In a four-day blitz, Dianne Anderson and Bruce Raabe worked their way through a list of 22 character homes for sale in Taranaki, before finding the perfect historic property on the outskirts of Eltham.
The couple were relocating from Australia where they’d been farming. “I have lived in a few places around New Zealand. I was ready to up sticks and go and experience somewhere else,” says Dianne. “We looked at every character house on the market… as soon as we walked up the driveway we knew it was what we were looking for.”
Syme House has a special place in Taranaki’s history. It was the childhood home of Sir Ronald Syme, who was born in 1903 and went to school in Taranaki before studying at Oxford and going on to an illustrious career as a historian studying ancient civilisations. When he died in 1989, he was described as “probably the most eminent classicist of this century”.
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Dianne and Bruce relish their role as current guardians of the property and have spent the last five years restoring it. “If we can improve it, the next people will put their own touches on it,” says Bruce. They’ve also converted a derelict local shop into a yoga studio and have met others committed to looking after Eltham’s historic buildings – one couple has converted the old bank into a shop, home and studio [featured in NZ House & Garden, August 2019], and other locals are revitalising the former post office.
Bruce, who’s a builder, has done most of the work on Syme House. The original poky kitchen is gone – converted into a bedroom, and its pantry into a study. Now there’s a new modern kitchen as part of an open-plan living area, with French doors leading to a verandah.
The wooden arch between the kitchen-dining area and formal lounge came all the way from Australia. Bought for a home they owned in Brisbane, it was never installed, so it came across the Tasman with the couple to its new home.
The formal lounge is now the master bedroom, a grand room with an ornate fireplace and generous proportions. In contrast, a small bedroom next door once housed a maid (according to early plans), who had a wardrobe so shallow it’s better described as an alcove. “When you look at her cupboard, she must have had two dresses… that was about it,” says Bruce.
Upstairs bedrooms were once dark and heavy, swathed in floral and striped wallpaper. They’ve been lightened up with pastel tones, feature walls and white panelled ceilings.
Both Dianne and Bruce enjoy gardening, which is just as well, because this property is a long-term project. An arborist was called in to tidy mature trees that include rimu, kauri, walnut, oak and copper beech. A branch of one copper beech stretched right across the roof, while an old oak leaned out across the road. Limbing up some of the trees opened up majestic views of Mt Taranaki.
“We haven’t rushed to take anything out, because once it’s out, it’s done, you can’t replace these old trees,” says Dianne, who also loves the view from the back to the property to stock grazing in paddocks.
Mass-planted rengarenga lilies provide a blanket of green underneath towering trees and the whole area blooms in spring with hundreds of daffodils. A history of the home notes that Sir Ronald’s father, David, grew prize daffodils. “It’s what we love… there’s always something coming into flower. You get all the daffodils and then other lilies come up amongst them,” says Bruce.
Plymouth Rock chickens, a black and white breed, nestle in a handsome board-and-batten chook house or wander the property among the hundreds of plants Dianne introduced.
She estimates she’s planted about 200 hostas, as well as rhododendrons, salvias, azaleas, Chinese lanterns, dahlias, magnolias, hydrangeas (including ‘Limelight’) and purple-flowering tibouchina. Dianne has counted 27 camellias, planted by previous owners, and they’ve added fruit trees including an apricot, peach, feijoas, plums and citrus.
The couple saved a greenhouse that a neighbour’s son was about to throw into a rubbish skip and now use it for growing tomatoes, herbs, cucumbers and other summer veges.
The front garden is an established mix of trees and shrubs, such as camellias, rhododendrons and hydrangeas, as well as self-seeded perennials including foxgloves and anemones. Shady spots are perfect for mass-planted clivias, which Dianne sourced online from a local gardener. Acquaintances have given them dahlia bulbs, which Bruce randomly plants, and birds flock to the self-seeding strawberry trees. “I love having them because of the tūī. It’s just so nice,” says Dianne. “As you can see it’s a wild garden.”
Rambling and parklike it may be, but it’s certainly cared for, and it’s obvious Syme House is in the hands of appreciative owners. “The thing is, that’s the way we have always looked at it… we are only ever stewards of anything really, aren’t we?” says Bruce.
Q&A with Dianne Anderson & Bruce Raabe
Best seat in the house is: Relaxing in the sun on the verandah. (Bruce)
Favourite kitchen appliance: Slow cooker for winter lamb shanks. (Dianne)
We love this part of New Zealand because: The soil has remarkable free draining soil and is extremely fertile. (Bruce)
A well-kept secret about this area: The Wilkies Pools mountain walk accessed from the Dawson Falls Visitor Centre. (Dianne)
Favourite local restaurant: The Upside Down Eatery, Hāwera. (Dianne)
Best place for coffee: Fenton Street Art Collective, Stratford. (Dianne)
Favourite local shop: The Bank, Bridge St, Eltham – a fascinating, eclectic mix of antiques and new products. (Bruce)
Best time to visit the region: The beginning of November for the Taranaki Garden Festival (Dianne)
Best place to stay in the area: The Post Office, Bridge St, Eltham. It’s a bold, romantic and luxurious B&B. (Dianne)
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