an old empty house up a zigzag track. Not even sure it was the right place, I found a bed and crashed. The next morning – amazing! – I was five minutes from town but in the middle of the bush!”
Even though these houses are clearly visible from the opposite hillside, finding your way up to them is a complicated endeavour. I’ve come on a clear autumn Saturday morning, with an hour to chat before the households descend on the garden, as is their habit. As I’ve climbed up from the valley floor, the atmosphere has changed from dark and damp to warm and dry. A kākā freewheeling overhead shrieks its prehistoric cry, adding to the effect of stepping back in time. By the time I knock on the door of the North Cottage I’m fairly puffed, and just about recovered when Rebecca and George open the door and welcome me inside their home.
North Cottage might be where Rebecca and George now rest their heads, but it was in Top House that they built their life together. They met in 1984, the details involving either a bad first impression and a boat (if you ask Rebecca) or the discovery of a long-haired beauty stoned and prostrate in a gutter (if you ask George). Eventually they got together, and in 1988 George moved into Top House. A year later their first child was born, their second following in 1992.
The rambling old house on the hill became a family home, with children joyously exploring a world without television: racing and yelling up and down the stairwell, making DIY radio shows on their tape player, and tracing the journeys of ants around the dining-room walls. “It was a wonderful place to bring a family up,” reminisces Rebecca.
The Holloway Road houses were still being sold off by the Crown, first being offered to original owners, then to long-term sitting tenants, and finally on the open market. But when it got to Top House, the process got stuck on title and access issues.
Rebecca and George found bringing up their kids in a home that might at any moment be ripped out from under them incredibly stressful.
“We were tied between wanting to make the house warmer and less grotty, but being reluctant to spend our own money on it or to ask for improvements in case we got booted out… and the girls grew up with the threat of ‘maybe we’ll get evicted’ breathing at their door,” says Rebecca.
An eviction notice was served, but in 2010, after the girls had grown up and moved out, Rebecca and George lawyered up. In 2012, they finally purchased the property, the title having been redrawn to include two “uninhabitable” workingmen’s cottages.
“But we had no money left,” says Rebecca, “So we had to rent out the only habitable house.”
Which meant moving themselves into the North Cottage, which was completely derelict.
“It had no sewers, no power, no electricity, no nothing. The floor had collapsed, we had an office chair that would just run across the floor on its own,” says George.
“This bathroom was underground,” says Rebecca. “And underwater!” adds George.
Now the couple can laugh about it, but this was an extremely difficult period, especially for Rebecca. George explains: “For her it was like ‘I’ve lost everything I’ve waited 25 years for, I’ve just moved into this horrible, unfixable hole’. Whereas I saw it like ‘Great we can do this place up!’ I thought it was a wonderful project.”
Today, the North Cottage is a world away from the “unfixable hole” they moved into. But the transformation is ongoing, so beautiful, carefully considered details sit side by side with those yet to be tackled, like a before and after picture brought to life; a warm clay wall on one side of the dinner table / peeling, watermarked wallpaper on the other; an immaculately tiled bathroom with stunning handmade mosaic relief / a tiny, cobwebbed outhouse. There’s not much that could honestly be called new: the stunning floor tiles were salvaged from a skip on its way to the tip, the ceiling panels made from plywood gifted to George by a neighbour, who’d found it on a demolition site. The overall effect is complementary: the “new” house appears to be not so much replacing the old, as slowly embracing it.
Over coffee at the dining table, under lights with makeshift tinfoil lampshades, Rebecca and George share far more than I can use here (including one yarn involving a grand party entrance complete with flaming penis). They outline the complicated, messy process of trying to live according to their values, alongside other people. They have tried hosting Woofers and bringing in tenants, but neither were quite what they were after.
“We saw this property as the most beautiful, wonderful property in Wellington. Beautiful, close to the city, able to grow your own vegetables, the song of native birds. We thought it was too valuable to run as a tenant-landlord situation,” George says.
The sum of these buildings seemed to be worth more than its parts. So in 2020, George and Rebecca decided to advertise for people who wanted to live “like flatmates”, but across three separate dwellings. They employed a lawyer, and drew up a protocol setting out the ways in which residents would be expected to live and contribute.
“Each house has autonomy. We’ve kept the bedrooms as private spaces, but we’re free to walk into any of the bathrooms and kitchens, because all the houses belong to everyone. We charge a weekly fee to keep the place running, but it’s very cheap, and the main thrust is not gathering money, it’s to try and live in a better way,” George says.
As of now, this is a community of seven, including Rebecca and George, a Czech couple Pavla Neuhöferová (30, performance artist) and Daniel Dvořáček (29, software developer), who are away hiking the Tongariro circuit when I visit, Hannah Blumhardt and Liam Prince, a couple in their 30s who work in zero waste advocacy, and Grace Yu Piper, a 30-year-old contemporary jeweller who commutes between here, her job at Pātaka in Porirua, and her studio at Nautilus in Owhiro Bay.
Before coming here recently, Liam and Hannah spent nearly three years travelling the country with their organisation The Rubbish Trip, a zero-waste roadshow delivering presentations and workshops on reducing New Zealanders’ waste footprints. During that time they stayed in comparable communities, so the place felt instantly familiar. Liam describes his first impressions as “magical in a sense like stepping back in time, and into a bit of a jungle.”
Hannah calls it “the good life in the middle of the city.”
Perhaps surprising is the absence of certain kinds of characters “alternative lifestyles” typically attract: wellness fanatics and conspiracy theorists. One loved resident recently left because she didn’t want to be vaccinated, and the community couldn’t find a way to operate collectively while keeping everyone safe. Everyone else is fully vaccinated. Among the red flags for Rebecca and George when wannabe residents apply are “musician”, “gluten free”, “5G” and, presumably – now that the word has been properly ruined – “freedom”. Yes, there are regular comments about supermarket monopolies, “Zookerboog”, and the social ills caused by overreliance on screens. But there’s enough truth in all of that that excessive zeal is easily forgiven.
“They’re hippies, but they’re not woo woo,” says Hannah, “I’m not a woo woo person. I like evidence-based not-destroying-the-planet. I’m not that bothered about my own vibrations.”
“The protocol” lists five activities that residents are expected to participate in, mostly revolving around the production, preparation, and sharing of food. If this might seem like a bit much, Hannah points out that almost everything listed in the protocol was something she and Liam were trying to do already.
“I actually find that the way we live is less time-consuming. It’s so much more convenient to not have to go to the supermarket!” says Hannah.
It’s early days for the seven members of the current community, and who knows, they may find they need to tweak the protocol at some point. But it does feel closer to sustainable than many of the communal models I’ve seen. Everyone here has work and friends outside of the community, most travel to the city daily and so remain connected to the wider world, but they also share the benefits of coming together regularly on the land and at their tables, to share “the wins and frustrations of the day” (as the protocol says), along with the food they’ve collaborated to produce.
I finish my visit with a two-hour tour of the garden and the other houses. We stroll past apple and feijoa trees, clamber up a steep bush path through stands of kawakawa and bay trees, and nibble on the last of the season’s beans and the first of the mizuna. I get to stand out on that high balcony at Top House with Grace, looking down the verdant valley with the sun beating on my face, the washing flapping beside me (drying fast thanks to the wind and all-day sun). At the South Cottage I climb a ladder to the cosy loft shared by Hannah and Liam, admire the tambourines collected on their travels and the bikes they haul up from the road to their verandah each day. When I eventually leave it’s with three bottles of cold ginger beer clinking in my backpack, and renewed excitement over my own home garden, and the things I might begin to coax from soil to table.
George and Rebecca also send me off with advice for anyone wishing to follow in their footsteps:
“It’s easy to become paralysed by the size of your wishes and ideals, so small steps are crucial,” says George, “Pick up the skills you do have and use them as a way to step forward with an eye on the path of what you believe in.”
“If you wish to grow your own food all you have to do is pick up a spade and then plunge it into the ground. Doing too much research stops you from picking up the spade,” adds Rebecca.
“Oh,” says George, “and it doesn’t matter if you mess up.”