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Media Archives: Midlands Mosaic's 'Countryside, Creatives', a feature on The Old Mushroom Farm

Nikki Brighton of the online publication, Midlands Mosaic wrote a wonderful feature on The Old Mushroom Farm back in 2020. While some points have dated, Nikki has captured the timeless charm and back story of TOMF, well worth re-reading in our opinion! Have a look through Midlands Mosaics other articles for fantastic stories of local happenings and neighbours in the Howick community.

The following article appeared in Midlands Mosaic in September 2020

Words and images by Nikki Brighton.

For 15 years, Nick Crooks grew button and black mushrooms in the tunnels on the farm along the Karkloof Road. 

To begin with, he didn’t have much idea about mushrooms, but with research and determination, he created a thriving business, which he sold to the staff (in the form of a management buyout) in 2006.  A series of mishaps including a devastating fire in 2007 caused the collapse of the business, leaving a very dishevelled property which no one particularly cared about.  In 2015 Nick, and his wife Mandy, began to breathe new life back into the buildings and surrounding 20 hectares.  

Nick and Mandy, The Old Mushroom Farm owners

Nick had grown up on the building sites that his father was developing and later studied architecture, so mixing concrete, sorting out plumbing and creating spaces comes naturally to him. 

First, they tackled the original staff cottages – working with the basic functional structure, replacing disintegrating roofs, and giving each one an interesting veranda. One veranda shows off twisted barley poles salvaged from their Dargle property; another one gives slightly rusted 1970’s wire furniture a new lease on life; old geysers have been repurposed as outdoor fireplaces – all adding to the individual personalities.  

Artist, gardener and curator of gorgeous things, Mandy spent many hours at auction houses buying up pre-loved treasures with embedded stories to decorate each cottage in quirky style. “My favourite finds are the things that I get for a bargain because others see them as flawed – like a marble topped table with a chip or mid-century pieces that are out of style. They have a history and character which is priceless.”    Tea trolleys make perfect bedside tables, hand embroidered pictures hang in vintage frames and one bathroom shows off an old ice-cream pink basin. Outside, the old galvanised roof sheets have been repurposed as planters filled with sculptural succulents, propagated by Mandy.

Two farmhouses, which sleep over a dozen people each, are much sought after by cyclists and trail runners as there is easy access to the exceptional SAPPI trails that traverse the plantations and hills in the area.  With large gardens and well-worn couches, good views and space for children and dogs to explore, 11 Karkloof is popular for family gatherings too.

Rearranging elements on old buildings is Nick’s signature style, building on 1000s of years of architectural history. “I didn’t invent the column, but I do love to use them in new ways.  I love architecture, I love scrapyards.I love collecting old parts of buildings and adding them up to create a new space.”    

A good example would be the industrial vent on top of The Old Mushroom Farm toilet block, or the bases of the arches that are concrete castings of cast iron pillars salvaged from the original Durban railway station.  Nick cannot resist beautiful, discarded things which, although they may not function as well as their modern equivalents, when cleverly combined, weave together stories of more than one era. By rescuing and re-purposing he is also slowing the flow of scavenged metal simply being sent to China for re-melting.

Columns and arches, designed and built by Nick Crooks of The Old Mushroom Farm

While tunnels might have been good for growing mushrooms, they are an architectural challenge when being converted into human focussed spaces.  Purposely, Nick left this project to last. “There was a lot of pretty basic work to be done to make the property habitable, so I saved the tunnels for when most of the renovations had been done. They were pretty terrible to work with,” he concedes. Obviously, having no flat areas meant steel needed to be cold rolled to make frames in which to insert found windows and doors.  This customisation creates a particular beauty.  Nick has managed to keep an authentic farm feel – nothing is too slick or pretentious and everything is imbued with an edgy style. Industrial windows open sideways, a dark passage between the tunnels has become a grand walkway, salvaged light fittings punctuate the brick walls and expansive arches frame the views.

Nick is drawn to the Victorian red brick era of strong designs, proper artisans and cast steel. This love is evident in other developments he has been involved with – Yard 41 in Howick and Worq in Pietermaritzburg.  He cannot understand why anyone would build a horrible building when there are so many beautiful ones in the world to emulate.  Good architecture offers an elusive ‘something’, an uplifting feeling, a special experience to those who enter a space which he doesn’t believe can be learnt in a book. “Why not create functional buildings that are visually appealing and make you feel good?”

The Central Walkway at The Old Mushroom Farm

Some of the original buildings, that still have no roofs or windows, are filled with beehives, producing delicious honey.  A Wild Garden Orchard/Food Forest is planned for the south facing slope, but will evolve slowly, as it should.  Artists are drawn to the creative spaces, dreaming of workshops, auctions, and pop-up exhibitions.  The first tenants have already brought vibrant life into The Old Mushroom Farm

Well-travelled Shannon Watkins is thrilled to be home in the Midlands and reunited with her lifelong friend Sandy Chowles. Together they have opened Home Slice Café for the community that they love, naming all the drinks and dishes in the menu after people and experiences that have crossed their paths. “The space is welcoming, unassuming, and relaxing.  People need to be out in nature, and here at the Old Mushroom Farm they are not so far out that they have to worry about driving home late,” says Shannon. In a short time, their meals made with love have become a favourite with new mums, pensioners, artists, vegans, and tourists.

Dario and Alexis Scilipoti visited the Old Mushroom Farm when the floors were rough, no doors or lighting had been installed and fell in love the moment they saw it.  “We like the idea of re-appropriating old things and wanted to move Blue Bird Roastery out of an urban environment, so this was perfect,” recalls Dario. “We enjoy the synergy between tenants all passionate about their artisanal trades.”  Their ethos is to put people and environment first – so you can expect to learn about the amazing coffee growers they have built relationships with and take home a bag full of aromatic beans in completely recyclable packaging.  Fresh, raw milk is sourced from Essenwood Micro-Dairy for their café.  Dario enthuses “This small calf-at-foot herd gives us an incredible product that we are proud to serve.”

Nick and Mandy’s daughter Phillippa has opened a contemporary goods store, Rock Paper Scissors, where her own designs and a collection of work by local designers is stylishly displayed for sale.  “I have loved unearthing local talent and some unknown craftspeople, focussing on products that come from the hands of makers – goods that are authentic.” Pip has plans to engage local seamstresses to create her clothing range, funky toys and, in keeping with the farm theme, a range of work wear inspired garments.

Below the row of shops is a food garden divided into allotments – 1mx2.4m raised beds – that are available to rent.  “Not everyone has access to a space to grow food and flowers,” says Pip, “so we offer this with the intention of creating a community passionate about plants, fresh food and knowledge sharing.”  

The original mushroom farm has evolved into a contemporary artisanal environment. Nick concludes “I have simply supplied a space that will allow people who are passionate about their own dreams to thrive.  I hope this place will reflect others’ creativity and become a place of education, an evolving platform where community, collaboration and creativity can thrive”.

Who knows what might happen next now that there is light in the tunnels?   

Shops and eateries in the old growing tunnels at The Old Mushroom Farm


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