By MAURICE SMYTH




Be it ever so humble, there's no place like home, especially when it's a national treasure.



That's why a well-known family is buying back a heritage cottage from a recluse.



The cottage in question belonged to the late Rewi Alley, and its association with him stretches back more than 80 years.

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Rewind to 1922 and trek into the Moeawatea Valley, nearly 50km north-east of Waverley, on the road to Stratford.



You're standing beside a tiny, Government-built whare. It's what today's realtors call a handyman's challenge.



Two returned servicemen rose to it.



For Rewi Alley and Jack Stevens, both from Christchurch, the price was right. They took out a loan, rebuilt the cottage, slashed the bush and raised sheep and cattle.



After six years of hard slog, one of them threw in the towel. Rewi Alley realised the property would not support two families.



He walked off the 320ha and bought a one-way ticket to Shanghai to join a serviceman friend. Jack lasted another four years.



Rewi prospered in China, eventually becoming a national hero. He returned on holiday in 1932, believing Jack was still working the property.



His nephew, Dr Maurice Alley of Palmerston North, tells the story.

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"Rewi borrowed a horse in Waverley and made the long ride in to visit. But there was no one home. Believing Jack to be working out back, he left his card with a note saying 'Dear Jack, sorry you were out. See you. Rewi'."



The property passed through the hands of two other farming families before Ernie Matthews bought it in 1972. He wanted to live alone and has done so for more than 50 years, building his own house and enjoying the solitude. But in August, his house burned to the ground and he lost everything he owned.



Because of Rewi's prominence in Chinese affairs, the cottage was given Category 2 heritage status by the Historic Places Trust, but it fell into disrepair. David Harre of Oratia, passionate about such New Zealand symbols, raised money and saw the cottage restored in 1989. After Ernie bought it, a maintenance team, led by Rewi's cousin "Digger" Alley of New Plymouth, kept an eye on things. When he died, the family rallied.



Dr Maurice Alley and his cousin, Dorothy Waymouth of Auckland, reached a purchase agreement with Ernie.



It will be ratified when a surveyor's report is complete. Dr Alley says that dealing with a recluse who has no phone is a challenge. The price not being disclosed to protect Ernie's desire for privacy.



Rewi's old home needs some work. The long drop is now short and a septic tank is needed. Stormwater drainage is a problem and tap water from a spring can be reluctant.



Even so, it's upmarket compared to what Rewi and Jack knew.



In their time the round trip to Waverley for supplies took two days on horseback. Now it takes just under an hour by car. Although Rewi felt he had failed, his years on the farm were highly formative years.



"It brought me down to earth and taught me the value of simplicity," he wrote.



"I learned a lot there of struggle and the basic things that have kept me in good stead. Life in the valley gave me an ability to face up to the cold winds for days and smile. It cleared away a lot of war dreams."



Ernie Matthews has agreed to be part of a trust, with Maurice Alley and Dorothy Waymouth, which will work with the New Zealand-China Friendship Society to maintain and preserve the house for future generations.



The Alleys hope to convert the property to a studio for a writer or artist in residence, once the property is back in family hands.