Brides' house revisited

Last updated 12:00 02/08/2014

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In the third and final part of a series, Naomi Arnold and Alden Williams visit the former Knapp place in Spring Grove.


This old house has probably hosted more wedding photo shoots than any other in the district.

The former Knapp place is smack-bang in a paddock on the old state highway that runs through Spring Grove. Every time someone wants to use it for a wedding photo shoot, its owners Brenda and Tony Bashford, who live in the two-storey place behind, willingly take the calls and answer the door and open the gate - but for all that, they're somewhat reluctant custodians. They replaced the veranda boards, but they store hay in the house's two front rooms and have added sheep yards out the back.

"It's a bit awkward to say, but we sort of own it but don't have a lot of interest in it," Brenda Bashford says. "Everyone else cares about the place but us."

The house, however, has inveigled its way into their lives, and really, that of the district. "So many people stop and photograph it, come and paint it," Brenda says. Someone did come in one day and ask if they could have the front door. "We said no, and thought ‘Well, it might go tonight anyway'," Tony says. "But it didn't."

The Bashfords have a painting of it hanging in their lounge. Their 12 grandchildren recently gifted Brenda a photograph of the entire brood, a dozen smiling faces stacked in front of the house's pinkish wooden weatherboards.

And there are those wedding shoots. The Bashfords ought to be on the same nuptial supply list as the glass-hire companies and the dressmakers. In full wedding regalia, bridal parties drive regularly through the paddocks and up to the house, dodging cowpats. Some want their vintage cars in the shoot, so they'll drive those to the front of it and perch on them. The couples can't believe the Bashfords don't charge anything.

Mostly it's one a month, but they've had two in a day sometimes, and during one particular summer they had three shoots one after the other, which had to be carefully scheduled. "That was a bit awkward," Brenda says. One couple got the times mucked up and ruined the whole progression. They had to wait while the last couple took their turn and left. "They would have been hours late for their reception."

Isn't it a pain, to have people ring and knock on their front door all the time? No, not really, Brenda says. "But we don't pretty it up either. It's how it is. The only thing we do, if we know early enough, is we keep the stock out of the paddock that the house is in for maybe two or three weeks so it's cleanish, and then give the veranda a sweep down. That's it."

Aside from an incident with a smoking hitchhiker looking for somewhere to doss, only one event has put them off the whole business a bit. It happened on a wet day, and a couple were having a garden wedding. Brenda recalls they turned up at the last minute and asked if they could have their photos on the Knapp house's verandah instead of in their sopping garden venue. That was fine, but they didn't behave themselves particularly well.

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"When they came out they had some hot rods or something -"

"Mustangs and Pontiacs," Tony interjects.

"One of them got out in the paddock and did great big-"

"Doughnuts in the grass," Tony says.

"On purpose!" Brenda says. "This trail of mud and grass and stuff was just flying out the back."

"We had great big circles in the paddock," Tony says.

"We were really quite brassed off about that."

But the house is not just special for lovebirds looking for a winsome location. Every year, usually in the Christmas holidays, a few carloads of eager Knapps turn up to visit the house their ancestors James and Ellen Knapp built. They'll stop off at the house and then tour the cemeteries, tracing their blood back to this place. One Knapp flew over from Wellington and proposed to his girlfriend there, and over the years family members have claimed old bits and pieces from the house.

Brenda insists they don't really know very much about the place - but she has an old diary and she records the Knapp visits, addresses, names, and small facts. She even has their family tree.

"They'll say ‘I'm going to do the family tree," she says. "I say ‘Well don't bother. It's been done for you. Here it is'."

The Knapps borrow it, use it, and send it back every time with a grateful note.

"It must have been a big family, the amount that turn up here," Tony says.

Indeed, it was. James and Ellen Knapp sailed to Nelson in 1842 and arrived, as other settlers did, to find that the New Zealand Company's promises of land and a prosperous new life were not quite as glowing as imagined. One unhappy fellow immigrant wrote that Nelson was nothing but "a huddle of mud huts, tents and mean-looking cottages - some wooden, some raupo, and toetoe - straggling along badly formed roads in a swampy plain dominated by gloomy hills".

Nevertheless, the Knapps lived in Nelson for about a decade, produced four children, and then moved to Spring Grove. James became the first hop-grower in the area, as well as one of its first musicians and cricketers. They had another five children, who attended Spring Grove School, the girls learning under Mrs Rutherford - Sir Ernest's mum. They all grew up in this house, living and growing and running and laughing between the same timbers on which modern brides now drape themselves.

When James and Ellen died, in 1905 and 1909, they left behind four sons, four daughters, 44 grandchildren, and 20 great-grandchildren. They'd done their bit to populate the region. The house became the home of the Spring Grove policeman, Charles Knapp, who was one of those to investigate the Tophouse double murder suicide of 1894. Then it was left to his son, Herbert Charles Knapp, who left it to his nephew, Reginald Knapp. Tony remembers Reg Knapp from when he was a boy. He remembers trees too - a large orchard, with the paddock where his sheep now graze once full of fruit.

Reginald Knapp's son, Don Knapp, of Blenheim, remembers the trees too. He remembers his first sight of the house at age three or four, when his great-uncle Bert lived there. Don's father offered the place to him and his new wife in the late 60s, but the newlyweds weren't keen on moving onto the property, so Reginald sold it to Brenda Bashford's father, Algie McPherson, instead. Brenda and Tony moved down to Nelson the year GST came in - 1986 - and took it over.

"I'm under instructions that if it ever comes on the market we have to look at owning it again," Don Knapp says. "We'd love to have it back in the family, that's for sure."

He and his daughter have spent years working on the family tree, and he has vivid memories of his great-uncle Bert shooting at rats inside. Large macrocarpa trees lined the property and "were fairly full of wildlife".

"The place was reasonably rat infested and he would lay there with one or two candles on and listen to the rats running across the ceiling and shoot them," Don says. "Hence the holes we knew as young nieces and nephews. We were fascinated by them; we'd go and see them every time." Was he a good shot, apart from the holes? "He cut a few out of there. As I understand he wasn't a bad sort of shot at all."

He's proud of the place, proud it's still standing. "As kids we used to have a wonderful time there."

Brenda says the house is important to a lot of people - her old diary contains notes and letters from Knapps all over the country. "We appreciate you leaving the house as it is," relative Trish wrote.

"That's why we do it," Brenda says. "But we don't especially do anything to it much. We just leave it as it is."

And that's why it's still there, nearly 50 years after they took it over. Because they own a legend that grows more precious with each passing generation.

Because countless photography groups and students have used it as a subject. Because it's a landmark for so many family members who find a hint of their past there, a blood mark left on the land.

"Because everyone's interested in it," Brenda says with a laugh. "Everyone except us."

- The Nelson Mail

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