High country cob cottage

Almost a century ago, a cob cottage in Waihopai Valley was used as shearers’ quarters

When Jenny and Roland Mapp bought a 2000-hectare high country sheep station in the Waihopai Valley the property included a derelict cob cottage.

Cob houses – built of clay, sand, straw, mud and sometimes cow dung - were popular in Marlborough in the 19th century but there are few left today and most of those remaining have succumbed to the ravages of rain and wandering animals. (Cob houses are similar to mudbrick, but are built in layers, a foot at a time; when one layer is dry, the next is built on top of it.)

In 2006, the Mapps began restoring the cottage at Spray Point, using traditional methods of cob construction to patch holes in the walls. Two years later, Cob Quarters, as they called it, was restored to its former glory, its new owners taking care to preserve details like the pencil drawings and scribbling on the cottage walls (you can see examples on the couple’s website).

The cottage was probably built in the early 1900s. It was later used by farmer Huxley Shrimpton as shearers’ quarters, and called ‘The Whare’. Huxley lived in the weatherboard homestead with his wife Lizzie, 500 metres away, near the site where the Mapps’ house stands today.

In 1924 the couple adopted a daughter. Audrey Shrimpton was born in Christchurch and came to Waihopai Valley when she was 11 months old.

Growing up on the merino station, Audrey studied through the correspondence school with the help of her mother Lizzie.

“She found it a bit much because we had no electricity and she had to cook for the shearers. And she always had bad health,” Audrey says.

So at seven years of age Audrey went as a boarder to a small country school at Leefield, followed by intermediate school in Blenheim and then Christchurch Girls’ High, returning home only during the school holidays while at high school.

It was the farm and the animals, she says, that she really missed.

“I was homesick,” Audrey recalls, “not so much for my parents but for the mountains, the river, the animals. The first thing I used to do when I got home was go into the woolshed and smell the sheep smell.”

Outside, she had to wear shoes, and a hat at all times for the sake of her complexion, but otherwise, her life on the farm was a world away from those of city children today.

She helped her father get rid of rabbits, laying trails of strychnine and raspberry jam. She rode around the farm on her own horse and played alone down by the river, far out of hearing of the house and near quicksand.

“I had an in-built sense of danger; I think kids in the country get that. It made me independent and self reliant,” Audrey says.

Lizzie died in 1951 and Huxley in 1968. The Mapps bought the farm in 2004 and their children also study through the correspondence school, help with the animals, ride their pony and go rabbit shooting with their father.

When Audrey visited Spray Point recently, it was with her daughter and son-in-law.

“We went for a two-night stay. It was wonderful to go back to see what they’ve done, especially as they were so good about taking us up to the tops in a 4WD,” she says.

The landscape has not changed much, according to Audrey. “The river looked the same, the mountains looked the same.”

There are still lots of wild pigs and goats, but the Mapps’ style of farming is very different from the farm Audrey grew up on. What was a sheep station has been diversified, with 1300 hectares currently being sought placement under QEII covenant. This will make it the largest covenanted private conservation area in the top of the South Island.

“The place has over 1000 hectares of mature beech forest in the middle of it,” Jenny Mapp says, “and there’s more that wants to regenerate, so we’ll let it.”

The Mapps have kept 1000 hectares for merino and cattle, but in reduced numbers.

“It’s not good sheep country,” Audrey says. “It never was. My father never made any money out of it.”

When she lived there, people used to go up to the farm to shoot animals for meat, an activity that’s encouraged now in the interests of pest control.

Visitors to the farm can also hunt and fish, take 4WD tours, go mountain biking, hiking, horse trekking and bird watching (native falcon nest there).

And, of course, relive the early days of the farm, staying in the cob cottage that housed the shearers during Audrey’s childhood.

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Home in Waihopai Valley

While at boarding school Audrey met her husband, Fred, and they married in 1943. Six months later he went to the war. “By then I was expecting our first child. He didn’t see her till she was two and a bit.”

They hadn’t had time to get a house of their own so Audrey returned to the farm, giving birth to their daughter Elizabeth in the maternity home in Blenheim, and bringing her up at Spray Point till her husband returned.

When Fred was due back from the war, they moved to Hokitika to wait with his parents. He finally arrived home in January 1946.

“After the war we borrowed money from his father to buy a dilapidated miner’s cottage three miles from Hokitika,” Audrey says. “Later we went to Nelson, then after we retired we went to Tekapo where my daughter runs a business, then to Fairlie. After my husband died I came back to Christchurch, so I’ve come full circle.”

Audrey in pram by river Baby Audrey, soon after her arrival at Waihopai Valley

Audrey by river as child Audrey on the banks of the Waihopai River…

Audrey return visit ...and on a recent visit to Spray Point