words & images: Leanne Gichard

Anyone who knows my family, knows that we are a very close, tight knit bunch who just love catching up with each other regularly. Throw together a sunny day, stunning scenery, delicious food and riotous laughter and that recipe becomes the women in my family’s idea of joy.  For our latest “females only cousins and aunties” excursion, my cousin Margaret suggested we all bring a plate and meet at Coniston.

I was very excited by this prospect, as the last time I visited Coniston was on a primary school trip many moons ago.  So, with club sandwiches and a selection of my homemade chocolates carefully arranged and firmly placed on the back seat of the car, I headed for Coniston.

The drive in to the homestead was absolutely stunning, with trees reaching for the sky, luxurious green rhododendrons, hostas and camellias thriving in the shaded canopy provided and an almost surreal pond, the water rippling, with sunlight dancing on its surface.  The moment I turned off the State Highway, it felt like I had entered a secret world.

Exiting the car, peace and tranquillity surrounded me.  It was so quiet; the only sound was birdsong, punctuated by other cars coming up the shingle drive.  The current homestead, built in 1918, is a large and gracious home, nestled amidst a glorious garden setting. We were intending to originally dine outside, but as the weather forecast was less than optimistic, arrangements were made to use the dining room inside the main homestead.  The dining room was elegant and homely and as we all sat around a huge, long wooden table with a fine damask tablecloth, I felt transported back to a more gracious era.  Of course, we all brought far too much food, so we thought a stroll around the gardens would walk away some of those calories!  Our stroll was made all the more enjoyable by being accompanied by Monty, the resident corgi, who thought he was the star attraction.

I had no idea just how expansive the gardens were – 6.5 acres.  Directly in front of the homestead is the formal garden, often used for weddings.  The woodland gardens are well-established and I have never seen foliage on hydrangeas so deep green and waxy. The size of the hydrangea heads have to be seen to be believed (larger than full sized dinner plates), the colours ranging from deep cerise, to vivid pink, purple and a wide range of blue. Gigantic Wellingtonia, oak, elm, cedar, ash and kauri trees are abundant here and create much needed shade in the heat of summer.

Spring at Coniston is a riot of colour with numerous flowering shrubs, particularly hundreds of rhododendrons and camellias of all shades and the ground carpeted in swaths of bulbs of every kind, including daffodils.

Situated in the west of the garden is the chapel, which is very sheltered with large stretches of lawn bordered by delightful pink roses.  It is picture-perfect.  Formerly the Flemington Presbyterian Church, built in 1885, it was relocated to Coniston in 2008 and restored to its original condition.  The vaulted ceiling and rich brown, arched outside door are impressive.  What an intimate setting for a wedding.

The gravel path then winds its way to the lake area, which is abundant with gunnera, hostas, rhododendrons, camellias and other water loving plants.  In this idyllic setting, is Lake Cottage. Originally built in 1918, the building has recently been renovated as The Shepherd’s cottage. I couldn’t imagine a more romantic spot for a weekend getaway or honeymoon; total seclusion, your own lake, a vista to die for and a warm and fully equipped cottage.  Bliss.  

The original homestead, built in the 1870s, is now The Gardener’s Cottage which has four bedrooms and is available for long or short-term rental and farm-stays. The present homestead has four guestrooms with attached ensuites and is also available for accommodation.

As if all this wasn’t enough, there is also the historic Coniston Garage, housing vintage and classic cars; Coniston shop (a taste of yester-year); plus, a granary displaying vintage machinery and memorabilia.  It is like stepping back in time in a delightful way.

Coniston is a hidden gem and a treasure worth finding.  Garden tours are available by appointment and morning and afternoon tea can be arranged for group bookings.

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Judy McAuliffe is a writer, and publisher Essence Mid Canterbury. Her experience in media is extensive and includes approximately 15 years as Creative Director for The Radio Network, writing, and managing the writing of radio advertising, mainly in Invercargill and Greymouth. In the late 1990’s she transferred to Christchurch, moving into an Account Management role with 91ZM. In 2007 she and a business partner set up Essence Mid Canterbury, very quickly adapting her radio-writing skills to print media. Judy became sole owner of Essence Mid Canterbury in June 2014. Judy is a ‘people person’ and has found her niche writing feature stories about the community she lives in and the people who live there. She is also available for freelance writing assignments.