This is the house where it all began. Douglas MacDiarmid was born on 14 November 1922 in an upstairs bedroom of the MacDiarmid family home at 24 Huia Street, Taihape. It remained his room into adulthood, a haven of vivid imaginings and fertile dreams in which many a boyish prank was also hatched.
Taihape is a small rural town in the centre of the North Island of New Zealand, with three rumbling volcanoes nearby. In the 1920s, it was an important train stop on the railway line between Auckland and Wellington, and still services a wide farming community. The town is probably better known as New Zealand’s ‘Gumboot Throwing Capital of the World’, or the scene of late Australasian comic John Clarke’s unforgettable Fred Dagg exploits, than for the creative impact of its rugged landscape.
24 Huia Street was both a gracious residence and a surgery for his father’s busy district medical practice. Gordon MacDiarmid bought the practice and its purpose-built house before marrying Mary Tolme in 1919. The energetic couple were keen gardeners in their spare time and transformed the spacious grounds into a wonderful property of flower beds, vegetable gardens, shrubs and trees during the 34 years they lived there.
In those days, there were servants to run the house and tend the grounds, childhood nannies, as well as a team of nurses in the home surgery and cottage hospital Gordon built next door. The gardens, outhouses and drying lawns for the hospital laundry were a marvellous playground for Douglas and older brother Ronald, while Mary held summer garden parties for friends and patriotic charities under the shade of a huge elm. Her roses were famous in the district; whenever the volcanoes up the road sent a sprinkling of ash, she was delighted as this spelt death to bugs.
As the family grew, a tennis court was carved out at the top of the garden to keep everyone fit. Lady watercolourists came from far and wide to paint the splendid rockery established behind the court. Along the pathway above, Gordon created ponga archways supporting native clematis he searched out in the bush, interspersed with kowhai trees that attracted the birds. Douglas has fond memories of those tuis cursing and singing in harmonies never to be forgotten.
Although the surrounding grounds were sold off and built on years ago, the lovely villa at 24 Huia Street has moved with the times. It was featured in a New Zealand House and Garden magazine in 1995 and is now ‘Magpie Manor’, a popular bed and breakfast establishment.