Author DaQua ◦
As a woman who hails from Wales, a land of myths and castles, my curiosity was piqued when I learnt that across the harbour from Dunedin, on the Otago Peninsula, stood New Zealand’s only castle.
Wales, is a country sometimes referred to the as “the castle capital of the world,” due to the number of castles in a relatively small geographical location. A country where battles had been fought, and of 600 hundred castles that had been built, from the 12th century on, (maybe even the 11th), 100 are still standing in one form or another, many protected and maintained by Cadw.
Castles were part of daily life for my family growing up in Wales. In fact, we could walk to Conwy Castle, from our home in Llanrhos, Llandudno. It was often referred to as “my castle,’ by my daughter Lowri, when she was very young, passing it every day travelling to and from nursery and school; and we could walk to another from my parents’ home, some 17 miles (27.5 km) away in Rhuddlan, and a further 14.6 km inland, my eldest daughter Nicole, (now living in Alice Springs, Australia), went to school in the lee of Denbigh Castle walls; whilst my son Aaron, attended a school for a short time a further 15 km away, where the imposing Ruthin Castle stands proud – you get the picture? And you will understand then, why I had to see New Zealand’s only castle.
Whilst built in the neo-gothic design of the Victorian era, by William Larnach, a banker and business man of some repute, formerly of Melbourne, as a family home – not a 12th Century castle with tales of battles, knights and dragons, it did not disappoint. The craftmanship is exquisite, with materials having been shipped in from around the world, including slate from Wales, and ceramic floors of Minton tiles from Stoke-on-Trent, Tasmanian Blackwood, Ebony, and New Zealand Honeysuckle, Kauri, Mahogany and Teak, as well as the use of many local resources from around Otago.
No expense had been spared, to create this family home, for the Larnachs and their six children. He had even built a Ballroom for his children. The castle however, holds its own tales of love and loss and woe, and sadly fell into disrepair after the death of its owner; only to rise from the ruins in 1967 when the current owners the Barker family purchased it and to this day continue to lovingly restore and re-furbish the castle, as their personal home and for the community of Dunedin and Otago to enjoy, as well providing a tourist attraction for visitors to the region – including this woman from Wales.
Larnach Castle stands high up on the Otago Peninsula with panoramic views as far as the Taiaroa Heads, and inlets along the coast, and across the inner harbour towards Dunedin where the city buildings and suburbs seem to cling to the steep inclines rising from the water basin. Margaret Barker has created a ‘Garden of International Standing,’ as recognised by the NZ Gardens Trust. It was a delight to wander around the grounds, take in the views, and to follow the Native Plant Trail, listening to the call of the Bellbird or was it a Tui?
As I passed native trees such as Toi (Mountain Cabbage), Tawhairaunui (Red Beech), and Ponga (Silver Fern), I felt immersed in a winter woodland of primitive plants endemic to New Zealand. I paid little heed to the large red chair at the end of the pathway, other than to photograph it, but as the pathways meandered around the grounds I was surprised to see – on the lawn behind the castle – a sculpture of Alice, and other characters from the story of Alice in Wonderland, dotted around the gardens.
Why the surprise? Well, my home town of Llandudno has connections to Alice all the way back to 1861, when the eight year old Alice Pleasance Liddell (the real ‘Alice’ in Wonderland) spent the first of many summer holidays in Llandudno. Her holiday home ‘Penmorfa’, was built on Llandudno’s West Shore, a favourite walk from my home on the hill.
What was the connection to Alice in Wonderland out here in New Zealand? I pondered on this as I found my way into the Ballroom Café, originally built for the six Larnach children, where no less than three roaring log fires and a hearty menu – including ‘tatties’ – welcomed me in. As I took my seat by one of the open fires to await my warming brew, the call of the pipes and drums drifted across the Ballroom and time, bringing nostalgia with it. It was ‘The Skye Song,’ sung to me by my grandmother, and my parents as a lullaby, in Wales, and by me to my own children and grandchildren in Alice and Dunedin.
And as for Alice in Wonderland’s connection to the castle, I learned that Margaret Barker has such a love of the book that she too read to her children that she invited some of the characters to take up residence in the gardens.
Planes may not be able to fly me home to Wales at the moment – but today, stories and music did, in the most surprising place – New Zealand’s only castle – Larnach Castle.