My favourite place: Ian and Jenni Coldwell

By John Lewis

There’s a straight, dusty dirt road somewhere south of Merrigum where the world changes and time slows down.

A hush descends, and the sound of passing traffic fades to birdsong and the rustle of trees.

We’re at home on Farm3168 with the Coldwells who have spent the past five years creating this shady haven of peace and quiet out of the dusty bull paddocks and tired farming soils west of Shepparton.

The story of Jenni and Ian’s peaceful retreat is not a straight one - there are a few twists.

The original farm on which their retreat now stands was purchased by Ian’s grandfather Tom in 1939.

Ian, 66, was born at Kyabram and lived and worked at the family dairy farm and orchard for 37 years.

He married Jenni and the couple raised three children on the property.

Then in 2005, the Coldwells sold up and moved into town.

They left behind the family farm, including two huge gum trees which were probably seedlings during the early settlement era, and a stand of majestic ironbarks planted as a shady tree garden 40 years ago.

Ian said there were a number of reasons for selling up.

Their youngest daughter Stephanie who was born with spina bifida, died at 15 years old in 2000.

Ian began a new career as an academic and researcher in social studies and men’s health.

He and Jenni’s lives were changing - it seemed the right time to move.

‘‘There was the drought, I was offered a scholarship, and our neighbour wanted to buy,’’ Ian said.

The couple spent nine years as urbanites in Shepparton.

Jenni worked as a counsellor to families and children dealing with life-threatening illness, while Ian pursued his academic career at La Trobe and Melbourne University.

But eventually the pull of the bush proved too much.

‘‘We started looking for a place out of town away from tin fences - we just weren’t cut out for it,’’ Jenni said.

When she saw their old farm was up for sale, Jenni was excited but hesitant.

‘‘We had looked at a few properties and I saw this advertised - and I thought oh I don’t know whether I’ll tell him or not,’’ she said.

But the opportunity to return proved too good to pass up.

So they re-bought their old property, re-named it after the Merrigum postcode, and have never looked back.

‘‘When we came back it was a real mess - overgrown and overused - but we saw we could rescue it,’’Jenni said.

The couple set about the task of recovery.

They cleaned up, planted 10 acres of native trees, vine cuttings from Clem Furphy’s Colbinabbin vineyard, grew vegetables and created shady spaces spaces for reflection.

They have also created four walking labyrinths - ranging from a small children’s walk to a vast stone circle based on the floor design at Chartres Cathedral in France.

‘‘We wanted a quiet place to live, and for people to come and enjoy and meditate. This is now our soul place,’’ Ian said.

When they returned they were thankful the original stand of 40-year-old iron barks had escaped the bulldozer and the chainsaw.

‘‘For us, planting and creating habitat and bringing birdlife back was important - we were fortunate that the people who bought the property valued the trees,’’ Jenni said.

They also turned a farm workers’ hut into cosy Airbnb accommodation which has proved hugely popular - with people from across Australia and overseas booking to enjoy the meditative space of trees and labyrinths.

But for some, the country lifestyle can be a surprise.

‘‘A young woman brought her parents here from China and they nearly had a fit because there’s an old outdoor loo - she got out of the car and said is that the only toilet?,’’ Jenni said.

Fortunately, she was able to reassure the visitors there was a more modern facility in the holiday home.

‘‘We have day retreats as well. People are coming more and more for our labyrinths and to use it as a retreat space. It is a restful, peaceful place,’’ Jenni said.

Even though their home carries memories of joy and sadness, the Coldwells have managed to create a place that stands outside time.

The trees and the stone labyrinths offer a sense of the eternal.

And with 400 native saplings pushing their way up to the sky - there will be plenty of shady paths and quiet coolness for their grandchildren to enjoy.