Pioneers take new direction

On a whim, David Hay and Michael Speers bought a property in the Clare Valley 34 years ago with an idea to transform it into luxury, hosted accommodation.

Fast forward to 2019 and the charismatic, kind-hearted duo has welcomed around 10,000 guests into their home – everyone from Prime Ministers to famous actors – and with a bucket-load of awards, have cemented themselves as one of the region’s pioneering tourism operators.

However, Thorn Park – in its second reincarnation as Thorn Park by the Vines on Quarry Road, Clare – is now on the market for sale as the couple looks to slow down a little, make more time for friends and ‘stop and smell the roses’.

Whether the property sells as a tourism venture or for a luxury home, David and Michael said their future is still somewhat fluid as they await its sale.

With two other tourist accommodation properties in SA – Thorn Park on the Island, Kangaroo Island, and Thorn Park in the City, Adelaide – the dynamic duo will still be involved in tourism albeit at a slower pace.

David – a former interior designer whose reputation for cooking has formed an integral role in the tourism attraction of Thorn Park for more than three decades – said he may consider giving in to the pleas of guests and friends and write a cook book.

And Michael, well-known as Thorn Park’s front-of-house – welcoming visitors like friends, which unsurprisingly many have become – is keen to make time for his other passion, the arts.

An accomplished baritone and actor – heavily involved over the years with Balaklava Community Arts, known for his roles as Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof, and Higgins in My Fair Lady – Michael is once again making time for singing lessons and pursuing the arts.

“We’re not making any definite decisions until the property sells,” David said.

“We were thinking of going full time to Kangaroo Island but we have so many friends in the Clare Valley, we may look to find a little cottage here and split our time between the two.

“We’d like to see a bit more of Australia – we’ve already travelled extensively overseas – and we’d just like to be available for lunch or dinner when friends ask us.

“It is a bit hard to think about leaving Thorn Park, we have put our heart and soul into it, it’s been 35 years of my life, most of my working life, and at this stage the future is all a little bit unknown.”

David and Michael’s step into the Clare Valley was equally unknown back in 1985, despite David having already fallen in love with the area, enjoying weekends in the old rectory building in Auburn since he purchased it in 1981.

After a weekend there with friends, the pair decided on the spur of the moment to look for a property that was “innately Australian in the setting, the house and the property” that may suit a hosted bed and breakfast venture.

It was to be somewhat of a homecoming for Michael also, who discovered later his great-great-grandfather, Andrew Speers, was one of the original settlers in the region, and one of four trustees of St Barnabas Church in Clare.

“It was exciting for me, I used to come up and stay with my parent’s friends at Armagh, and then later discovered my great-great-grandfather was an original settler so I was returning to my paternal roots,” Michael said.

The couple’s whim coincided with the historic Thorn Park property at Sevenhill coming on the market.

Thorn Park had been owned by local, Doug Slugget’s grandfather and bought by his family in 1901, aptly named after the hawthorn hedge around the homestead.

The original homestead was in a state of disrepair when David and Michael stepped in and saved it from almost certain demolition, and so was born Clare Valley’s luxury Thorn Park Country House tourism venture.

“We saw it and I fell in love with it immediately, and Michael sort of fell in love with it with a bit of encouragement,” David laughed.

“It should have been condemned.

“We naively thought it would take a year to renovate it, but it was two years before we could open. It was then followed by renovation and opening of the coach house, followed by the barn. In 1995 when we did a major rebuild of that as a function centre, and went on to host hundreds of weddings.”

After 23 years, in 2007, David and Michael decided to put the property up for sale and start a new era for Thorn Park.

They sold the original property to the neighbouring Jesuits – who had originally owned the land in the 1850s – and it is now utilised by the Catholic community and Jesuits as La Storta religious retreat.

“We leased the property back for a year and continued to live there. We had no intention of doing it all again but we found this piece of land on nearby Quarry Road that was suitable for a smaller undertaking, half the size with no function centre. Thorn Park by the Vines was born,” David said.

“When we built this house the plan was to make it a contemporary version of the old house, with high pitched ceilings, environmentally friendly, energy efficient.
“We didn’t want a reproduction house, but one that paid tribute to the old house. We wanted something totally different but the same, and it has been amazing how many guests walk in and say it is
just that.”

Thorn Park by the Vines, a luxury four-bedroom, five-bathroom home set among a bush setting with vine views, is being offered for sale through Barry Plant Real Estate.  (See Producer ad on October 16).