It’s the oddities that Ann McCaw loves. The cupboards lined with flattened kerosene tins. The door lock installed upside down. The mismatched window catches and the kitchen beams fashioned from shipwreck timber. Kaikoura’s Fyffe House, pale pink in a green field beside a grey sea, has soul, reckons Ann, who manages the Category 1 property for the NZHPT. “Visitors often say it feels like the family has just stepped out and you’ve stepped in.”
Built in three stages over 16 years, the house is imbued with the spirit of the three families which lived in it during its 170- odd years, but it also tells the larger story of European settlement in Kaikoura from the first precarious foothold established by early whalers to the development of a bustling little port town beside the sea.
It’s a yarn written quite literally in the fabric of the building. Robert Fyfe (yes, that’s right, with one f), who established the first shore-based whaling station at Kaikoura, reportedly built the earliest part of the house as a two-roomed cottage for his cooper. Constructed some time in the early 1840s, it rests on whalebone piles and was put together in kitset fashion using timber imported from Australia.
Why not use local timber?
Ann points out that this part of the Kaikoura Peninsula had been settled by the first Maori in the area some 900 years earlier. By the time Robert and co arrived there were 14 pa sites and the peninsula had been stripped bare. The prospect of felling trees in the forest across the bay then towing them back using whaling boats didn’t appeal as much as putting in an order to Australia.
By Matt Philp
Read more in Heritage New Zealand, Winter 2012.
Photos: Andrew Spencer