Nestled away in the Hermitage Valley just outside Swellendam, lies an idyllic farm affectionately named Die Skooltjie. Die Skooltjie is owned by a charming couple who are embracing country life and creating beautiful handmade toys. We caught up with Elizabeth-Ann who forms one half of this darling duo…
Please tell us a bit about each of your backgrounds – where are you from and what were you doing before moving to the country?
I was born in a tiny town called Bedford in the Eastern Cape. We lived in a beautiful little cottage on a farm with veg garden, silky chickens, porcupines and lots of bees. From there we made our way to Grahamstown, and then all the way up to Durban. We moved around the burbs quite extensively during my teens.
I studied graphic design at the DUT and then tried my hand in the corporate world. After that shock to the system, I moved on to clothing at DC Shoes and then to a unique company that let me do styling, photography, writing, prop making and modelling. I then had a mid 20’s crisis and thought I was better off sailing around the world, or working with elephants in Namibia. Unfortunately my bravery, or lack thereof, took me as far as freelance work in Shongweni. I then acquired a position at Derivco. Working for a giant company like that almost sucked me in for good, but then Warren came along and changed my path dramatically.
Warren started out in Durban, spent a few years in Joburg and then made his way back down to the 031. He moved around there for a bit, and then when he was fifteen, settled at his family farm just outside of Cato Ridge. In his grandfather’s day, the farm used to be about chickens and geese, but in Warren’s time it was all handlebars, exhaust pipes and tyres. Who knew that motorbike farms existed, I sure didn’t. Warren started riding when he was just three years old, and he hasn’t stopped since. He is bike befok! There isn’t any other way of saying it that does the obsession justice.
Warren is a man of many talents – from mechanically restoring motorbikes, to managing a succulent farm, to designing landscapes in Salt Rock, to wilderness guiding in St Lucia, the Drakensberg and in the Umfolozi game park, to operating ski lifts in Canada. He has done it all. Before we met, he was working in Cape Town and Durban as a steel and wood worker, making custom furniture.
On our first date, I was all dressed up – summery dress, leather sandals, red lips, feeling hot to trot. Warren arrived on his motorbike with a brand new bright orange KTM jacket on. We were both so nervous that we were giggling like little school girls (sickening, I know, stay with me). I had to quickly change my whole outfit situation to accommodate the transport. A jacket, tights and pair of sneakers later, I was ready to roll. I never wear makeup, but on this occasion I went all out to enhance the lashes.When we sat down at the restaurant, Warren told me that he was going to marry me. Normally that would send a girl running in the opposite direction, but when I heard that, it was like I already knew. It just made complete sense. We still have no recollection of what we ate or drank that night due to the dizzy delirium of nerves.
From then we knew everything would change, our separate paths didn’t make sense anymore.
What made you decide to leave the city for a life in the countryside?
Warren and I are both soft hearted people, with quiet natures. We look for the simple joys in life, rather than material possessions or claims. We find cities to be quite overwhelming, consuming and for the faster beating hearts. Cities are necessary, but not necessarily for us.
Warren asked me to officially marry him while on a trip around the Western Cape searching for our future home. We both had a very free and adventurous childhood – climbing trees, playing in streams, breathing easy. We want that kind of lifestyle for our children and for ourselves.
How does your lifestyle on the farm differ to when you lived in the city?
Oh wow, it differs a whole lot. We have our own time, we grow our own food and we are submersed in nature all day, every day. We still stress, but it is the good kind – the kind that gives you the motivation to pull off magical things that you never thought you were capable of. Healthy stress is essential for personal growth. Without it you would just stay in the same spot your entire life, and there is no fun in doing that. We both feel much healthier living where we do now. I personally used to get sick all the time when living in the city. My body reacts badly to anxiety and general sad affairs. Now we feel calm, at ease, inspired and less distracted. It is a beautiful thing!
Country living sounds like a dream to many – what is the reality of it and are their any downsides?
People always say we are truly living the dream, but I don’t think they realise that we too have our bad days. Reality kicks in and hits hard every now and then. Some days I lose it all together and there are panic stations of great proportions – I start rambling to Warren asking what on earth are we doing, and what is life all about, why is there no Woolworths where we live, where is the money going to come from for debit dooms day, what should I wear because the weather keeps changing?! Warren, the wise old soul that he is, always reassures me that all will be wonderful, and somehow it always is. It really is a dream scenario that we find ourselves in, but we work damn hard to keep it.
What is your favourite part of your home?
Oh gosh this is a hard one for me as there are so many favourite spots! When it is sunny and warm, I love sitting in my green chair by the window in the lounge. The antique one-seater was a gift from my step grandmother and is incredibly comfortable. When it is cold, you will find me near the fireplace, or up in my studio.
Warren’s favourite place is definitely the stoep. He spends most of his time out there. His workshop covers the one side, and couches and a coffee table cover the other. His bike also lives out there. What more does a man need?!
What does being creative mean to you?
When you look deep down, where it is quiet and not even your breath can be heard. When you remove the judgement of others, and the what ifs and the doubt. It is when you can hear your own voice and you actually listen to it straight away without any hesitation. Never hesitate!
Creativity has become this word that many are afraid of, they think it is something you have to struggle for, or even that it is out of their reach completely. Everyone can be creative, yes you need to work hard at it, but every human is capable of doing something special. Creativity doesn’t have to be this big scary thing, like the creepy guy at the checkers till staring at your boobs while you dig in your purse for a R5 coin. Just do the work man. Do what you love.
Tell us more about your beautiful hand-made toys
Our toys are in the very early stages of development. We are currently throwing everything that we have towards the sewing machine and lathe. We don’t know what is going to work out just yet, and how can we? It is all so new, but we are enjoying the act of throwing very much.
Warren makes wooden sculptures out of rare woods. They are mainly for a child’s room, but I personally like them all over the house. He pours his genuine and kind nature into all of his creations and you can really see it when you look at them or feel them in your hands.
My creations are softer and have a lot more colour. My dolls are incredibly detailed as I don’t like compromising on something just because it takes longer to make. I like doing things the way people did it originally. I like that embroidering takes time and effort. I don’t like the new high tech sewing machines where you can press a button and it does it all for you. My illustrations and stories always accompany our toys, I think that every thing we make has a personality. They have a vibe, It what makes them different.
How did you start your business and what inspired you to take this path?
The business actually came to me about nine years ago, although I didn’t think it would ever happen and always pushed it aside. Warren is the entire reason I am where I am today, he is crazy good at giving pep talks and his encouragement never runs out. I tend to make a lot of lists, even lists of lists. So one day Warren said I should actually do the things on my lists, and I was like wait, is it that simple?! And it was. Starting something is so hard, but once you are on your way it gets easier. The wonderful thing about what Warren and I are doing, is that we are doing absolutely everything ourselves. We take great pride in that fact.
What is it like working together as a couple?
It has been going swimmingly, with a few piranha nips every now and then. Warren and I are great at communicating with each other and we separate work issues with personal issues. If we disagree on something to do with work, we never take it over that personal line. Work is work. We still love each other more than anything at the end of the day. If Warren doesn’t like the colour I used for the thing I just made, I won’t bring up the colour of his socks that I find lying on the floor every single day. It is crucial to be honest and check in with each other, communication is everything.
How would you describe Elizabeth-Ann Bradley as a brand?
I used to think that branding yourself was coming up with a beautiful logo, business card and fake personality. Only now do I realise that all you need to do is find out what you like and what you don’t like. Everything that you love and agree with and support is what it is all about. Yes, looks do help, but they are not everything. I battled with other people’s opinions in the past, and I think that is why it took me so long to start my own business. At the end of the day, you need to decide what you stand for, what will make you happy, and where you want to be in this world. Branding fits in between all of that.
Warren and I are still fine tuning our work, and it is such fun to see how it is all developing. Our identity is us, you can see it in the photos we take, the things we make, where we live and our unique story.
Describe an average day in the life of Elizabeth-Ann
No day is average, each one brings a different spin on things. I do always start my day by making Warren a cup of coffee, he doesn’t wake up otherwise. I then journal and sketch which normally takes about thirty minutes or so. I am totally addicted to smoothies, my favourite one currently is baby spinach, avo, coconut cream, berries, pear, ginger, linseeds and chia seeds. We have a berry farm just down the road from us which is rather convenient.
I then check emails and follow up on orders, printing or shipping. That usually lasts until about 11. Then I make Warren and I eggs on toast with kale and rocket from our garden. From there it can be anything from sewing, drawing, doing shopping, driving to Mossel Bay to see a man about tools and wood, going for a walk, watching a tawny eagle eat a snake at our fence, pulling out weeds, drawing some more, phoning suppliers, drinking green tea, eating biscuits, stuffing a doll limb or two, writing, drinking hot chocolate, eating more biscuits.
Your farm is named “Die Skooltjie” – how did that name come about?
Die Skooltjie, meaning ‘The School’ in Afrikaans, is a National Heritage site, as it dates back to the early 1900’s. It was a school for many years, and closed down in about 1940. It was then acquired by a German chap who never actually lived in it. He sold it to a dear woman named Annlerie. Annlerie renovated and restored the building and lived in it for ten years. When she decided to sell, she didn’t want to sell the house to just about anyone. She had many interested buyers, but kept holding out for the right people to come along. Luckily for us, we were the right people!
What inspires you?
Oh so much. Bird songs, the shape of a piece of sunlight on the floor, the veins on a leaf. Nature is full of wonder and awe. Old photographs, furniture and objects with rich history. I also find that when I spend time with enthusiastic unique thinkers I get powered up by them, like a Mario Bro when he eats a mushroom. It does have a down side though, because some folk drain away my energy instead of fueling it. I have become quite good at fending off negative vibes, but it took a few years to master that art. I try and avoid Pinterest as I find it interferes with originality. I like pinning clothes, houses and plants though.
When Warren and I leave the farm for a day or two, we always find that we are so inspired when we return. It is like we hit a reset button and see everything for the first time again. We try and make day missions as much as possible to keep our eyes fresh.
Do you have any particular favourite pieces of your work?
I think the works that are still to come will be my favourite. I am currently writing and illustrating a picture book. I have always dreamt of telling my stories. I just know that my books will be special. It’s like they already exist, I just have to get them out and into other people’s hands. I guess that is always the trick!
What is your dream project?
Warren and I really want to grow flowers. We want to build a ceramic studio where I can make vases and pots. One can never find a good plant pot these days. I also want the studio to be a place where we can build massive installations made out of fabric, wood and steel. I’ve always wanted to make giant things, for some reason I think it would feel quite magical to stand next to something you have made, and it makes you feel small. Not small in a bad way, but small in a safe way.
When you’re not creating what can we find you doing?
For me, definitely gardening. We have a hectare of land and the weeds stop for no man! Our vegetable garden is going really well, we now eat salads from it daily. Plants fascinate me to no end. The way they grow in weird places, or how they look like they are about to fall over and then a bloom pops out. Incredible. Otherwise playing piano or walking in the mountains with Frankie, our dog – the best dog in the world.
As for Warren, he is usually working on his bike or building trails in the forest. He also loves using our tractor, Ferguson to cut grass and pull out stumps. Warren plays a mean banjo, I often try to record him but he somehow knows that I am doing it, no matter how sneaky I am.
Where can we buy your work?
All of our products are available from our online shop elizabethannbradley.com. Our Bradley Beeswax Wood & Leather Polish will be available from Faithful to Nature very soon, so keep an eye out for that. We are hoping to hit a few markets in the coming months, as well as to stock a few boutique stores in and around Cape Town.
Then you may also be interested in reading Prepare For Life Envy: The Mimi Thorisson Experience and Slow Living With Elizabeth Evelyn Kirby
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