A restored 19th-century homestead in the NSW New England region has become the ideal place for Jess and Hamish Webb to raise their three young children.
There are some dare-devil moves going on in the front yard at Myanbah as Jess and Hamish Webb’s sons Walter, aged five, and Angus, three years, enjoy the cool of the evening exercising their inexhaustible energy and a friendly measure of sibling rivalry. The Evel Knievels-in-training start with high-speed bikes races then move on to walking the plank on the stone ha-ha wall that, when complete, will simultaneously separate and provide uninterrupted views of the paddocks on the Webbs’ sheep and cattle property near Uralla in the NSW New England region.
For Jess and Hamish, this is precisely the freedom they wanted to achieve for their boys and newborn baby girl, Willa, when they moved to the district in 2018. Jess spent her early childhood on a sheep station in South Australia’s Flinders Ranges. She moved to Adelaide for school, then attended Queensland’s Bond University where she completed a double degree in arts and international relations. Hamish’s childhood also involved distance education on his family’s pastoral property at Muttaburra in Queensland’s central-west, before boarding school in Brisbane and an agribusiness degree at Armidale’s University of New England.
Both pursued corporate careers — Jess in communications and marketing in agri-banking, and Hamish in corporate finance — before they moved to Edinburgh, Scotland, in 2015 where Jess completed a master of business administration, while Hamish worked for an investment firm specialising in ag-tech and agribusiness opportunities.
“We had two wonderful years in Scotland,” Jess says. “Edinburgh is a fabulous walkable city, full of history and we had plenty of opportunity to spend time with family in the UK as well as make the most of the fact that Europe is just a short flight away.”
On return to Australia, Jess gained a position in corporate strategy at the Indigenous Land and Sea Corporation and Hamish worked in investment advisory and capital raising, while pursuing the urge to return to their roots with the move to Myanbah. The decision was not without its challenges as the couple walked into the middle of a massive drought and the pandemic was just around the corner.
“We initially ran predominantly Merino sheep and fewer cattle,” Jess explains. “This traditionally has been fine- wool-growing country, though the recent seasons have been very favourable for cattle here. The place came with a five-stand shearing shed so we got that up and running, built new yards and updated the shearers’ quarters, which we now use as an office and guest accommodation. We intend to integrate more sheep back onto the property when our pasture improvement program is more advanced but, for the time being, we’re breeding and trading black Angus cattle. We have also kicked off our baseline testing for a soil carbon project, which we believe will complement our production objectives over the medium-term.”
Since moving to Uralla, Jess has taken on two board positions, one as non-executive director for the Australian beef cattle industry’s triennial expo, Beef Australia, and the other for UNE Life, an arm of the university that looks after the service delivery of co-curricular activity to the UNE student and staff community. Hamish, meanwhile, is executive director and CEO of Precision Pastures, a New England-based soil, pasture and carbon services company.
The Webbs inherited two homesteads shortly after their move to Myanbah after they purchased the property, they invited Sydney heritage architect Michael Bell, whose work they knew through friends, to assess the potential for restoration. “We’re lucky that the farm is near to former gold-mining country so the settlers could afford to build in brick,” Jess explains. “We’ve been told the red bricks for both the original 1865 and the bigger 1880s homestead were fired on-site. We fell in love with Michael’s ability to blend the old with the new. His work is sympathetic to each building’s history as well as the old and antique furniture we wanted to incorporate. At the same time, he understands that we live a contemporary family life. By the same token, if we’d tacked on a modern industrial addition, the buildings would have lost their charm.”
After Michael’s initial inspection to ascertain the potential of Myanbah’s buildings for current and future uses, the Webbs opted for a renovation of the original three-bedroom cottage rather than a more prolonged and expensive restoration of the larger main homestead. “This solved their immediate problem of needing accommodation on-farm as quickly as possible, while also retaining the option of working on the big house in the future,” Michael explains. “If this happens down the track, the Webbs will be able to use the cottage as guest or worker accommodation in the future. It appealed to me that their story at Myanbah might be richer if it started from humble beginnings in the cottage and progressed to the large homestead so they would then have lovely memories of their young family in the cottage on the hill.”
Michael’s plan incorporated a large open living and dining space with a light and functional kitchen at one end and a more formal dining area at the other. “The kitchen is always the heart of the house in the country,” Jess observes. “So Michael gave us a big island bench for everyone to congregate around and it’s used constantly.”
The work also included turning the former breakfast room into a large bathroom and refurbishing the main bedroom with French doors opening to the broad verandah outside. More French doors connect the living area to the verandah and frame views of the surrounding landscape. Walter and Angus currently share the bedroom on the opposite side of the central hallway, while baby Willa has a nursery adjacent to her parents. Michael made provision for this smaller bedroom to be turned into a second bathroom should the Webbs eventually decide to turn the cottage into guest accommodation.
The refurbishment also acknowledged Jess and Hamish’s strong sense of family history. The mantelpiece over the living room fireplace is made from a repurposed overhead gear panel from the shearing shed at Hamish’s childhood home. The cottage also provides a sympathetic backdrop for various heirloom items of furniture, many of which came from Eringa, the Adelaide home of Jess’s great-grandparents. In marrying the old with the new, Jess also acknowledges assistance from Brisbane studio Claire Stevens Interior Design and Uralla-based upholstery, soft furnishings creator and homewares supplier Highland Living.
Jess notes the fact that the building works, led by Green Homes Australia Armidale, kicked off at the same time as the COVID pandemic hit and were complete within the year.
She adds that the pandemic delivered silver linings in terms of more flexible working conditions for all, with the realisation that employees don’t have to go to a city office in order to be valuable contributors.
“The benefit for corporate Australia is that now the doors have opened to the many lawyers, bankers and other business people, women in particular, who live in the regions or are based on-farm,” Jess says.
“Working from home has definitely accelerated access to the regional talent pool and that means economic improvement for the regions. My Beef Australia commitments mean I have to go to Rockhampton every couple of months for meetings and occasionally to Sydney, which I can do in a day. For the rest of the time, I can very comfortably work from home around the demands of family and farm life.” However, from her role at UNE Life, Jess says she realises there needs to be significant improvements in both medical and childcare services to further grow rural communities.
“We urgently need to address the fact that country towns are losing GPs,” she says. “We need to work out how to attract medical talent and incentivise young doctors to come to the regions. Once they’re here, they’ll realise the many benefits in terms of space, community, housing affordability and wellbeing, but we need to make it attractive to get them to consider it in the first place.”
If any further evidence of the lifestyle advantages of regional living were needed, it’s right there on the Webbs’ doorstep, where Walter, Angus and when she’s older Willa are doing what kids do best — playing outdoors, stretching boundaries and learning responsibility by enjoying unstructured play and caring for each other and a menagerie of animals and pets. Although entirely unorchestrated, they could well serve as poster children for the joys of a country upbringing.
Photography by Ken Brass