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
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.”