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  • Writer's pictureNZ Booklovers

Homesteads by Debra Millar, photography by Jane Ussher

‘Oh, to be in England,’ must often have flashed through the minds of our pioneering pastoralists and fuelled their ambition to recreate English country manors here in New Zealand.

In Homesteads, a sumptuous coffee table book, Debra Millar set out (accompanied by photographer Jane Ussher) to find them, and to tell their stories. The search was narrowed down to 12 which were built in a span of 70 years from 1865 onwards and which are still lived in by descendants of the original owners or early buyers.

These homesteads were built using native timbers which were readily available here such as kauri, totara, rimu, and matai and occasionally out of bricks fired in local kilns. Although smaller than their English counterparts each is architecturally unique and stunningly beautiful

Debra tells how some began as smaller dwellings but as money poured in from wool sales and families grew, they added more storeys. Especially if they were situated in a remote location, additional buildings for the workers would have to be added. At Long Beach estate a whole self-contained village was built to service their workforce of 150 or more in the 1880’s.

Some of the homesteads are surrounded by park like gardens. At Mount Peel, its founders began to plant trees almost as soon as they took up the land in order to create a familiar English setting as well as to provide shelter from the harsh nor’westers. Some of the oldest exotic trees in South Canterbury, oaks, elms, cedar, and spruce, dating from 1862 are still standing there. A journal entry by J B Ackland written on December 29, 1856 shows his intention:

‘I hope, if I live, to do my share to reproduce England in this southern hemisphere.”

The present owners of these homesteads are passionate about wanting to retain them for future generations. But the money required and the work that needs to done to restore and maintain them can be huge. At Oruawharo Peter and Dianne Harris spent months on top of a ladder in the vast ballroom removing decades of dirt that had built up on the ornate rimu ceiling said to have been carved by a Scottish master craftsman.

I have so enjoyed lingering over Jane Ussher’s wonderful photographs, especially of the interiors. The original fittings, furniture, soft furnishings, and objects gave me a tantalising glimpse into the gracious privileged lifestyle of the ancestors whose portraits still hang on the walls.

‘Oh, to be in England,’ has also flashed through my mind rather often recently. We were supposed to be there this October but had to cancel our trip due to the pandemic. One of the highlights of our last visit was visiting some of the Historic Places Trust’s stately homes and gardens.

Homesteads has shown me that there are beautiful historical Homesteads waiting to be discovered in New Zealand too. It is time to stop dreaming about England, this is a great time to explore our own backyard!

Reviewer: Lyn Potter

Point Publishing. RRP $75.


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