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This essay was Highly Commended in the Open Category of the 2016 Warren Trust Awards for Architectural Writing.

By Ellen Anderson

I don’t know why it took me so long to visit her. I had been living in the UK for over a year, and visiting her had always been on my must-do list. Time had slipped by, but she waited. It seems she is rather good at waiting.

As I arrived in the car park of a grand old estate, I felt a sense of relief. I had finally made it here to see her. The estate is the National Trust property of Clandon Park, near Guildford in Surrey, and the grand old lady waiting patiently in the garden is Hinemihi.

Clandon House is the ancestral home of the Onslow family. It was the fourth Earl of Onslow who, during his time as Governor of New Zealand from 1889 to 1892, amassed an extensive collection of taonga M¯aori, which he took back with him and displayed at Clandon House. One of these taonga was the meeting house Hinemihi, carved by the famous Ng¯ati Tar¯awhai carver Wero and his apprentice Tene Waitere. Hinemihi famously protected 60 people, including Tene Waitere himself, during the eruption of Mount Tarawera in 1886.

Hinemihi is an ancestral house, biding her time at someone else’s ancestral home. I approached the woman at the information desk and rather awkwardly announced, “I have come from New Zealand to see Hinemihi.” The woman was very accommodating, and her only question of me was to ask if I knew Jim Schuster from New Zealand. I told her I didn’t, but I had heard of him. Little did I know that I would return to New Zealand and go on to work with him for over a decade. (Jim is Heritage New Zealand’s M¯aori Built Heritage Advisor.)

One of the guides showed me to the rear of the property, and after passing through a series of immaculately clipped hedges, a grassy expanse extended towards Hinemihi, like an English marae ātea (open area). It turns out that even when a wharenui has been removed from its traditional context, the protocols of a first encounter still are necessary. A quiet karanga whispers out with each exhalation as I approach, calling to Hinemihi, acknowledging the many who have come before, acknowledging her people and my people who have passed on. All my previous feelings of excitement leave me, and I feel sad. I am sad for her, and lonely for her, but at the same time she is impressive, and beautiful, and she is still standing.

The guide leaves me to spend time alone in Hinemihi, and my attention eventually turns to looking at the building itself. The setting is certainly picturesque, with a large oak tree beside the whare, but the tree is far too close in all practicality; moss and dampness will likely be a problem. And what if a branch were to fall on her?

She is cloaked in a thick English-style thatched roof, which makes me think of 19th century photographs of Māori women in Victorian-style dress, cloaked in foreign garb, but with beauty, mana and grandeur emanating from them. The thatch also reminds me of photos taken of Hinemihi following the eruption of Tarawera, where the roof is piled with volcanic ash to roughly the same height as the thatch is stacked here.

Inside, she has a dirt floor, and her poupou are closer together than you would expect, making her seem far too small to shelter so many at Tarawera. Historical photos show that originally she had woven tukutuku panels between these beautifully carved wall posts, but the tukutuku are no longer here, and perhaps never were, as she was shipped in pieces as a consignment of carvings back in 1892 when Lord Onslow negotiated the purchase. Hinemihi was dismantled and removed from one of New Zealand’s earliest ‘red zones’ when the township of Te Wairoa at Tarawera was abandoned and many of the Māori families relocated to the thermal village of Whakarewarewa in Rotorua.

It’s not all that common for a carved meeting house to be named after a female ancestor, but there are three named after Hinemihi. All three also have a connection to the carver Tene Waitere. When Hinemihi was being carved at the beginning of the 1880s, it was one of the first houses that Waitere worked on with the renowned master carver Wero. Hinemihi was the last house that Wero completed before his death, and the second Hinemihi was the last carved house to be completed by Waitere before his death. He completed it in 1928 for his granddaughter Rangitiaria Dennan, the famous Guide Rangi of Whakarewarewa. The third Hinemihi was not opened until the 1960s, but the carvings that adorn the front were also carved by Waitere, originally for the house of Maggie Papakura. The carvings on this most recent Hinemihi have travelled all the way to the UK, too, accompanying Papakura’s concert party for the ‘Festival of Empire’ in 1910. It took more than 50 years for these carvings to return home, but they did return.

There are records that show this was not the first location or even layout of Hinemihi at Clandon House. She originally stood by a small lake, and it is said she was used as a boat shed. During the First World War Clandon House was used as an Auxiliary Military Hospital, providing 100 beds and an operating theatre for injured soldiers. A number of Māori soldiers spent time at Clandon House, and upon discovering a finely carved meeting house in the grounds, set about rebuilding her correctly and fixing errors in the layout.

Hinemihi provided the soldiers with a connection to home, and a purpose during their recuperation on the other side of the world.

It was apparent that, even now, Hinemihi still had people caring for her well-being. There was a new door lintel, carved in the same Ngāti Tarāwhai style of the rest of the house. This was done in the 1990s by descendants of the original carvers. The Ngāti Ranana London Māori Club has a close association with Hinemihi also, and return to her on a regular basis for their activities, but there are many who have advocated for a return to her homeland. As I left Clandon Park that day, the loneliness I felt on behalf of Hinemihi betrayed my opinion on this matter, formed by feeling rather than critical analysis.

A return home for Hinemihi seems unlikely when she is emphatically owned by the British National Trust, so efforts have been made by her descendants to care for her as they can. A significant restoration project began in the early 2000s with the National Trust recognising the important part that Hinemihi’s descendants played in her current life in England, and looked to work with them in developing a new approach to conserving the house. A working group, led by Jim Schuster, was formed to liaise with the National Trust. A project was developed, and even new tukutuku panels were woven for her and taken to England to be part of the redevelopment.

A new life in England was taking shape for Hinemihi, but on 29 April 2015, fire devastated Clandon House. British newspapers reported the loss of heritage treasures including a football taken into battle on the first day of the Somme Offensive, a desk from the Palace of Versailles, tapestries and portraits. New Zealand news outlets noted the loss of mounted huia and kākāpō, a kiwi feather cloak, and a greenstone patu (weapon). All of the tukutuku panels made for Hinemihi were being stored in the mansion, and were lost also. Clandon House was cordoned off – yet another red zone for Hinemihi – and visitors were prohibited, for safety reasons and to prevent fossickers. All of the plans for Hinemihi’s restoration have been put on hold, while the future of Clandon Park is decided by its owners.

Back in New Zealand, Te Wairoa is no longer a red zone, but a fully developed tourist destination again. The site where Hinemihi originally stood is still bare, still owned by her people, and still available to her should she return. Jim Schuster succinctly described the situation when he commented to me, “Hinemihi may belong to the National Trust, but we belong to Hinemihi”.

This grand old lady has survived volcanic eruptions, two world wars, and devastating fires. She has endured being pulled apart, packed up, put back together (at times poorly), treated as a folly, as a garden shed and as a curio beside a Palladian mansion. That mansion is now gone; she is nobody’s folly. Perhaps it is time for her visit to England to come to an end.

Read this essay and nine others in 10 Stories: Writing About Architecture / 2 available for $15 + postage in the NZIA shop