Living history

PHOTOS KELLY SHAKESPEARE
Last updated 10:49 27/10/2011

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A historic house and enchanted garden greets Rosa Shiels as she tours a property once owned by suffragette Kate Sheppard.

Living history

Next to Canterbury University, behind a tall, thick macrocarpa hedge, lies a property with fairies at the bottom of the garden. Well, real children who like to play at being fairies and one little fairy statue to spark their play.

The Okeover Stream flows through the university and across the foot of this enchanting Ilam section, and a footbridge leads across to a tiny island where the fairy resides.

"My mother gave me this little fairy, because she said at the bottom of every garden you always need a fairy," owner Julia Burbury says.

While she doesn't have grandchildren of her own, Julia invites a neighbour's children to have their birthday parties here while they are small and can still enjoy the garden's magic.

And there is plenty of magic here. This category-one heritage house and garden once belonged to renowned suffragette Kate Sheppard and her husband, Walter, who moved into their new wooden, slate-roofed villa at 83 Clyde Rd in 1888, and lived in it until 1915.

This house hosted many influential political figures and civil rights activists during the Sheppards' time in residence, and it was where Kate Sheppard wrote her journals, letters and petitions. It was in this home that the suffragettes and their supporters celebrated women being given the right to vote in 1893.

The house has had no more than seven owners since then.

"I was born to be here," Julia Burbury says. "I do think I was. I've been here for 26 years, coming up, and I'm not in a rush to move."

Both the house and the garden are kept in immaculate condition by Julia, with the help of one recently hired hand "to help with the big stuff".

"I did the macrocarpa hedge by myself for six years and ripped all the tendons off my shoulder. But I was born to work - I'm a high-country farmer," she says.

Since a marriage separation, Julia has lived here largely on her own, with frequent visits by friends and family, as well as organised bus and cruise tour groups.

With a shortage of venues since the Christchurch earthquakes, the historic home is one of several filling a gap as a wedding and function venue. Julia still runs her own business hosting lunches, cocktail parties and even weddings, but has recently entered into a business partnership with Continental Catering. She provides the venue and the caterers do the rest.

"They are going to put a marquee up on the tennis court for the summer, depending on how many events they get," she says.

The house has been heritage listed since 1993 and the centenary celebrations of women's suffrage in New Zealand.

"They had a big party for here and it was beautiful. We had a horse and carriage up the drive and they were playing tennis in period costume. It was really special."

More recently, the home was upgraded to a category-one heritage building. This means no more extensions can be undertaken and any repairs need to be finished in the original lath and plaster interior and to what remains of the original specifications outside.

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If you know where to look, the bones of Kate Sheppard's original solid-kauri cottage with its traditional high stud are apparent.

"We've obviously done huge alterations and the garden was really quite plain," Julia says.

"A council member once described this place as shabby chic, and I really like that."

With her years of careful nurturing, both inside and out, the "chic" is much more evident than the "shabby".

Apart from featured colours, walls are painted in light neutrals throughout.

"We didn't paint it, but I'm really pleased that it is painted, because it would be such a dark house otherwise, and I don't do dark."

Before the house's heritage status upgrade ("not for architectural merit, but for the social history"), Julia renovated the kitchen to her requirements and in keeping with the old villa's style. The richly polished kauri floorboards are original; the sitting room extension is not.

Where the sliding doors now exist between both rooms, the kitchen once opened on to a hastily built deck. A skylight was added and floorboards were bought to match those of the kitchen.

"They were from the YMCA chapel and were covered in grease. By the time all the grease was taken off, it was discovered that they were actually rimu."

The former pantry was converted into a spacious ensuite bathroom with skylight for one guest bedroom. Opposite this is a second, smaller sitting room, which was once the dining room.

"We call this room the 'black hole'. When we moved in it was Mexican red on the ceilings and the walls, and the floor was dark cork with a dark green curtain on one wall."

Now sunny and bright in light colours and furnishings, the sitting room opens on to a sheltered deck, perfect for lunches or just as a quiet corner for contemplation or reading.

An ultra-feminine, pink-and-white colour scheme lightens the main bedroom and makes it a serene and relaxing space. Orchids and potted plants add lively green freshness.

In the Mediterranean-blue guest room, there is a broad window seat from which to enjoy the expanse of lawn and soft-edged garden. Another smaller bedroom has a maroon-and-white theme. The large main bathroom is used mostly by the invited guests at functions. 

Family-tree diagrams and a wall of sepia family photos reflect the house's historic nature in the hallway

"The grandfather clock came out after the war with Mum. She was an English war-bride from Yorkshire."

Julia's mother met her future husband while he was in the air force.

The formal sitting room is also original to the house, with the ceiling rose, like others throughout, replastered "to get them looking good".

A mirror, which hung above the sitting-room fireplace but smashed in the February earthquake ("the noise was horrific"), has since been replaced by a spectacular gilded antique Spanish mirror sourced by a friend in Argentina.

Among works by New Zealand artists dotting the walls are delicate, accomplished botanical watercolours. These were created by Julia, who belongs to the Botanical Art Society.

Opposite the sitting room is a spacious, rectangular dining room, which looks out on the tennis court. Look up and you can see the shadow of the former ceiling rose in the centre of what used to be a square room.

"When the centenary year's suffrage activities were happening, Erin Gifford from Canterbury Museum said maybe this is where Kate Sheppard would have written her big journals, but we don't know. There is no original history of our house. When we bought the place, we did not know it was her house. It came to prominence during suffrage year."

The house is lavishly and warmly decorated and the furniture is a mix of the old and the new.

"Some are family pieces," Julia says, "and I like old oak, old pine, and it suits the era of the house."

In summer, the house's big verandah, framed with gnarly, knotted wisteria, is used as another living space. It overlooks the garden, which Julia has completely overhauled in shape, plantings, look and mood over the past 25 years. Early photographs show it as almost bare.

"There was an edible grapevine and a 'Donation' camellia, an oleander and a lemon tree, and that was all. Up the drive were five walnut trees, all dying. Not one rhodo in sight."

Four protected trees remain on the section - a big oak tree, a Lisbon cypress, a golden ash, and an oriental plane tree - and there's a Peasgood Nonsuch old-fashioned cooking apple tree where there was once a scruffy kitchen orchard, long since removed.

On one side, the garden has been given an illusion of extra space, courtesy of the September earthquake; a concrete wall between the house and the university grounds has been replaced with an iron-grille fence.

Come summer, the large swimming pool, empty since the quakes, will have been repaired and refilled.

"It's one of the oldest pools in Christchurch," Julia says. "It's about 50 feet long, and 20 feet wide and 10 feet deep." Deep enough, in fact, to accommodate a springboard and long enough for swimming decent lengths.

The pool was dug out by students at the behest of a former owner and the soil became the little island in the stream at the end of the garden.

Out back, beyond the kitchen, is Julia's vegetable garden, which is enriched with chicken manure, mushroom compost and her own compost.

"I try not to spray if I can absolutely help it."

There's a plant nursery, too; a patch where friends' pot plants come to stay temporarily when their owners are between houses. And a chook house, with its five red shavers - battery hens rescued by Julia's daughter. The chooks scratch and scuffle about in the earth of their run, around the perimeter of which a large fluffy cat - another rescued animal - lazily patrols.

"I had two chooks, then Caroline arrived home with 17, and I've got five left."

When Julia opens the garden for touring parties, she guides her visitors around and then leaves them to wander, exploring the hidden corners, the walkways, the old trees and specimen plantings. Some of them swear they have even seen a fairy at the bottom of the garden.

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