WE DID IT

Young couple delight in a new kind of freedom

In the middle of a pandemic, Stephen Coutts and partner Samantha Robertson discovered the blessings of a little country church

STORY: JANET BOND     PHOTOGRAPHY: VISIT VICTORIA & SUPPLIED

You can discover Cape Bridgewater almost by chance.  Along the windy coastal road, an hour on from popular Port Fairy and just 20 minutes from the major town of Portland, a windswept bay that was once a volcanic island comes into view.

The seclusion and lack of infrastructure – there’s just one shop – has kept it under the radar, despite it being on the tourist trail of the Great Ocean Road which is studded with famous towns.

Stephen Coutts, 28, and partner Samantha Robertson, 25, own St Peters; a 1883 stone church that is now fitted out to accommodate travellers.

They are so happy with the coastal property they bought last year that their words tumble over each other: “It’s beautiful”; “It’s incredible”; “It’s a whole new world,” they enthuse.

But perhaps the most telling words come when Stephen describes how it makes him feel:

“It’s the one place in the world where I’ve been able to switch off fully. From work, from everything else. You can actually be at peace here.”

The talented couple met five years ago when they were performing in the opera La Cenerentola (Cinderella). Today, they teach singing at a number of Melbourne’s private schools and are studying for their Masters in Education. Sadly, the brutal impact of Covid-19 has evaporated their live performances in operas, musicals and as the Amore Duets team.

St Peters, their little “home-away-from-home”, has been a blessing in the way they have managed the disruption and instability caused by the pandemic. When Victoria’s State Four Lockdown closed schools in early July, Samantha and Stephen left their Melbourne apartment and retreated to Cape Bridgewater.

The seclusion reset their daily routine. They no longer listened to, or watched the news, and once they shut their laptops down at the end of a day’s remote teaching, coastal walks and the sound of the ocean lulled them into a state of well-being.

“I struggle to do nothing. But this is a place you can do one hundred things for free.”

even Samantha, who describes herself as a city girl and go-getter, has been surprised by how much she’s enjoyed the slower pace.

“I struggle to do nothing. But this is a place you can do one hundred things for free!” she exclaims and continues to rattle them off.

“You have the beach, you have coastal hikes, you have the sand dunes, you can surf down the sand dunes, you’ve got the seals, you’ve got little caves, the petrified forest – there’s a lot to do, for a place with nothing to do, if that makes sense,” she laughs.

The natural beauty of Cape Bridgewater has obviously won their hearts – and its lure is central to how the couple came to buy the historic church.

“My parents were staying in Port Fairy and one day they just kept on driving down the coast, past Portland,” Samantha starts off.

“Mum saw a sign `Seals’ so they continued all the way down and ended up spending the whole day there. They fell in love with Cape Bridgwater – the beach, its lovely little little kiosk right on the beach that even sells good dog treats and vegan food … They were besotted.

“The next things you know we had a Christmas present from them to stay a few nights at a little place in Cape Bridgewater. My parents said, ‘You’ll just love it’ And I’m thinking, ‘Four to five hours drive away, oh no.’ But when we went? Wow, we were obsessed.”

Six-months on, Samantha’s mum Anne-Maree called her with the news that the little church at Bridgwater Bay was for sale.

“Mum said, ’What a shame you’ve just bought your apartment, you would love this little church’ and I said, ‘I know the one mum!’ We drove past it and I looked it up because I was so taken by it. I remember saying to Stephen, ‘Oh my goodness can you believe that was for sale just a year ago. Imagine owning that church!”

“ I’m thinking, ‘Four to five hours drive away, oh no.’ But when we went? Wow, we were obsessed.”

Luckily, Samantha’s enthusiasm for the property was matched by Stephen’s and her parents, who offered to go halves in the purchase and share in the exciting venture.  A few weeks later they bought the property for $435,000.

Setting up St Peter’s as an income earner, was a necessity for the young couple who through frugality and saving hard, had just purchased a one-bedroom apartment in south-east Melbourne. The couple set up a website stpetersaccommodation.com and listed it on a range of booking sites. They had guests within a month.

The property was renovated by its original owner, a local farmer, some year ago. He had taken great care to maintain the character of the historic building. The result is stunning. Original pews, the lecturn, arch windows, soaring ceilings and oak fretwork all remain. As does a mezzanine, where the sound of an organ once rang out each Sunday. Today it is an extension of a beautiful bedroom.

“So we sleep where the music was,” says Samantha “It’s a little Phantom-Of-The-Opera-esque room.”

The couple say the decision to invest in the country was as much about securing a get-away from their busy lives as performers, students and teachers. They shy away from suggestions they are building a property portfolio.

“To get where we are now in our twenties, is humbling,” says Stephen. “You have to work hard to get where you want to be and you can’t take anything for granted, particularly during these difficult times.” 

“We’re just so fortunate to have my parents,” adds Samantha. “I do think that’s the difference. Teamwork makes the dream work.”

Top tip: So, why not consider going rural?  We’d say pick a really lovely town that you can see yourself in. You want it to have charm and really love it.  If you truly love it, so will other people.

 Anyone interested in staying at St Peters can book online at stpetersaccommodation.com

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