Writing on the wall at Wainui

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Lie on the floor at mattress height in a room at Wainui Beach Hideaway and you can see poems on the walls, inscribed there in pencil by the shearers who lived in the cottage when it sat on a farm in Gisborne’s foothills. Higher up the wall are names scribbled around light switches – the earliest from the 1880s.

Gisborne artist Glen Mills found the house in 1998 when he was on the lookout for a studio. A fellow artist had had a shearer’s cottage relocated, a “divine little building”, as Glen describes it, and knew of another one which wasn’t suitable for her because the gable was too high.

He’d recently completed a diploma in business studies in sport and tourism, which included a paper on heritage tourism.

“So I thought, what could I do in Gisborne that would reflect the heritage of the community?”

He’d grown up in the town, left to go to teachers college in Auckland, lived in Rarotonga for two years, and returned home in 1989.

Glen went up the coast to have a look at two shearers’ cottages on a fifth-generation farm.

“They were in terrible condition but the bones were stunning,” he says. He bought one of them, put it on a truck and took it back to Wainui Beach, where he spent six months restoring it, and in the process, discovering its history.

With the help of a builder, he retained as much as possible of the original cottage, even keeping the original iron roof – complete with Queen Victoria’s stamp, but building another one above it so the building is now encased inside another. One floor and two sets of doors came from another cottage destroyed in Cyclone Bola.

The original walls were all tongue-in-groove rimu and the floors matai. A friend of Glen’s helped oil the floor and, rather tragically, sanded off the signatures he found on the boards. A 1928 signature written above a door in the kind of chalk used to mark sheep escaped sanding – that room is now called ‘Polly’s Room’ in her memory.

When the restoration was finished, Glen brought the previous owner down to see it, who shared more of its history with him. While it was on the farm, he said, occupied over generations by itinerants, there had never been a fight within its walls.

“He cried,” Glen recalls, “because if he’d kept it he would have burned it down.”

Glen later bought a little post-war lean-to cottage and added it to the property, which he ran as a bed and breakfast until he sold it in 2004.

It’s now owned by Clive Dean and his wife, who also run the local YHA.

“There are lots of beachfront baches at Wainui Beach,” Clive says, “but it’s probably one of the only ones where you’ll get total privacy.”

And also possibly the only one with century-old graffiti on its walls.

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