State of Grace
Daresbury. the name alone conjures up visions of a Jag purring up a driveway towards some stately pile set like a gem in the green baize countryside of the Home Counties. But this house is in Christchurch – Fendalton, admittedly – and I’ve arrived in a borrowed Subaru with multiple dents. The thought of parking it in front of one of Canterbury’s grandest homes, which at times during its 110-plus years has been a residence for visiting royalty, could test my egalitarian instincts.
But any discomfort evaporates the moment Libby Glass opens the imposing front door. With her husband Denver, she has owned Daresbury for the past 18 months and is bursting to share her enthusiasm for a house she fell in love with as a child.
She’s also thoroughly down to earth. When asked later about where she and Denver come from – as she rightly guesses, it’s a not-so-subtle enquiry as to the source of their wealth – the answer is, “A pig farm in Burnham”.
(A very big pig farm, as it turns out; Denver, originally from Ireland, is the founder and chairman of Freshpork, one of the biggest players in the New Zealand pork industry.)
Designed and built in the last years of the 19th century by Samuel Hurst Seager for the wine and spirits merchant George Humphreys, Daresbury even overshadows neighbouring Mona Vale as an expression of the English Domestic Revival style – all dominant roof gables, towering chimneys and, inside, endless arches and beams of kauri.
With lawns rolling gently to the stream’s edge, fountains and heritage oaks, the 0.9ha property – all that remains of the original 10ha – could be the setting for a portrait of landed gentry. Yet Libby says she has never felt she was living in an institution at Daresbury, and that her emotional connection with the house began long before she ever set foot inside.
“I was brought up just around the corner and my mother had a good friend she used to visit who lived in a house behind Daresbury. I would always look over the fence. So it had a fascination for me even then. Moving in really felt like coming home; like I belonged.”
As it happens, Libby has “come home” twice to Daresbury; she and Denver first bought the house five years ago, but for business reasons had to sell soon after. “I was pining to get back the whole time. Now we’re back and we love it.”
In fact, the first time they owned it they never actually moved in. Instead, they spent the time making things safe. The house had 50 rooms and was once home to five live-in staff, but it needed work.
“It was just about falling down. We rebuilt the chimneys. The floor was rotten. The Historic Places Trust [Daresbury is a listed building] said that if we’d left it much longer it would just about have fallen over there was so much water damage. It took us a year to fix it.”
Between them, Libby and Denver have seven adult children and 18 grandchildren – the kids love exploring Daresbury, she says. With its vast scope and nooks and crannies, it must feel a little like being in the house of the Narnian wardrobe. Usually, however, it is just the two of them at home. Don’t they feel as if they’re rattling around in such a huge house?
“Not really,” says Libby, who takes care of Daresbury and its cleaning without any staff.
“I think you grow into a space. A lot of the rooms were shut up when we arrived, but we like to have them all open.”
A previous owner was a game shooter and the house was full of stuffed animals, including a polar bear. Having shored up the place when they first bought it, this time Libby has dedicated herself to making over the interior. In place of the taxidermal menagerie now are paintings – many by Libby’s late mother Vy Elsom, who painted portraits of Dame Ngaio Marsh and the Queen – and pieces of furniture found during her regular forays to Christchurch’s antiques dealers – “I love the hunt,” she says.
It’s a style in which the grand sits alongside the homely, so you move from the magnificent dining room, where fencing foils are crossed on the wall (they belonged to Libby’s father, who represented New Zealand at the Empire games), to a snug sewing room or a corridor lined with Glass children’s portraits.
Libby, who spent the first 20 years of her working life as a nurse, once ran a boutique and says she’s always loved interiors, colour and furniture. “My family is artistic. I don’t consider I am, but I love putting things together.”
With such a vast canvas, she is going to be busy for some time. There’s a herb garden to put in, possibly a spa room, some landscaping around the fountain and a much bigger project clearing the stream of noxious plants and transforming its banks into a woodland. “It’s not the sort of place you ever expect to see completely done,” she says.
Across the stream we take a seat on a bench recently uncovered from a wild tangle of rhododendrons. Looking back at Daresbury, Libby remarks that it’s likely no one else has had this particular view of the house for 50 years, perhaps longer. All that history and we are seeing it in an almost new light.
It is an imposing sight – grand chimneys and roof lines, seen across a manicured lawn. But what Libby sees is a family home. “It looks like a happy house, doesn’t it?”
For web-exclusive images click on the "photo gallery" link above.
Story: MATT PHILP
Photographs: DANIEL ALLEN