IN the same week that Craig and Sally Maguire were shifting home to broaden their family's horizons, the world began shrinking and shutting down.
The Maguires had escaped inner western Sydney with their two sons, aged 10 and eight. They had bought into the Shepherds Ground Farm and Village development at Butterwick, building a sustainable house that they were about to move into, when COVID-19 restrictions began biting in March.
That massive change meant chaos on a practical level for the family, with home schooling in an uncompleted home in a new place far from the city, but it also brought calm and relief.
"I don't know what we would do if we were locked down in that small suburban environment that we lived in before," Sally Maguire said. "I can't even imagine being back in that.
"I'm sure we would have made it work, and heaps of people did. But we were honestly pinching ourselves and saying, 'We are so lucky'.
"It was a COVID coincidence."
The Maguires' new home is on shared land, as a former beef cattle grazing farm is gradually reshaped and reimagined as a new way of living, but largely based on time-honoured principles, in the Hunter Valley.
The Shepherds Ground development was founded by Lucie Bruvel. She grew up close by on a farm where her parents aimed at being self-sufficient. Then she spent some years living in a village in France. Ms Bruvel observed how everyone played their part, sharing skills and resources, while maintaining their own space and identity.
From the sum of her experiences, near and far, Ms Bruvel shaped ideas for Shepherds Ground.
"I just say it's a village of farmers, modelled on the European example," she said.
Those farmers are also shareholders in Shepherds Ground. The 112-hectare site is owned by a company. So those wanting to become part of the village buy shares, which, according to the company's website, cost about $120,000. Each household has an equal shareholding.
But to Ms Bruvel, the shared farm is about more than having the money to buy in. She has sought those who bring skills and a willingness to be part of something bigger. Some have training in trades. Others have food-related skills, such as beekeeping and gardening, and that is abundantly evident in what is spouting from the soil.
There are a number of gardens, including a commercial food plot of more than a hectare, producing everything from garlic to flowers for making teas. But, Ms Bruvel emphasised, this was not a commune.
"That's why I call Shepherds Ground village a farm, not a community," Lucie Bruvel said.
It has taken years of planning and negotiating with Port Stephens Council, other authorities and neighbours, along with finding shareholders, but a community is growing in the valley. There are six houses in the village, with another three being built. The limit is 30 buildings.
"The dream was to have a vibrant rural village," she said. "We're definitely well on the way."
The first to build a new home and life at Shepherds Ground was Jane Purkiss.
Ever since she was a teenager, when she learnt about the writer Mary Gilmore's involvement in the socialist New Australia settlement in the jungles of Paraguay in the late 1800s, Jane Purkiss had been looking for her own version of utopia. After a long and varied career, mostly in education, Ms Purkiss was about 75 when she heard about the Shepherds Ground development.
"This came up and I thought, 'This is your last chance, kid'," Ms Purkiss explained.
She sold her house in Morpeth and invested in Shepherds Ground. Jane Purkiss helped build a hemp masonry house on lot number one, which was ready for her to move into a few days before Christmas 2017. All up, between becoming a shareholder and building the house, Ms Purkiss spent about $339,000.
Like all the houses being built here, Ms Purkiss' home is off the grid. She relies on solar power. Water comes from rain tanks, and you won't hear the sound of flushing; there are compost toilets.
But at Shepherds Ground, Jane Purkiss has found what she dreamt of as a kid. She has her own space and is still part of a small community. To her it it is the best of both worlds. She may be disconnected from much of the typical household convenience of the 21st century, but Jane Purkiss feels deeply connected to the land, and to her fellow villagers.
The mother of three and grandmother of six said she regarded her neighbours as "my extended family".
"I've got a multiplicity of people with a multiplicity of skills who are willing to share them," she said. "I've got life, from three-year-olds up to my age of 83, that I see happening all around me."
And never has Jane Purkiss felt more at home at Shepherds Ground than during recent months. She had knee replacement surgery, and the pandemic hit. But she has not felt isolated. What's more, she has a new hobby, learning the cello.
"I love the cello, because in these times of COVID, you can still hug it close," she said.
But it is not just the cello that gives Ms Purkiss a sense of warm closeness.
"We are aware of the COVID rules and we honour those, but there is still that sense you are connected with people," she said.
"It's not that we're unaware of what's happening in the world around us. Because we all have family and friends who have been very hard hit by COVID."
For the Maguires, part of the attraction of joining Shepherds Ground was to have a rural lifestyle without needing to have all the farming skills, other than a desire to help, and to learn from, those who do.
"You don't have to know everything and do everything yourself; that's the benefit of being out here," Sally Maguire said.
The Maguires have found other advantages of village life.
"During COVID, this place has come into its own, because people were dropping us food," Mrs Maguire said. "The kids got to play with other kids. We had a lot of support. We didn't really have to go out. There wasn't a lot we had to go into town for."
Lucie Bruvel said since the pandemic, there had been a surge in interest in Shepherds Ground, as people considered changing their way of life. Many of the queries had come from Newcastle and Maitland residents, and the greatest interest was from young families, "a lot more than before".
"I think because being locked up with a bunch of kids during COVID is pretty hectic," said Ms Bruvel, a mother of three, including a three-year-old boy. "And this [kind of model] just makes so much more sense."
The founder of Shepherds Ground said even as the restrictions took hold, the residents felt as though they had everything they needed, from food and fresh air to friends.
"So in that way, heading into lockdown, we were fine," she said. "We just didn't feel vulnerable at all. I didn't once think, 'Oh gee, how are we going to get by?'."
Craig Maguire, whose job requires him to travel, believes with people now working from home, many will choose to change where they live.
"You can go wherever you want to be," he said. "You don't need to be in Sydney anymore."
And the Maguires didn't feel as though they were isolated during the pandemic.
"We've got 277 acres, I still jogged every day for exercise, people rode bikes," Sally Maguire said. "We were able to still have a regular lifestyle. We still had that interaction in a COVID safe way.
"We didn't feel socially isolated in that way at all."
Jane Purkiss reckons after the COVID experience more people will embrace models similar to that of Shepherds Ground. A Melbourne couple, for instance, had just visited the village and talked with Lucie Bruvel, as they planned something similar in Victoria.
"I see here is what will come, that we will all realise we can't survive in this world just as individual entities in our own little boxes," said Ms Purkiss.
"For me, it's such a joy in being here.
"It's the best thing I could have possibly done, because it keeps you alive, it keeps you connected".
Lucie Bruvel hopes that one day the village has its own hall and more farming-related enterprises, such as its own dairy and bakery. And she wants shared accommodation, so that when residents can no longer live in their own home, they can still stay on the farm.
For now, as she plunges her hands in the soil at Shepherds Ground, Lucie Bruvel feels "this great sense of purpose and meaning ... for me, for the land".
"I'm just feeling so blessed, or lucky, whatever you want to say," Ms Bruvel said. "But just feeling really privileged that we're here, and we can build this connection, to be in this place right now."
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