Ra i roto i te matao Ōtepoti – A cold day in Dunedin

This morning, we returned to our favourite breakfast place in Dunedin, the Good Earth cafe, which is opposite the university. It’s a really welcoming, organic sort of place, the type of place where they make all their own relishes…


It was actually so cold this morning that the windows in the cafe had fogged up. Every time I come here, I get the smoked salmon bagel, but I resisted this morning so that I wouldn’t have had the same thing for breakfast three days in a row.

We went for a walk into town, lazily looking at shops and then stopped for some tea at a very cosy bar near the Octogon, which had a very warm fireplace.


After our tea break, we walked up a hill to visit Olveston House, the family home of the Theomins from 1906 when the milionaire David Theomin built it for his wife and two children (the youngest was 17 at the time) to 1966 when the youngest daughter, Miss Dorothy, bequeathed the house to the city of Dunedin, not having had any children herself.

We booked in for a tour and, as instructed by the gift shop attendant, had a wee walk through the gardens (and took some photos) until our tour guide was ready for us. The most interesting thing in the gardens was a 1926 Fiat which had actually been “misplaced” on the grounds for years and years until it was restored in 1996.


















Photographs weren’t allowed inside the house so the photos of the interior of the house are from the house’s website.

The first stop on the tour was the kitchen, which was a very light room on the ground floor, with big windows and untreated kauri benchtops and tables. Apparently, today in New Zealand, table tops like this would cost a fortune, but in Edwardian times, they were only considered suitable for the servants, with the wood surfaces for the family made of imported English Oak. There were all sorts of exciting kitchen implements like a hand-cranked bean slicer and a dough forcer for creating patterns on pastry. There was also a cast iron cooker, imported from London, that looked brand new. Our tour guide, Emma, explained that their house keeper had just done a thorough clean of the place, including the kauri table tops, which would have been scrubbed with sand, a pinch of flour and some soap.


The next room was the scullery, where the vegetables were prepared. Outside, in the gardens, I had noticed a random door bell that didn’t lead anywhere. It turned out that it led to the window where the kitchen staff would accept food deliveries from delivery boys through the window, instead of letting them in the house. There were also two types of sinks, one copper, for washing delicate crockery and one porcelain, for items that needed less care. The room was full of labeled contains for spices and other consumables like 10L contains for sago and tapioca. Also, there was a large jar of mace, which seemed threatening…

The scullery led to the meat safe and also had a window to the butler’s pantry, where the butler could inspect the food before it was served. One of my fellow tourmates incorrectly commented that this would be where Mr Bates would be. Noob. Fancy getting a mere valet like Bates mixed up with a mighty butler like Mr Carson. The Butler’s pantry contained lots of different crockery sets and an imported walk in safe that was used to house the silver. There was also a kauri linen press for getting prefect creases in napkins.

We returned to the servant’s hallway, which was decorated like a metro station, with all white tiles. There were a lot of mod cons in these premises – internal telephones, and electric servants’ bells which were wired throughout the house and flashed up the name of the room which had rung.

We bypassed the servant’s hall, which is now used as the staffroom for the current staff of the house and began the “upstairs” part of the tour, which was still actually on the ground floor.

The first family room we saw was the library, which was originally a breakfast room. It had leather wall paper and was full of an eclectic collection of artworks, many Japanese. The master of the house had been an importer of fine goods and had travelled widely, so the abundance of Japanese art and ceramics wasn’t surprising.


There was a great leather chair, which actually looked a little like a dentist chair which had a special book holding tray, because reading all of those books would have been hard work.

We moved on to the dining room, which had a bay window with central heating hidden under the window seats. The dining table was set with an arsenal of cutlery, including asparagus tongs and a curved, kidney shaped dish which was used for scraps like bones, tails and skin you didn’t want to eat. Each of the 35 fireplaces in the house is slightly different. The one in the library was the only one which was made of copper.

The windows were painted very delicately with gold and black pictures of musical instruments and performers. A small round breakfast table was set up in the curve of the bay window, but this would have been removed during dinner parties, where the long table would have been extended to accommodate all the guests.

We passed through the great hall to the main entrance. When you would have visited the Theomins, you would have rung the bell from outside and be greeted by the butler who would have shown you to the cloak and wash room, where you could make yourself presentable enough to meet the family.


You would then ring for the butler again who would collect you to announce your arrival. While you waited, you would be able to enjoy (or be intimidated by) the Japanese armoury, a twist on the traditional armoury you’d find in a great English house, containing two authentic samarai long swords, one with a completely carved ivory case, and 6 shorter Japanese swords.


We went through to the drawing room, which had a distinctly feminine feel with doilies on the chairs and heaps and heaps of trinkets. Davey saw me enjoying this room and commented that I was born in the wrong century, with too small a house. Although I did appreciate all the furnishings in this room, the best thing by far was that due to a clause in Miss Dorothy’s will, as a visitor to the house who had received piano lessons, I was allowed to play the original Steinway grand piano! I was a little bit rusty and had to play The Rainbow Connection, because I didn’t feel confident enough playing anything else from memory without practicing first, but it was so exciting. Emma said that many people are too embarrassed to play in front of the other people in the group so I was really glad that I agreed to do it.


We withdrew from the drawing room back into the great hall. We didn’t look at the hall the first time we walked through because there was a group of children who were being trained to be guides of the house. Possibly another initiative to do with Miss Dorothy’s will and her intention to share the house.


We ascended the staircase to visit Miss Dorothy’s sitting room, which was a delicate baby blue room with a little fireplace and a balcony. By all accounts Miss Dorothy was quite a character, a mountaineer, artist, music lover and throughly modern independent woman. During restoration, an attempt was made to recreate and furnish all the rooms as if it were about 1910. The way they did this was to look at photographs of the house from that time and recreate carpets and furniture from that era. For the wall paper, which was quite unusual with a pattern of ribbons around the edges, they peeled back the original paper until they found it, scanned it and had it recreated. Miss Dorothy’s teenage bedroom was quite plain, with a single brass bed and another lovely little fireplace with blue ceramic tiles.

The next bedroom on the landing belonged to the eldest son, Edward. Emma started off by telling us that he didn’t get to live here very long. I spotted the photo of him as a sergeant in the Great War and though the worst, but he wasn’t killed during that conflict, but died later in his forties, married to an English girl he met during the war but childless. The reason he didn’t get to live here very long, was that he moved into a house at number 8 on the same street (Ovelston is number 42). Aside from photographs, there was also some patriotic war art, a work called Jock and Jaques, showing a Scotsman and a Belgian fighting alongside each other.

We passed by a very modern bathroom, with an inside toilet, shower and bathtub with heated towel rack (apparently the house got electricity 2 years before the rest of the city did!).

There were two more family rooms on this floor, the master’s dressing room and the master bedroom, which had two separate single beds. I would have though that if you were going to be sleeping in separate beds, there would be one bed in each dressing room, but maybe that’s just how it was done at Downton Abbey…


We existed the first floor, via the servants’ staircase, passing the rooms occupied by Miss Dorothy’s governess and later secretary. Emma told us that the female servants slept upstairs but that the male servants weren’t allowed to sleep in the house. Even now there are four female curators, Emma included, who live at the property in the upstairs servants’ rooms.

We bought a souvenir in the giftshop which was a little pamphlet containing 100 year old recipes reproduced from the original cook’s cook book! Can’t wait to try them when I get home!

We walked back towards the Octagon and decided to stop in at the Speight’s Ale House, next to the brewery for some lunch. It was about 3pm by this time so we didn’t manage to get a proper lunch, but I did find some Speight’s Alcoholic Ginger Beer which might be my new favourite! (Sorry Speight’s Apple Cider…)


In the evening, we had some very reasonably priced Chinese food from a place called Chopsticks 101 and then scared ourselves by watching American Horror Story in our creaky hotel room which rattled in the wind.

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