NZ 3: Dunedin-Tyntesfield-Larnach Castle

I like to read early descriptions of  Britain from a time when it was viewed as a far away, remote land. The 1st-century Romans certainly viewed Britannia in that way.

By the 18th and 19th centuries Britain had moved, for a while, from the edge to the centre… and New Zealand was the equivalent far away land…

New Zealand now, of course, is a uniquely blessed modern nation.

The island of Britain is situated in almost the furthest limit of the world, towards the north-west and west, poised in the so-called divine balance which holds the whole earth. It lies somewhat in the direction of the north pole from the south-west. It is 800 miles long, 200 broad, not counting the longer tracts of sundry promontories which are encompassed by the curved bays of the sea. It is protected by the wide, and if I may so say, impassable circle of the sea on all sides. (Gildas, The Ruin of Britain 6th century AD)

New Zealand: the wonderful country. New Zealanders: the best of people.

When I am there, I am aware of my southern English reserve, there is a need to unravel myself.

Visitors are invited to bungee jump into potential and adventure… after all,  we may feel challenged in this new environment but we have made the long trip to be there and will be welcomed warmly as travellers from the old country …..11,932 miles away.

My great love is archaeology and though New Zealand is like a geography text book… full of huge,  beautiful landscapes.. and though it can boast of many things… human time-depth is not one of them.

In New Zealand.. Nature was completely left alone by humankind until its discovery by the great navigators, the Maori Polynesians in the 14th century.

However…. despite that.. archaeology definitely exists and it has been my pleasure to be an archaeologist in New Zealand…in 1980.. my first lone trip.

Could I ever settle there? So very far from most of my family and friends.

Back home… across the Weymouth College table…. a fellow student also talked of her NZ family ties…. in that far away and much missed place… so I came back with her in 85.

Much , much later, in 2009,  when the children had grown to be teenagers, we took the long flight with the family.

Now the children have left home and Jan said we must return… one more time…

And so you find us… in Invercargill… at the start of our road trip pilgrimage.. we hope that it will take us from the very south of the South Island to the north end of the North.

It is morning. We have failed to reach Stewart Island. I have lost my old mobile phone in Queens Park and we are about to head north to Dunedin.


My plan is to take the scenic, eastern, coastal route across the Maclennan Range but I am not concentrating and miss the turning to Highway 92. Instead, I am on Highway 1. Jan is happy.. and every time I try to get back on course…the nice NZ Sat Nav woman warns of unmetalled roads.

‘Remember Waikaremoana’ Janet says sombrely and our minds flash back to the East Cape trip. 1985..the short-cut from Wairoa to Rotorua in a camper van with a dodgy petrol gauge. 4 hrs on gravel tracks along cliff hugging tracks in the pouring rain…juddering through pot-holes.

I stick to Highway 1. The sky is grey and dour with a low cloud-ceiling. The lovely coastal views from the Maclennans are likely to have become blotted out by mist.

Past Gore, we look for a coffee break but end up in Balclutha. A busy wild-west looking place with tin covered walkways, which keep the rain off as we seek out a cafe… and find the ‘Heart and Home’ in half term week. We grab a table near the sofas,..and a tangle of children and toys. We order pots of tea and a bowl of chips.

We are seasoned NZ travellers and know that tea is bountiful and bowls of chips are always available… even in the remotest of places.

Re-energised, we reach the outskirts of Dunedin city by late afternoon. Suddenly, we are in traffic again and weave our way past the docks and up a winding road to the ridge of the Otago Peninsula.

Janet’s cousin Martha has given us a post-code and we are guided up a tree lined drive to a large house. We have access instructions.

There is the key and we bring our cases in and walk down a corridor into a huge room with a kitchen to one side and a square table in the middle. Large windows give views out across native bush and back down the inlet towards the city.

There is no note. Lots of people leave keys. We have not seen Janet’s cousins for 35 years. We lose confidence for a moment until someone like Janet’s sister opens the door and Martha and Bill greet us warmly. Stories and photographs are shared.

Three brothers from Birmingham, altered by the experiences of their WWII service, make a plan on a camping holiday… to leave their crowded West Midlands roots behind and take a ship to the far side of the world.

Here, 70 years later, a son and a daughter of one of them chat easily with the daughter of the sister they left behind.

We talk into the night and then they leave us to enjoy their extra house,  kindly promising to come back and take us to the city the following evening.

We wake to the sound of Bellbirds and decide on driving along the peninsula to Larnach Castle.

The site is on the ridge top. William Larnach, banker, businessman and politician found the spot for his mansion with his son. In 1870 it was covered in native bush but through a gap in the trees they saw the spectacular view of the Otago Inlet.


Larnach Castle in the Mist ..colonial gothic.

Soon, it was occupied by a Gothic revival mansion, studded with fine decorative materials brought by sea and along bumpy tracks to this remote place. As we climbed through the building, the rooms reminded me of the National Trust’s Tyntesfield near Bristol. A far larger mid Victorian Gothic building built for the Gibbs family from the profits generated by imported guano fertiliser from Peru and Bolivia.


The National Trust’s Tyntesfield House near Bristol

Larnach compared with Tyntesfield is like Chedworth Roman Villa in Gloucestershire  compared with Diocletian’s Palace.

Larnach is the greater triumph for its sheer isolation and its amazing view….apparently.

I climbed the turret and walked out onto the tower roof and looked out into thick mist. Nothing to see today so we retraced our steps back to ground level taking in the decor of the lovely rooms.


The Withdrawing Room of Larnach Castle.

In the long building adjoining the house, we had curried pumpkin soup. William Larnach had built this as the ballroom for his daughter Kate who found the new house too remote and needed somewhere to hold parties and attract society  from distant Dunedin.

The soup warmed us. It was chilly and damp outside. The lunch of a neighbouring table lay scattered like a battlefield across the floor. The children unconcerned, the father another half-term casualty.

Back in 1967, this place had become a ruin but the Barker family took it in hand and brought it back to its former glory. The family still care for it. There is nowhere quite like it in New Zealand. Visits to Tyntesfield will now remind me of its Gothic cousin so far away.

John had brought us here in 85 and it was good to see inside. We had spent good times in Dunedin. The Musselburgh weekly pub quiz in particular. The team would be reunited in Nelson.

We pressed on to the Albatross colony at the far misty end of the peninsula. The whole place was alive with noisy white birds but they were seagulls…we had tea in the nice modern visitor centre.

We would head for Christchurch tomorrow.

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