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!


An unexpected delight: the Omaka Aviation Heritage Centre

30 October 2019

When we arrived here in New Zealand we had a fairly clear idea of what we were likely to see: some fantastic scenery, numerous rare and exotic birds, loads of vineyards, a few volcanoes, lots of sheep and cattle, a couple of glaciers, maybe even the odd Hobbit or two. What we never anticipated, and could never have imagined, was a world class aviation museum.

The Omaka Aviation Heritage Centre is the brainchild of local aviation enthusiasts, who set up the New Zealand Aviation Museum Trust in the late 1990s. But it was the involvement of fellow aviation aficionado Sir Peter Jackson, director of the Lord of the Rings movies, that moved the project to a different level.

Jackson has a particular interest in aircraft from World War 1, and his success in the movie business has enabled him to indulge his passion by purchasing a number original and replica planes from that period. In 2005 he agreed to display his private collection of Great War aircraft and artefacts at the Heritage Centre.

Just as important as the exhibits was the expertise that Jackson was able to bring to the project. The Centre’s philosophy was to avoid creating “a warehouse of relics,” and instead to use the machinery, artefacts and other devices to tell stories. Jackson’s connections in the movie industry enabled him to track down and employ experts who could create the dioramas and vignettes that would bring the stories to life.


Sir Peter Jackson’s private collection is displayed in the Knights of the Sky Great War exhibition, which occupies one hangar at the Centre. One of the most striking exhibits (below) is the Etrich Taube (Igor Etrich was the designer; taube is the German for dove).

By the standards of the day the Etrich Taube was an old plane, having first flown in 1910. It was used by the German military as an aerial observation post for monitoring enemy troop movements. It was ill-equipped for combat, and the diorama shows the observer taking a pot shot at an approaching British plane, while sitting behind him the pilot manoeuvres his aircraft.

The Curtiss MF Flying (above) was designed by American Glenn H. Curtiss, who is remembered for perfecting the seaplane. The model on display was built in Philadephia; it probably didn’t see active service, but was instead used as a training aircraft.

Perhaps the most interesting exhibit is the diorama illustrating the aftermath of the shooting down of the Red Baron’s iconic Fokker triplane. As a boy I can remember being thrilled by the stories of Baron von Richthofen’s skill and bravery. What I had not known, until we visited the Omaka Aviation Heritage Centre, was that there was a feeding frenzy of trophy hunters following the downing of the plane.


A second hangar houses the Dangerous Skies exhibition of World War 2 aircraft. These planes belong to the Trust rather than to Sir Peter Jackson, but the movie director’s influence is evident in the way they are displayed as well the lighting of the exhibits, which is superb.

Like most boys of my age growing up in the UK in the late 1950s / early 1960s, I was fascinated by World War 2. My father had fought in the conflict and told me the story of “his” war. He also encouraged an interest in World War 2 aircraft, and helped me make and paint Airfix models which “flew” suspended from a couple of strings strung across my bedroom ceiling.

One of my favourites was the German stuka (above), a dive bomber with an unmistakable wing-shape. It terrorised the Allies in the early years of the war, but was ultimately too sluggish to survive the attention of swifter and more manoeuvrable fighter planes.

And amongst the Allied fighter planes none was more iconic than the Spitfire (below). The aircraft on display is a late model, an upgrade on the one that fought in the Battle of Britain, and which “flew” – in kit form – suspended from my bedroom ceiling.

Nowhere is the commitment to telling a story better displayed than in the diorama featuring a Lockheed Hudson, an American-built light bomber and coastal reconnaissance aircraft which is suspended in a dramatic crash scene in the depths of a Pacific island jungle (below).


However the thing that made the greatest impression on me at Omaka Aviation Heritage Centre was not the aircraft on display, or even the dioramas in which the planes are set. Rather, it was the information panel about the Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA), one of four information boards about women’s role in the war.

The British military established the ATA in 1939 to ferry aircraft from factories and repair workshops around Britain to where they were needed for active service. Pilots were recruited from amongst groups considered unsuitable for active service due to age, gender or disability. Remarkably, in an age when equal pay wasn’t deemed worthy of serious consideration, ATA women were paid the same as men.

To illustrate the sexist thinking of the age, the panel quotes the editor of Aeroplane Magazine. He (and sure as hell, it was a he and not a she) declaimed as follows:

The menace is the woman who thinks she ought to be flying in a high-speed bomber when she really has not the intelligence to scrub the floor properly, or who wants to nose around as an Air Raid Warden and can’t yet cook her husband’s dinner.

Source: The editor of Aeroplane Magazine, quoted in a display panel at the Dangerous Skies Exhibition, as recorded on 29 October 2019

Wow, don’t hold back, will you! With this quotation the Aviation Heritage Centre transcends mere aviation history, and opens a window on serious social and cultural matters. While we know instinctively that many men must have held such views at the time, to see them set out so starkly in black and white is a shock. It’s easy sometimes, particularly for the older generation, to look back to the “good old days.” But the sad fact is that, so often and in so many ways, they weren’t actually very good at all.


The Omaka Aviation Heritage Centre is a truly remarkable museum. It would be remarkable anywhere in the world, but to find it here in an almost forgotten corner of New Zealand’s South Island is astonishing.

Although it touches on the role of New Zealanders in both wars it isn’t in any real sense a national museum, but rather a museum of two huge and horrible world conflicts fought thousands of miles away and, as we’ve seen, some social issues too. That the Centre is here and, by all accounts thriving – two more hangars are planned – is testimony to the vision, enthusiasm and sheer hard work of the Trust’s volunteers and Sir Peter Jackson.

Well done you guys, you’ve done a brilliant job and I’d like to think that as many people who pass this way – Kiwis and foreign tourists alike – will call in to admire what you’ve created at the Omaka airstrip on the outskirts of the little town of Blenheim on the South Island of New Zealand, somewhere in southern Pacific Ocean, a very long way from anywhere else.

It ain’t necessarily so

Back in the day, when our mortgage shackled us to the grindstone and retirement seemed like an impossible dream, I worked a while for The Organisation.  The boss made it his life’s work to big us up, forever flouncing around on the national stage, giving it large, telling everyone who’d listen – and those who wouldn’t, too, given half a chance – that The Organisation had it nailed, and led where the rest could only follow.

And guess what, everyone believed him.  Many’s the time we’d be at a conference when some poor star-struck soul would sidle up to one of us and whisper “Gee, you must so proud to work for The Organisation.  I mean, like, they’re so far ahead of the field.  If only my miserable little organisation could be as good as The Organisation.”  We lapped it up of course, thought we were the dog’s bollocks.   Only we weren’t.

It took a while for me to work it out, but the truth was that it was all puff and wind, that The Organisation was little better than average.  A veritable curate’s egg, good in some parts but mediocre in others.  Only in one thing did The Organisation truly excel, and that was in the management of its public image. 

I recount this story from my career in the 1990s only because, like The Organisation, New Zealand may be flattering to deceive.

New Zealand’s image is of a pristine land at the other end of the world, safely distant from the environmental woes that blight our own miserable existence.  According to this view the country is a natural paradise, all jagged peaks and imposing glaciers and raging rivers, a landscape stuffed full of charismatic wildlife and exotic vegetation.  Reflecting this utopian image, since 1999 the marketing guys at Tourism New Zealand having been running a campaign they call 100% Pure New Zealand. 

But it ain’t necessarily so.

In April 2019, a story in the Guardian told the world that “a report on the state of New Zealand’s environment has painted a bleak picture of catastrophic biodiversity loss, polluted waterways and the destructive rise of the dairy industry and urban sprawl.”

The report in question is “Environment Aotearoa 2019.”  It’s an impressive but sobering document which presents “nine priority environmental issues for us as a nation in 2019.” The priority themes identified in the report are as follows:

  1. “Our native plants, animals, and ecosystems are under threat.  Our unique native biodiversity is under significant pressure from introduced species, pollution, physical changes to our landscapes and coast, harvesting of wild species, and other factors. Almost 4,000 of our native species are currently threatened with or at risk of extinction.
  2. Changes to the vegetation on our land are degrading the soil and water.  Logging native forests, draining wetlands, and clearing land have degraded a range of benefits provided by native vegetation, accelerated our naturally high rates of soil loss, and affected our waterways.
  3. Urban growth is reducing versatile land and native biodiversity.  Growth of urban centres has led to land fragmentation and threatens the limited supply of versatile land near Auckland and other regional centres.
  4. Our waterways are polluted in farming areas.  Waterways in farming areas are polluted by excess nutrients, pathogens, and sediment. This threatens our freshwater ecosystems and cultural values, and may make our water unsafe for drinking and recreation.
  5. Our environment is polluted in urban areas.  Some of our cities and towns have polluted air, land, and water. This comes from home heating, vehicle use, industry, and disposal of waste, wastewater, and stormwater. Pollution affects ecosystems, health, and use of nature.
  6. Taking water changes flows which affects our freshwater ecosystems.  Using freshwater for hydroelectric generation, irrigation, domestic, and other purposes changes the water flows in rivers and aquifers. This affects freshwater ecosystems and the ways we relate to and use our waterways.
  7. The way we fish is affecting the health of our ocean environment.  Harvesting marine species affects the health of the marine environment and its social, cultural, and economic value to us. Fishing could change the relationship that future generations have with the sea and how they use its resources.
  8. New Zealand has high greenhouse gas emissions per person.  Our per-person rate of greenhouse gas emissions is one of the highest for an industrialised country. Most of our emissions in 2016 came from livestock and road transport.
  9. Climate change is already affecting Aotearoa New Zealand.  Changes to our climate are already being felt in our land, freshwater, and marine environments. We can expect further wide-ranging consequences for our culture, economy, infrastructure, coasts, and native species.”

So, there we are, “100% Pure New Zealand” isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.  No surprises there, I suppose.  I’ve never yet met a marketing man who didn’t gloss over inconvenient truths, so why should Kiwis be any different? 

It is to New Zealand’s credit that it has done the research and gone public with a report that so compellingly undermines the country’s own self-image and international brand.  But the real test will be whether the report will lead to positive actions that tackle the issues it raises.  I’m an old cynic and so have my doubts, but I look forward to being proved wrong.

New Zealand Bird of the Year, 2017

And the winner is … the Kea

For the last 13 years New Zealand has held a Bird of the Year competition.  Run by the conservation organisation Forest & Bird, it enables the nation to vote for its favourite native bird.  It sounds like a brilliant initiative to get the population engaged with its bird life.  By all accounts there’s lots of media attention, which ensures that conservation gets plenty of air time and column inches.  In 2017, more 50,000 votes were cast, with the final winner being the kea, or mountain parrot.

File:Kea (mountain parrot).jpg
Kea.  Photo credit: By Mickaël T. (Kea (mountain parrot)) [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Forest & Bird say of the kea, which scored 7,311 votes on the poll:

‘Kea are unashamedly reckless. Whether they are testing your car, your brand new alpine tent or your lunch, they certainly make themselves known. Their cheeky antics and curious behaviour often lands them in a whole lot of trouble, landing them the notorious title of ‘clown of the mountains.

Kea are social, raucous, colourful, bold and highly intelligent. But they are now becoming conspicuous by their absence with some reports suggesting they are declining in the wild. Aside from threats such as human foods and materials, traffic, lead poisoning, hunting and illegal wildlife trading, kea are threatened by some of the very things that are set up to help protect them, like predator traps.

David Attenborough famously fell in love the kea; he describes their cheeky – and occasionally destructive – personalities in this film on YouTube.  With his endorsement, the kea was always going to be a contender.  Although they are critically endangered they are often seen at Arthur’s Pass on South Island, where they spend their days trying to shred or nick the windscreen wipers from parked cars.  Arthur’s Pass is, of course, included in our itinerary, and we’re hoping that we may be lucky enough to see a kea there.

I wonder if our car insurance will cover vandalism by a parrot?


The Bird of the Year competition plainly captures the public’s imagination.  Passions become inflamed, and some folk even resort to underhand methods to boost the chances of their preferred bird.  The rules state “one person, one vote”, but in 2017 the competition was rocked by reports that an unnamed Christchurch resident set up 112 email accounts to vote for his (or her?) personal favourite, the white-faced heron.  Shame on him, or indeed her!

Herons have a special place in my heart too, for a very personal reason  After my dad died, Mrs P and I started taking mum out with us on local bird watching trips.  She fell in love with herons, and was always thrilled to see them.  It made birthdays and Christmases so much easier for us – just buy mum a picture of a heron, or a heron T-shirt or a heron carving and she’ll be as happy as Larry. 

Now, my mum was a very proper lady and wouldn’t have publicly condoned what happened in 2017, but I bet that wherever she is now she’ll give a little cheer when she finds out just what people will do in support of her beloved herons.  Good on yer, mum.

The first step

To be honest, I never really saw the point of New Zealand.

Poor bloody New Zealand: so far from civilisation, so close to Australia. Why bother? I always thought, who cares?

School didn’t help much. As far as my education was concerned New Zealand didn’t exist. My A-level geography teacher, Laurie Elliott, got some sort of bursary to spend a few months in Australia. As a result, upon his return I learned more about merino sheep and outback iron ore deposits than any English teenager could reasonably wish to know. But on the subject of New Zealand Mr E remained totally silent, and, if it were not for the exploits of the All Blacks knocking seven shades out of the home nations at every available opportunity, it would never have registered on my consciousness at all.

Julie, however, has always wanted to go to New Zealand, and who am I to argue? We’ve got the time and the money so what the hell we thought, we’ll give it a go.  We’ve done plenty of road trips in the USA and Canada, and even spent a month touring Tasmania, so how hard can it be to drive through New Zealand?  If we’re very lucky, we might even run into a kiwi!

Embed from Getty Images

We are agreed that it will be a once in a lifetime trip so we have to get the itinerary right. Tailor made by an expert. With that in mind we contact New Zealand in Depth. We meet with founder and top guy Paul Carberry at his offices in Buxton, where he tries to understand what we want from our trip.

Paul is vastly knowledgeable and passionate about New Zealand. He offers advice on the best time to see penguins, waxes lyrical on landscapes we shouldn’t miss, and cautions against “cheesy” Maori experiences, proposing instead some more authentic alternatives.

And most importantly, Paul never once mentions bungee jumps, zip wires or Lord of the Rings, so our trip should be safe in his hands. We await his draft itinerary with eager anticipation.