How a community garden project sowed the seeds of friendship for newcomer, Hilda

How a community garden project sowed the seeds of friendship for newcomer, Hilda

I was born in Glasgow, Scotland in 1951. My background is working class but in 1971, I graduated from Glasgow University with a BSc in maths and computer science. Leaving Scotland, I started work as a computer programmer in London. In 1973, I met my future husband and we travelled to America to work. I started racing bicycles in California. Returning to Europe in 1976, I represented Great Britain before retiring from the sport to focus on my career in information technology. My husband and I retired to Australia in 2004 and I live in Briagolong, Victoria.

By Hilda Rhodes

As we sat in the International Arrivals Lounge at Melbourne Airport waiting for our friend to arrive, I was beginning to wonder if this had been a huge mistake.

It was August 10, 2004. About 18 months earlier my husband Ray and I had made the decision to retire in Australia. We had been working in the corporate business world in the South East of England for 20 years and had started questioning what we were doing. I was an Internet Technology (IT) director and Ray was a management consultant. We had two houses, one close to the City of London and a weekend place in Battle, East Sussex. Ray had a Porsche and I had a Mercedes, but our jobs entailed working long hours and due to the number of people living in that part of the world, our lives were organised around avoiding rush hours and traffic jams. When I lost my IT director position and Ray had to work away from home, it made us take a step back and ask was this the life that we really wanted?

The answer for both of us was a resounding “NO”. The next question being… “Where to from here?”

At that time we were both keen golfers, so we started looking at places where we could easily play lots of golf and quickly narrowed it down to Scotland (where I was born) and Australia (where Ray had lived in the late 1960s and early 1970s). I knew that Ray wouldn’t enjoy Scottish winters, so Australia was our choice. We had been to Australia several times on holiday, so I had some idea of what it was going to be like. We discovered that we could apply for retirement visas and without too much trouble, they were granted. 

As I wasn’t working, I had the job of selling our two houses and organising the move which included shipping our two dogs. All of that took quite a lot of time and effort but eventually everything came together, and we set off for Australia at the end of July 2004. We stopped off in California for a week or so to catch up with friends and play golf. The weather was typical of California, warm and sunny and we both relaxed and enjoyed ourselves. As I boarded the plane on the last leg of our journey, I was excited about starting our new life in Australia.

We had arranged for David, a good friend of Ray’s, to meet us at the airport and the plan was to stay with him in Melbourne for a few weeks until our dogs were released from quarantine. During which time, we would look for somewhere to live. After collecting our suitcases, clearing customs and immigration, we went through the automated doors into the arrival hall. Many people were waiting to meet friends and family but there was no sign of David. Gradually the arrival hall cleared until it was just us. I couldn’t get my mobile phone to work, so there we were, sitting like two lost souls unable to contact anyone.

David did eventually arrive. He had been out for his usual Saturday bike ride and had a puncture which had taken a long time to fix. The weather conditions were atrocious, cold, wet and windy and he had been stuck in traffic on the way to the airport. When we left the airport, the traffic was still bad with the poor weather conditions making things worse. By the time we got to his house in Beaumaris, I was exhausted and thinking… this weather is almost as bad as a Scottish winter, maybe we should have chosen Scotland! However, David’s sister Bev was waiting for us at his house and her warm welcome cheered me up immeasurably. By the time I went to bed, I was feeling more positive about our new life in Australia. 

We stayed with David for a couple of weeks until our two dogs were due to be released from quarantine in Sydney. His house wasn’t suitable for our two dogs, so we had arranged to move to upper Maffra West to stay with our long-time friends Jim and Heather Phillipson on their farm. 

During our stay with David, we had bought a Ford Explorer and had spent our time driving around, looking at possible house purchases. Having visited Australia a few times on holiday, we believed that the Mornington Peninsula was potentially where we would live. There had been a lot of development since we had last visited and the increase in traffic was very noticeable. As one of the principal reasons for leaving the United Kingdom was to get away from traffic and traffic jams, the Peninsula was ruled out quickly.

Living with Jim and Heather was perfect. It enabled us to experience a real rural lifestyle and we loved it. However, it also taught us that we had a lot to learn. We had come from Purely in Surrey, where water, electricity, gas and rubbish collection were not things that we had to think about. We toyed with the idea of buying land and building a house. However, the container with all our worldly belongings arrived much sooner than expected, and as we were now aware of how much we didn’t know, we decided to put that on hold. We looked at properties all around the area including Traralgon, Sale, Bairnsdale and Dargo with Heather giving us the benefit of her invaluable local knowledge. In the end we decided on a very attractive property in Maffra which had about two acres of land (including the nature strip) and lovely views to the mountains.

As I said earlier, Heather was invaluable in our search for a house. She also took responsibility for introducing us to as many clubs and activities in the area that she could think of. For me this included the Stratford Sculpture Garden Project. Initially I was a bit apprehensive as I didn’t think that my artistic skills were up to much and coming from a business world dominated by men, I wasn’t sure how I would fit into a women’s project. My fears proved to be totally unfounded.

I joined the project when most of the planning work had been done. Deb Milligan was the project manager assisted by Beth Ripper (Heather’s sister). However, Deb had just accepted a new job and had decided that she was no longer able to do justice to managing the Sculpture Garden Project. Beth had agreed to take over the project management but had some concerns about her skills in that area. So, my arrival with a project management background and experience, was timely. My offer to support Beth was gratefully received.

To be honest, Beth didn’t need much support, but I know from my own experience, just having someone else to take minutes and help with the administration makes it easier to focus on the critical success factors of a project.

From my perspective, the friendship and camaraderie amongst the team was palpable and I was made to feel very welcome. I contributed wherever I could. Amanda Goodge made significant artistic contributions to the project and encouraged me to have a go at making things. I thoroughly enjoyed the days spent making plaques for the seat in the garden. The day I spent helping to sand the wooden elephant that Amanda had sculpted was a lot of fun and being shown around Margaret Barry’s beautiful home was an unexpected bonus. I also learned a lot about native plants as I helped with the planting of the garden which has stood me in good stead since. I was constantly amazed at the broad range of skills and knowledge throughout the group.

One of my tasks was to organise a guest speaker to open the garden. I was given a few names to try and when I announced that the Honourable Joan Kirner AC had agreed to do it, I was very surprised at the general delighted reaction from the group, particularly when I said that I had spoken personally to her. Fortunately, I didn’t have any idea how famous Joan was in Victoria or I might not have plucked up the courage to call her, let alone speak to her!

The opening went smoothly and was well attended, probably in no small part due to having Joan as our guest speaker.   

Ray and I finally got around to buying some land and having a house built in Briagolong in 2011. One of the attractions of the location is that it is fantastic for bicycle riding. The roads are quiet and there is an abundant choice of varied rides. It also had a great cafe (sadly now closed) which, at the time we were building, was run by Michelle Sandison with whom I had become friendly on the Sculpture Garden Project. Ray and I loved going for a ride together and finishing up at the Briagolong Cafe and having a chat with Michelle. 

Amanda Goodge and I have recently reconnected at the Sale Dog Obedience club and enjoy a cup of tea after the class most Sundays. Another member of the group who made me feel welcome was Andrea Hall. I bumped into Andrea a few weeks ago and she has suggested that I consider becoming a member of the board for Gippsland Women’s Health. 

So here I am 15 years later, continuing to enjoy the friendships and connections that I made on the project. Being a member of the Stratford Sculpture Garden Project certainly helped me feel part of the community and gave me a very positive introduction to my future life in Australia. 

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