Is romance dead? Or is it just looking a little battered around the edges? Perhaps we’re looking in the wrong places. Take Carterton, for instance – a pleasant but prosaic service town in the Wairarapa. Who would guess that it contains a fretworked and finialed lodge with a colonial ballroom and a ghost? That, hidden behind foliage of Sleeping Beauty proportions, is a house that magically expands to become bigger on the inside than it is on the outside?
Time for a dose of reality? Well, like most big old houses, there’s the occasional problem with rats in the roof. The ballroom is impossible to keep warm during winter and the ghost has been known to turn the stereo on at 2am. And the magical expanding interior? That’s a peculiar alchemy of architecture, space and proportion known only to its original builders.
Luckily, Carrington Lodge has found its perfect owners – people who are in love with full-blown romance yet equally alive to the necessity of keeping things real. Interiors and jewellery designer Liz Mark and musician/IT expert Nik Brown, of the Warratahs, first saw their pocket mansion 17 years ago on a Saturday morning. By Sunday evening it was theirs. “It’s a lovely, old, unusual English house,” says Liz. “I often say to people, ‘It’s quite rumpty’, and when I say that I mean it’s still got all its quirks. It’s not perfect, which I like. Like people, it shows its life and its age.”
It does that all right. There’s a walk-in meat safe in the garden and an old schoolhouse that Liz and Nik use as a junk room (though one day they’d like to turn it into a guest house). The swimming pool is rumoured to be the first ever built in the Wairarapa. Gothic windows feature in the little tongue-and-groove conservatory and the house was once a doctor’s rooms. Liz and Nik sleep in what they think was the surgery. (The doctor, by the way, is strongly suspected of being the ghost. Both Nik and his son Liam have been woken up by someone sitting on their beds and breathing on them. It seems a doctorly kind of thing to do.)
The speech-writer was newly arrived from Panama, where an internal garden was just the thing in tropical weather. Then he got his first taste of a Wairarapa winter. “I would say it was probably filled in pretty quickly,” says Liz. Romance interrupted by realism, right from the start.
For Nik and Liz, who had “unbelievably busy” jobs in Wellington during the week and four young children (now all grown) in their blended family, their Wairarapa weekends were a godsend and still are. “It’s a great place to relax and just be completely the two of us; there’s no noise, the phone doesn’t ring, it’s totally quiet. Or, every now and then, we feel like seeing people, so we fill it up.”
The ballroom is definitely, as Liz puts it, “the show-stopper”, but she knew it wouldn’t be an easy space to tame.
In the glass-roofed central ballroom of Liz Mark and Nik Brown’s Carterton home, a dining table that seats 10 normally, and 16 on high days and holidays, and an antique Spanish altar fail to dwarf a space that was once an internal garden.
Liz approached it by matching size with size. “I thought, if I put some really big things into this room, then I’ll make it feel smaller. The thinking was, make it a room that we can use.” It works. You barely notice the grand piano, the dining table that seats 16, the vintage drum used as a side table and the massively ornate antique Spanish altar, spattered with wax from its array of outsized candles. “It’s a room that connects the whole house,” Liz explains. “Everything you do, you have to go through this room.” Which poses a possible problem during cold weather. What on earth do they do in winter? “We get warm in these side rooms and then we run.”
Warratah Nik Brown plays the grand piano while Liz puts her feet up on a classic leather sofa from Blanchett of Palmerston North: “We’ve had it for years.
It’s also, says Liz, “a magical house at night. I have candles going and low light and it’s all very intimate.” Her look is restful, muted, easy on the eye. Everywhere you look, there’s patina and (one of Liz’s favourite words) “provenance”; the vintage textures of old leather, wood and worn metal. Ancient farm implements rub shoulders with a wooden aeroplane propeller. Pétanque balls in a leather carry case sit beside an original fire bucket, massed with flowers.
“I’m very eclectic,” Liz explains. “I like things that are functional and have aesthetic appeal and I love things that have history. I’m not a great person for brand new. I like to look at things and imagine who might have used them. I find it enchanting. It just adds so much…
“Those French armchairs,” she says, pointing to two modest, battered leather chairs in the study, “they came from a men’s club. When we first got them they reeked of cigar smoke. And of course I found that unbelievably fabulous. That’s a sickness, isn’t it?”
Actually, Liz, I think they call it romance.
The added-on conservatory, with its Gothic windows and tongue-and-groove walls studded with ventilation holes, is probably Liz’s favourite room because “you’re so nearly outside”; coir matting and a cane suite add to the casual feel.
Story: Jane Hurley
Photographs: Paul McCredie