From delivering a baby alpaca to farming chickens, Fiona Stocker’s escape to the country in deep Tasmania is so hilarious, she has turned it into a book.
Whilst the 53-year-old spent her childhood in Lytham, she was born in Adelaide, Australia to northern Irish parents who returned to the UK when Fiona was two.
So it is no surprise that after leaving the Lancashire coast at the age of 16 and living in the Netherlands for a while, she returned to Australia on a whim in 1998.
With a sense of country nostalgia, she bought five acres of land with her husband Oliver, 56, in the West Tamar Valley in northern Tasmania. Now with around 45 pigs, the couple run a farm and food business, Langdale Farm, and offer farmstay accommodation.
With plenty of madcap adventures and humorous anecdotes, she decided to write it all down in a book, Apple Island Wife - Slow Living in Tasmania.
She says: “My parents come from Northern Ireland but after they married, my father got a job in Australia. I was born in Adelaide during that time. Then they returned to the UK, and lived in Lytham, as my father worked for British Aerospace. Many of my Saturdays were spent holding onto the fence at Warton airfield while octane charged jets charged past, giving me hours of fun.
“We moved away again when I was 16, as my father got a job for three years in the Netherlands. I reckon that’s what gave me a taste for living in other countries and experiencing other cultures first hand.
“As I’ve got dual nationality, it always seemed like looking a gift horse in the mouth if I didn’t return one day and live here for a bit.
“By 1998 I’d met Oliver in London, now my husband. He had been to Australia before and loved the idea of going back, so we came out here thinking we’d live a boho life beside a beach somewhere, and ended up living in the city of Brisbane by accident for seven years because we found work there, and then bought a house to renovate.
“Then we decided we wanted to live somewhere rural, and then came here to Tasmania. The climate is very European but with more dependable summers, and it’s seasonal so it feels very much like home, but with different trees.
“When we came to Tasmania we bought small acreage. The land price here is incredibly affordable even now, when it’s an international tourism hot spot.
“We bought five acres because Oliver wanted to build his own workshop as he was a cabinet maker and he wanted to buy some alpacas.
“About five or six years in, the Global Financial Crisis hit us. Oliver began thinking he’d like to make some use of our land.
“One night we watched one too many episodes of River Cottage, and decided to keep pigs amongst the eucalyptus trees in our bush block.
“When you’ve got pigs, you’ve eventually got piglets, and then pork. We began selling to friends, then slowly we built up a tiny farming business producing beautiful English style pork sausages and bacon. I stayed at home with our two children and used that time to redefine myself and what it was I did for a living.
“I set up a small business making simple websites for people, and then I began to write as well – occasional articles, my own blog, and then slowly books, editing ghost writing other people’s and writing my own.”
The former Queen Mary’s School pupil has plenty of tales to dine out on, which are all captured in her book.
She adds: “Apple Island Wife is a travel memoir in the style of A Year in Provence, and Driving Over Lemons.
“While it does chart our journey through the first five years in Tasmania, the book is episodic. It covers our early attempts at cooking things we grew on the farm – on one occasion that was the cockerel who turned feral, Vlad the Impaler.
“On the face of it, the book is a series of funny stories about a couple trying to get to grips with their new life in the country – keeping chickens, putting in a vegetable garden, learning how to interpret what your alpaca shearers are talking about, (‘Ave yer got them drenches ready?’), and how to make a land yacht from steel and wheelbarrow tyres you’ve bought on the internet.
“It also is a love song to Tasmania, and to living in a way that connects you with the landscape.
“In the book I consider the way we women define ourselves, as wives and mothers, and our quest for meaningful occupation.
“It has chapters on being fitted for a bra, choosing a dog, and midwifing for a grumpy alpaca. It captures the tussles and euphoria of living on the land in a place of beauty, raising a family where you want to and seeing your husband in a whole new light. It is not just a memoir, but an every-woman’s story.”
One of Fiona’s favourite memories is being a midwife for Lorna, the grumpy alpaca.
She adds: “Oliver was out one morning when Lorna, Tasmania’s grumpiest alpaca, went into labour.
“I glanced out of the kitchen window and saw her standing awkwardly in the paddock, with the head and forelegs of her calf protruding from her back end.
“That’s when I knew we’d be late for playgroup.
“I had to ring Oliver and ask what I needed to do.
“He had me fetch a bottle of iodine from the workshop, and spray the baby alpaca’s tummy with it when I got the chance – it stops the umbilicus from getting infected. Lorna became quite aggressive when she saw me approaching her calf, and stalked over, bent her giraffe-like neck towards me so her tomb-like teeth were inches from my face, and screeched like a tram coming off the rails.
“But she was still in labour, delivering the afterbirth, so I knew I was safe.
“All this time, I was managing the movements of my son Sam, who is called Kit in the book, who was perhaps two years old, and very puzzled by all of this, and by why he couldn’t ride in the wheelbarrow as usual.
“Since this we’ve moved on to pigs and I’ve been at the birth of many a piglet too.
"All I can say is farm life really gets you face to face with the stuff of life, often in ways that make you feel like a cup of tea and a lie down afterwards."
Since Apple Island Wife - Slow Living in Tasmania was released in December, it has ranked consistently in Australia and Oceania Travel, Travel Essays and Travelogues, and Travel Writing Reference in Australia, reaching number one bestseller multiple times, as well as being mentioned in Australia Travel Guides in the UK.
The e-book, published by UK-based Unbound, the world’s first Crowdfunding publisher, is now being read all over the world, and paperbacks are available to order through bookshops and on Amazon.
To order a copy, visit www.amazon.co.uk/Apple-Island-Wife-Living-Tasmania/dp/1912618087