Bethlehem’s kauri country cottage

I met Brian and Meg Claxton during  the Bay of Plenty Garden and Art Trail  in November.

I have cycled past their house, located part way up the Waihi Road, as a 13-year-old, and driven by many times.

But I hadn’t noticed it until they erected a sign last year with the word ‘gallery’ on it.

The large elm and cherry trees out front barely give an inkling of the glorious cottage garden or busy gemstone and painting workshop within.

The red front door is overhung with a vine that is the same magnificent species that grows over a wall at Rosie’s Café. Meg later points out to me that not only does it have creamy flowers, but she’s planted another vine amongst it, bursting into red flowers at a different time of the year.

“I just love the colour of it with the front door,” says Meg.

I find myself stepping over the threshold into a kauri weatherboard house that’s more than a century old.

“We were told 1903,” says Brian.

They’ve been gradually renovating, whilst keeping the character and soul of the kauri home intact. The kitchen has a kauri floor with colonial windows and a high kauri ceiling.

I love the old world farmhouse feel, accentuated by a wooden table, a basket of flowers, retro style fridge and the century old fireplace.  

“It’s a major to get it reinstalled. You can’t do it to code,” says Brian, referring to the stove in the fireplace. “So we use it to store potatoes.”

Brian and Meg are as fascinating as their home, with a love for collecting and turning eclectic and old items into something useful.

They have a great ‘can do’ attitude.

On the mantelpiece are small retro-type toys.

“That’s my wish list,” says Brian. “Last year it was a camper, this year it’s a new car and a caravan.”

The kauri house is one of the earliest homes in the area, on the hill overlooking Judea and the Gordon Carmichael Reserve wetlands.

A typical farmhouse of that era, there is a step-down to a veranda, which they have turned into a bedroom. On the north-facing side, a veranda extends along much of the length of the house, with hanging flower baskets and wooden steps down to a cottage garden bursting with foxgloves and roses.

At one end is a large vegetable garden, and at the other a small lawn leading around to a brick path with more garden.

Cane furniture with a crotchet throw-over tempts one to sit and enjoy a lazy summer day.

The couple first arrived from Auckland after purchasing a mail order perennial nursery.

“We bought Bay Blooms in 1999, owning it for about five years,” says Brian. “Back then, our clients were older people without internet access. We knew we had to move to computers and the internet.

“We posted out two plant catalogues per year, selling hard-to-get plants and perennials. It was sort of a dying business, in that young people like to go to a garden centre and see what they like.”

They bought the kauri farmhouse in 2004, planting the garden with many of their garden centre perennials.

“It was looking quite good. Our daughter wanted us to go back to Auckland so we thought we’d sell it.

“But the market was as dead as a dodo here, so we rented it out.”

On returning from Auckland, they moved back in and built a bedsit over the double garage.

Meg has been painting for about six years, and sold three of her works during the Garden and Art Trail.

“That was very cool,” says Meg. “I’ve done watercolours and other things, but at the moment I’m going through a mixed media phase.

“It’s a mix of acrylic painting and sticking bits on, working around them and building up the layers.

“I really love that.”

After finishing her job as a florist last Christmas, she decided to start working with gemstones.

“We opened the gallery,” says Meg.

“Brian does the more complicated pieces because he’s been carving for about four years.”

Meg’s parents were both greenstone carvers, and her mother worked as a tiki maker in a gemstone factory.

The couple first met in Auckland.

“My mum died when I was 18 and I went flatting,” says Brian. “My dad, who was a real estate agent, didn’t think I was looking after myself. He’d sold Meg’s mum and dad a house in Northcote and told me to go see about boarding there.

“When Meg and her sister answered the door, I decided that I would!”

Married now for 47 years, they have two daughters and four grandchildren.

“A good thing to do is to buy a business that you don’t know,” laughs Brian, referring to their plant business and meaning quite the opposite.

He shows me a double koru he’s carved, called takarangi. Nearby in the cabinet is a toki, which is the Maori symbol of strength. It also seems a symbol of this resilient and charming couple, with hidden strength and a beautiful relationship being expressed through their art, gemstones and garden.

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