The family and the heritage country house that were meant to find one another


Westoe, a Victorian-era country house built near Marton in 1874, was supposedly inspired by Queen Victoria’s Osborne House, her home on the Isle of Wight. The two-storey wooden building with an Italianate tower was home to Sir William Fox (a prominent political figure in colonial New Zealand and four times New Zealand premier), his wife Sarah and their adopted son.

An important historic home with 4.5 hectares of woodland grounds comes into the hands of new owners. Heavenly inspiration directs the rest.

Words: Kate Coughlan  Photos: Alanah Brown

It is hard to pinpoint where the story of this family and this house begins. But there’s one memory that Wellington-born Clive Raharuhi and his California-born wife Johanna can recall with minute-by-minute clarity.

They were sitting, with two of their three Los Angeles- and Gold Coast-raised children, Maxson (20) and Paige (15), on folding chairs in a rundown kitchen of an old wooden house in rural Marton on a cold September evening in 2020 wondering, “Whatever have we done?”

California native Johanna Raharuhi, seen here with her husband Clive, daughter Paige and dogs King Louis XIV (held by Johanna) and Lexie, says being separated from her eldest offspring and family is the most challenging part of moving to New Zealand. “My three children are often in three different countries, and as a mother, your heart is torn unless all your children are under your roof. However, I raised them to be productive community members. So when it comes time for them to leave home, you can’t fall in a heap on the floor. You have to show grace and let it happen.”

Three weeks before, their life in the charming eastern Los Angeles college city of Claremont had come to a close as their possessions were packed into a container to be shipped south. The four then boarded an almost empty Boeing 787 with 11 other Covid-brave passengers to fly halfway around the world before spending a fortnight in shared hotel rooms MIQ 2020-style. Upon release, they collected their two dogs, Louis and Lexie, from pet quarantine and drove six hours south to take possession of a house Clive and Johanna had twice seen briefly and their kids never laid eyes on.

“I think we were in shock,” says Johanna of that night on the folding chairs in the kitchen. “Not that we’d done the wrong thing so much as shock at the momentous change in our lives. It was very different from what we’d left in Los Angeles.”

How did their search for a lockup-and-leave two-bedroom unit near Clive’s family in Feilding end with them owning one of the country’s most significant historic homes? Fortunately, there is someone in Clive and Johanna’s life to whom they can — and regularly do — address their big questions. More on that in a moment.

Six months before that night in the kitchen, Clive’s father had died, and the couple had travelled from their home in Los Angeles to Feilding for the tangi. For years, they had looked for property on visits home where they could be near Clive’s close-knit family. But they hadn’t intended to look during this unsettling period.

Newly emerged Covid-19 was spreading across the planet at what was soon to be officially labelled “pandemic” speed. With its dire consequences becoming apparent, the world began shutting down. Their LA-based children reported that supermarkets were scarce on food and toilet paper. Suitcases were hastily packed with necessities for their return home to LA.

However, on the day before departure, a friend and local real estate agent, unaware they were in the country, rang to say she had something she’d like to show them next time they were in Aotearoa. They made the time.

Westoe is part of a gathering of historic houses in the Rangitikei,”’ says Gordon Collier, one of Aotearoa’s best-known gardeners (see NZ Life & Leisure, November/December 2022). “But it also has a special and extensive woodland garden, cared for and loved by several generations of the Howard family [previous owners] for over 100 years. Many magnificent trees and shrubs are underplanted with a wealth of herbaceous rarities. Westoe is a delight, a garden paradise.”

As they turned into a heavily wooded driveway off the main road between Marton and Feilding, a sense of awe overtook them in different ways.

Clive recalls saying to himself: “Lord, I can’t even afford the entrance to this driveway, and I’m scared of what’s going to be at the end of it. Then a majestic, beautiful home comes into view, and all I can think is, ‘holy moly’. ‘Lord,’ I say, ‘if you have plans for us to own this, you’d better explain them to me.’”

Johanna remembers thinking as they drove in: “This is the most beautiful place I’ve ever been in. I felt that then, and I still do today.”

Clive: “The real estate agent said, ‘Oh my goodness, this house is choosing you.’ This is before we knew whether we wanted it, or could even afford to make an offer, or whether Covid would change everything. The moment she said that to me, I felt it, too — that the house was choosing us.”

When Clive isn’t busy in his media business or on the old farm tractor pottering about the grounds, he is reconnecting with his Ngāti Kauwhata roots. “I talk about being and feeling Māori, but once you are urbanised, it is hard to stay connected. Growing up, I was the ‘white’ Māori, with my cousins calling me ‘the Pākehā’. Now I am interested in the language as it is a national taonga.”

Clive’s recollection makes Johanna, quite seasoned in real estate purchases and sales, laugh: “That’s a sales pitch, you know.”

But Clive isn’t buying that. “Because we are Christians, I say to God, ‘If you want to make the impossible possible, then make it happen. I am not going to say no. If this is where you want us to live, and you want us to return to New Zealand, okay.’ And as I am saying that to God, the real estate agent says that the house is choosing us, and there it was — an affirmation. Time to tell myself, ‘Okay, stop not believing and start believing and if it is meant to be, it will happen.”’

Johanna and Clive are kept busy managing Westoe. Johanna particularly loves the animals (sheep, chickens and pigs) and thinks she was born to be a country woman.

Johanna agrees with this: “There is another layer to that. When I came down the driveway, I thought, ‘Lord, how will you use this home for your purpose? What is it?’ Then I got the feeling that it would be used for reconciliation, for healing and for bringing people together. Those were the words that came into my mind: God giving me that message and the message that we are not the owners of this house, even though we are on the title, we are merely custodians, and this is a temporary time, one small chapter in the incredible history of this house.”

The woodland garden is home to many native birds like kererū.

Maybe the story of Westoe and its current owners begins two decades earlier, in 1999, in one of Auckland’s top luxury hotels, when a United Airlines flight attendant on an Auckland overnight layover becomes very ill with shellfish poisoning. The hotel’s international sales and marketing manager (whose No.1 account is United Airlines) personally sees to her recovery needs. Despite the food poisoning, something blossoms between the pair. He has been a flight attendant himself; in fact, for a time in his career, he’d been a leader in the flight attendants’ union.

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He’s seen a bit of the world as he worked his way up life’s ladder (from the freezing works in Feilding to owning a chain of restaurants), slid down (when the restaurants failed) and then worked his way back from the bottom up (as a hotel waiter before becoming the hotel’s international sales and marketing manager). She, too, has seen a bit of the world and much of life as a flight attendant. But neither had seen another as fine as the other.

Johanna found the ornamental bird house when clearing some overgrown shrubs.

They married in 2000, settled in Auckland, had two sons (Maxson and Sebastian), and in 2003, moved to the Gold Coast to establish a business providing shore excursions to the cruise ship industry. Together, they’d already begun exploring their shared belief in another being bigger and better than themselves, and that was the Christian ministry, initially with the Boys Brigade in Queensland with Clive as a youth leader.

In their decade in Queensland, the couple had a third child, daughter Paige, and developed their passion for real estate with a property investment portfolio before being called into full-time ministry in 2013 and moving to Johanna’s home state of Southern California.

While William Morris wallpapers and fabrics return the interior feel of the house to an era approximating its construction, Clive and Johanna are keen to avoid creating a living museum.

Clive’s work as a life and business coach continues today. He works with young people on summer camps to set life goals and develop character. This runs alongside his multi-media company, producing content for international distribution.

But back to making that enormous step from a settled life in Los Angeles surrounded by family and friends to a house in New Zealand surrounded by a garden about which Johanna, a total gardening novice, had little idea how to manage.

Johanna: “I was completely done with living in California … crime, traffic, politics. It was very different to the place I’d grown up in. I had begun looking to live elsewhere and I look at real estate all the time anyway.
“We have always done that, and we’ve owned a lot of commercial property over the years.”

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When Johanna and Clive left New Zealand after the tangi, Covid was in the air and worldwide lockdown was only days away, but their heads were full of Westoe — the magnificent property they’d twice briefly visited. But deciding to buy it was much easier than concluding a remote property purchase in a pandemic during which the banks were shut. Persistence, equity in their New Zealand-based commercial real estate portfolio and the sellers wanting a quick sale (not to overlook the possibility of divine intervention) saw their hopeful offer accepted and them boarding that near-empty aircraft for a new life in New Zealand. Since the first night in the kitchen, life has blossomed into a happy pattern of rural living.

“I think I was born to be a country woman,” Johanna says of her steep learning curve supported by a community of gardeners, including one of the country’s most knowledgeable gardeners, Gordon Collier. Her dream of Westoe being a place of healing has already had one iteration. She learned the story of Ngātau Omahuru, of Ngāruahine, known as “the Fox boy”.

Ngātau was abducted (or rescued, depending on the storyteller) by colonial forces during the Taranaki Wars and three years later, aged six, adopted by childless William and Sarah Fox. Johanna sought the relatives of his Taranaki iwi, the Carr family, and invited them to Westoe.

“I was unaware of protocol but realised that inviting Ngāti Kauwhata onto Ngāti Apa land was potentially a problem, so I invited everyone. I think this is what the Lord told me to do here. The families were apprehensive about setting foot on this land as they saw it as a place of trauma.”

It profoundly affected her to witness the grief about the little boy’s abduction still carried by the family many generations later. She felt healing in the ceremony they shared. Similarly, Clive’s dad had died of cancer in the hospice run by the Arohanui Christian Trust, so it was his pleasure for Westoe to be part of a significant fundraising effort called Hearts and Homes that saw more than $100,000 raised for the hospice.

Paige is now happily boarding part-time at nearby Nga Tawa Diocesan School, Maxson is in his final year of a business admin degree in Los Angeles and Sebastian works long haul as cabin crew with Air New Zealand, based in Auckland.

Both boys visit Westoe for family traditions, such as the huge 32-guest Thanksgiving dinner Johanna held last year. The house is also regularly full of friends and family: a niece of Johanna’s from Los Angeles is also stepping closely in her aunt’s footsteps. She came to visit, loved the place, decided to stay on for a year, got a job as a boarding manager at Nga Tawa, fell in love with a local boy and is now engaged and on her way to becoming a permanent resident.

An east-facing verandah off the kitchen is mostly used for breakfast and lunch and was decorated last year to mark a family Thanksgiving celebration.

Clive, still life-coaching and creating media content for multiple Christian channels, has also found time to pen a semi-autobiographical novel that he hopes will be made into a film. It loosely captures his story and his falling in love with Johanna with enough drama to potentially attract interest.

The only inhabitants of Westoe who haven’t, perhaps, adapted to their new home are their two LA rescue dogs. King Louis XIV, probably a chihuahua papillon and, according to Clive, a spoiled handbag dog always wanting to be the centre of attention, and his naughty mate Lexie (breed unknown). They are not to be trusted off-leash. Lexie joyously heads into the paddocks to trial her sheep-herding skills, followed by an enthusiastic Louis, ready to be entertained by the mêlée. Neither the neighbouring farmer nor animal control were impressed.

Paige, now in her final year at Nga Tawa School in nearby Marton, sits on the main staircase. King Louis XIV is enjoying lap time as befits a dog of his regal status.

Ah, well, it seems that you can take the dogs out of LA, but maybe not the LA out of the dogs.

WESTOE BOUND 

While it is not quite so grand as Queen Victoria’s Osborne House, by New Zealand standards and especially rural ones, Westoe is very elegant. Sir William Fox named it Westoe after his birth town in the English county of Durham.

The large two-storey wooden house with its impressive tower is set among significant wooded grounds and gardens. William Fox sold Westoe and its farm to James Howard in 1888, and most unusually, it remained in the same family for more than 133 years. Subsequently, three generations of Howard descendants lived at Westoe and farmed the land until 2018. During the final years, the Howard family generously gifted a portion of their farm to a trust training young farmers. Interim owners carried out substantial maintenance on the property in line with the Historic Places Trust requirements, including reroofing and exterior paintwork, before selling the home farm of 13 hectares, house and the four hectares of grounds to the Raharuhi family.

The hospitable Johanna and her team of tradespeople set about creating a family hub kitchen — somewhere the entire clan could comfortably gather with their often-present guests. The modern Rayburn cooker is about as “period” as she’s prepared to go. Not long after she arrived at Westoe, she invited neighbours for dinner, and when they politely asked what they could bring, she replied: “Perhaps a chair, as we have nothing for you to sit on.” It’s a bit different to be a guest at Westoe today.

The elegant Italianate tower was never finished and remains unlined. Its unsarked frames are dusty home to odd bits and pieces from the century and a half past. But it is the spectacular view over the Rangitikei River plains to the east, Mt Ruapehu to the north and Mt Taranaki to the west that Fox was, no doubt, aiming to enjoy.

NZ Life and Leisure This article first appeared in NZ Life & Leisure Magazine.
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