Bellingen Farm House – a timber clad, rambling farmhouse perched on a hill behind New South Wales’s most talked about town of 2020 (from my experience) – is, at its core, a family home. The busy kitchen is stacked with mismatched crockery and heavy pans that hang above the distressed wooden island, bookshelves groan with novels and poetry and the windows which cover every wall flood the house with sunlight. Beside the deck which is home to one of two long dining tables (as well as swings, a queen size bed and a roll top bath), a daybed stretches into the garden, flanked by sliding windows that open up to far-reaching views of the mountains. The house was designed and built by marriage counsellor and relationship therapist turned architect/ builder/ interior decorator/ farmer/ host Susan Weil, initially as the family home from which she would raise her children. After a friend suggested Susan try renting her home out (she was already in the game of providing accommodation, but through a seperate building on her farm) she thought she’d give it a go, and the remarkable vintage style property has quickly become a hugely coveted destination.
After her first passion project – a hand built, vintage style hut in the Putty bush – was sadly burned to the ground, Susan began building the first Weil House Living property (Bellingen Vintage Farmstay), and the farm is now home to three unique, environmentally friendly structures all designed with Susan’s signature dedication to sustainable architecture and eye for vintage gems. (Susan also owns an off-grid hut out in the Hernani mountains, if you’re looking for full nature-immersion).
As we sat down for dinner in the warm, low-lit Bellingen Farmhouse (the most high-end property on the three building farm complex) , Susan explained that the ethos of Weil House Living is to “give more than we take”. In the magical twenty four hours we spent on Susan’s eight acre organic farm, we saw that ethos in practice everywhere we looked: a sense of wholesome, generous abundance in everything from the fully stocked pantry to the stacks of crockery to the overflowing orchard that falls down the hill below the main house. After an afternoon exploring the farm, an evening piling our plates with homegrown produce and a morning dip in the plunge pool, we sat down with Susan (on her infinitely Instagrammed window-flanked daybed) to learn about the story of the space.
I wanted to provide accommodation for everyone, with the ethos of giving more than we take…based on the understanding that whatever you pay for, you still get beauty. Beautiful spaces shouldn’t be reserved for the wealthy, in my opinion. I wanted the spaces I built to be affordable for everyone – so that people on any budget could experience a real farm stay. Whatever people pay, we always go above and beyond. If people order a veggie box, we’ll load them up with baskets of citrus too, and every space comes equipped with a full pantry because… that’s just the kind of place you want to be when you’re on holiday. I know what it can be like when you’re on holiday with kids: you want to be out all day adventuring, and then you want a cosy, beautiful space to return to in the evening for a healthy home cooked meal, a nice warm bath, story time and then a good nights sleep.
The inspiration for the decor comes from a woman named Sheila, who lived in that farm (at this point in the conversation, Susan pointed to a bold, abstract painting that hangs above the indoor dining table).
I grew up in an environment with a lot of order: things were perfect, things matched. Then I went to visit Sheila’s farm for the first time when I was twenty, and I walked in to this rambling farm house – no doors, horses walking in and out, sheep in the front yard while we’re having scones and tea – it was this mad place where nothing matched, and I felt like I was in heaven.
I’d go back all the time to visit her, and she introduced me to op shopping. She used to spin her own wool, and then make her own rugs, and we’d sit on the veranda for hours spinning wool or we’d hop over a fence and steal mulberries and make jam. She died at age 86, and she slept in a bed out on her veranda until the day she died. When I stayed with her, I’d bring her her coffee in the mornings on strict instructions to add one and a half sugars and leave it on the windowsill – that was my only job when I stayed with her, and the way she lived just lit me up. Building a bed outside was a non-negotiable for me, and I seep in the bed on the veranda ten months out of twelve.
So that’s where the inspiration came from, but a space like this takes a long time to establish itself. With Sheila’s vision in mind, there was no way I could go to a furniture store and get anything that would fit, and so the vision took me op-shopping back when op-shopping was just for poor people. I love it, I love that everything there has a story, and every thing in every one of the properties has a story too: I can tell you where I bought it, when I bought it and why I bought it. This approach disrupts the modern cycle of consumption, but that wasn’t my motivating factor at first, it was just because I loved it.
We’ve designed and built environmentally friendly spaces long before Weil House Living came about. My first major accommodation project was a hut that we built out in the bush in Putty. The ethos has always been to provide environmentally friendly accommodation for people who give a sh*t about the planet, without shoving it down their throats. Every house is designed with a passive solar element. Passive solar means that the house is designed to minimise the requirement for heating and minimise the requirement for cooling. They’re all north-facing properties, they have some form of mass within the house that can collect and retain heat, and can expel cooling. In the vintage farm stay for instance, there are windows really high and really high ceilings, which allows the heat of the house to rise, keeping it cool in summer. In winter, it’s got that concrete floor that absorbs the heat and holds it in the house. Every property is incredibly well insulated, in fact that’s where most of my money goes. They’re all designed to recycle all of our grey and black water back onto the farm, so we don’t waste a drop of water. They’re all powered by solar energy during the day, and we have rain tanks to collect the water. Everything that we have in our houses is pre-owned – we find things in op shops or vintage stores, and then some of the crockery is made by me. We’re trying to teach people without educating them: just by being here, we see people learning and changing the way they act. Each house has a compost bin to fill with food for the chickens, then the chickens lay eggs for their breakfast and fertilise the garden – it’s a closed system here, and when you see that in action you change your relationship to how you eat, waste and live.
We try to build homes that sit within the earth and blend with the environment. It should fit with its surroundings: when you’re building you really need to think about everything from height to angles to colours to materials, and design in a way that synergises with the natural setting.
Half of The Bellingen Farm House arrived on a truck and I built the barn style living, dining and kitchen space and joined the two buildings together, designing them so they looked the same age. The style is called a retrofit, which means you take an old house and you retrofit it to comply with better energy standards and better environmental standards. So that house was stripped, all the walls came off, and then it was insulated. Insulation is the most important thing I can do. Everything I design I stop to think about the environment, and usually that relates to preserving water and preserving heat.
The perfect stay for a guest is about slowing down. I think the animals provide a really good mental health programme, especially for kids. Kids can be pretty frenetic when they arrive, and then I watch their energy calm down – they climb a tree or they play on the swings without their parents hovering over them, it’s amazing to watch the shift in energy.
For a guest, I think the perfect day would start with breakfast – eggs from the farm and maybe some homemade sourdough. If it’s a beautiful day, I’d suggest taking a picnic down to the Never Never river… swim in the creek, dive through the waterfalls. Having said that, you’ve kind of got everything here… you can drive up to the mountains for a hike or to the beach for a surf.
For me? I usually do a bit of farming or gardening or fixing, then I try to sneak down to the pottery studio for a few hours. Some days I’ll have friends over for lunch, and we’ll all down our tools and have a beautiful lunch out on the veranda. Otherwise, I’ll duck into town on my motorbike, or I’ll spend some time in the kitchen baking sourdough. If it’s a beautiful summer’s day I’ll read by the pool for a few hours.
There was nothing here when we arrived: no buildings, no plants, no birds. So when I hear the birds in springtime, or I see the flowers that have grown naturally as a result of the other plants I’ve grown, there’s a real sense of pride that this place… this life force wouldn’t be here if we hadn’t built it. For the first two years that we were here, there were no birds other than the kookaburras, because there wasn’t an environment for them to thrive in. Now we’ve got a family of magpies, tawny frog mouth owls, finches, bower birds, humming birds, lorikeets and big giant parrots. Three families of swallows return to build their nests here every year. We’ve got frogs and bandicoots and snakes and critters – love them or loathe them, the place has come alive. I’ve never experienced watching an ecosystem develop because I turned up and grew food, but it’s really amazing. There’s a whole word here because we’re here, so to watch that with my kids never stops being fantastic.
For me, the magic of the farm is in the stillness. That’s the quiet of the morning or that time at dusk, when that afternoon light falls over everything. I’ll be sitting down in the paddock with the animals, or I’ll be with my girls, and it’s just this sense of stillness that seems to take over the whole planet, and for those five or ten or fifteen minutes I can just appreciate how it feels to be completely surrounded by beauty.
To experience the beauty of Bellingen Farm House and Susan’s other spectacular properties yourself, book a stay direct at weilhouseliving.com.au , and you can follow Weil House Living on Instagram @weilhouseliving
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