Meeting the owners at Te Parae Homestead

Country Roads and Cross Hills Gardens Fair – a Kiwi Guide’s perspective

Join our Kiwi Guide Graeme’s review of our Country Roads and Cross Hills Gardens Fair.

This tour provides a great getaway from the city and a venture into country life in the lower North Island. We visit wonderful gardens, each with their distinctive character showing off the flare of their creators, and surprising country homesteads proudly retained by generations of the same family. And, as something special, we visit the annual Cross Hills Gardens Country Fair – people arrive from all over New Zealand to wander the stalls and the spectacular rhododendron Gardens.

Day 1: Auckland – Hamilton Gardens – Taupo

Our first stop en route to our destination at Taupo is a relaxing stroll through the astonishing Hamilton Gardens. There is no other public garden quite like it with its various theme gardens such as the Italian Renaissance Garden, the Japanese Garden, the Maori Garden and now the very new and impressive Ancient Egyptian Garden.

Having stretched our legs we take a short drive over to Moondance Manor Garden at Tamahere, just south of Hamilton. The large, formally designed, garden consists of a set of descending lawn terraces, immaculately kept flower beds, shrubs and hedges leading down to the Waikato River. Overlooking the garden is an elegant Edwardian-style Manor house where we sit down to enjoy a delicious lunch prepared by the owners Jeanette and Stephen. To the surprise of my travellers, a glass of bubbly is offered to complement the meal. Not a bad way to start the tour.

When we sit down for dinner at the lakeside Millennium Hotel in Taupo we have the pleasure of looking out across New Zealand’s largest lake towards the volcanic peaks of The Tongariro National Park. Black swans, ducks and dabchicks paddle past and dive for food adding to our entertainment. Each time I dine here I’ve been lucky to see blazing sunsets from our table highlighting the view.

Day 2: Taupo – Tikokino – Eketahuna – Masterton

A fully cooked breakfast sets us up for the next stage of our tour – east over the Kaweka Ranges and through Hawkes Bay to the heart of the Wairarapa. Before we leave Taupo, a guide joins our coach  to drive through the Waipahihi Botanical Gardens and tell us the story of this jewel in Taupo’s crown. The gardens overlook the lake and are a harmonious blend of native bush, rhododendrons, azaleas and many more flowering species, all carefully tended by local volunteers. 

We skirt Napier and head inland to the Gwavas Homestead at Tikokino for lunch. The historic homestead was built in 1890, replacing two earlier ones, and is set in 20 acres of woodland garden. Five generations of the Carlyon family have lived here with present owners Phyllida and Stuart hosting lunch followed by a guided tour of the house and garden (begun in the 1880s by Arthur Spry Gwavas Carlyon).

An outstanding feature of the house is the staircase and enclosing walls all made of totara milled from the bush that grew nearby. The beautifully finished totara looks as fresh and gleaming as the day it was installed. Many everyday objects from earlier times have been preserved such as the 1907 hand-worked vacuum cleaner and all the accounts and ledger books.

After a delicious lunch, roast accompanied by wine for the travellers, we continue through the towns of Norsewood, Dannevirke, Woodville and Pahiatua. These southern Hawke’s Bay and Wairarapa towns were initially developed by sawmillers engaged by the government to clear what was called the Seventy Mile Bush stretching as far south as Masterton. The plan was to encourage farming as the land was progressively cleared. Scandanavian immigrants were among those who arrived as some of the town names suggest. 

By the time we reach Masterton, we are well within the great, green valley of the Wairarapa (“glistening waters”), an agricultural district famous for its sheep farming but also for dairy and cattle rearing. The Golden Shears International Shearing and Wool handling Championships, drawing competitors from all over the world, are held here each year.

Day 3: Masterton – Brancepeth & Te Parae Homesteads, Wainuioru

A local guide greets us at the Wool Shed Museum. It was opened in 2005 in two old wool sheds trucked up to the site from Wairarapa farms and joined together. Since then voluntary staff at the museum has been expanding and developing its quality displays of everything you could want to know about wool and sheep farming, and shearing in the district. We also see a couple of sheep being sheared by a retired top gun shearer. It’s a great venue too for community group members to meet, including The Wairarapa Spinner and Weavers who give demonstrations each week. 

Our next stop is the remarkable Brancepeth Homestead some 22 km from Masterton. This large house has a great expanse of lawn studded with huge, exotic trees including the tallest eucalyptus I’ve ever seen. 

The homestead has an exceptional history since its beginnings in 1856. Four brothers of the Beecham family, originally from England, took up a large lease of land to graze sheep. By 1900, it was one of the largest sheep farms in New Zealand due to the diligence and acumen of the brothers. At its height the large homestead, constructed mainly from rimu, was accompanied by outbuildings including a woolshed, coach house and stables, a Station school and library for the workers, offices and store rooms catering for up to 300 staff. All these buildings still stand including the original whare the brothers built in 1856. These buildings house a vast array of objects associated with everyday needs and working equipment from those times. Nothing it seems was thrown away. 

Our host is the current owner of the property, Edward Beetham a great great grandson of one of the brothers. After tea and freshly baked scones al fresco, and before we go on a tour of the buildings and garden, Edward describes the history of Brancepeth Station including how it got its name. One day, the story goes, a boar rushed past the door of the brothers’ whare and they realised they had built it on a well-used pigs’ track. So they called the farm Brancepeth – “Boar’s Path” from the Old English. 

By the time we say goodbye to Edward, we feel we are leaving an extraordinary time capsule, having experienced a piece of early history that most of us have read about but didn’t know could be so well-preserved in such a spectacular location.

From Brancepeth we take a short drive down the road to another great homestead, Te Parae that has been lived in by four generations of the Williams family since 1905. The present occupier is Angela Williams who has taken over the reins of maintaining the property from her parents Tom and Gaye. Angela has returned to the family home after living in the social whirl of Auckland for years but now feels the time is right for her generation to take on the responsibilities that running an historic homestead requires. 

While finishing an excellent lunch in their dining room that overlooks a large pond and sweep of lawn, Tom joins us to tell entertaining stories and anecdotes relating to the history of the property and his ancestors. Some of his stories, which frequently lead down sidetracks, have us in stitches. He is a master raconteur sitting on his stool with a glass of wine in his hand that he has hardly time to sip. 

After a tour of the adjoining park-like garden, featuring 100-year-old oaks, weeping elms, wellingtonia, taxodium and liquid amber we take our leave of Te Parae and return to Masterton driving past the lush pastures which help feed our celebrated lamb, dairy cows and cattle.

Day 4: Masterton – Braemore Farm – Greenhaugh Gardens – Feilding

Our first stop  is Eketahuna to visit Braemore Farm Garden. We enjoy morning tea provided by our hosts Sue and John before we stroll through the large farm garden alive with the glowing blooms of rhododendrons and azaleas. Many other flower species such as Himalayan lilies, magnolia, hydrangeas and hostas have been planted around a feature pond located within an extensively planted gully.

As we go over the divide from Woodville, at a low point between the Ruahine Range to the north and the Tararua Range to the south, we drive through the impressive Te Apiti Wind Farm. Here on the ridge line, 55 huge wind turbines turn in the wind which blows unhindered from the southwest across Cook Strait. 

I can’t wait for our next garden visit – it’s one of my favourites – Greenhaugh Gardens, Whakaronga, owned, designed and maintained by Lynn Atkins and a 20-minute drive from Feilding, halfway between Ashurst and the northern outskirts of Palmerston North. 

Greenhaugh Gardens surround a colonial homestead built in 1874. Lynn’s own words best describe the garden. “Mature trees give the two-hectare property its bones, while ponds and naturalised plantings add whimsy. On one side of the garden, box-hedges rein in the Austin and old roses which, with perennials and self-seeding annuals, are the backdrop of a central French fountain. A pergola, clad with wisteria, rambling roses and clematis leads through a tapestry of bearded iris and from there the visitor is naturally led from one vista to another.”

Everywhere you go you will find irises – the garden holds the heritage collection of Ron Busch’s Irwell irises – a legacy continued.  We lunch in The Giraffe House set within the gardens which, together with sculptures from Zimbabwe, are a nod to Africa which has provided Lynn with treasured memories. 

To complete the day’s visits we drive over to the Dugald MacKenzie Rose Garden in Palmerston North where the beds are laid out to a formal design plan. It is flowering season and we encounter blazing colours with some varieties adding their intoxicating fragrances. In the northern section, the National Rose Trial Gardens have been established where roses are judged over two years on their habit and growth, health, freedom of flower, flower quality and fragrance. Those that achieve 70 points are released commercially and awarded a Certificate of Merit. In the south end of the garden, the Plant Variety Rights Trial Beds test roses submitted by commercial growers. If rights are granted, royalties can apply for each bush sold.

We head down the Kimbolton Road into Feilding where we check into the comfortable motel for two nights under the management of our friendly hostess Eleanor.

Day 5: Feilding saleyards – Lansdale – The Villa Candotti – Feilding

This morning a local farmer guides us through the historic sale yards in Feilding as the auctions begin. Then we head over to stunning Lansdale Gardens at Kairanga. Lansdale was a swamp before development began in the early 1900s, once the land was drained and the stunning property has stayed in the family ever since. At present the house and grounds are tended by the current owners Robin Tanner and her daughter Kathryn who host us to a great lunch in the hall behind the house. 

Enclosed by large 100 year old trees, the garden owes its unique character to the well-known landscape designer of the era, Alfred Buxton. Expansive lawns are coursed by sinuous ornamental ponds crossed by small, arched stone bridges covered in climbing ficus. Pockets of irises fit snugly beside the bridges and as you make your way up toward the house your attention is drawn to an arched wisteria-covered pergola containing statuary. This pergola opens into a grotto, an idiosyncratic construction with a path that loops back to lead you to where you started. 

In the afternoon we visit The Villa Candotti, a testimony to the vision, hard work and ambition of its owners, Peter and Jeanette Cranstoun. The garden is named after Peter’s mother who was of Italian descent. 

The outstanding feature is the commitment to a formal, Italian Renaissance design which includes a hedged parterre extending from the house entrance, a loggia, a statuary-lined walkway, an orchard and orangery. A standout among the many carefully selected flower species is the Pierre de Ronstad climbing rose which was in full bloom. The overall experience as you walk through the garden is a blend of wonder derived from the success of the hosts’ vision and a sense of quiet joy as the symmetries of design, garden elements and careful planting combine. 

Large helpings of tasty food at a Feilding restaurant end the day and we look forward to a good sleep before the next day’s adventure begins.

Day 6: Feilding – Cross Hills Gardens Country Fair – Tongariro Lodge

Today is the day of the fair! The annual Cross Hills Gardens Country Fair to be exact held near Kimbolton just north of Feilding.

We call into the Heritage Park and are greeted by two volunteer stalwarts. The Park is a charitable trust and relies on volunteers from all around the central and lower North Island. It is dedicated to presenting over 2000 rhododendron species and hybrids plus a large collection of azaleas. Complementing the rhododendrons are attractively landscaped lawns with specimen trees, shrubs, ponds and companion plantings. The collection of rhododendrons, which has the status of national importance plays, an important conservation role for future generations given that many rhododendrons are endangered in the wild due to deforestation, population growth and climate change.

The Cross Hills Gardens Country Fair is held each year to raise funds for charity and has become very popular due to its location and its stalls offering all manner of food and wares. 

MoaTours visit Cross Hills each year, on other tours too, and it always impresses on account of its size and the scale of planting of flowering species, notably rhododendrons and azaleas. Well-maintained paths meander through the 7 hectare garden park through groups of large specimen trees, both native and exotic, with the flowering species sheltering beneath them. On a fine day you can see Mt Ruapehu to the north. The property was bought by Eric Wilson in 1938 and developed into a high-producing sheep and cattle farm. Later, after extensive landscaping and planting it was found that rhodos flourished here with the right soil and climate conditions. As a result, a dedicated drive to promote the plants was made and a nursery established to sell them to the public.

The gardens are now looked after by the second and third generations of the Wilson family and it looks like the fourth generation will be there too to keep the place in trim. 

A maze to commemorate the year 2000 was planted using camellia hedging consisting of 30 different varieties and over 1000 plants. Rodney Wilson told me he’s had visitors ringing on their cell phones asking for help to get back out of the maze!

Travelling along the scenic route following the ridge of hills past Kimbolton and eventually over the new Rangitikei River bridge. I hear sighs of amazement as the huge grey papa cliffs loom into view above the river. Robin White’s iconic painting of these cliffs hangs in the Te Papa Museum in Wellington. 

We stop briefly at Taihape for refreshment, then across the Rangipo Desert, one of my favourite places. It is unique with its arid landscape mantled with volcanic ash and laharic debris derived from the three volcanos of the Tongariro National Park and the volcanos further north at Taupo. The harsh environment, with snow and cold in winter and drying winds in summer, allows only hardy plants to survive in the poor soil, such as our native bristle tussock and silver raoulia and the introduced heather. 

We arrive at Tūrangi in the late afternoon, cross the world famous, trout fishing Tongariro River and follow it down to Tongariro Lodge above the northern banks. The Lodge sits in park-like grounds with chalets arranged around the reception building and restaurant. My group finds it a very pleasant, relaxing place to spend our last night and enjoy a great dinner before heading off to our individual chalets among the trees.

Day 7: Turangi – Parkwood Garden – Crosshills Farm – TreeChurch – Auckland

After a hearty cooked breakfast, we start our last day’s journey by heading around the southern shores of Lake Taupo. We pass the impressive Tokaanu Dam which, together with two other power stations, comprise the Tongariro Power Scheme completed in the 1960s. An ambitious scheme and a controversial one at the time but now it seems is accepted as a valuable asset to our renewable energy resources programme.

We drive on through quite a large stand of regenerating bush, a southern extension of the now Pureora Forest Park, that had been cutover for the prized rimu timber tree in the 1950s and 60s. 

Passing through the towns of Taumarunui and Te Kuiti our next stop is at the Parkwood Garden near Otorohanga. In this rural, hilltop garden Ailsa and Carey Sanson have planted around sweeping lawns, an amazing range of species ranging from rhododendrons, azaleas, camellias and roses accompanied by ground cover plants including hostas, lamium and pulmonarias. In an enclosed formal garden there are climbing roses, clematis, delphiniums, aquilegias, and lilies bordered by a lavender hedge. 

It is nearly time for lunch so we drive through the township of Otorohanga and find our way up a quiet country road to Crosshills Garden at Kiokio. The homestead is a surprise the first time you visit. It is set in green, Waikato pastures but suggests a French country house with grey stone walls, dormer windows, and exposed timber beams and framing. Our hosts, Debbie and Fraser Robertson,  put on a delicious home-cooked lunch. The group relax with a glass of wine and take a stroll in the English-style garden with hedging and alcoves designed by Fraser’s mother Elizabeth.

Before we return to Auckland, we drive to Ohaupo where, down a quiet country road, we visit the TreeChurch. This extraordinary creation was built by Barry Cox in 2011 who, inspired by church architecture, has created a living, breathing chapel set in 3 hectares of distinctive gardens. Trees used in the construction of the Church are cut leaf alder for the roof canopy and for the walls, native purple akeake, camelia, acer and thuja. The chapel provides a quiet place for contemplation as to admire the unique character of its construction.

The gardens include a labyrinth, European and English inspired collections, a Monet-style pond, perennial flower gardens and a selection of mature trees including maples, oaks, alders, ginkgos, beech, poplars and taxodium.

In mid-2020, Chris and Bev Gatenby bought the TreeChurch and are carrying on Barry’s legacy of this unusual and beautiful place. 

But the clock is ticking and it’s time to return my travellers to Auckland. From parting comments, it seems the group greatly enjoyed their garden visits of the Wairarapa and Manawatu, some say they will be booking another tour with MoaTours soon. Now there’s a vote of confidence for you.

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