Big job . . . Carrie and David Ralph are putting hours of work into restoring the eye-catching Bamfield House. PHOTO: CLAIRE ALLISON

by Claire Allison

When David and Carrie Ralph signed on the dotted line to buy 86 North St, they hadn’t set foot inside the house.

The Pukekohe couple bought the two-storey brick home in about 2004, but it remained tenanted as two flats until they moved to Timaru in December 2020 and moved in.

The property, believed to have been built in the late 1860s or early 1870s, has been named Bamfield House after an early occupier, Major John Hichens Bamfield, who was secretary of the South Canterbury Education Board for 25 years.

For the past 12 months, the Ralphs have been renovating, including installing all new plumbing and electrics, a heating system and a new internal staircase, bringing the two levels of the house together for the first time in decades.

Timaru took the Ralphs’ fancy when they came to visit a friend who had moved to the town in the late 1990s.

“We came down and visited him and thought Timaru was quite a nice town, and we thought that one day we wouldn’t mind moving down here.”

Cut to 2004 and the couple were in town again, this time thinking more seriously about making that plan happen.

“We did a run around, looking at houses that were for sale, and thinking about what we could do down here. This wasn’t for sale: we just drove by, and it stood out. We thought, ‘that place is cool’.

“We parked across the road, and thought we’d find out who owned it, so we knocked on the door.”

Luckily for the Ralphs, the tenant who opened the door was renting from his father, and provided his number.

On the way back home, the deal was thrashed out.

“By the time we had got to Tokoroa, the deal was done. We were nutting out the price in the Tokoroa KFC.”

The home had been made into two flats – one upstairs and one downstairs – in 1945, and was clearly a project in the making.

“It had that unloved look about it. It had half a fence, and just looked like upstairs and downstairs flats. We hadn’t even been inside the house when we bought it, we’d only knocked on the door.

“Timaru has so many lovely houses. We’re always blown away by the houses down here, but there’s nothing quite like this one that we’ve seen.”

Alongside the restoration has been ongoing research, as the couple gather all the information they can about the history of the property.

Mrs Ralph said throughout the years, the couple’s determination to move in never changed.

“We always wanted to come and live in it. That was always our plan, but it took that long for everything to fall into place for us. Life got in the way between now and then.

“But it was kind of cool. Because of the house, we’d come down twice a year, so we got to know the town and be part of the town before we moved in.”

A tenant sent a photograph of the house during the June 2006 big snow, and that remained on the couple’s fridge in Pukekohe until they moved south.

They committed to 12 months of renovations being their full-time job. That has now been extended, but they are seeing progress, and adding to their renovation skills all the time.

Their only previous project was renovating their weatherboard kauri villa in Pukekohe, their home for about 20 years.

Faced with what they described as classic Timaru flats, with poky kitchens and poky bathrooms and Axminster carpet, the couple lived in one room for the first six months, and it wasn’t until the internal staircase was installed in the middle of last year that they started using the upstairs.

Layers and layers of paint had to be stripped, but Mrs Ralph said that they had had a positive impact.

“The house has really survived the process (of being divided into flats for decades) pretty well, and I think that’s because of all the layers of paint on the trim – it’s protected a lot of the timber.”

While they said it was a very plain house, there were still treasures, such as the eight fireplaces – although boarded up and now unusable – and the occasional surprise find, such as early 1900s hairpins that had worked their way underneath skirting boards.

Not so delightful had been the discovery of decades of dust behind lath and plaster, and multi-generational bird nests.

The couple are turning their hand to as much as they can themselves stripping, painting, lime plastering and re-pointing.

“We’ve taught ourselves pretty much everything.”

Youtube videos and “the Mitre10 guy” have provided invaluable training.

“You obviously have to love property in general to make it worthwhile time and money. This project has never been about making money. It’s a bucket-list job.”