Escape to Pahiko

By Sarah Catherall
Photography by Sanne Van Ginkel

Featured in Capital #68
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When holiday driving north with her young children, Sarah Caughley often looked wistfully down the driveway to Pahiko, the homestead, on a rambling Otaki property.

Sarah, a Wellington landscape designer, has several ties to the 1880s house on 10 acres in rural Te Horo, which she now owns with her lawyer husband, Richard.

She first saw the house about three decades ago, when Richard, then her fiancé, took her to meet his mother who was visiting one of the former owners of Pahiko. “I thought this is a neat place,” Sarah recalls. “Then I’d be driving north every summer with my kids to see my family and I would always look out for it.”

She had another connection, too. Her English grandfather Somerset Playne was a fellow of the Royal Geographic Society, and he travelled around New Zealand and published a book about the country in 1912.

He wrote about Pahiko at some length in the book, describing it as an established estate of 1,500 acres. “Fun fact is that they had award winning pigs they bred which originally came from Highclere Castle in England – the castle in Downton Abbey,” Sarah says.

Over the decades, the house and property evolved. Blocks of land were sold to Chinese market gardeners, and one of the owners added a top storey to the homestead in the 1960s. When the house came up for sale seven years ago, Sarah was desperate to buy it. “I needed a new focus. I thought, ‘that is a place I would love.’ It was perfect timing.”

Now Sarah and Richard’s second home, the rambling, expansive property which runs all the way down to the Otaki River is their weekend retreat from Wellington.

Sarah worked with an arborist for three weeks to remove gums and pine trees. “Everything was throttling everything else.” She planted Psyche roses and “let them go mad. I want them to grow up into the trees.”

 They turned paddocks into lawns and a rambling garden. While Sarah has spent her career designing gardens professionally, she wanted a natural, organic garden in Te Horo. “Richard would have loved a plan but I don’t want any plan. I’d love to turn it into a wild nature reserve.”

On the south side, she has created a wilderness paddock bursting with fruit trees. Her lemon and lime trees are usually laden with fruit. Richard has made award-winning apricot jam from the apricot tree. “I’m only inspired by organic and wild. As a society, we are too tidy. Everything is too perfect.”

Farming and Otaki is in Sarah and Richard’s blood. Richard’s family farmed one of the first dairy farms in the Otaki area, and his grandfather drowned in the rivermouth.

Sarah grew up on a farm at Lake Okareka, near Rotorua. “My father who was English gave me a love of trees and bush. I wanted to farm our farm growing up, but I wasn’t allowed because my brother was meant to take over. Then he didn’t want to be a farmer and I still wasn’t allowed to.”

Comfortable in a paddock in a pair of gumboots, she regularly returns to the family farm to help with annual tasks like docking. At Pahiko, the 10 acres are home to 30 sheep. Richard tends the sheep and enjoys pottering around the property. They sold a quarter share in a boat to buy a ride-on mower.

While the section was the main drawcard, they also loved the house and its history, and the well-worn farm buildings. However, the five-bedroom house needed work. Sarah loves the living room with the open fireplace where they burn logs from the property, and the billiard room.

Many of the walls were painted different hues, and one of the first things she did was to arm her daughter, Rachel, and friends with paintbrushes. They painted over the maroon walls in the living room and the purple walls in the billiard room with white. Ditto the yellow walls in the hallway and deep red walls in the master bedroom.

Richard frequented auctions for secondhand furniture which is now in use throughout the house, giving it a relaxed, eclectic feel. Some of the furniture Sarah inherited from her grandmother, Lucy (Somerset’s wife), along with a solid wood carving of a cobra.

As soon as they walk into the house, Sarah and Richard feel comfortable and relaxed. Their three twenty-something children often stay too. “We love the contrast between our country life and our city life. When I’m back in Wellington, I love the culture and the restaurants.”

Inside the living room, Richard built a large bookshelf. Cane chairs are spread along the wraparound verandah. The kitchen is a classic farm kitchen, and here they took out the stable door, replacing it with a standard door. The dining room has built in cabinetry. They converted the disused stable into a distillery, as their son George was interested in making gin, but that has changed and it will, in time, have another incarnation.

The homestead is just 80 metres from the Otaki River, where they explore in kayaks and catch whitebait. “Every summer we look for our own waterhole. It’s so hot and beautiful in the river.”

They would like to be self-sufficient at Pahiko. They eat hogget from their farm, grow vegetables and have two beehives. “Sometimes I’ll pick up the whole frame off the hive and eat the honey, which is so delicious. Here, I want to create a haven for the birds and the bees.”

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