A place to call home and find inspiration

Mike and Rosemary Riddell in front of the tiny chapel on their Oturehua property. The couple are...
Mike and Rosemary Riddell in front of the tiny chapel on their Oturehua property. The couple are part of an increasing number of writers moving to the Ida Valley community, which this weekend welcomes those taking part in the inaugural Under Rough Ridge Writers’ Retreat. PHOTO: PAM JONES
The tiny hamlet of Oturehua continues to put out the welcome mat for an increasingly diverse group — including a host of writers and others from the arts community who now call the township home. As the district welcomes a broad group of visitors for the inaugural Under Rough Ridge Writers’ Retreat, Central Otago bureau chief Pam Jones talks to a couple who have found inspiration and safe harbour in the Ida Valley.

There was no hint of "we don't need any more people moving here" or "go back from whence you came".

Rather, those in Oturehua "swept up" and welcomed Mike and Rosemary Riddell when they chose the Ida Valley as their new home.

"There's none of this `you haven't lived here for 50 years so you don't belong'," Mrs Riddell said.

"I feel like I belong."

It was a profound shift for the screenwriter/film director/district judge couple, but made almost on a whim after a holiday, a health scare and some Central Otago reflection.

Unable to do a planned trip to Canada last year when Mr Riddell had prostate cancer, the couple went to Oturehua instead, after spotting writer Jillian Sullivan's strawbale cottage was available to rent.

Central Otago's landscape and hospitality washed over them - "locals" and arts community alike - and Mrs Riddell spotted the change in her husband, who was invigorated by new people and the sense of place and space.

She delivered the news to her husband with "a gleam in her eye".

"I said, `We're moving here'," Mrs Riddell said.

"I thought if Mike's got a chance of doing any healing then this is a good place for it ... I felt that maybe it was time to go somewhere where I knew his heart really was."

Snow sits on the Hawkdun Range, near Oturehua, during a previous winter. PHOTO: GREGOR RICHARDSON
Snow sits on the Hawkdun Range, near Oturehua, during a previous winter. PHOTO: GREGOR RICHARDSON
The couple's credentials - a multi-genre CV encompassing theatre, film and novels - now sit alongside those of an already respectable list of writing alumni nestled in under Rough Ridge and the Hawkdun Range.

Former New Zealand poet laureate Brian Turner has lived in Oturehua for decades. He has since been joined by writer Jillian Sullivan, editor Paula Wagemaker and writer Bridget Auchmuty, as well as the Riddells.

All six - who live on the same street in the town of just 34 residents - will this weekend jointly tutor the inaugural Under Rough Ridge Writers' Retreat, in Oturehua.

The retreat's theme is "History and heritage - what is it that we want to save?".

The Riddells say Oturehua is a place "totally formed by the landscape", its people formed by the landscape too.

But the thing that gives it "stability and heart" is "the people that have been here for generations".

Knowing your neighbours, being visible and accountable, mixing with people different from yourself - they are all good and healthy things, Mr Riddell says.

His previous work includes writing and producing the sellout Jerusalem, Jerusalem, a play about James K. Baxter which toured New Zealand and Great Britain; writing many books, including the novel The Insatiable Moon, which he later co-produced as a feature film; and producing the award-winning short film Cake Tin. He still manages a production and writing company, Holy Bucket Productions Ltd.

Mrs Riddell began her acting career in the 1970s at the Downstage Theatre in Wellington. She also worked in broadcasting and public relations; directed Cake Tin and The Insatiable Moon; has a degree, and worked as a lawyer for more than 10 years; and was later appointed a Family Court judge, in 2006.

The Oturehua Hall and Gilchrist’s Store on Oturehua’s main street. PHOTO: ALEXIA JOHNSTON
The Oturehua Hall and Gilchrist’s Store on Oturehua’s main street. PHOTO: ALEXIA JOHNSTON
Now, the couple find themselves with time to reflect, time for more pursuits.

Mr Riddell has been writing more poetry than usual. Mrs Riddell has started playing the piano every day.

They go to the Oturehua pub on Fridays, have joined the Central Otago Environmental Society, attend the monthly Oturehua community meetings (Mrs Riddell was recently elected deputy chairwoman of the Oturehua Community Association) and take their turn on the roster for cleaning the local loo.

Previously, as former long-time residents of Dunedin and Cambridge who always loved Central Otago, they wondered what it was like to live in the "one-horse" little towns through which they would sometimes drive.

Now, in a home they converted from the former Ida Valley Kitchen cafe and with a tiny chapel they put out the back - they love the way people "pop in" to say hi, or bring baking, or stay for a glass of wine.

Mrs Riddell continues to work part-time as a judge around the country. Mr Riddell is working on a feature film, The Guinea Pig Club, about Sir Archibald Hector McIndoe, a New Zealand-born surgeon whose pioneering treatment of burns victims during World War 2 revolutionised the field of plastic surgery. He is also writing a funny, "readable thing" about his pilgrimage with prostate cancer, encouraging men to be vigilant with their health.

Mr Riddell has also returned to a project called "Letters To My Daughter", which was initially going to be co-written by Mr Riddell and his adored, "colourful" daughter Polly.

Polly died last year; she lies at rest in Oturehua's Blackstone Cemetery.

Mr Riddell is now revisiting the project, but he and Mrs Riddell remember how Oturehua's community loved Polly, and say they "swept us up and loved us and helped us through that, in a way that helped us to complete that feeling of coming home".

The Riddells say they have embraced the Ida Valley, but the valley has embraced them too.

"There is a strong history of people on this land, and I'm a first generation New Zealander, my parents were born in Scotland, so I feel like I tread lightly on the land anyway," Mrs Riddell said.

"But to come here and to feel so welcomed - when you're trying to keep your head down - the welcome and the acceptance has been extraordinary."

"We want to do more walking and feel in touch with this land. We really want to climb these hills and explore."

  • The Under Rough Ridge Writers' Retreat started yesterday and finishes tomorrow.

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