I wonder if any of you pick up Country Style magazine each month, scroll through your Instagram and maybe look at blogs like this thinking about all those tree-changers living calm, measured lives in in nurturing country communities then sigh with a resignation that it could never happen to you. Well YES IT COULD. It really could.
The idea of moving to the country is of course an attractive one, and as life gets more expensive and hectic in the big cities, I totally understand why so many families are taking the leap. And also, It’s not an impossible dream, though planning and preparation are of course helpful. Unless that is, you’re me and accept a marriage proposal then quit your job and move to a deer farm within a matter of weeks, but that’s another story entirely…
A couple of weeks ago I visited the town of Nundle in northern NSW. This pretty spot is home to my friend Megan Trousdale (who co-incidentally was also a deputy editor for Country Style magazine herself for many years), and the beloved shop, The Exchange Stores that she runs with partner Duncan. I left with two bags of beautiful things that I’ve been using and loving daily (particularly the dish being held by Alice below and containing this really yummy muesli and peach slice, recipe below). And I also left full of admiration for what Megan and Duncan have achieved here. So as soon as I got home, I emailed and asked if she might share just how they did it and why.
If ever you are passing through Nundle, please please visit Megan and Duncan’s truly wonderful shop (or visit the online shop). They sell everything from beautiful and practical baking, gardening and cleaning goods plus linen aprons, a huge range of enamel-ware and even old school shaving soaps and balms. As Megan says (told to the fantastic website The Shopkeepers in this article about them).
It is a great compliment that customers go out of their way to visit us. It is the sensory experience of being in the store, smelling loose leaf tea, soap slabs, millet brooms, and tung-oiled floor boards. Seeing the 125-year-old patina on the doors, packing case shelving and tin-lined walls. Touching brushware made from horse, goat, coconut and Tampico, and developing a taste for the artisan licorice, boutique ground coffee or condiments.
Here below Megan writes of how and why they got started and shares some really precious pieces of advice for anyone considering a tree change themselves.
Thank you so much Megan. x
1. Save a safety net
We saved for two years before making the move to the country, so we had a healthy bank balance to move to the country with. This took the pressure off me having to find full-time work straight away, which suited us with a six-year-old to settle into a new school. For the first couple of years I worked as a freelance journalist and as a casual, part-time newspaper journalist and sub-editor at the closest regional city, Tamworth. We were also prepared to live leanly until we were on our feet; buying second hand goods, cooking from scratch, growing your own fruit and veg, keeping chickens. We may have taken things a bit too far when we were saving a house deposit and bought the “Budget Pack” from the local butcher for longer than I care to remember. It’s turned me off rissoles for life.
2. Explore the countryside
We travelled to numerous parts of NSW contemplating where we could picture ourselves living. We kept coming back to the small town of Nundle, five hours drive from Sydney, because it was physically beautiful, had a friendly, dedicated community of 300 people improving its sustainability, and it was within easy 50km striking distance of a regional city if we needed hospitals, high schools, and other large town attractions. It was also far enough away from Sydney, that we could really put down roots and become a part of our new community, rather than returning every other weekend for the opening of an envelope. I still love a city fix when we travel to Sydney or Melbourne to buy for the shop, but even more I love to feel the city falling away from me as I travel home; first the freeways and the traffic, then the big towns, houses and last, the fences.
3. Nurture your networks
When we moved to Nundle, I looked up an old friend who was working on the Tamworth newspaper and let him know I was nearby if the paper needed a casual. It wasn’t long after that first meeting that I started being offered work. I also kept in contact with my former editor and continued writing freelance for Country Style, as well as being proactive and pitching stories to The Sydney Morning Herald, Organic Gardener, Australian House and Garden, BBC’s Gardens Illustrated and other titles. Be open to meeting new people and volunteering or joining a few special interest groups to find your tribe. It might be a book group, school committees, sporting teams, or environment groups. These are great ways to make friends and help each other with child minding, swapping excess produce or recipes, and sharing meals.
Happily, through the shop, I meet a lot of people in their late twenties and early thirties who have relocated from Sydney or Melbourne to the Tamworth region. Sometimes they are returning home with a family to be closer to grandparents, while others are taking advantage of the job opportunities and bang-for-your-buck housing.
4. Be flexible
Our first business venture at Nundle, an art gallery, didn’t work. We listened to the visitors walking in and realised there was great affection and interest in the history of the building. So rather than reinvent the wheel, we took inspiration from the building’s origins and revived the original name Odgers and McClelland Exchange Stores, and researched original handwritten ledgers and typed invoices and statements to stock the shelves with goods similar to those sold throughout the store’s 100 year history. When it became clear there was much greater interest in the general merchants, we closed the art gallery and haven’t looked back.
The former gallery space is now a warehouse for our online store, another evolution in our business. We talked about building the online store for a long time before taking the plunge. When we launched the online store, suddenly we were exposed not only to people visiting our town, but potential customers throughout Australia. Now our business is about 50/50 over the counter and online.
5. Don’t over-prepare, just go
If you over-analyse a decision to move to the country, you’ll never do it. If you truly want to live life with a smaller mortgage (or no mortgage), more time with your children and partner, less traffic, clean air and space and freedom to teach yourself new skills like animal husbandry, food preserving or beekeeping, then make it happen. We said we’d give ourselves five years and then talk about whether it was working. That conversation never happened because by the time five years passed, we were entrenched in our country town and couldn’t imagine life any other way. Now 17 years has passed, we have two more children, and they pick fruit from trees on our eight acres that that Duncan planted more than a decade ago.
6. Fake it till you make it!
If you can’t make the move to the country, you can always bring the country to you by building your experience of community in your street and getting more hands on and all CWA in the garden and kitchen.
If you are looking to buy a house or acres in the country, check with your bank about the size of the deposit needed. One drawback of living a distance from a regional city is that most banks require a larger deposit for a mortgage. The upside is a country mortgage is likely to be a lot less than a city suburban mortgage, or you end up wth more space and land for the same money.
8. Be prepared for a priorities shift
When contemplating a move away from the city, a lot of people think about the things they would miss…restaurants, cafe society, live theatre, art galleries. When you make the move to the country your priorities are likely to change. A lot of regional cities now boast a thriving food culture, it’s not hard to find a good coffee, and once you tap into the cultural networks it’s surprising the number of touring shows you can access and the strong regional gallery network. In more remote locations you quickly learn how to make a fine stovetop espresso, your favourite restaurant fare, and, with a bit of planning, the freshest produce you will ever eat, picked as you need it from your verge patch.
Oat, peach and honey slice
This slice recipe is such a goodie – it’s a easy melt and mix job to put together and is also pretty good for you with loads of oats and seeds. On a whim this time, I also added cacao nibs which my kids weren’t too excited about but I quite liked. Feel free to leave these out or swap with chocolate chips. Makes about 10.
1/2 cup brown sugar
1 cup self raising flour
1 cup shredded coconut
1 cup rolled oats
2 peaches, roughly chopped
1/2 cup sunflower seeds
3 tbsp chia seeds
1/4 cup cacao nibs
Preheat oven to 180C and grease and line a 28x22x3cm baking tray with paper.
Mix the sugar, flour, coconut and oats together in a large bowl. Melt the butter, and honey together in a separate bowl. Mix dry and wet ingredients together then add the peaches, seeds, cacao nibs and egg and stir until just combined. Spoon mixture into the tray, smooth over the top then bake for 40 minutes or until golden. Let cool then cut into squares.
Note – using fresh peaches as we have here will create a moist slice that should be eaten one or two days after baking. If you swap the two fresh peaches for say 1 cup dried fruits, the slice will be drier and last longer.