It is easy to zip through a tiny village when it’s en route to elsewhere. That was Pirinoa a couple of years ago, when the tourists would sail up the gentle incline to the village summit before dropping down towards Palliser Bay to continue the short drive to Lake Ferry. Or to complete the final 40 minute stretch to the fishing village of Ngawi and on to Cape Palliser lighthouse, the Putangirua Pinnacles and the seal colony.

But that was before a cool little coffee shop opened in 2016 in the old Blacksmith’s quarters along the edge of Lake Ferry Road. Set against rolling hills on one side and the Aorangi Forest Park on the other, the building has been in the Didsbury family since the 1880s. Carefully renovated by Guy and Andrea Didsbury, it now provides a modern rustic setting which, with the old iron forge still in situ, has not forgotten its past.

Complementary to Pirinoa’s General Store, opposite, which has been serving the community and visitors with fuel, groceries and postal services for over 130 years, The Land Girl Coffee House now gives passers-by an extra excuse to linger. Owner Andrea has found that people will always take time out for good coffee. “The General Store is popular for provisions and petrol, but barista coffee is definitely the key to getting people to stop and spend time.”

She says many of her tourist customers – largely Europeans – potter about after they’ve finished their coffee, ask questions about the picturesque Burnside Church close by and enquire about the area’s Maori heritage, before taking a stroll northwards along the road to Pirinoa Hall. A focal point for events and meetings for the community since the early 1920s, the hall is also home to the Tuhirangi Rugby Club. The current building is the second hall to stand on the site – the first having been razed to the ground by fire in 1933.

Equally central to Pirinoa’s 400 plus population is the local school. Established in the late 1880s, the school’s roll has ebbed and flowed in line with changes, such as farm amalgamation, mechanisation, fishing quotas and population influxes – in particular, the employment of extra dairy farm workers and shepherds.

Today, the current roll is 42, with children coming from as far away as Cape Palliser. Yet, the school faced closure several years ago when its roll dipped to 19. “This was a time when the community really rallied together,” Andrea recalls. “It was very stressful. Losing the school would have been disastrous. Fortunately, a healthy number of pre-schoolers were enrolled for the following year and we were able to stay open.”

The school also offers up its sports facilities, including a swimming pool, netball and tennis courts, and hockey turf, for community use. Recent school principal, Troy Anderson, says sport plays a big part in the community and its local teams are thriving, helped by the constant flow of farm workers to and from the settlement.

Tuhirangi Rugby Club benefits from this and has a formidable local reputation. The club also boasts that it played ‘a vital role’ in the All Blacks’ 1987 World Cup win. According to a Wairarapa Times-Age article, “the decision of then coach Brian Lochore to use Pirinoa for rest and recreation really worked a treat.” The team was billeted out to local families for a couple of days just before their final pool game against Argentina.

Back at The Land Girl, Andrea says, in addition to the tourists, she has seen much more of her fellow residents and more of village life since she opened her shop. “The café has become a regular place for smoko for the shepherds, our mums come in with their babies, the local cycling group stops by for coffee, as do the walking groups. And then we have our after- school surge of children and their parents before closing time.”

She adds that people like to chat, need to chat – and The Land Girl is providing the community with another opportunity to do just that. “This was evident during last year’s drought,” she explains. “Our farmers came here regularly to talk about how they were coping, what they were doing, and how it was affecting them. I felt privileged to provide another place for them to get things off their chests.”

Andrea says she is also continuing tradition. “Throughout the history of the settlement, the old Blacksmith shop was always a great meeting place. People brought their horses from far and wide, and the forge provided a warm and comfortable place to catch up – right up until the last blacksmith stopped his work around 1960.”

Story by Lisa Carruthers.
Photography by Rebecca Kempton.