Covid comes to Downton: Where face masks are more regal

Otahuna's daffodils. Photo: Thomas Bywater
Otahuna's daffodils. Photo: Thomas Bywater
If upstairs, downstairs drama is what defines the classic country pile, Otahuna Lodge near Christchurch is no exception, writes Thomas Bywater.

The device of being able to float between the floors like a dumbwaiter is the stuff of sprawling TV series. From Brideshead to Gosford Park, there's a fascination with the stately home and those who live there. Eavesdropping on the lives of those at every station.

From the pampered, slightly oblivious concerns of genteel house guests, through the chorus of valets, butlers, charwomen, chefs and gardeners - even out into the stables and pigsty - you get the feeling of just how many lives have been crammed into the old house in rural Tai Tapu, just south of Christchurch.

Everything has its role, with parts pre-written as if by a lazy screenwriter. Which is why the newly renovated loft suite at Otahuna is so refreshing.

The old staff quarters have been reimagined as luxurious guest lodgings. Not quite ripping up the script, but certainly ad-libbing a few 21-century comforts into the space. Such as the heated bathroom tiles and Bluetooth sound system.

There have been quite a few changes since the abode was first built by Heaton Rhodes 125 years ago.

The 125-year-old Otahuna Lodge is royally approved accommodation near Christchurch. Photo /...
The 125-year-old Otahuna Lodge is royally approved accommodation near Christchurch. Photo / Thomas Bywater
It's not just the old servants' rooms that have had to be revised for the current challenges facing the 19th-century manor; driving up the daffodil-lined parade to be greeted by attentive house staff has a timeless charm, even in the era of the coronavirus. Although cloth face masks and respectful distance kept by staff are a rude interruption to the Belle Epoque atmosphere.

"Covid Comes to Downton" is not an episode anyone had planned for.

Otahuna Lodge has coped as it always has. The estate has survived two earthquakes and a pandemic, and that's only since 2006 when the current owners moved in.

Waiting at the entrance is managing director Hall Cannon.

The American expat has the assured demeanour of someone who has seen the chimneys fall down around him, twice. Compared to quake repairs, coronavirus-proofing the house has been relatively straightforward.

"Oddly we're really well suited to this current 'bubble' environment," he says.

Moving dinner guests to hidden alcoves and reading rooms has been a delightfully eccentric approach to social distancing. Antichambers and drawing rooms are surprisingly helpful to both the plots of cheap murder mysteries and keeping dining parties separated.

The Loft Suite is in the space of Otahuna's old servants' quarters. Photo: Thomas Bywater
The Loft Suite is in the space of Otahuna's old servants' quarters. Photo: Thomas Bywater
Rebuilding Otahuna has been a 15-year project for Hall and Miles Refo and each one of the estate's rooms has been carefully refurbished by the current owners.

"We bought the house, it was entirely empty," he says. "All the fabric and furniture is entirely new."

The only reference he and Refo had for restoring the place were images from the Turnbull Library archives and a large dresser, which he presumes was too large to take.

Looking around now it's hard to believe. The rest of the house has been filled with rimu and native hardwood furniture, which appears to be at home in the 1800s country pile.

At sign-in, next to the yellow QR code, is an extraordinary visitors' book.

Previous guests have included the future King of England and current Prince of Wales (the same person, apparently). It is as crammed full of titles as an edition of A & C Black' Who's Who.

Photo: Thomas Bywater
Photo: Thomas Bywater
It's unlikely any of these previous esteemed guests are aware of the new ways in which Otahuna Lodge has passed the most recent coronavirus lockdown; the refurbishment of the Loft Suite being one.

Previously the servants' quarters, there has been something of a role reversal. Dark wood and rich fabrics have been replaced with more contemporary trimmings. Crisp green and white paint, ceramic tables and framed artworks make it refreshingly modern. Although detailed flourishes of Victorian textiles help earth it in a style that is distinctly Otahuna.

A lot of insulation and heated tiles in the large, tiled bathroom have managed to turn the old servants' rooms into a secluded hideaway at the top of the servants' stairs.

The tight wind of three flights of steps may not be as grand as the dark rimu balustrades in the entrance hall, but this is the staircase that keeps Otahuna moving behind the scenes.

What Hall calls his "Lockdown Project", the loft was originally three separate staff bedrooms knocked through into a single spacious suite.

It still has a lot of the original features of the attic space including a trapdoor and pulley and - less practically - low, sloping ceilings.

"In the original room was a lot of dark panelling, but we wanted to lighten it and brighten it and synthesise some of the things we've learned from Otahuna over the past 15 years," Hall says.

120 years ago, pressed up against the rafters, these were the most modest rooms in the house.

Photo: Thomas Bywater
Photo: Thomas Bywater
However, even then, they had the best views. Windows open out towards the Southern Alps over gardens and a carpet of spring daffodils.

"Otahuna's daffodils are really significant to us. We think it's the first planting of daffodils in New Zealand. Heaton brought out varietals of daffodils from the UK and hybridised them here.

Although, briefly lived, once a year the gardens are covered in a bright blanket of them.

"We now have around one million bulbs that bloom every year."

The jolly yellow flowers were the first thing planted by the Cantabrian patriarch. They were clearly an important part of his Anglo affectations. They appear in some of the earliest photos of Otahuna, dating back to the completion of the manor.

There, like an English gent in his hunting tweed is Heaton Rhodes, surrounded by the flowers and a pack of 12 beagles. With the paint still fresh on the house and the gardens just planted, it's an odd scene. "We have no idea what they were hunting," says Hall.

However, there's no time to worry about country pursuits.

Otahuna's Daffodils. Photo: Thomas Bywater
Otahuna's Daffodils. Photo: Thomas Bywater
Dinner is served in the library. Surrounded by copies of Otahuna's history and board games, it was the cosiest of options for a private dining room. Of course, there was a boxed set of Cluedo.

House cocktails are an Otahuna Old Fashioned and the delightfully named Drunk Wood Pigeon. Inspired by the Kereru who help themselves to fermenting blackcurrants, it is made from gin, cassis syrup and botanicals from the kitchen garden.

Chef Chris Pritchard's menu is equally inspired by Anglo-Cantabrian heritage - roast Canterbury duck and celeriac puree drowned in red wine jus. A delicious medley of indistinguishable garden vegetables and shades of rich brown.

Not the most attractive plate of food, though authentic to the English-inspired cuisine and Tai Tapu produce, it's perfect served in a private dining room in front of a roaring fire, and accompanied by a bottle of Craggy Range Te Kahu Merlot.

Private dining in the Otahuna reading room. Photo: Thomas Bywater
Private dining in the Otahuna reading room. Photo: Thomas Bywater
Downstairs, upstairs - well-fed and back in the Loft Suite, there is a surprise waiting.

On the freshly made bed is a single sheet of paper detailing the daily schedule of Joan Wood, housemaid at Otahuna in 1936.

Hers was a monastic existence With duties beginning at 6am and finishing at sundown, she would have known the tight wind of the servants' stairs intimately. Her weekly wage was 22 shillings and sixpence a week, or around $115.

Joan married the gardener Forrest Wood.

Otahuna staff. Photo: Supplied / Relais and Chateux
Otahuna staff. Photo: Supplied / Relais and Chateux
The suitably named gardener visited Otahuna in 2006 shortly after Hall and Refo moved in at the grand age of 97.

Sitting in the remodelled Loft Suite, reading about the lives it once contained, the newest addition to Otahuna feels like a fitting update. I'm sure Forrest and Joan would have approved.

  • Check alert level restrictions and Ministry of Health advice before travel - covid19.govt.nz

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