Memories linger in abandoned home

NAOMI ARNOLD AND ALDEN WILLIAMS
Last updated 12:00 26/07/2014

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Naomi Arnold and Alden Williams visit an old home at Spring Grove.


This old house is a lot smaller than he remembers. Although Donald Newport lives less than 10km down the road from his boyhood home in Takaka's Uruwhenua, he hasn't been inside it since the 1960s, when he left the area.

Even when he returned in 1981, he didn't go back inside. Now he's nearly 70, and must have driven past the old house thousands of times. But he never stopped.

The house is behind both barbed wire and electric fence. A giant dead tree now crowds it, stretching towards its northern face like a claw as a stream of cars pours off Takaka Hill and down the valley towards the sea.

The veranda boards are loose, collapsing like a mouthful of broken teeth; on the roof, swelling timber has popped out the nails, lifted the iron. An old five-bar gate has been attached to the front, and one of those 1970s blue checked tablecloths is scrunched up underfoot in the doorway.

On a clear winter's day recently, beneath a cold blue sky striped with contrails, Donald Newport stepped over the veranda for the first time in 50 years and saw his old house laid bare, stripped to its bones.

Newport is a kind man of few words, who sees no need to fill silence with useless talk. The walls of his old front bedroom have been ripped out; the long smooth hallway that he, his two sisters and his brother used to skid down in their stockinged feet has lost its walls too.

"It's not as nice as it used to be," he says. "It's not as I remember it. Goodness."

He moves over the piles of timbers stacked on the floor and steps down onto the hall floor. Right here on the wall was the telephone, he says, and he holds up his hands to make a box shape on the bare framing as delight creeps into his voice.

"One of those big old square ones. You know the ones? And our phone number was 190-S, which was three short rings. It was there. Right there." He looks up to where the telephone wires dangle from the beams. "Goodness."

Some things are the same. The scraps of wallpaper in the hallway are from when he was a kid, and in one of the bedrooms, a cupboard door swings open. His father, Lyell Newport, and his aunt, Thelma, who married Keith Holyoake's brother, have written their names on the inside of it in pencil, and the finely turned cupboard shelves are still smooth and rounded.

But the room's boards are crumbling and scrim hangs from the ceiling in strips. You can see the double layer of planks, just the ribs of the place with the meat rotted away. There's an old newspaper in the front room, with pages from New Zealand Farmer. There's country verse from Pam Green, M L Hadfield, and Christene Evans:

Watch this space

open to the elements

presently become a very private place.

First, like the ghost of the building

to be, the skeleton frame

will rise.

Then the bare wooden bones of it,

fleshed out with lath and plaster,

glass and timber,

will grow walls and floors . . .

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Over the page, "Dear Margot" offers advice about effective neck-crease removal to Green Fingers of Dunedin, and opines on the best makeup for a smart new chartreuse green trouser suit and matching turban, for Flattened of Amberley. Two other questions are also about smart new trouser suits.

He rubs his hand over the white pine and totara planks lining the walls, and points out the faint half-moons left by his grandfather Joshua Newport's pit-saw more than 140 years ago, when he and his wife Ellen Polglase moved to Golden Bay from Brook St and spent two years clearing the land and building this house. He remembers the old saw-pit itself out the back of the property. The kids used to think it was a well.

Into the sitting room, with its open fire. It's gutted now, and at the mercy of the elements. But the six of them used to crowd around it at night, fighting for warmth as the cold seeped down the valley. "It wasn't a warm house. That's for sure."

But it was flash for its time, in 1945. It was built as a two-storey, but his father Lyell Newport took off the top storey the year Donald was born and added a corrugated iron roof.

He raised children and dairy cows, a reasonable herd of 60 until it got to be uneconomical. In 1962, the family left the house and moved across the road to their grandfather Jim's property. His old house got picked up and shifted. It's still in Golden Bay, though Newport doesn't know where it went.

When the Newports left, an elderly couple from further up the valley, the Wilkinsons, rented the house, but they were the last ones there. Donald left in 1968 for North Canterbury and a career working in city council infrastructure, and lost track of the place in which he was raised.

When he came back to Takaka, it was vacant, and he never gave it another thought. It had changed hands a couple of times, and then Arthur and Pam Balck bought it, who own it to this day.

Barry Crump did put out a Humble Abodes calendar featuring the house in 1989, but it was tumbledown even then. There was a possum living in the chimney then, Newport recalls. It was called Sunnyside. The house, not the possum.

Over in Richmond, Newport's sister Wendy Rundle has pictures of the old place in a tidy black album. The last time she was inside was also in the 60s, when her parents sold the farm.

She recalls the wind blowing so cold and hard that the wallpaper flapped; collecting wood to have bonfires on Guy Fawkes' and remembers "Mr Bill and Mr Arthur", two injured, gassed survivors of World War 1, who used to live in one of the cottages on the property and potter around the farm, digging up thistles and lighting wee fires.

Rundle's garage wall boasts a picture her daughter painted of the house - she can see it when she drives in. "So when I drive home, I drive home. I love it," she says. "But I don't know if it's the house I loved, or the people who lived in it."

She remembers a happy place, happy parents, an idyllic childhood. "I think Mum and Dad were like Winnie the Pooh - they just enjoyed the day." She remembers her father coming home every day and giving her mum a kiss on the neck.

She remembers how much time they spent sitting in the sun on the doorstep, nursing a cuppa. "People don't sit on doorsteps anymore, do they?"

Donald Newport cannot quite say why he hasn't gone back. He's watched it break down over the years - the sun, water, wind, and weeds are quick to take over.

He's avoided it out of respect to Arthur and Pam Balck, maybe, who use the place as farmers do for calves, hay, timber storage, firewood. The Balcks live just up the road, around a few curves in the hillside.

When we stop in, Mrs Balck says people park outside the old house several times a day, and they're always wandering in, nosing around. She jokes that she's thought about putting curtains in it to keep people away, make it look lived-in. "But it's a bit late for that now, isn't it?"

Newport has picked his way through the loose bark covering the floor of the green kitchen, and marvelled at the room's tiny size, pointing out where a fine set of deer antlers once hung above the coal range.

He's wondered who "LM" was, who seems to have taken the liberty of writing their initials inside a cupboard in 1939. More graffiti in here; a massive spraypainted tag from someone's road trip.

He's poked into the large bottom-hinged tilting bins from which his mother would scoop flour, and he has inspected the pantry. He's stood in the bathroom and seen that the bath taps are still there, and in fairly good nick, all things considered.

The bathroom floorboards are gone, a creeper twines the doorstep and frame. A sheet of hardboard hides a cache of broken Royal Albert cups and rusted tobacco tins. He takes some of the cups to save for his sister. "Some of these could have been here since the old fulla built it," he says. He spots an old sickle, a kero tin. "A sickle. Good God. Amazing."

Now we're standing outside, stepping over clumps of buttercups and fern, and looking west to the hills where the family's water supply came from, our backs to the looming Pikikiruna Ranges. The house's foundations have splintered; chickens have got in underneath.

The paling fence his grandfather built is gone; so has the stone pathway, the orchards, the acacia, the camellia, the bay, the gardens his parents and grandparents tended. The mulberry tree was blown over in a storm one day, while they were in church. All is covered now in thick, rich pasture.

But the arches of the place are still graceful, and fantails flit on the totara trees. He talks about going hunting with the neighbours' boys. "Pigs. Heaps of them in those days."

He thumps a weatherboard with a closed fist. "It's buggered now, isn't it. I see it quite often but it's deteriorated a lot more than I imagined just driving past it.

"It's not something you can restore, and you can understand Arthur and Pam can't do much with it as it is now. I'm amazed they've left it here as long as they have. But I've still got really good memories of it. It was a good place to grow up. When you think back about it, it was not a bad upbringing really."

On the way back to the car, he points out the classic mortise and tenon joints in the front door framing, and explains how the ancient technique works.

He steps onto the veranda and poses, agreeably, for a couple of pictures. He turns his back on the place and we walk back across the wet paddock, dodging cowpats. The paddocks here are dotted with manuka and blunted totara.

He talks about his brother, who died two months ago of cancer. He lived in Australia for 42 years and came home three times and was quite keen to go and have a look at the old place. "He won't now, obviously."

Newport is well-acquainted with loss. His wife became ill with kidney failure in 2000, and he gave up work to nurse her.

"It was a choice we had to make. But a good one," he says. "You should never put off till tomorrow what you can do today. Because you never know, do you?"

He reckons there's probably some good timber left in that house, and hopes that when the time comes, the Balcks will pull it down rather than burn it.

"I'll maybe ask to come by when they do."

- The Nelson Mail

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