over the other side of the world in England, the Holly Trail at Epping Forest entices many a flora and fauna fan to its home county, Essex. Much the same happens with the biennial Holly Trail in Hawke’s Bay which, since its inception at the turn of this century, has brought an increasingly large audience of aficionados. Their appreciation of what Christmas means to family has tuned up the tills to such a degree that its beneficiary – Cranford Hospice – has received more than $1.3 million from the trust. From an original $40,000 (GST had to be paid) to the $250,000 that was presented in 2014, it is obvious the formula hit target straight away and has subsequently become an iconic “not-to-be- missed” occasion in the Hawke’s Bay calendar drawing both locals and visitors in droves.

Currently masterminding the somewhat challenging task of finding homes, venues, sponsors, volunteers, designers, and myriad other helpers needed to ensure such a three-day experience gives great visitor satisfaction, is the indomitable KK Marffy.

No stranger to challenge, KK took over the chairmanship in 2013 in preparation for the 2014 Trail persuaded by her cohorts that it was her dedication and talent which would ensure its ongoing longevity. At a time when growth was causing some contention, they were right.

To anyone who has been involved with house tours, this is no ordinary trail. The organisation is streamlined – attention to detail is minute. There are ten committee members and each has a specific role to play within the running of the Holly Trail. During the year “off” in this biennial event, the search is on for potential properties with the mandate that they have the appeal of a family home.

“Not necessarily the smartest, though of course there are many which are very big and grand – but those which say first and foremost ‘family’”, explains KK.

Sandra O’Sullivan and Virginia Lachore hold the portfolio for design. And it is to Sandra (who has been a committee member since inception) that accolades should be given, for the Trail was originally her idea. “I was a great fan of the event called Bells and Bows which the Palmerston North Floral Art Group did for Aranui Hospice. That was where my father was. Originally it was a one day event and it eventually grew into Hearts and Homes with all the proceeds going to Aranui,” Sandra explains.

“I ran into Deb Nott (a florist of repute throughout the north) at Green Door and then Mary Stewart and told them about it and suggested we do something similar to help Cranford Hospice. It is such a wonderful place and offers extraordinary care for every age group suffering from terminal illness – patients come from all over New Zealand so it is vital it be given support for the critical role it plays in so many lives.”

With a committee of five they made $55,000 in the first year – 2000. “Actually it was closer to $40,000 cos at that stage we weren’t quite so smart and had forgotten we had to pay GST!” she comments wryly. “As the years have passed, we got more savvy. People just loved it. But in 2006 the committee said – ‘that’s the last one.’ So Deb and I did the Design Festival when the Floral Art Society had their conference here through the Hawke’s Bay Floral Art and Fine Arts Society and we bussed them all out to it.”

2008 saw the Hospice Holly Trail back on track again with organisation fine tuned to within an inch of its life. Ten members form the committee and amongst their portfolios are – treasurer, ticketing, secretary, security and parking, website, convenor (garnering and roster for volunteers) design and other affiliated events such as the fete. But it is of course the design aspect that lies at the heart of its appeal to so many. The fact that the flick of the net curtain has always been a magnet for the curious, cannot be ignored.

The choice of which homes to feature, where they are positioned, the balance of contemporary with traditional plays a pivotal part in providing a well rounded tour. “Houses which people can relate to rather than being out of reach – and so many live at the beach specially at Christmas so baches are brilliant – appealing to a wide audience is key. It’s important we have places which hold interest for the younger market as well as the older. And remember men as well as women are interested,” says Sandra.

Vicinity is also crucial. In order for visitors to travel distances comfortably the properties need to be in clusters which allow for easy accessibility within the three days. Once they are selected the design team gets into action. “Each place is assigned a floral designer who will, six months beforehand, visit sometimes six or seven times to produce design plans of colour, style, flowers, placement etc. which has to be agreed to by the owner and design committee,” comments Sandra. “It’s essential everyone feels good about what it is going to look like – it’s not about the florist, and it’s not a competition – and with everyone’s time donated, keeping everyone content is a big part of creating a convivial atmosphere.”

“In the past a designer may have done one or more homes, but to get variety and different approaches we find it works best to assign one to one,” adds Virginia. “And of course because of the amount of flowers required, we do need to use commercially grown ones as well as picking willing donors’ gardens bare. We look at the homes and then assign designers we feel will be most compatible – there are such important factors at play such as colour – an owner may not like red for instance or may well have a definite idea about the style of Christmas he or she likes.” Also as the trail is held around the same time of year (first or second week of November) the selection of foliage and flowers on offer is pretty similar, so portraying something different can be tricky.

Not all properties are actual homes, some may be home-stays or interesting venues like Craggy Range and the Blythe Performing Arts Centre this time, but again their charm is in offering visitors the chance to see inside a property they may not otherwise.

“We are very conscious of the need to give variety,” Virginia adds, “some may be just the entertaining areas to view, others the garden and the outdoor living as well as inside; there are a lot of interesting homes with great art – always a draw. And the beach homes have the beautiful wild water frontage and trees. We have the quintessential baches which bring out a completely different approach to the season for the designers – blokes love them!” 

“ In November the gardens are gorgeous – and will be particularly so this year because of all the rain we have had – so the flowers and foliage we use will be lush. The Christmas theme is always there but schemes can vary – pink or purple, silver and white, red and green, and of course gold. The settings are crucial – we have a charming church which is so tranquil and historically of interest in Waimarama for instance – but there is a wide spectrum – small, big, quirky, holistic, traditional and contemporary. And people love to hear the history of the places.” All of which the designers have to take into consideration. KK, Virginia and Sandra agree that the Christmas decor designs have escalated hugely so they are now possibly even more of an attraction than the homes and their environments.

Even though a home may be stunning – easy access, safety and parking all play a part in the decision making. Then there are the behind-the-scenes logistics – keeping flowers and foliage fresh for three days can be challenging and designers have to refresh immediately if there is any sign of a wilting flower. Some are known to bring everything in from outside over the nights to prevent damage – “I did last year, with my house,” laughs Virginia, “well there are possums, birds, rabbits, animals of all kinds to contend with and of course the weather.”

All emphasise that any flowers or items that need to be bought for decor are either contributed or bought from the sponsor funds. Everyone’s time is donated and each property has a gold sponsor ($1,200 plus gst) and a silver sponsor ($600 plus gst). The list is vast and vital to the Trail’s success. “And we focus very strongly on ensuring professionalism is paramount in our organisation,” says KK. “We want everyone to feel good about getting behind us for without sponsors, property owners and the community support it just would not happen. Whether they are retailers, gold or silver sponsors, or our major sponsor BioRich – the benefits of backing the Cranford week need to be apparent.”

The fete this year is at Craggy Range in which there are 35 craft stalls selling their wares (they pay a fee which goes to Cranford).

So for those disappointed by a “sold out” sign put up some months back, there is still the chance to join in the pleasure as the fete (lunch is also available during which time Mary-anne Scott will be singing) is open to the public for a $5 donation which also goes directly to Cranford Hospice. Birdwoods too, is opening every evening with a special free twilight event in which the joyous vocal harmonies of the fabulous Fours Company will keep visitors entertained (along with Pimms and platters). A special garden installation set up for guests allows them to take a moment of solace to remember those people they have loved and miss in their lives.

“This is a big time in the Hawke’s Bay calendar and everyone gets behind it,” says KK. “Cranford Hospice is the focus for the fundraising not only with the Holly Hospice Trail. The Hospice benefits also from the Carols at Cranford evening held at the wonderful Blyth Performing Arts Centre at Iona College; the Wildflower Sculpture Exhibition held in Julie Russell’s magnificent garden (last time raised $50,000), also high on every visitor’s agenda (this is her fourth biennial event): and the Hawke’s Bay Wine Auction, another sold-out event that promises to raise even more than last year’s contribution of $140,000.

Real proof of the abundant community spirit to be found in the Bay.

Left to right: KK Marffy on left, Sandra O’Sullivan and Virginia Lachore

A Woman With a Mission

KK is short for a childhood tempering of her name Katharine . “I was Kitty Kat to the family, so in view of the fact I did not want to be a grown-up with such a name, I reduced it to KK and it stuck.” An indication perhaps of a rather determined little girl who would only increase that attribute as the years unfolded.

She and husband Rob lost their farm in Zimbabwe in August 2001 at the time of the massive farm invasions which caused an exodus of Zimbabweans to many parts of the world. A group of whom came to The Bay. The Marffy’s were encouraged by their friends Tim and Jules Nowell-Usticke to visit this beautiful land. Tim and Rob were old friends who had met as river guides on the Zambezi and at the time he and Jules were living in Napier. In 2002 the Marffys arrived, “looked and loved”. And eight months later they in turn persuaded their very good friends Bruce and Louise Stobart (of Birdwoods fame) to join them.

None of them live in town. As ex farmers the lure of the land lay strongly within. And after KK and Rob had been in the Bay for a year not knowing quite what work path to follow, they bought an orchard, leased another – realised it wasn’t their life’s ambition – and so together Bruce and Rob started Bay Scaffolding. In the meantime KK and Rob bought their current property – “terribly run down – not a plant in sight” and nurtured both house and grounds into the stunning home it is today.

KK is artistic. She paints. Creates ceramics. Her home is a beautiful display piece for her work – each more mesmerising that the last. She began Paintable Pieces and taught how to make and paint ceramics. An affiliation with Air B&B (homestay) continues to hover on the horizon. Evening classes, student and primary school programmes on making murals – where she goes to the schools and shows how to paint on tiles – are part of her daily life. Her work can be seen at Birdwoods – the exquisitely laid trays guests receive when dining there feature a special delicately detailed feather pattern which is her handiwork. An avid gardener, what was a bare acreage outside the house is now a superb landscape of purposely planted trees, flowers, shrubs and bushes thanks to her hands; a tennis court with swimming pool behind the house looks directly to the hills. No doubt evoking memories of a lost horizon.

A reveal of an enchanting Christmas ceramic bauble painted with Pohutakawa flowers – commissioned by the Cape Kidnappers’ team to give to their guests at this time of celebration – is an indication of the importance of Christmas: and her own love of this celebratory season that brings family and friends together. Which no doubt explains how she was persuaded to take the helm at the Hospice Holly Trail when her own busy life wasn’t leaving too many gaps vacant for a somewhat dauntingly large project for charity

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