The queen of Oa­maru’s River­stone Cas­tle gives us an ex­clu­sive tour of her re­mark­able new home.

As a child Dot Smith dreamed of liv­ing in a cas­tle. With de­ter­mi­na­tion, she made it hap­pen

NZ House & Garden - - CONTENTS - WORDS SUE HOF­FART / PHO­TO­GRAPHS JANE USSHER

In some re­spects, Dot Smith’s life re­sem­bles the fairy tales she de­voured as a child. The queen of Oa­maru’s dis­tinc­tive stone cas­tle was raised in a farm­house, with four sis­ters, few ma­te­rial pos­ses­sions and a wild imag­i­na­tion. Over the decades, for­tunes were made and lost, hard­ships were en­dured and even Cin­derella might have baulked at the length of Dot’s work­ing days. Through it all, she re­mained de­ter­mined to one day re­side in a cas­tle.

Now, at age 70, the fear­somely hard-work­ing, en­tre­pre­neur­ial grand­mother is pre­par­ing to move into a stone abode with her stead­fast prince.

“He’s the most un­pre­ten­tious man you’ve ever met, in his old hat, gum­boots, driv­ing the ute with his farm dogs on the back,” Dot says of her dairy farmer hus­band Neil. “But he just be­lieves in me.”

While the cas­tle dream be­longs to Dot, Neil has unswerv­ingly en­dorsed his wife’s goal. How­ever, he has some def­i­nite ideas about the in­te­rior, of­ten steer­ing Dot away from me­dieval decor choices. When she planned a rus­tic stone kitchen, he pointed firmly to pho­to­graphs of a tra­di­tional English farm­house. >

“He loves beau­ti­ful things. I’d show him what I was look­ing at and he’d say, ‘No, I don’t like that, it’s too rough.’ He wanted a palace, I wanted a cas­tle. We now have a lit­tle of both.”

In­spi­ra­tion has come from their vis­its to grand Euro­pean palaces and cathe­drals, but at one stage Dot’s cas­tle as­pi­ra­tion seemed far from her reach. In 1983, the Smiths moved their two young sons from a North­land farm to a dif­fi­cult “pick and crow­bar” block near the Waitaki river. Rock­et­ing in­ter­est rates squeezed their fi­nances as Dot shiv­ered in the ex­posed new home.

“We had a very, very ba­sic small cot­tage plonked on the edge of the prop­erty, right next to the state high­way and main trunk line. It was so cold and windswept, no paths or clothes­line. There wasn’t one tree, no soil, no fence, no shel­ter. It was just bloody aw­ful. I used to cry at night, ‘What are we do­ing here?’”

But she grit­ted her teeth and milked cows, fer­ried the chil­dren to school and be­gan to forge a gar­den along­side the cot­tage.

While Neil farmed, she grew flow­ers that could be dried and sold. When the flow­ers threat­ened to over­take their house (the ceil­ings were strung with gyp­sophila and stat­ice) she moved her blooms into the barn. Her flo­ral party plan busi­ness ex­panded and she found her­self with a staff of three. Now flow­ers have given way to a gift and home­ware com­plex be­side the fam­ily’s award-win­ning restau­rant River­stone Kitchen. Chef son Be­van runs the restau­rant while older son Mike owns land and dairy farms nearby. >

Dot’s home gar­den has ex­panded into a re­mark­ably lush 4ha oa­sis, fed by straw mulch and cow ma­nure. Restau­rant and re­tail visi­tors can wan­der among or­chard and berry canes, dec­o­ra­tive gar­dens, aviaries and vast tracts of pro­duc­tive veg­etable beds. Although she now has three gar­den­ers, Dot is of­ten found toil­ing there long af­ter ev­ery­one has gone home, Ja­panese hoe in hand.

She has spent decades gather­ing English an­tiques, mir­rors, paint­ings, fab­rics, suits of ar­mour and great swathes of dec­o­ra­tive crockery to furnish her home. She trav­elled to China to buy ev­ery­thing from mar­ble floor­ing and chan­de­liers to be­spoke rugs that were made to her de­sign us­ing New Zealand wool. She has clung to men­tal images of gar­goyles and tur­rets and de­voted hun­dreds of hours to on­line de­sign web­sites, tear­ing pages from mag­a­zines and stash­ing away ideas be­fore en­gag­ing Wanaka ar­chi­tect Sarah Scott to trans­late the images in her head.

Oa­maru builder Mike Spiers used 20,000 lo­cally made con­crete blocks and 150 tonnes of lo­cally quar­ried Oa­maru stone. >

For now, the Smiths re­main in their orig­i­nal cot­tage. Once the land­scap­ing is fur­ther along, they will move across the moat to their 1200sqm home. It took five years to build the cas­tle and al­most three months to cre­ate the ad­ja­cent lake that Neil swims in and kayaks on along­side the grand­chil­dren. He keeps his kayak in a hid­den tun­nel lead­ing from the dun­geon.

He is one of the few who can keep up with this wife, the restau­ra­teur, gar­dener and re­tailer who is prone to out­breaks of laughter and cre­ativ­ity. She sings and plays the pi­ano and is a whizz at jams and chut­neys. Ear­lier this year, Dot helped pick then tram­ple a vint­ner’s left­over pinot noir grapes to ex­tract juice for her new sug­ar­less jam. She sews and knits – her hand­made tea cosy col­lec­tion is fan­tas­tic – and is teach­ing her­self to paint in a room above the cas­tle garage.

She is also prac­ti­cal.

“No one builds a cas­tle solely on imag­i­na­tion and dreams. A crazy project like this takes a lot of money, a lot of willpower and a huge num­ber of clever peo­ple.”

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