50 years at Larnach Castle


Sunday Star Times Reports:

It was a New Zealand road trip that ended with a young couple buying a castle.

In the summer of 1967 a pregnant Margaret Barker and her then husband Barry toured the South Island in a Kombi van.

"It was the sixties - that is what you did in the sixties."

When the Wellington couple's spluttering Kombi made it to Dunedin, they headed for the Otago Peninsula; home of Larnach Castle.

Set among 35 acres of land, the castle was built in 1871 by businessman and politician William Larnach for his beloved wife Eliza.

Larnach spared no expense on the 43-room build. They used Italian marble, Venetian glass and cobblestones from Marseilles - but fast forward to 1967 and the castle had clearly seen better days.

Margaret Barker, 74, says she knew nothing of the castle or Larnach, who shot himself himself with a revolver in Parliament buildings in October 1898, before visiting the historic home.

The couple found the castle was closed, it only opened some of the time. When Barry returned another time he told the owner: "I wish it was mine."

"He said you can have it and that is what happened. It happened on the doorstep," says Barker.

Other potential buyers were unable to come up with a deposit, so the young couple found themselves the proud owner of their very own castle.

"My mother was horrified, but my father thought it was a good idea."

Within a fortnight the couple had left their jobs for a new life in Dunedin.

Barker said the couple did not do due diligence on the property, bought for an undisclosed sum, but had no regrets when they moved in on March 3, 1967.

"It was big and mysterious - there was a lot of unknowns."

And they were not just buying a castle, but "buying a liability".

That included a kitchen without a floor, plumbing that didn't work, a lack of fresh water, and electrical wiring that "kept on blowing up, things like that", she said.

Their daughter, Sophie, was born six weeks later, and the young family found themselves in a cold, wet, castle with a newborn baby and a Dunedin winter fast approaching.

Nevertheless her husband saw the potential in the castle and a tourism industry still in its infancy.

"We hadn't intended to open straight away, but people just started arriving so we went with the flow," she adds.

"But people weren't enamoured with it, because it was empty."

Their plan to restore the historic building was also going against a trend of knocking old buildings down, with Dunedin's iconic stock exchange falling victim to the concrete wrecking ball of 'progress' in 1969.

The most unusual find during that period was a signal cannon thrown down a wishing well, during a party in the 1930s.

The couple's son, Norcombe, was also sent "down the well" on occasions, which involved sticking a foot in some looped rope towed by a tractor in order to retrieve items lost by tourists.

The well was "shaped like a sherry bottle", and one of the highlights/lowlights of his exploring was seeing a "rat with mould on it floating in and out".

The 48-year-old, who lives near the castle, said his earliest memory was when it was raining outside "it was raining inside".

"Our job was to run to the kitchen and grab the pots and pans, because it used to leak everywhere."

When the bottom floor of the castle was replaced, they found it was rotten.

He has vivid memories of  exploring the castle's roof and throwing snowballs at tourist with his mates on a snowy day.

"But we ran out of snowballs so we grabbed the scones from the tearooms and threw them at the tourists instead."

One of his mantras that he learned over time: Never annoy parents who have an actual dungeon at their disposal.

Norcombe said he slept in many different rooms over time, as they were renovated in stages, but the downside to that was he was always in the worst room.

While a student in Wellington he recalled having 'Larnach Castle' listed as his address on his driver's licence was a drawback as he couldn't buy booze, as proprietors simply didn't believe he lived in a castle.​

After his studies, Norcombe returned to the family business to become an executive director around the same time his parent's marriage ended. Barry Barker died in 2007.

Norcombe said he wanted to realise the castle's massive potential.

However it required a large amount of money to re-position the tourist attraction to a high-end market: which was attracting visitors from England, Australia, and increasingly China.

"It was boots 'n all, either we chug along or we borrow a heap of money."

That decision to invest in the castle transformed the business from turning over a couple of hundred thousand dollars to a multimillion dollar business employing almost hundred people.

"We are a conservation and restoration project and we balance that by being an economic entity," Norcombe says.

And the key lesson when contemplating buying a castle?

"It is not the buying, it is the keeping."

Keeping the property water tight was an enormous undertaking, but the building itself was "very well built', and has met 100% of earthquake code.

But the garden presented a different challenge.  Larnach had the soil scraped back to the bluestone rock and planted shelter trees right up to the house.

Now the castle's gardens were recognised as a 'garden of international significance', with Margaret Barker still taking garden tours.

Despite people talking about the castle being haunted, which has even attracted the international attention of an American ghost hunting tv show, Norcombe Barker only experienced a few moments he couldn't explain.

Those moments included his normally quiet dog barking behind a door, and while working on reception one day when an ashen faced man claimed he had been spooked by the ghost of Larnach himself.

Margaret Barker says the ghostly moment that stood out for her was during the castle premier of a play about Larnach: 'Castle of Lies'.

That night a storm whipped though Dunedin, and the moment Larnach shot himself a "bright white flash of light" lit up the room, she adds.

But rather than the work of a special effects, the key moment coincided with a flash of lightning from outside.

Meanwhile, the business bought a neighbouring property, now converted into luxury accommodation and which had attracted VIPs, not that Margaret and Norcombe were in the business of naming names.

"We have had a few, and we have to keep our lips sealed," says Margaret.

Both mother and son said their time at the castle made them appreciate that it was something more than an "old building".

"Larnach is part of our colonial history," Norcombe explains, "it is the founding of a young country".

But as a castle it is no longer alone.

Norcombe confirmed the marketing for Larnach Castle had changed in recent years, partly driven by a castle being built at Riverstone, near Oamaru.

So that catchphrase "New Zealand's only castle", has been tweaked to "New Zealand's castle".

"That gives a sense of ownership," Margaret Barker says.

And the family's ownership of the castle will be celebrated in a special '50 years at the Castle - the Barker Story Exhibition', to be open to the public on March 3.

"It has been quite a journey," Barker says. 

View the original story on stuff.co.nz

Qualmark Endorsed Visitor Activity
New Zealand Gardens Trust
Landmarks New Zealand
Tiaki - Care for New Zealand

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