canterbury’s own lifestyle magazine / a great local read

Travelling the Canterbury Plains, the landscape is familiar, predictable even. Endless flat paddocks are intersected by rows of precisely pared shelterbelts, young native plants emerge around waterways and the relatively recent addition of irrigation lakes form some deviation to the shallow humps and hollows of the land. Even the homes and their gardens are expected – built and aptly planted to withstand the onslaught of nor’west gales, southerly storms, biting easterlies, brutal winters and scorching summers.

But then, on a side road to Coldstream, an anomaly triggers a second glance. There’s a palm tree growing in a paddock! In the most incongruous setting, Hinds couple Gay and Lawrence Thompson have eked out their own sub-tropical oasis, a Mediterranean wonderland in the unlikely heart of the Canterbury Plains.

The home and garden is set on their 440-acre farm, a property that has been in the family since 1954. Raised on the farm, Lawrence has seen its many reincarnations, taking over the reins as a mere 17-year-old and later surviving the Lange-led Labour Government’s Rogernomics era by labouring off-farm. Gay also worked off-farm during this period and together the young couple and their farm survived the free-market reforms. These days the farm is dedicated to providing dairy support for 3,000 cows as well as providing the base for Coldstream Contracting, a family business run by their son Travis.

In a story of construction and design that spans nearly a quarter of a century, Lawrence and Gay intended to renovate and expand the original weatherboard home. However, with its 10-foot stud the house was big and old. Building work began in February 1995 and it was quickly decided to bowl the old home and start from scratch. Lawrence paid two builders $27,000 to frame up the new house ‘and then I took over’.

The first winter was vicious. Living out of two caravans and the remaining dregs of the old house, the family endured rats and ‘a cold old winter’. However, 24 years later the build is nearing completion and the results are an incredible testimony to Lawrence and Gay’s hard work, perseverance and patience, whether it was travelling to Central Otago to personally select the schist to be used on the house or painstakingly installing the rimu tongue and groove ceiling in the enormous rotunda-style living room. The ceiling is a phenomenal masterpiece in joinery and is a shape repeated throughout the home, whether in the kitchen or in the master bedroom.

Peppered throughout the home, Gay and Lawrence’s handiwork is evident at every turn, although at times it has been a long and arduous process. Gay laughs about the floor-to-ceiling columns of schist rock that support the kitchen bar. Planned on the fly to disguise a structural beam, the columns and bar took 78 hours to complete. She remembers it well. After pouring herself a Black Russian cocktail at 10.55 pm she finally spied the right rock to fill the last gap!

It’s clear Gay and Lawrence have an affinity towards natural products and history, whether it’s the Fijian kauri doors, the macrocarpa kitchen bench sourced from a tree in Geraldine or the old bridge beam from up the Rakaia Gorge reimagined as the mantle for the schist fireplace. Even the walls are textural and earthy, plastered in an organic Swiss-influenced finish. It comes as no surprise when Lawrence says, ‘We like old stuff, not new stuff.’ An enormous Italian antique olive oil jar is seriously swoon-worthy, while the balled remains of a Russian satellite take pride of place above the fireplace. It’s a unique piece of history dating back to 6 April 1972 when the ball fell from the sky into a stubble paddock on the farm. Forming its own little crater on impact, Lawrence and his dad first thought it was an old ewe!

Impressively, the home has been designed to provide garden views at every turn…and what a garden. Pinching myself, I have to remind myself I’m in Mid Canterbury. A three-tier waterfall cascades over enormous boulders and lush vegetation borders a verdant lawn. Rhododendrons provide spots of glorious colour but it’s the palm trees and punga trees that astound, their fronds unfurling as they grow tall and straight, defying their Canterbury setting and choosing to thrive.

An arched wooden bridge of recycled timber connects the waterfall garden with the pool garden where a cabana forms a rustic shelter. It might best be described as the party cabana; word is out the Thompsons know how to throw a good one! Once again, the space has been constructed from reclaimed materials and Gay and Lawrence have built it themselves.

Achingly, there is another little garden nearby that Gay calls Cole’s Garden, a memorial to their infant son, Cole, who was lost to cot death at just four-and-a-half months old.

Sunny and sheltered, the garden is idyllic as bold foliage jostles for space. Clever design ensures vertical delineation, a key element in a tropical garden where layers in height play a vital role. However, it took years of slog to achieve this lush oasis. Enormous fences erected from reclaimed power poles and shelter cloth provide vital protection from the prevailing winds and Lawrence has installed an elaborate 21-tap watering system. Gay turns it on and the effect is enchantingly mesmerising. Sprinklers burst into action from above and below as the sun shines down and tiny droplets of water mist over the garden. The effect is truly tropical.

Like many rural Canterbury properties, views to the Southern Alps are obscured, not by choice but by necessity to provide the home and garden with vital shelter from the weather. However, Gay and Lawrence have a solution for this too! Strolling across the waterfall lawn and up a rustic staircase encased by garden and found treasures such as the anchor chain from a Russian ship and a boiler from the old Kaiapoi freezing works repurposed as a gigantic pot, the space suddenly opens up to an expansive irrigation lake. Lined with low-growing native grasses and infant palm trees, the snow-clad mountains tower majestically in the distance. An immaculate lawn offers a picture-perfect setting for a picnic and a nearby boat ramp ensures hours of skiing and biscuit fun on the 15-acre lake. It’s a magical spot, made even more special when wild salmon and trout from the Rangitata River choose to make it their home. There’s no fishing though. ‘I’ve got them all named,’ laughs Gay.

Gay and Lawrence live in a delightfully unexpected home and garden. Anything but mundane, it’s a cherished place that offers up surprises at every turn. However, after years of hard graft as they’ve painstakingly built, designed, constructed and planted this unlikely oasis, they’re finally looking forward to slowing down and simply enjoying their tropical home in its most unlikely location.

Words Pip Goldsbury Images Emmily Harmer