Glamping at Clifton Station: The sixth generation of a Hawke’s Bay family open historic farm to guests


The sixth generation of a Hawke’s Bay farming family is bringing style to an historic landscape.

Words: Ann Warnock Photos: Tessa Chrisp

Tom Gordon of Clifton Station isn’t a big fan of leaving home. Teasingly accused of dragging his feet every time he needs to cross the Tukituki River and head into town, he says he’s not much good at jumping in the car. “I love tinkering on the farm and I’ve always felt a huge connection to the land and have never wanted to be anywhere else,” he says.

The powerful pull 34-year-old Tom feels for the historic, coastal Hastings station is understandable. He’s the sixth generation of his family to farm the challenging and rugged tract of sea-swept Te Awanga land since his forebearer Scottish-born James Gillespie Gordon settled it in 1861.

James reputedly sailed from India to Aotearoa accompanied by the accoutrements of a future life — prefabricated building materials for a homestead, a large cast-iron bath, a cache of Indian teak furniture and a team of white army mules. He was no spring chicken when he arrived. Based in Karachi for much of his life, he’d returned to Scotland to hang up his boots but when the Indian army rebelled against the British authorities in 1857, the shockwaves hit colonial Britain. Banks collapsed, James lost most of his money and sheep farming in a strange land surfaced as his plan B.

He arrived in Hawke’s Bay, pitched a tent on the grassy coastline flats he bought adjacent to Cape Kidnappers and set about accruing stock and inspecting his hinterland.

The glorious bird song of kaka, kererū, kākāriki and tuī at Kowhai Retreat is a halo effect from nearby Cape Sanctuary, a large-scale wildlife restoration project. In the summer months, guests swim and picnic at Maraetotara River below the campsite.

Tom has been roaring around those same hills since he was a boy, small enough to fit in the wooden toolbox on the back of his father Angus’s two-wheeler motorbike. “I’ve always loved being here. I studied Spanish and geography at Otago University and then thought, ‘right, I’d love to farm’. But economic times were challenging, and Dad’s advice was ‘Get out, try other things. You have the rest of your life to go farming.’ At the time, I don’t think I understood what he was on about.”

Rustic-luxe/country-chic was Lucia’s design brief for the tents. The lampshades are from Indonesia.

Despite being homesick, Tom spent a year away — working in a construction job in Oxfordshire where he has an aunt, then tending a lambing beat in Scotland. Back at Clifton Station, there was change. The hard yakka of farming had determined Tom’s parents’ decision to lease out their hill country land to a neighbour for a number of years. When Tom returned, he cropped the flats at Clifton Station during the New Zealand summer and in the winter — with no opportunity for work on the farm — commuted to Japan where he worked at a sheep show, giving shearing demonstrations at an animal park on the plains west of Tokyo.

“It was run by a Kiwi from Te Kūiti. I had to speak into a microphone for 40 minutes in Japanese. It was theatrical and a bit like being in a play. Our audiences were mesmerized by the sheepdogs responding to our whistles. It was full-on, good money and a great chance to save.”

At Toetoe Retreat, Tom has converted a disused flue and hearth into an outdoor fireplace with its own terrace.

Then a weather bomb at home changed the direction of Tom’s life. “In 2011, a massive flood pretty much destroyed the whole farm. Fences were wiped out, and the flats were buried under half a metre of silt. At the same time, there was a massive earthquake and tsunami in Japan.” The leasee at Clifton Station pulled out and Angus asked Tom to join him in running the 800-hectare property. “Dad said, ‘Are you serious about farming?’ I had always thought I would live at Clifton Station but perhaps work in tourism. I wasn’t sure I’d have the chance to farm. The place was a mess following the flood, but I was excited to be on board.”

For Tom, the exhilaration of reviving Clifton Station and stamping it with new-style initiatives — including 36 hectares of certified organic pasture, 20 hectares of which is leased out to Ben and George Bostock of Bostock Brothers for growing chicken feed — is an ongoing buzz. “I’m so lucky not to be stuck in an office block. It took four years to get the place tidied up after the flood. Dad kept saying, ‘small bites of the elephant’. I learned that the land does recover, and about perseverance.”

An ability to persist has stood Tom in good stead in the more personal facets of his life. Despite his reluctance to venture beyond the Tukituki River, in the autumn of 2014 he towed a horse float to Auckland to pack up the worldly goods of “the girl that I knew I loved” — Lucia Plowman, then head chef at Little Bird Unbakery in Kingsland.  Heading down the southern motorway with Lucia’s chattels on board was the commencement of the couple’s life together after a long-brewing romance punctuated by hit and misses, and exacerbated by working lives on super-yachts in Europe and sheep shows in Honshu.

Tom and Lucia had first met as young children on the front lawn of Tom’s family home at Clifton Station — their parents are long-time friends. But over the years, Lucia and Tom lost touch. “It seemed we’d taken different paths. I would often hear of her chef exploits overseas and wonder how she was,” says Tom. Lucia’s international route was largely fueled by the advice of her interior designer mother Nicki. “Mum thinks outside the square. She isn’t fazed by taking risks, and her natural way of thinking is, ‘Why wouldn’t you just do it?’ Growing up, that same attitude imprints itself on you. She said ‘Don’t rush to university, see the world.’ It certainly wasn’t what other parents were saying, but I wouldn’t change a thing.”

Au-pairing in Italy, France and the States, restaurant work in Melbourne, catering on three super-yachts for seven years, and resort management in Vanuatu has been part of Lucia’s career mix. With a decade of high-pressure work under her belt (“you are pushed to the brink on the yachts as the billionaire boat owners effectively own your life”), she relished the simple task of smartening up Tom’s bachelor pad cottage before establishing the Bostock Organic Kitchen near Hastings from scratch.

In 2016, Tom and Lucia married on the front lawn at Clifton Station where they had first crossed paths. “It was very special with the memories it held,” says Lucia. The couple’s good memories have been captured in other ways. “When Tom and I reconnected and I was based in Auckland, I’d come down at the weekend and we would take a pup tent, some food and set up camp near one of the waterfalls on the farm. I’d never been camping before, and I loved it.” Memories of those carefree weekends under canvas have since inspired Clifton Glamping, and the establishment of two luxury tent sites on Clifton Station — Kowhai Retreat launched in 2016 and Toetoe Retreat in September 2018.

The venture’s location, on the doorstep of Napier, Hastings and Havelock North, and its proximity to the airport and to Hawke’s Bay wine-growing country, have propelled the business. Lucia’s experience and expertise in hospitality hasn’t hurt either.  A snap decision in fraught circumstances got the project over the line. “I was 40 weeks pregnant with our daughter Frankie and we were sitting in a cubicle at the hospital after a false alarm when the tent importer phoned to ask: “Do you want one of these tents or not?’ We said, ‘Yes, let’s just do it.’”

Funds from Lucia’s lengthy super-yacht stints had enabled her to buy and sell a house, providing the set-up costs for Clifton Glamping. While Tom and Lucia had overseas tourists identified as their target glampers, they’ve been surprised by the number of New Zealand guests — aged 30 to 45 — seeking time out.  With two young children — Jasper is 18 months, Frankie is three years — down time is rare in the bustling Gordon household. But Lucia jogs or heads to the gym at about 6am three mornings a week and practices meditation for 20 minutes twice daily to keep her equilibrium.

Before leaving Auckland, she attended a 10-day Vipassanã silent meditation retreat, and the skills she absorbed have been a boon. “I’m learning that self-care and looking after our mental health is very important. It helps me to be better for Tom and the children. Always rushing about is not a good way to live.”

Every day, Lucia relishes the opportunity to cook “delicious, healthy, rustic meals”. Mum Nicki, and Lucia’s three younger sisters — Claudia, Annabelle and Charlotte — are similarly obsessed with food. “We’re constantly talking about what we’re eating.” “And the four sisters’ WhatsApp account is always running red hot,” adds Tom. He describes family life as “a well-oiled machine that goes at a million miles an hour until seven at night”, and concedes he’s likely to be snoozing on the sofa by 8pm.

“And in amongst it all,” he says. “I know we’re both thinking how lucky and very grateful we are.”


CAMP TOM & LUCIA

The positioning of Tom and Lucia’s two canvas safari tents was dictated by the need for shelter, spectacular views, and vehicle accessibility. The tents were imported from the Netherlands and are set on a permanent timber floor. Lucia’s sister Annabelle, who owns Annabelle’s, a homewares store with outlets in Havelock North and Ponsonby, helped with the interior design. Tom converted the historic sheds on-site into bathrooms and has built the vintage-styled kitchens from recycled materials.

Lucia hoped the tents would be solar-powered, but after considerable investment the system proved too unreliable, and they had to be powered by conventional electricity. “I love making it beautiful.  I even love the turnover between guests and making the beds.”

There have been no grumpy moments.

Tom: “Lucia is amazing. She gets the ball rolling. I tend to think long and hard. She has sophistication and I’m practical.” Guided fly fishing and horse riding are on offer at the station.


THIS SUMMER, WE’RE…

Reading: “Children’s books on repeat. The Owl and the Pussycat by Edward Lear is a real favourite. Frankie and Jasper love the illustrations and Piggy-Wig.”
Eating: “Slow-roast Clifton lamb with salsa verde and grilled asparagus niçoise. And lots of strawberries from Scott’s Strawberry Farm, served with cream or — if it’s an extra-special meal — with chocolate ganache.”
Listening to: “We’re loving the psychedelic rock sound of Chiaroscuro by Ocean Alley from the Northern Beaches  of Sydney — it’s a great sound to hear with a beer
on the deck.”
Playing: “Lately, we’ve been taking the kids to Cornwall Park in Hastings. It’s so beautiful, with established trees and a great playground. We’ll take a picnic and stay for the afternoon. Tom also loves freediving in the sea near our house for pāua. Then we’ll cook them on the barbecue and have dinner in the garden.”


WIDE OPEN SPACES 

Tom and his father Angus farm in partnership. Angus: “It’s a delight to  work with him.” The station geography comprises coastal flats, steep hill country, sheer cliffs and is divided by the Maraetotara River.

Tom: “It’s tough land that can’t be pushed.”

Lamb-fattening and breeding Angus cattle for the weaner market is the focus. In early November, 4000 lambs are shipped off; and 300 cows and calves keep the grass down over the summer months. Forty hectares are forestry; seven are leased for nectarines; 36 hectares are currently certified organic pasture with more to come. Tom is carrying out a sustained native and exotic tree planting programme on the station and around waterways.

NZ Life and Leisure This article first appeared in NZ Life & Leisure Magazine.
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