Why people are ditching Wellington for Wairarapa

by Mike White / 19 June, 2018

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Commuters arrive in Featherston on a Friday night.

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With Wellington house and rental prices booming beyond the reach of many, and people seeking a less-stressed lifestyle, small Wairarapa towns are becoming increasingly popular. Mike White travels over the Remutakas* to meet the new arrivals, and the long-timers welcoming them.

They spill off the 5.30 from Wellington. Backpacks and briefcases and handbags and headphones. Across the train station platform, into cars and away to their homes nearby. Away to their homes in Featherston. Homes they’ve bought for half the price they might have paid in Wellington, an hour away. Homes on leafy streets within walking distance of cool cafes where there’s still a small-town atmosphere a little like they grew up in.

The train continues north, carriages emptying out at Greytown, Carterton and finally Masterton, the same scene repeated. Wairarapa on the alternative main-trunk line. Wairarapa, fast becoming a viable alternative to city living. Wairarapa, the last place most of these commuters imagined they’d end up in – yet now they drive home thinking how lucky they are.

Marie-Claire Andrews has created tech startups, run an event-app company, organised conferences and major events, been a business adviser and consultant, and founded Wellington’s angel-investment network. She calls herself “a driven, ambitious workaholic”, and travels regularly to Sydney, San Francisco and New York. In November, she shifted to Carterton.

For eight years, she’d been living on an 18m fishing trawler that she and her husband had renovated, berthed at a Wellington marina. They sold the boat and moved to Upper Hutt, but, having turned 40, Andrews realised she didn’t need to live in a city and wanted somewhere warmer and sunnier. They considered Tauranga, but didn’t fall for it. So they explored Wairarapa, “and Carterton is the best bang for your buck. We found 10 acres, a beautiful four-year-old house, with a lake where my husband fishes – for $700,000.”

It’s warm, spacious and near vineyards. Her husband, Lee Bennett, operates his tech company specialising in 3D printers and laser cutters from their property. Andrews also runs her many business interests from home, but has already set up a co-working space in Carterton, 3 Mile, aimed at those who work from home or don’t want to commute to Wellington every day or just want to be around like-minded entrepreneurs. There’s swish Nood furniture, a chrome coffee machine, good wifi, and a growing community of self-employed or remote workers. Just up the pavement from the Double Dollar Plus store, Chopsticks takeaway, and a Sallies op-shop, 3 Mile is part of Andrews’ quest to help change Carterton’s image, because she says the impression people get passing through the town on SH2 is a red herring.

*The NZ Geographic Board recognised the new spelling for Rimutaka last October.

Marie-Claire Andrews in her Carterton co-working space.

“It’s a long 50kph stretch of doom – crap houses at one end and a bizarre-looking pub at the other end. But the community is hidden off the high street and it’s awesome. Everyone knows each other, they’re generous with their time, and they make things happen. When I immigrated to New Zealand, I thought, ‘This is the best country I could base myself in.’ Now Carterton is the best place in the best country.”

There are great cafes. She got straight onto a GP’s list when she moved here. Masterton, 20 minutes north, has a hospital and two cinemas. Wellington is a bit over an hour away. So is Palmerston North, where she can catch flights to Auckland. She gets her big-city fix overseas. But now she lives somewhere with much more of a community focus, and a property that lets her grow endless vegetables.

“For me, the space and the sunrises and the dark skies are just lovely. I feel like I’m grounded. I’ve actually got more energy, more drive, and I’ve got more projects on, because I’m somewhere that doesn’t stress me out.”

Andrews emphasises that with so many things internet-dependent nowadays, moving somewhere for “lifestyle” doesn’t have to mean slowing down. “It’s actually about basing yourself somewhere amazing to do brilliant things from. That’s what I want to do.”

Greytown library.

Jo Parker admits she never wanted to shift from Wellington to Wairarapa. With a six-month-old son, she was “dragged kicking and screaming” to Masterton seven years ago, when her then-husband landed a great job. It took her a year to give up pining for the capital, and moping about where she’d ended up and what she’d given up. Now, she struggles to imagine living anywhere else.

Initially she did marketing and communications for several organisations, started a retail store in Greytown, then headed Wairarapa’s wine-marketing organisation. Nearly three years ago, she moved to Greytown, and now runs a life and business-coaching business, and does freelance communications work. For the first time in her life, she owns gumboots – navy blue ones with white polka dots.

It’s in keeping with Greytown’s well-heeled image, the town known for its antique shops, upmarket boutiques, decor and design stores and delis, where Wellingtonians over for the weekend amble and ogle. There are grand old trees that drip gold along pavements in autumn. It’s quaint and charming and has a plum orchard two blocks from the town centre.

Parker lives in a beautiful four-bedroom villa with her son and two cats, has an extensive network of friends and business contacts, organises meetings over coffee or wine, and limits work to school hours.

As her circumstances have changed, she’s thought about moving back to Wellington, and even got as far as applying for a couple of jobs that offered a much higher income. “But I just couldn’t make myself do it. It really is the lifestyle that’s the reason I stay, and my son having a great school, and you see people [you know] in the supermarket – I love all that side of it. Basically, as long as I can make it work here in the Wairarapa, I definitely will. And on the days I do go back to Wellington, it only takes about 15 or 20 minutes of trying to find a park and I’m pretty much over Wellington.”

SH2 over the Remutakas, between Wellington and Wairarapa. It’s an hour from Featherston to Wellington, less to the Hutt Valley.

The fact you can nearly always get a park in Wairarapa’s small towns – and there are no meters – is just another small thing that makes living here attractive. But alongside lifestyle, perhaps the main incentive for most who shift here is house prices. Greytown is an exception, with its median house value of $584,750 higher than Lower or Upper Hutt, and not wildly different from much of Wellington. But both Carterton ($378,900) and Featherston ($330,500) are a different story.

Guy Mordaunt, Property Brokers’ general manager in Wairarapa, says for $350,000 in Featherston “you’d get yourself a 1402m character home in quite good condition on a nice section”. In Greytown, that would cost $600,000. In Carterton, you could spend $320,000 and get a house that “wouldn’t be flash but wouldn’t be grotty”.

However, prices have soared recently. In the two years to April 2018, average house prices rose nearly 50% in south Wairarapa, which encompasses Greytown, Featherston and Martinborough – the second-highest increase in any New Zealand district. In Carterton, they rose 38%. The New Zealand average was 19%. Despite this, Mordaunt says the demand for Wairarapa houses will continue for the foreseeable future. “Absolutely. The more expensive Wellington is, the bigger the reason to move here.”

On the edge of Featherston, down McKerrow Place, the roof is going on one new house, a slab has been laid on another section, building supplies lie across several others, and SOLD signs are screwed to the fences of everything else. The roofer says they can hardly keep up with work, with new subdivisions also going in at Greytown and Carterton.

Mordaunt says the fact Wellington is only an hour away from Featherston by train or car, the Hutt Valley even less, means the commute to the city is about the same as many Aucklanders endure. “Our company sold 25 houses in Featherston last year – and 24 of them were to someone from Wellington.”

Greytown, where he lives, is attracting Gen-Xers, “people from small-town New Zealand who’ve been overseas or to Auckland or Wellington, building their career, and now they’ve got families and are harking back to the simple things of their youth. If you walk down the street in Greytown, everybody is 40 with two kids.”

Wairarapa offers a provincial lifestyle, without residents having to give up careers to get it. “My four neighbours all commute to Wellington for work and they all work from home one or two days a week.”

Mordaunt is another who flinched at shifting to Wairarapa. He got offered a job there, took a drive across, went out to the beach, and said, no thanks, he’d stay in Palmerston North. “And then we got sent here – and we loved it from the second we turned up. Weather is great, people are great. My wife, Lisa, really didn’t want to move here and now she adores it.”

The couple have three children, and Mordaunt says the schools are excellent, from country primaries and local schools to posh private ones. There are good medical facilities, you can have a baby locally, and ambulances can get you over to Wellington in an emergency. They’ve been welcomed into the town and imagine being there for a while. “When you’re lucky, you’re lucky.”

Elisa Romani, who last year opened a store offering home-cooked Italian food and gelato in Featherston.

Town on the rise: Featherston

Eric Manson has lived in Featherston since 1980, and before that worked at the dairy factory on the road to Martinborough. The town has changed hugely in that time, particularly in the past few years and he agrees it’s really going ahead now. “Well, it’s about time it did.”

For 20 years, he had a secondhand store in town, and lived upstairs. Now there’s a flash cheese shop in the building, along with a store selling classy gifts and collectibles. It’s a symbol of Featherston’s transformation: from a place known for drugs and evil murders, to an increasingly gentrified town favoured by Wellington workers and artists.

It’s the town you hit at the bottom of Rimutaka Hill Rd, the 14km stretch of twists and S-bends linking Wellington with Wairarapa. It used to be the shit point of the triangle formed with quaint Greytown and wine-country Martinborough.

Now it’s got an artisan bakery; an art gallery, a library with free wifi, a primary school with a roll that’s doubled in the past three years, a skatepark, an electric-car charging station, and two museums. There are four pubs – “enough to do a pub crawl now,” as one local notes – including the beautifully renovated, steampunk-themed Royal, and the more traditional Empire.

Even the dogs on Featherston’s streets tell a story of changing demographics. Where once you might have expected pit bulls and pig dogs, now you’ll see dalmatians, a pedigree Swedish vallhund, and a standard poodle with its fur sculpted into leg-warmers and a feather-duster tail.

In summer, there are monthly Friday night get-togethers in the town square, and the town hosts a book festival in May. There are five bookshops, part of Featherston branding itself a book town, and it recently featured in a book of such international destinations subtitled, “Forty-five paradises of the printed word”.

A paradise might be a phrase too far for many, but Featherston and its environs have attracted the likes of film director James Cameron, author Joy Cowley, musician Warren Maxwell, Book Council chairman and advertising maestro Peter Biggs, and Lincoln Gould, chief executive of Booksellers NZ.

However, it’s the newcomers who continue to revitalise and reimagine Featherston. Elisa Romani holidayed in New Zealand four years ago, immediately shifted from her home in Italy, and ended up working in Martinborough. Seeing an opportunity in Featherston, she convinced the owner of a derelict building to let her open a small Italian eatery last year. Sweet & Salty now offers home-cooked meals to commuters coming off the Wellington trains, Italian treats she learnt to cook from her family, and gelato. And when there’s a bright-yellow gelato shop just off Featherston’s main street, you know things are changing. “Since I opened, I met so many people that came to the shop and said, ‘We’ve just moved here,’ or ‘We’re just looking to buy here.’”

Dave Ray, who shifted to Featherston in February. “I’m really comfortable here – I love it, actually.”

Dave Ray is one of those new arrivals. Having chopped an armful of kindling for his log burner, the retired 76-year-old pads inside, eyeing a box of wine the courier has left on the back step.

Ray lived in Wellington for 30 years, worked for oil companies, and spent the past 20 years in Dunedin. When he sold his apartment there, he began looking further afield, considered Nelson but it was too pricey, and was keen on returning to Wellington, but apartments there were “either too small, too ratty, too noisy, or too expensive”. His son, who lives in Carterton, encouraged him to investigate Wairarapa, and Ray liked the feel of Featherston. In February, he paid $376,000 for a modern three-bedroom, two-bathroom home on 9182m, with a carport, and a large shed in the garden. Despite being at the town’s forested edge, he can walk downtown in 10 minutes, or to the pub in five. The train station is equally close if he wants to go to Wellington.

Featherston is unpretentious, quirky, and its residents genuine, Ray says. He has joined the local MenzShed, is looking forward to playing some social bridge, and wants to try painting, in the shed out the back.

Back on Featherston’s main drag is another blow against all those who trot out tired tropes about the town being a dump. In a store that used to be a takeaway, then a junk shop, 26-year-old Hayley Kettle has an upmarket hair salon. After 10 years in Sydney, including stints working in top salons, Kettle returned to Wellington when she had her son, Franklin. While visiting her mother in Featherston, she spied an opportunity to offer higher-end hair treatments, and opened Wig Out in October. Business is so good she now has three staff, and says many of her clients are new arrivals from Wellington.

As a teenager, she used to visit family in Featherston and drink Woodstocks in the town centre with other underagers, never thinking she’d end up living here.

“It’s the craziest thing I could ever imagine. I come to work every day and I want to be here. It’s a very creative, eclectic community. There’s lots of musicians, artists, free-thinkers, well-travelled people – a cool vibe. The longer I’ve been here, the more I want to help Featherston and change it, because I’m sick of the judgment.”

Facts on Featherston

Distance/time from:

Wellington CBD: 62km, 1hr by car, just over 1hr by train.

Wellington Airport: 71km, 1hr 10 mins by car.

Greytown: 12km, 10 mins.

Martinborough: 18km, 20 mins.

Masterton: 35km, 35 mins.

Palmerston North: 127km, 1hr 55 mins.

Population: 2577

Under 25: 28% (NZ 33%)

65+: 20% (NZ 15%)

Median home value: $330,500

Median Weekly Rent: $330

Average Annual Rates 2017/18: $2332

Schools: Two primaries, Featherston School and St Teresa’s (Catholic). Nearest secondary school is Kuranui College in Greytown, and there are six more in Masterton.

Medical services: A medical centre with GPs in Featherston and a hospital in Masterton, as well as in the Hutt Valley and Wellington.

Broadband: Featherston is scheduled to get fibre in 2021; Greytown, 2020; Martinborough, 2022; Carterton, 2019.

Climate: Tucked under the mountains, Featherston is the wettest of Wairarapa’s towns, with around 1200mm of rain a year, about a quarter more than Masterton and a third more than Martinborough – hence why some choose to live elsewhere in the province. Wairarapa weather: annual sunshine 1982 hours; average temperature 12.8°C (Jan 18.1°C, Jul 7.6°C).

Regional economy: Primary industries (agricultural, forestry and fishing), tourism, construction, proximity to Wellington. Annual economic growth for South Wairarapa was estimated at 6.7% in 2017 by Infometrics, compared to 2.8% nationally.

Environment: Water quality in rivers is generally good, especially closer to the Tararua Range. However, there are concerns with pollution from urban areas and farming in the lower reaches of the Ruamahanga River.

Recreation: Featherston is close to Tararua Forest Park, which offers excellent walking, camping and tramping. Lake Wairarapa is 10 minutes’ drive away, and Lake Ferry and the rugged coast that leads to Cape Palliser is 40 minutes. 

Resilience futureproofing: Wairarapa has no major towns on floodplains or the coast, although a number of coastal baches have been lost to erosion; the council’s road repair costs are rising.

Trains: Six trains run between Masterton and Wellington on weekdays, transporting about 1400 Wairarapa residents into the capital, then back home again. Over a third of these commuters travel from the station in Featherston, which also services Martinborough.

On weekdays, up to 150 vehicles fill the carpark at Featherston station and spill into surrounding streets. Ten years ago, 635,000 people used the Wairarapa train service each year. This year more than 750,000 will do so, and the Greater Wellington Regional Council predicts demand will continue to rise. It sounds ideal: to be whisked to and from your city job while you read, catch up on work or snooze. However, the trains are often full at peak times, which has led to increasing complaints about overcrowding, unbearable summer temperatures, and delays on the single-track line. The regional council and operator Metlink are looking to add extra carriages and possibly introduce new trains to increase capacity. 

This was published in the June 2018 issue of North & South.

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