A 4½ hour drive north-west of Sydney, Penelope Primrose – the moniker Nikki has affectionately bestowed upon the grand sandstone homestead – was built somewhere between 1899 and 1905 by John Buckland, a successful breeder of trotters including Fritz, a champion steed whose grave is marked with a monument on Pine Ridge trotting track.
Buckland’s 30-horse stable block later morphed into shearing sheds. Originally 26,000 hectares, Pine Ridge went on to become the largest sheep station in NSW and essentially a self-contained township with a piggery, butcher shop, blacksmith and school. After World War 1, it fell into neglect and was resumed by the government. In 1919, it was broken into ‘soldier’s blocks’, the largest including the Pine Ridge homestead.
Originally 26 rooms, with 11 marble-surround fireplaces, magnificent stained-glass windows, a ballroom, a huge kitchen, servants quarters and a turret, perhaps a more apt name for the old girl would be Pine-Bridgerton.
“Coming up here the first time with the real-estate agent was a pivotal moment for us,” says Nikki, inviting me to climb the stairs of the turret and flinging open the windows when we reach the top. “He pointed in front of us and said, ‘I think there are some old sandstone pillars out there – that’s where the original carriageway lay’. But all I could see were dead trees, bits of wire, old wisteria, some cows and horrible big metal gates.”
We’d become stale, bored and dismissive in the city. How many times can you go out to dinner with friends?
— Nikki Veale
Using photographs of the property from 1904 as their guide, one of the first things the Veales did was re-establish the original driveway.
“She needed space to breathe, says Nikki. “Jason and I are like archaeologists, constantly unearthing things. Like stone steps leading down to the river, tennis courts that haven’t been played on since the ’50s – oh, and last week we found a massive sandstone-lined well.”
Resurrecting a historic estate like this and turning it into a profitable venture is a monumental undertaking. Do the couple ever feel they’re living a real-life Schitt’s Creek?
“Vaucluse pen-pushers” (as Nikki describes them), she built a successful luxury fashion resale business, Hock Your Frocks, from a Double Bay showroom; he’s a media consultant who still works in Sydney a few weeks every month.
“We’ve had our moments,” sighs Jason, “but we’re better people for it. I had zero experience, but I see myself as a city boy undertaking an apprenticeship, and I lean on my manager, Brett Sawyer, who has his fingerprints on everything. I think I’m at a stage where I can do most things myself, but Nikki and I needed new challenges. We just didn’t anticipate doing it on a scale like this.”
Adds Nikki: “We’d become stale, bored and dismissive in the city. How many times can you go out to dinner with friends? Pre-COVID, all everyone seemed to do was jet off and take photos [for their social media]. Everyone was either in Lapland taking ice baths, skiing in Aspen or walking the ‘whatever’ track in Tasmania.
“I had dismissed Australia as not good enough, but it took being forced to stay home – to take the time to explore country NSW and fall in love with it – to restore my faith in how beautiful the land, the people and the culture are. This place has given both of us purpose.”
For Jason, pasture improvement, controlling feral pigs and sowing paddocks with winter oats to fatten his 450 Black Angus and Hereford cattle are now all in typical day’s work. “We bought 110 breeding cattle with calves at foot [ie mothers and babies] and two bulls, and we have around another 220 steers.
“We’ve got so much feed, so much water,” he adds, grateful for the start they’ve been given. “Our 19 dams are full and the place looks like a golf course. To get two seasons like this in a row is just so lucky.”
Other challenges have been more arduous – like baby brown snakes in the kitchen and the recent mice plague.
Above-average median rainfall and high commodity prices have experts forecasting high levels of profitability in the rural sector this year, with the Department of Agriculture predicting round $81 billion in agricultural production for the year to June – an unprecedented figure.
But farming is a gamble offering as much risk as reward. And let’s not forget old houses are money pits.
It’s a situation that’s teaching the Veales to let go of perfectionism, to loosen the reins and not feel pressured by deadlines. “As far as the house goes, it’s about spending money on preserving her,” says Nikki. “We’re not going to decorate her for the sake of it.”
In 1976 Pine Ridge was bought by Rear Admiral David Wells, a senior commander in the Royal Australian Navy who died just seven years later. His wife, Moine, lived on in the house until her death 30 years later. Her passion for chintz – the grand old dame of florals – is still evident everywhere, from the 1970s wallpaper still in pristine condition to the ditsy Sanderson curtains hanging in the bedrooms.
Its charm is something Nikki is in no rush to be rid of. “I’m working with Gillian Khaw of interior design studio Handelsmann and Khaw for a contemporary take, but I still want the house to feel like Granny on steroids: chintz curtains, bedheads, pleated shades.”
Antique furniture acquired from the property’s previous owner, a retired stock and station agent from Mudgee, also features throughout the house, the plan being to mix in block colours to provide visual relief and intersperse more contemporary items repurposed from the Veales’ Sydney base.
Take the ballroom, which now serves as the family room and features sleek couches and contemporary mirrors. “A friend gave me advice which really resonated,” says Nikki. “I can’t be a slave to the ‘old-worldness’ of this house. It must suit our needs too. At the end of the day, we needed a big family room, somewhere to watch TV and light a fire. And I’m OK with that.”
That said, the heritage features are fiercely protected – from the glorious leadlight windows in the ‘fancy’ room at the front to the fretwork timber arches; the ornate pressed metal ceilings to the Downton-Abbey style buzzers beside every fireplace, once used to summon servants. “I ring them and no one comes,” Nikki sighs.
“You have to adjust the way you live with a house like this. It’s freezing in winter, but we’ve learnt to pick a room, light a roaring fire and shut the doors.”
Other challenges have been more arduous – like baby brown snakes in the kitchen; cleaning the wide verandahs (“It took me three gurney sessions to remove the red dirt from the drought); and the recent nightmare mice plague. Although they have three hardworking cats, the infestation overtook the house, with Jason and 17-year-old son Sam sent out every morning to clean up the 100-plus corpses before Nikki and daughter Stella, 13, could leave their bedrooms.
The two hectares of treeless paddocks that surround the house and drop down to the Coolaburragundy River are immaculately manicured, evidence of Nikki’s new passion for ride-on mowers. “Jason and I both love the big boy toys. The Ram, the John Deere Gator.”
The family’s tastes in fashion have also drastically changed, a pivotal moment being their second inspection of the property, when they wore rolled-up jeans and white sneakers. They drove home via Mudgee to ‘countrify’ themselves and now they live in plaid and RB Sellars shirts, battered RM Williams and Ariat boots and worn-in jeans.
“City people dismiss country people as having no style, but that’s so wrong,” says Nikki. “The first time I went to the Dunedoo cattle sale it was mid-winter; I looked around at the men dressed in their Driza-Bones and I knew I didn’t have the right boots and the right hat and I wanted it all. From the leather notebooks they wrote in, to their perfectly moulded hats. It was glorious.”
Whether the admiration was mutual, we’ll never know, but the couple are self-assured enough not to need it.
You’d have to be, wouldn’t you? To take on the task of restoring and running a venture of this scale. Perhaps a little reckless too. But it’s working for them.
“Buying this place was a huge YOLO [you only live once] moment for us, but we love Pine Ridge more now than we did 18 months ago” says Nikki. “And it has pushed a lot of our friends to pursue similar out-there dreams. They look at us and say, ‘You’ve done it. We can do it too.’ ”