Extraordinary! The Giant’s House sculpture mosaic garden

27 November 2019

New Zealand is full of surprises, but it’s saved one of the best until the very end of our trip. I’ve never seen anything quite like the Giant’s House sculpture mosaic garden. It is, quite simply, extraordinary!

The Giant’s House is a magnificent two storey villa dating from 1880. It was built for the first bank manager of Akaroa, which probably explains why it’s such a grand affair. However it’s not the house itself that’s brought us here, but rather its terraced gardens adorned with various sculptures and mosaics.

The gardens are the work of artist Josie Martin. Although starting out as a painter, in 1993 Josie turned her hand to sculpture. Her website says:

Ever adventurous Josie is mindful of the larger world and other ways of seeing. Josie’s elegant abstract sculptures are seriously playful and a celebration of life. They are surreal, biomorphic entities, whimsical and flamboyant, organic and eccentric. Constantly changing metomorphosing [sic] forms confronting or circumscribing void spaces refer to her interest in horticulture reflecting the zany balance of nature.

SOURCE: The Giant’s House website, retrieved 10 January 2020

Even though the Giant’s House has been recognised since 2018 as a Garden of International Significance, if I’d read that quote from Josie’s website before visiting, it would have put me right off. To use an inelegant and slightly vulgar phrase that we Brits reserve for artistic pretension, it sounds like a load of “arty-farty” nonsense. Sorry, Josie.

But I know now this assessment is totally wrong, and I regret that it ever crossed my mind. Far from being pretentious and slightly preposterous, we quickly discover that the garden here is a work of quirky, creative genius.

It began very simply, almost accidentally. Josie dug up some pretty bits of broken china while gardening and used them to make a mosaic doorstep. And after that, she just kept on going, using broken china, tile, mirror and glass to clothe and populate her garden with mosaic masterpieces.

Mosaics are everywhere, including paths, steps and walls, benches, arches and seats. And scattered along the winding paths is a host of life-sized sculptures, here a lady seated on a bench eating strawberries, there French mime artist Marcel Marceau resplendent in a blue top hat and waistcoat.

There are animals too: look, there’s an elephant and a giraffe peering over a low-slung hedge, in front of which is a wall decorated with images of kiwi. And have you seen over there, a man-sized blue cat playing a musical instrument? The cat is a member of a four-piece band calling itself Kitty Catch-Me and the Rolling Dice … well of course he is, cool cats belong in jazz bands, don’t they?

In front of the Giant’s House sits a grand piano. Fashioned from mosaic, inevitably. The piano lid is held open by two lanky, naked dancers, and inside the piano are living, growing succulent plants. And why not, this is a garden after all.

The piano bears the legend “sweet patooti”. It means nowt to me (I’m an ancient English fossil, don’t you know), but according to my old pal Professor Google, “patootie” is a North American term for an attractive girl or girlfriend, or is slang for buttocks. The piano stool, which may or may not be shaped to accommodate the buttocks of said girlfriend, is supported by four dog legs, and each of its four corners is embellished with a dog’s head.

Do I understand what’s going on here? No, not really. Do I care that I don’t know what’s going on here? Not in the slightest. Life’s full of mysteries, and this one’s up there with the pyramids. And everyone admires the pyramids, even if they don’t fully understand them.

The piano and stool sit on a paved area carved out of the lawn and inlaid with the legend “You never know”. Yes, that’s it, you never know what you’ll find in this garden, just around the next corner or lurking behind a nearby bush. This place is quirky, crazy … totally bloody bonkers, in fact. And I love it.

Everyone else loves it too. Everywhere we see visitors smiling, chuckling and sometimes laughing uproariously. There’s a spring in their step as they move between the exhibits, pointing out quirky little details and animatedly discussing the sculptures with their fellows.

The essence of art is about how we see the world. Some art is deadly serious, encouraging us to reflect on matters of life and death. The Giant’s House garden isn’t serious at all: it’s about the joy of living and laughter, showing us reasons to be cheerful in the most mundane of subjects and situations.

Nobody other than the world’s unreconstructed misery-guts could spend an hour or two in the gardens at the Giant’s House without having their spirits lifted. This place is truly magical.

Q: So, when is a castle not a castle? A: When it’s Larnach Castle

22 November 2019

We have some free time before this afternoon’s birding tour on the Otago Peninsula, so we head out to Larnach Castle to see what all the fuss is about. It grandly styles itself “New Zealand’s only castle,” which is a marketing strapline that’s both agreeably catchy and totally wrong. But that’s the nature of marketing, isn’t it?

Larnach Castle, near Dunedin, dominated by an Australian-style wrap-around iron lacework verandah

When I was a kid growing up in England castles were understood to be very old, grim and grey, bristling with battlements for defence, and towers for locking up captured enemy warriors and random passing princesses. And there’d be a moat and a portcullis, and one of those little holes through which you could pour hot oil and other nasties on to the heads of your adversaries.

On the verandah

Larnach Castle isn’t a bit like that. In the manner of Balmoral Castle in Scotland, where our fair Queen hangs her hat every summer, it’s a mansion built for boasting rather than battles.

Larnach Castle was conceived and constructed in the second half of the 19th century, not by a king or a prince or a nobleman, but by a get-rich-quick Australian banker. William Larnach arrived in New Zealand in 1867 to take up an appointment as the manager of the Bank of Otago. He did well for himself, earning so much through land speculation, farming investments, and a timber business that in 1871 he was able to start on his great building project, the mansion that would ultimately become Larnach Castle.

The dining room

The original plans for the building came from England, and were based on the Gothic Revival style of architecture. However they were substantially altered by Dunedin architect R. A. Lawson, who was born in Scotland but worked in Melbourne before crossing the Tasman Sea to New Zealand.

Lawson wrapped the core of the building in substantial but delicate iron lace work verandahs, in accordance with the Australian style. In so doing he created a new world version of old world architecture, a mansion that is either an icon or a bit of an oddball, depending on your taste.

William Larnach spared no expense in building his Castle. Materials were brought to the site from around the world. There was slate from Wales, iron, ceramics and twenty tons of glass from France, mosaics from Belgium, marble from Italy, bricks from Marseille, Huon Pine and Tasmanian Blackwood from Australia, Douglas Fir from North America and many more European and tropical woods.

The emblem and motto of clan Sutherland, from which William Larnach claimed descent

Nor could locals be trusted to deliver Larnach’s vision: they just didn’t have the skills, so he imported the necessary craftsmen including woodcarvers from England, and stonemasons from England and Scotland. The Castle’s fine plasterwork was executed by two Italians. No expense was spared.

Larnach also took the opportunity to draw attention to his Scottish ancestry. He claimed descent from clan Sutherland, which boasts a wildcat on its crest and the motto “Sans Peur” (without fear). A cat and the motto are shown on stained glass above some internal windows, although the moggie is a pale imitation of a fearless wildcat and more like a cuddly pussy cat.

Said to be the only Georgian-style hanging staircase in the Southern Hemisphere

It’s easy to be cynical (who? me?) about Larnach’s obvious attempt to show off his great wealth, but although the two stone lions guarding the steps up to the grand entrance are more than a little pretentious, I confess I like Larnach Castle a lot. And the fact that it’s here for me to enjoy is thanks to its current owners, the Barker family, who rescued it in the second half of the last century. Here’s what the visitor guide tells us about its turbulent history:

[William] Larnach lived in the Castle with three successive wives until 1898, when he took his own life in New Zealand’s House of Parliament. Larnach’s children sold the property which changed hands several times and was twice abandoned. The grounds were engulfed by second growth when we discovered Larnach Castle and the surrounding 14 hectares of wilderness in 1967. In a leap of faith we purchased this historic property, and its restoration and development became a life’s work for our family.

SOURCE: Leaflet “Larnach Castle, Dunedin, New Zealand” received on the day of our visit, 22 November 2019

View back to the Castle from the garden

Another leaflet hints at how much effort has gone into the restoration:

… when we bought the Castle in 1967 it was empty of furniture, and in a very sad state of repair, with many leaks in the roof. We would like to record our sincere thanks to all those people who have loaned or sold us original pieces.

SOURCE: Leaflet “Your guide to Larnach Castle” received on the day of our visit, 22 November 2019

As we work our way through the building, trying hard to avoid the selfie-obsessed Chinese tour group, it’s apparent that the Castle is smaller on the inside than it appears from outside, like the Tardis in reverse. This is a good thing, making the place feel less cavernous and more homely than we’d expected. I can easily imagine sitting on the verandah, sipping cocktails and watching the sun go down over the glorious garden. By no stretch of the imagination is this place a castle, but it surely is a triumph.

View from the battlements out to sea along the Otago Peninsula; the Harbour is t the left

We make our way up the narrow winding stone staircase to the fake battlements. Here we are 320 metres – around 1,000 feet – above the sea. The panoramic view down to Otago Harbour and along the Otago Peninsula is spectacular. It’s also a good place from which to appreciate the Castle gardens.

Colourful plantings

The visitor leaflet leaves us in no doubt as to the credentials of the gardens when it says:

A South Seas’ Garden between harbour and ocean, at 300 metres, Larnach Castle Garden feels close to the sky. Enclosures and spaces flow, one into another, from open colourful plantings to areas shaded and green, each with an ambience, an idea, and all leading on to the beautiful views.

SOURCE: Leaflet “Larnach Castle, Dunedin, New Zealand” received on the day of our visit, 22 November 2019

Flowery prose indeed. Sounds like hype, but to be fair the gardens really are rather good. While the Castle and its outbuildings were largely William Larnach’s creation, the gardens are mostly down to the Barkers.

An improvement in the weather (at last!) shows the gardens at their best

Having said that, a glass cupola on the lawn outside the front of the Castle dates from between 1927-39, when the property was owned by a Mr and Mrs Purdie.

Internal view of the cupola roof

There’s a bit of an Alice in Wonderland theme going on in parts of the garden, also dating from the Purdies’ time in the 1930s. The Purdies were fans of the English novelist Lewis Carroll and his young heroine, and the Barkers have maintained the tradition.

In November 2007 the Mayor of Dunedin unveiled a bronze sculpture of Alice to commemorate the 40 years of the Barker family’s guardianship of the Castle. The sculpture is by Christchurch sculptor Stephen Gleeson, and depicts the moment when Alice is about to play croquet with the Queen of Hearts, using a flamingo as a mallet and a curled up hedgehog for the ball. And they say the English are animal lovers…

Alice in Wonderland, about to be unspeakably cruel to a flamingo and a hedgehog

The garden is a fine, ongoing piece of work, and although we can see the city of Dunedin just beyond the harbour, the Castle and its gardens belong to a different world. I could happily stay longer here but we have to dash as we’re hoping to spend the afternoon in the company of penguins, and maybe the odd albatross or two.

From the garden, a view across Otago Harbour towards Dunedin

Larnach Castle is a quirky, unexpected find, but well worth a visit … as long as you’re not expecting to see a REAL castle, that is!


   

Auckland again

16 October 2019

For the second day in a row the weather blows a hole in our plans; once again we’re all dressed up with nowhere to go.  Although it’s stopped raining and the sun is out, today’s boat trip to Tiri Tiri Matangi island is cancelled due to strong winds.  It’s a particular disappointment for us as we’re keen birdwatchers, and the island is a bird reserve where we’d hoped to see some of New Zealand’s rarest native birds.

Our only hope for rescuing the day is a re-run of yesterday’s Plan B, so we head back to Hop-On-Hop-Off bus with the intention of hopping off at some different stops this time.   Our first destinations are the Church of St Mary, and Holy Trinity Cathedral which sits immediately next to it.

St Mary’s dates from the late nineteenth century. It’s a fine timber building, which also boasts a lectern made by the famous Yorkshire Mouseman furniture-maker, whose trademark is a small mouse carved on to every piece he makes.

St Mary’s started out as a parish church, albeit a somewhat grand one.  The first Bishop of Auckland was looking for somewhere to build his cathedral, and managed to acquire land opposite St Mary’s.  But due to shortage of funds it took nearly a century to complete the cathedral, and in the meantime St Mary’s acted as a stand-in.

From the outside Holy Trinity Cathedral looks modern and – to my eyes – rather uninviting, but inside it’s a bit of a stunner.  Interestingly it combines two starkly contrasting styles. The nave and the chancel are a massive stone affair, an attempt at replicating a grand English cathedral.  This, however, is where the project went bankrupt in the early twentieth century, and when work began again decades later ideas – as well as the budget – were very different. 

The main body of the cathedral is a thoroughly modern, cavernous, sweeping space, uninterrupted by pillars.  And the stained glass is to die for.

When the cathedral opened for business, St Mary’s began to fall into disrepair.  Fortunately this was recognised to be a mistake, and it was agreed to restore it.  But not before the church was relocated to stand immediately next to its feisty younger sister, the upstart cathedral.

So, the good burghers of Auckland jacked up St Mary’s until it was high enough to slip rollers underneath, and then towed it inch by painstaking inch across the road until it sat beneath the shadow of the cathedral.  Strange but true.

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Although we lucked out on visiting the island bird reserve today, Auckland is not without its ornithological attractions.  We spot a variety of birds during the course of our day in the city, and although most are familiar to us as birds introduced to New Zealand from Britain, we are pleased to come across a couple of native species. 

One of them is the Tui, an attractive bird which is about the size of a magpie and looks as if it’s wearing an iridescent blue suit and a white bow tie.  However, it’s very skittish, forever hopping between branches and refusing to pose for photographs. In the circumstances Mrs P does well to get a shot of it, especially without her long lens.

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Auckland is built on around 53 volcanoes.  None of them is still active, but they have been the major players in shaping the land upon which the city has grown up.  One of the most striking is Mount Eden, which is unmistakably a volcano when viewed from the rim into the remnants of the crater.  Close by is the Eden Park rugby union ground, where the All Blacks regularly strut their stuff.

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The Auckland Wintergardens is another unexpected Auckland bonus.  It comprises a pair of large, period glasshouses set at either end of a sunken courtyard.  The flower displays within the glasshouses are good and help brighten up the day, but in a city that apparently lacks many structures of real architectural merit it’s the buildings themselves that are the biggest attraction.  Full of character and clearly throwbacks to another era, they are definitely worth a visit.

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Once again the Hop-On-Hop-Off bus has shown us that there’s more to Auckland than meets the eye at first glance.  They say that it’s an ill wind that blows no good, so clearly the gales that prevented us visiting Tiri Tiri Matangi island today were not such an ill wind after all.

Gardens by the Bay

11/12/13 October 2019

Not content with growing the country’s economy, the Singapore government is also doing its best to grow its total acreage through a bit of ambitious land reclamation in the Marina Bay area.  Given the desperate shortage of usable land here it’s pleasing – and very surprising – that some of the new land that’s been created has been given over to the development of some fabulous public gardens.

Gardens by the Bay is an independent organisation responsible for developing and managing one of Asia’s foremost garden destinations…Bay South, the largest of the three gardens, opened in 2012. With its award-winning cooled conservatories and iconic Supertrees, Bay South has placed Singapore squarely on the international map and is a source of national pride. 

Source: https://www.gardensbythebay.com.sg/en/ retrieved 15/10/19

Two of the most impressive features are the massive conservatories.  Here’s what the official website says about the Flower Dome:

Step into the Flower Dome and stand in awe of nature. Spectacular and innovative, it is the largest glass greenhouse in the world as listed in the 2015 Guinness World Records! Be amazed by changing display of flowers and plants from the Mediterranean and semi-arid regions.

Source: https://www.gardensbythebay.com.sg/en/ retrieved 15/10/19

And not to be outdone, the good folk at Gardens by the Bay have built a second giant greenhouse replicating a cloud forest, including a 35 metres foliage-clad man-made mountain complete with cascading waterfall .  The official website invites us to:

Enter the Cloud Forest, a mysterious world veiled in mist. Take in breath-taking mountain views surrounded by diverse vegetation and hidden floral gems. And learn about rare plants and their fast-disappearing environment.

Source: https://www.gardensbythebay.com.sg/en/ retrieved 15/10/19

These two greenhouses are stunning structures, and the plants they showcase are equally superb. And to add a whimsical touch, scattered amongst the plants are sculptures of various characters from fiction and mythology, including a fierce dragon and the key players from Alice in Wonderland.

Moreover the air inside the greenhouses is cooled!  I’ve never before come across the concept of entering a greenhouse to cool off, but this is just what we find ourselves doing at Gardens by the Bay to escape Singapore’s oppressive heat.  It’s a surreal, unforgettable experience.

And I still haven’t told you about the very best bit of Gardens by the Bay!  Have you heard of Singapore’s Supertrees?

Measuring between 25 and 50 metres tall, Gardens by the Bay’s Supertrees are designed with large canopies that provide shade in the day and come alive with an exhilarating display of lights and sounds at night. Stand in awe amidst these iconic giants, or stroll along the 22-metre-high OCBC Skyway and enjoy panoramic vistas of the Gardens and the Marina Bay skyline.

Source: https://www.gardensbythebay.com.sg/en/ retrieved 15/10/19

When we came to Singapore three years ago we saw the son et lumiere display but didn’t manage to see the Supertrees in daylight.  This time we did, and they are truly, truly amazing. Words fail me, so I’ll let a few of Mrs P’s photos do the talking.

The greening of Singapore

11/12/13 October 2019

Singapore is tiny, a mere pimple at the toe-end of the Malay Peninsula. Tiny, but very, very crowded.

I find the numbers astonishing: Singapore has a land area of just 279 square miles, and yet it has a population of some 5.8 million people. By way of contrast, the figures for the UK are 95,000 square miles and 68 million people. In New Zealand, our final destination on this trip, the numbers are 103,000 square miles and just 4.8 million people.

To put it another way the population densities of the three countries are: Singapore 21,476 people per square mile, against 279 for the UK and just 47 for New Zealand. Singapore is the third most densely populated nation state in the world, after Monaco and Macau. The UK comes in 51st, while New Zealand lags way behind in 201st position.

This sounds like very bad news for Singapore and its residents. Any reasonable person would describe it as chronically overcrowded, with inevitable detrimental impacts on those living in it. It’s a recipe for a wretched environment, an ugly eyesore in which all living things other than humans are marginalised or absent altogether.

And yes, large areas of the city are profoundly ugly, dominated by clusters of utilitarian high-rise apartment blocks all linked together by the inevitable ribbons of tarmac. Yet our main memory from 2016 isn’t of ugliness, but rather of Singapore’s heroic attempt at damage limitation.

Huge efforts have been made to soften the harsh urban landscape with sympathetic planting of trees and flowering bushes. The city is plainly on a mission to do away with the grey and brighten up the bland.

The key objective of our 2019 visit is to delve further into the greening of Singapore, so we hot-foot it to the Botanic Gardens. And ‘hot-foot’ sums it up nicely: this place is steaming!

The Botanic Gardens, just 15 acres in area, is the first and only tropical botanic garden on the UNESCO’s World Heritage List. It was founded in 1859 and showcases the best and most spectacular of tropical flora set in stunning verdant landscape.

In many cities the Gardens may not generate much interest or support, but here they constitute a natural oasis in a dreary, largely monochrome urban desert. It’s interesting to see how many mums – or is it nannies? – are here, pushing babes around in buggies or walking hand-in-hand with toddlers. In a place like Singapore this has got to be good for the soul, and, just as important, it’s free.

But for us it’s the reptiles that steal the show, including a couple of huge Malaysian Water Monitor Lizards that look like extras from a Jurassic Park movie. It’s strangely thrilling to see such ancient beasts in a thoroughly modern metropolis. Click here to see my video of them – the first ever video on my new YouTube channel!

Located within the Botanic Gardens is a distinct and separately managed entity, the National Orchid Garden. It is claimed to have the largest display of tropical orchids anywhere in the world – there are over 60,000 orchids from 1,000 orchid species and 2,000 hybrids in its collection.

As we explore we spot a few that are familiar from our local supermarket and garden centre, but so many of the others are entirely new to us. They come in all shapes, sizes and colours, and are plainly thriving here.

The National Orchid Garden brings an extra dimension to the greening of Singapore, and lifts the spirits of residents and tourists alike when they need to escape for a while from the urban jungle.