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The Garden at Larnach CastleBOOK REVIEWS

The Garden at Larnach Castle:
A New Zealand story

By Margaret Barker
Published by David Bateman, Auckland
Hardback, 159 pages, 245 x 275mm, New Zealand, 2006
ISBN-13: 978-1-86953-639-8
ISBN-10: 1-86953-639-8.

Reviewed by Murray Dawson

Larnach Castle is truly unique. Located on the Otago Peninsula near Dunedin, it is New Zealand's only castle.

The Garden at Larnach Castle: A New Zealand story is written by the castle owner, Margaret Barker, and recounts her families' personal journey of some 40 years transforming the castle and grounds from a near ruin into the award winning tourist attraction of today. The garden is of National Significance, as first assessed by the RNZIH New Zealand Gardens Trust in 2004.

Many famous buildings of the world are also renowned for their associated gardens - UK has Hampton Court Palace in London and Sissinghurst in Kent, France has Versailles and Monet's former home Giverny, and Italy has Villa Aldobrandini and Villa d'Este, to name but a few. Equally, the gardens at Larnach Castle are an essential living companion and also steeped in history.

The Prologue of the book sets the scene with the Barker's first sight of the Castle in 1967: "The tangle of overgrowth opened out and suddenly it was before us, Larnach Castle, dreaming in the summer sun of lost days of grandeur", and the Barker's decision to buy it was made there and then.

The first chapter provides a brief biography of William Larnach's life, explaining that he became wealthy on the back of Otago's goldrush, started work building the castle in the 1870s, and later became bankrupt and took his own life in Parliament buildings in 1898. The Castle was stripped of assets, taken over by the state and used as a mental hospital for several years, before passing through several owners, most notably the Purdies.

The early years of the Barkers' guardianship is told in Chapter 2, which recounts the great challenges faced getting the Castle buildings functional while raising a young family and looking after elderly parents at the same time. The first paragraph sums it up: "The Castle roof was shot, essential services were unreliable, floors unstable . It was bitterly cold and damp . and we had a baby on the way".

The remaining 10 chapters trace the development of particular garden areas in the Larnach Castle estate.

Aside from large-scale weed management and clearance of out-of-control trees and shrubs, the first major project was restoration of Mr and Mrs Purdie's original rock garden (Chapter 3) that was completely lost in overgrowth.

Development of the "Serpentine Walk" is described in Chapter 4, so called because it is a curvy path designed to slow people down so that they can enjoy the adjacent perennial border. The plants in this border have been carefully chosen to provide colour and interest throughout the year.

Chapter 5 covers the patterned garden established to link the former ballroom, now a café, to the outside eating area. To create this outdoor flow, a window had to be replaced by a new door constructed by craftsmen using castings and materials copied from an original door elsewhere in the Castle.

And so the stories flow over the subsequent chapters. This book is well illustrated with some 150 carefully chosen photographs, mostly in colour, but also including historic black and white photos of the Castle and grounds.

A recurrent theme that comes through in this book is that gardens are living works and never truly finished. The Larnach Castle gardens have been influenced in different ways and at different times by Margaret Barker's travels to other great gardens of the world and to 'nature's gardens' - intrepid adventures in the wilds of South America, China, Tasmania, Lord Howe Island, the Chatham Islands, and the subantarctic islands of New Zealand.

Many of the plants used and fashions followed in other great gardens, such as extensive rose beds, were found to be unsuited to the soil and climatic conditions of the Otago Peninsula. This is where Margaret Barker instead took her inspiration from nature, planting more New Zealand native plants and cool-temperate Pacific plants. This also provides a uniquely New Zealand context to the gardens. In the so-named South Seas garden (Chapter 10), much of the extensive Rhododendron collection was replaced with nikau palms and other coastal and island plants.

Margaret Barker is always willing to replant, redevelop, and refine her ideas, and these are the sure signs of an expert plantswoman. And what an achievement to have the Poor Knights lily Xeronema callistemon from the far north thriving in the same grounds as the subantarctic megaherb Stilbocarpa polaris!

This is more than just a garden book; it documents an important part of the Castle's history and garden legacy. This record will, thanks to the author and current owner, endure for future generations.

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Last updated: March 1, 2021