Perfectly at home in historic Overton

BIG BEAUTY: Overton is a 126-year-old home, which is one of the largest in the Rangitikei and has huge architectural significance.
BIG BEAUTY: Overton is a 126-year-old home, which is one of the largest in the Rangitikei and has huge architectural significance.

Lesley and Charles Duncan can still remember the day they first experienced Overton together.

For former Aucklander Lesley it was an experience she still easily recalls, seeing a magnificent homestead in the midst of lush, green Rangitikei farm land.

"The first time I saw the house we came for lunch. It was so long ago, but when I was inside it I found it a very powerful house. Michael Fowler sketched the house, so I had seen it on paper, but it was a wonderful experience to actually be here, in it. Yes, that first time I will never forget."

MODERN TOUCH: The renovated kitchen with cabinets using elm milled off the farm.
MODERN TOUCH: The renovated kitchen with cabinets using elm milled off the farm.

Lesley left thinking it must surely be the perfect place to call home, but not for a moment did she dream or dare to imagine the opportunity to buy the huge old historic home would present.

But in 1986, farming friends mentioned the house was going to be sold, and the Duncans worked quickly to secure their dream home.

It was a big decision, buying a listed historic home comes with commitment to the New Zealand Historic Places Trust, but the couple were keen and a quarter of a century later they are delighted with their choice.

"The decision to buy wasn't made lightly, because it is a huge commitment," says Charles. "Over the years there has been a lot of work to be done."

Inevitably, with two storeys of home that includes nine bedrooms, four reception rooms, a library, servants' quarters, a dining room, huge kitchen, cellar and hall that is as big as some apartments, there is always much to do in upkeep.

But the pair tackle home maintenance in a business-like manner, quietly, each with their own area of expertise and with help from local craftsmen.

For 58-year-old Charles, dealing with guttering nine metres up is a task he thinks little about.

"It doesn't worry me on top of the ladder, but Lesley isn't so keen. Mind you, the view is pretty amazing if you take the time to enjoy it," he says.

"We have gathered around us an excellent group of highly skilled local craftsmen and it's with their help we maintain Overton."

The 126-year-old home is one of the largest in the Rangitikei and has huge architectural significance.

It was designed by Frederick de Jersey Clere in partnership with Alfred Atkins in the early 1880s at the behest of Francis Arkwright, a British conservative member of parliament for East Derbyshire who headed to New Zealand and new opportunities after he lost his seat in parliament.

Rangitikei historian John Vickers says Arkwright arrived, purchased the land and organised for the house to be built, then promptly returned to the Britain, where he stayed until the build was finished two years later.

"It was known as the first permanent building between New Plymouth and Wellington because it was made of concrete. Clere used very modern techniques - certainly there is the traditional wooden frame, but the walls are concrete instead of the plaster or cow dung they were using at the time. Arkwright set a standard for the area with a home like Overton. The locals were left gasping, they couldn't believe it," says Vickers.

Frank Arkwright named his new home Overton after a family property in Derbyshire. He and wife Evelyn spent just a dozen years in the home before they returned to England.

He then dispatched nephew Henry to New Zealand to run the farm and live in the house.

Henry's son John took over, and in total four generations of Arkwrights lived at Overton in a period of a century before it was sold to Charles and Lesley Duncan in 1986.

More recently, the Duncans have been gradually working through the interior, redoing the decor.

"The house was fine when we bought it and we treasured its originality, but with an old home there is always something to be done," explains Lesley.

"We've gradually been doing up the interior. I've tried to do an English feel but in my own style. All my life I've loved old houses, but this house is special, it has a high impact. It may sound silly, but it's a house that loves people, it responds to a crowd."

And it is that crowd that Lesley and Charles love to host.

Early on, when daughters Charlotte and Anna brought friends home, Overton would be filled with school kids, sleep- overs and parties.

Today hosting is a more leisurely affair, with Lesley trialling and honing her developing cooking skills.

"We've just come back from London, seeing our new grandson Maximilian. While there we experienced Peter Gordon's latest cuisine and I'm also trying out Simon Wright's recipes."

To assist their penchant for entertaining and cuisine, the Duncans put a new kitchen into the old home.

It's expansive, befitting a country residence, with cabinetry crafted from elm trees milled off the property. Charles commissioned a local cabinet maker to make the joinery and they're delighted with the resulting modern, clean lines - easy to use, but retaining the character of historic Overton and its surrounding trees.

"There are 30 elms, plane trees, English oaks, Linden limes, totaras, copper beeches, holly trees and Himalayan cedars plus original native bush, the surrounding five acres of garden was well-planted."

In fact, the "garden" covers nearly two hectares, and includes a mix of large old trees, native bush, azaleas and formal box hedging.

For many the thought of a two- hectare garden would be overwhelming, but the Duncans have made it work by mixing small pockets of formal garden with mown grass and areas of grazing land under the big trees.

The garden is surrounded by farmland, where Charles runs beef cattle.

Few driving State Highway 1 would be aware as they travel north of Bulls they are driving past one of New Zealand's jewels of history.

The house is positioned on the river plains below the state highway, well beyond any traffic noise.

As was planned when the old home was commissioned 128 years ago, Overton remains in a world of its own.

For working professionals Lesley and Charles, it's a fantastic house to come home to every night.

They say despite being large, the home is easy to heat because of the thick concrete walls, and at a time when New Zealanders are reconsidering the strength and protectiveness of their homes in an earthquake, Charles says their old home is well-proven.

"The funny thing is this old home is just amazing in an earthquake. It just rolls with the shakes, the huge thick concrete walls and enormous totara framing is perfect in an earthquake and we do get a few of them here in the Rangitikei," Charles says.

So 126 years on, Overton is in adoring hands.

In just a few months, the next generation, six-month-old Maximilian will arrive for his first stay in the home, and as he gets older Charles and Lesley are certain their grandson will get as much enjoyment out of the home as the rest of the Duncan family.

The Dominion Post