An historic home gives a feel for Marlborough's past, says Don Donovan.

When an early settler in the Marlborough district built himself a cob cottage in the Riverlands area, near the town of Blenheim, some time in the 1850s or 60s, he could scarcely have imagined that one day a busy state highway would see cars and trucks racing just a metre or so past the front door.

Still, the house comes as a charming visual relief to motorists on State Highway 1: a picture postcard cottage whitewashed crisply, within a small garden of lawn and floral borders that afford a splash colour on the otherwise dun, dried landscape of the plains.

It's not clear who the builder was: probably either John Emmett, an absentee owner who was granted the land in 1854, or Charles Redwood, son of an even earlier settler who bought the plot in 1865.

The cottage is two-storeyed with a small attic bedroom, and its walls, 40cm thick in parts, are of a puddled clay and chopped tussock mixture reinforced with horse manure containing "undigested chaff" (an essential component, according to one expert account).

Having housed members of the Redwood family and a succession of farm labourers, it served as the official local schoolroom from 1906 to 1909 and, at one stage, was the headquarters for bookies attending the local racecourse, as well as serving as a shelter for stud sheep. It did worthy war work, too, as a quartermaster's store and area base for the Home Guard in World War II.

The Marlborough Historical Society and Historic Places Trust started a major restoration in 1960, clearing overgrowth, rebuilding walls, re-shingling and furnishing with contemporary displays.

The cottage was opened to visitors in 1965. Since then it has been maintained with commendable care.

Further information: The Cob Cottage is on State Highway 1, 4.5km east of Blenheim, on the Kaikoura road.

Don Donovan visited Riverlands under his own steam.