It must have been 17 years since a carload of us decided to take the less-travelled route north from Wellington, through the Wairarapa. I remember lovely rivers and a string of dull, depressed and apparently dying towns. To remark on the region’s revival in more recent years is to note the obvious, but it is, well, remarkable.
Those towns – Featherston, Greytown, Carterton, Masterton – were bustling and sunny when we went back in the first few days of the new year. A combination of flourishing farm incomes, tourism and the Wairarapa’s growing popularity as a bolt-hole for better-heeled Wellingtonians (Peter Jackson’s new ranch is there) has seen the region reborn. No more so than in Martinborough, an incidental village in the middle of nowhere transformed by the emergence from its vineyards of some of the world’s best pinot noir. You can buy Trelise Cooper clothes on its tiny main street, and spend $70 on a bottle of red wine. A little shop up the road makes and sells frozen gourmet meals, with local organic produce.
Masterton, the regional hub, seems to have blossomed as a retail destination, its shops occupying the solid, attractive buildings of its prosperous post-colonial years. The Wairarapa Times-Age still occupies a magnificent, white deco ocean liner of a building in a corner site in town.
We stayed in a house in Featherston - a wonderful old white holiday villa nestled in nine acres of garden, with shade everywhere it ought to be, lemons and apples on the trees and a cool, crystalline river for swimming nearby – at the gracious invitation of friends. People have been so kind to us on this holiday.
We were there so as to be near Masterton for a wedding: that of my cousin Hannah Saulbrey, to David Ross (Dross, as everybody calls him), an intelligent and witty native of Katikati, via King’s College. It was a big do: not just a meeting of the two families but a reunion for their far-flung friends. So the old aunties and uncles gathered with Auckland professionals, people holidaying from jobs in Serbia and Hannah’s netball friends (Julie Seymour, along with Dallas).
The bride arrived in the bright, sweltering afternoon looking startlingly beautiful: tall, bronzed and statuesque in a trailing, almost backless, gown. I like Hannah a lot – I like all my Saulbrey cousins: Carmel, Gretchen and Luke. They are kind and confident people. Their father, John, is my mother’s roustabout brother, a strong, booming man with huge hands, like my grandfather, Jack.
As the wedding wound on, I decided that it was not just a matter of staying in touch with the Saulbrey side of the family, but with my own inner Saulbrey. It is a rollicking clan, given to singing and speechifying and displays of affection, and I regard it as part of me.
I loved Jack; I was shattered when he died on the eve of my first Christmas in London. His brother Dave is still with us at 89 years, still living on the corner of Saulbrey Grove in the Hutt Valley. I was pleased to see Uncle Dave: he could clear up a hazy part of the whakapapa – the name.
Saulbrey, as I discovered relatively recently, is an anglicisation; a coinage unique to the family. The family was Danish, probably, and the original name was, well, my mother didn’t quite know. It is less a family secret than information that has fallen into disuse. Uncle Dave was happy to be asked. The name had been Saulberg, but the new name was adopted when his grandfather ran a bakery in London, before one of his seven sons ventured to the colonies in 1916. I guess there were reasons for immigrants to cover their tracks even then. I’ll find out a little more when I get back to my fast Internet connection.
[NB: Uncle Dave didn't have it quite right - the pre-anglicisation name was actually Saurbrey, and the family hails from South Germany via Denmark. More details here.]
Family culture dictated that festivities, which began with a glass of bubbly to wash away the happy tears of the ceremony at 4pm, would go on well into the night. I felt like I was letting the side down when I took the first bus back from the venue at 11pm, but I’ve been up late laughing and yarning and drinking wine every night for a week. That little rest from the turps in December has turned out to be a good idea.
But before we got on the bus, Fiona and I walked over to the far side of the lawn and stood there in the dark, looking across at the great, luminous marquee. Through its windows we could see colourful figures dancing, embracing and having another glass or two
It looked perfect in the night: a country wedding in full cry.