A young visitor to Gabrielle Lewis’s Mt Peel bach recorded in the visitors’ book the exact number of birds he’d counted in one room: 257.
It’s a collection that started with a single image of a wood pigeon, from the top of a biscuit box, left by a previous owner on a wall at the bach.
“I saw it, and I said, ‘That’s got to be what the collection is. It has to be birds. That’s what the area is about,’” Gabrielle recalls. That was eight years ago, when she bought the bach on the edge of Peel Forest with a group of friends.
Peel Forest Park, near Geraldine, was established in 1909 to protect what was left of the podocarp forest that used to cover much of Canterbury and it’s still rich in bird life. The first thing you hear in the morning and the last thing at night are the bellbirds, Gabrielle says. Then there are South Island tomtits, South Island fantails, kaka. And kereru - wood pigeons - of course: “There’s a berry they eat at a certain time of year and they get drunk and just sit around on the road,” she says.
So the birds have made their way into the bach as well. Gabrielle started collecting things that had native birds on them and decorating the walls with them. Then the collection grew to include vintage kitchenware and Kiwiana – most of it from the 50s and 60s, to fit with the 50s bach. The old cooking/eating utensils and bakeware are all in use, like the bone-handled knives and silver cutlery, but there are modern alternatives for guests who don’t find vintage appealing and the kitchen is well kitted out with new, heavy pans for roasting and baking.
“You need a combination of the new and the old,” Gabrielle says. “That’s part of the bach; to show the generational changes.”
Each room has its own theme; the children’s bedroom has fairy tale and Beatrix Potter prints on the wall, and books by Enid Blyton – treasures from Gabrielle’s own childhood in Auckland.
“My father lived in the Waitakere Ranges and he didn’t have a TV (and still doesn’t),” Gabrielle says. “My memories of being there are of going out in the bush, playing and listening to records like Beatrix Potter.”
Beatrix Potter tales features in the bach’s LP collection, along with other records for kids – “big CDs”, as some kids have described them - and an eclectic mix that includes Abba, Rod Stewart, classical and hip-hop.
For several years, the bach didn’t have a TV either, a fact that was well received by guests. There’s one there now, and a DVD player, but they’re stowed out of sight in a cabinet. And judging by the visitors’ book, the bach’s appeal lies in its location in the bush, the birdlife and proximity to a river. That, and the classic Kiwi holiday it offers, with board games, books and a healthy dose of nostalgia.
Gabrielle says she was very lucky to find the house, because baches like theirs are rarely for sale. “People keep them in the family,” she says. “It’s part of the Kiwi dream, to own your own bach. A lot of people think they can’t afford it. For us, going in as a group made it possible.”