Above: Alex Casey as Featherston’s spokesbaby. Photo: John Casey.
About Town: Featherston
Despite a recent influx of city slickers, the town at the foot of the Remutaka Hill retains its small-town sense of humour and no-nonsense attitude.
By Alex Casey
There’s a big lime-green sign at the Featherston railway station that I always look forward to seeing. With ears still popping from the pressure of the Remutaka tunnel and eyes bleary from trying not to fall asleep and miss my stop, the sight of the simple, matter-of-fact town slogan warms my soul. “Welcome to Featherston: if you lived here, you’d be home now.” That’s my thoroughly underwhelming cue to leap off the train, because even after 17 years in Auckland, I am home. If only for a weekend.
When I was growing up here, Featherston never seemed like a destination, more a place others were forced to pass through. The tiny farming town branded itself a “gateway to the Wairarapa”; a mere pit stop dwarfed by the shadows of the Remutaka Hill. It felt like the runt of the Wairarapa litter, where Martinborough was posh (vineyards), Greytown was cool (cafés) and Masterton was Tinseltown (cinema). My school mates, all from Greytown, referred to Featherston as “Feathy”, with a hard ‘th’ to communicate their subtle disdain. Feddy.
Naturally, being from “Feddy” was a huge source of embarrassment for me, not helped by the fact that I was the literal poster child of the Featherston Heritage Museum. As a wide-eyed dribbling baby, I appeared on their posters in nothing but a nappy and my Poppa’s lemon squeezer hat. Every now and again, the images would pop up publicly and I would have to face taunts from my classmates that they could “see my boobs”. Not anatomically accurate, but still humiliating.
Now, that’s all changed. The Heritage Museum thankfully has a new poster, and Featherston has made headlines for turning from “bleak town to boom town”. With Wellington house prices skyrocketing, Featherston has faced a flood of people moving in from the other side of the hill. House prices doubled between 2014 and 2019 and, by the end of 2020, nine out of 10 house purchases went to former Wellington residents. Around town it’s impossible to miss the grin of Mr Sold, a local real-estate stalwart who parks his giant branded moving truck on the main road.
Despite being the only man I’ve ever seen pull off a canary yellow shirt, Mr Sold is far from the most interesting person you’ll find in Featherston these days. A stroll down the main street on a sunny Saturday could easily fill someone’s dream list of seven interesting people you’d invite to dinner — everyone from legendary children’s author Joy Cowley, to former close associates of the royal family, to A-list director James Cameron and at least one member of Fat Freddy’s Drop. You might even think you see Kenny Rogers at the SuperValue, but that’ll just be my dad.
For all this new influx of glitz and glamour, Featherston has held onto its sense of small-town humour, so much so that it’s hard not to draw parallels with Pawnee, the fictional town in the sitcom Parks and Recreation. In the first season, the community squabbles over what to do with “the pit”, an empty lot abandoned mid-development. In Featherston, there’s what locals call “the gravel pit” – a giant patch of gravel on the main street that’s been touted to become everything from a retail hub to a zen garden, but so far mostly seems to be used for sausage sizzles.
Just down from the gravel pit is one of Featherston’s recent additions, a flash new town centre. I sat in the sun and soaked in the space, an outdoor conversation pit of sorts, all lush grassy knolls and patterned pavers. There remains one crucial point of contention around the centre — is it shaped like a square or a circle? Happy to split the difference, it’s now simply referred to as “the Squircle”, home of events such as “Jazz Up the Squircle” and “First Fridays at the Squircle”.
It might not seem like you can top a sausage at the gravel pit before some smooth jazz at the Squircle, but a cosy morning basking in the front window of Loco cafe and bookshop might do it. It brims with good books and extremely comfy vibes. People crash in and out of Loco with dogs and kids to grab their morning coffee, while others will sit for hours and natter with whoever in the snuggly mismatched lounge suites. I was lucky enough on my last visit to bump into local zine-making legend Myrtle Chickpea, whose hilarious zines are a must-have souvenir.
“The giant patch of gravel on the main street has been touted to become everything from a retail hub to a zen garden, but so far mostly seems to be used for sausage sizzles.”
There are other local quirks I’d forgotten about since moving away, like the bone-chilling fire siren that regularly blares through the whole town. It happened on my last visit while I was in the book nook of the op shop, scaring me enough that I asked aloud if I should be taking cover. “Don’t you worry, it just means they need to move their backside,” a nice woman unloading books assured me. I mumbled something about hoping it’s not anything too serious. “The way I see it,” the woman sighed, squeezing a Jodi Picoult classic onto the shelves, “we’ll either find out or we won’t.”
It’s that no-nonsense attitude that I love about Featherston, seeping into everything from the railway station slogan to the community notices stuck on the pinboard outside the supermarket. “Free kittens, little [timid] but very beautiful” nearly crushed me in its simplicity, trumped only by the invitation below it: “I’m going to church this Sunday — wanna come?” with a mobile number attached. I also took a photo of an A4 flyer for ‘Dog in Togs’, a day where the community can bring their dogs to the swimming pool before it’s drained for winter.
Aside from Dogs in Togs, the largest calendar event of the year is Featherston’s Booktown Festival. It’s a weekend of author talks, writing workshops, and bookbinding that sees thousands visit New Zealand’s only certified booktown. To be a part of the global clique, you must have a concentrated amount of bookshops, and hold a festival celebrating all things literary. Featherston currently boasts seven bookshops, including children’s book haven, Chicken and Frog, and Messines Bookshop of military history. I’ve never made it to a Booktown festival myself, but have heard uproarious stories of poetry in candlelit barns and greasy fish suppers in the oaky belly of the Anzac Hall.
It’s roughly a 10-minute trek from one end of town to the other, where the dilapidated heritage buildings have been jazzed up with giant monster stickers from Where the Wild Things Are, yet another reminder of Featherston’s tonguein- cheek approach to itself. When the concrete wall on Wakefield Street kept getting graffitied, they painted a Tintin mural with a giant blank speech bubble on it, goading people to fill it in. The graffiti seems to have stopped. Genius.
To borrow a local phrase, my relationship with Featherston has come full squircle since my childhood. Every time I visit there’s something new to see, and every time I leave it is with new treasures in tow (this time it was two glass whales from Monsieur Fox, the best vintage knick-knack store in town). It’s a place that’s forging a new identity as Booktown, but one where you’ll still find Redband gumboots outside the supermarket — as a former spokesbaby for Featherston Heritage, I feel confident that Featherston won’t forget its rural roots anytime soon.
At the end of my whirlwind Featherston weekend, I sulkily hiff my bag onto the train and settle in for another long journey back to the grey grind of Auckland. As the train pulls away, I watch my favourite sign get smaller and smaller. Featherston: if you lived here, you’d be home now.
Alex Casey is a writer and editor for the Spinoff.
This story appeared in the June 2021 issue of North & South.