Thursday, September 20, 2012

Afternoon Tea at Alberton


There’s a new book on the block, and it’s all about me, heaps of other people — and more importantly, 200-plus chickens. Urban Chicks has profiles by Renée Lang with photos by Trevor Newman, and I’ve contributed a sprinkling of hen-keeping hints at the back.

The only appropriate way to celebrate such an initiative is with a hen party, so that’s what happened. On a fine spring afternoon at Alberton, one of Auckland’s finest historic properties, invited guests roamed the Mt Albert house and grounds, heard pianist Billy Farnell tickle the ivories, bid for chicken-related items in a silent auction, sipped tea from fine china cups, and sampled a spread of Renée’s superb home baking. 

We were a mixed bunch, from Pat and Lovest Reynolds who’ve kept hens in Howick for half a century (all their flock are named Katie) to the family who called in with Cocoa, their special-needs bantam (geriatric and blind), on their way home from a weekend at the beach. And a former Mr Gay Auckland, MP David Cunliffe, financial advisor Greg Moyle, food writer Julie Biuso. Yes, they all have chickens in their backyards too. 

I won’t begrudge David Cunliffe the hand-painted teapot (starring chickens!) that he scored in the silent auction: he simply outbid me. Nor will I hold it against fiction publisher Harriet Allan that she won the coveted Grandpa’s Feeder (a clever ‘help yourself’ device for hens) in one of several raffles — I didn’t really need it. 

The proceeds from those fundraising activities are going to a north-of-Auckland charity that finds homes for downtrodden chooks and other hitherto unlucky creatures. The owner of the Animal Sanctuary attended the launch in a wheelchair, as the previous week she’d broken her ankle in the line of duty, during a rescue. 

Alberton, owned by the Historic Places Trust and managed by chicken-keeper Rendell McIntosh, was a fitting venue. The ballroom, which is smaller and more intimate than the anonymous expanses at today’s five-star hotels, easily accommodated all of us for the speeches, and doubled as a gallery for an exhibition of art by another chicken-keeper, Billie Harbidge.

 At the back of the room, protected by a glass cabinet and propped up against an ancient cardboard box bearing the legend “EGGS”, was a certificate for first prize. It had been awarded to one of Alberton’s first inhabitants by the Auckland Poultry, Pigeon, Canary, and Dog Association.  

The initial description for Sophia Taylor (1847–1930) in the Dictionary of National Biography is “Hostess, suffragist, landowner” but as this and other records note, she was also a poultry fancier, and a very discerning one. The faded script of the certificate is hard to read in the dim light of Alberton’s ballroom but it appears that the winning bird on that occasion was a Pekin duck. 

At least one of her 10 children seems to have inherited Mrs Taylor’s ability: an Auckland Star report of the 1893 Auckland Agricultural Show held at Potter’s Paddock lists V Kerr Taylor of Alberton — probably Sophia’s daughter Violet — as the winner of two categories for poultry and one for produce, “heaviest dozen hen eggs”.

Hens have been around forever but they’re hot right now or, as a range of tee-shirts and aprons has it, “the new black”. The Listener recently showed a gumbooted Kim Hill (the radio presenter) in her garden with a bird in hand — a hen of her own, not one borrowed for effect. She’s sharp. 

The media coverage for Urban Chicks in the last week has been remarkable. My favourite soundbytes were of Edith the white Silkie, chookling quietly as Billy Farnell and fellow hen carer Gail Batten (who runs workshops on chicken-keeping) chatted to the hosts of TV One’s Good Morning show, one of whom also has chooks.

Photos, above and below
1. Alberton that day, with one of its trademark turrets in view. 
2. Alberton’s fine china, set out for the hen party.
3. Afternoon tea spread.
4, 5. Urban Chicks publicist Lorraine Steele (centre) and guests.
6. Sophia Taylor’s “First Prize” certificate. 
7. Tea on the lawn. 
8, 9. The youngest poultry fancier present and possibly the oldest, Pat and Lovest Reynolds.
10. Eco-friendly vehicle (economical, too) parked by a launch participant.

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