Forget fiction. The queen of Riverstone Castle can spin a rollicking yarn to rival any imagined tale, while showing paying guests her extraordinary home.
Flamboyant septuagenarian Dot Smith grew up in a humble Wellsford farmhouse, reading about princesses and dungeons, secret doors and hidden passageways. She then cemented her childhood dreams while visiting grand English manors and historic castles. Fifty years on, the North Otago entrepreneur has donned a regal costume to take ticketholders through the stone castle she built with husband Neil.
Dot travelled overseas multiple times to furnish the audacious 1,200m2 abode, which sits on an island in a human-made lake 15 minutes’ drive from Ōamaru. Long before commissioning an architect, Dot spent decades tearing inspiringpages from magazines and stashing away English antiques for her future home. She also collected Mexican doors studded with handmade nails, exotic fabrics, suits of armour and vast swathes of decorative crockery. Local stonemasons used 20,000 concrete blocks and 150 tonnes of locally quarried Ōamaru stone, while other artisans were commissioned to carve stone gargoyles and a grand stained glass window that features the family crest.
The castle’s distinctive white turrets stand on Smith land that encompasses a dairy farm, retail shops and an always-busy restaurant surrounded by four hectares of impressive gardens. Chef son Bevan is behind the award-winning Riverstone Kitchen, which employs 20 staff during busy periods. Farming is Neil’s domain – he and son Mike have developed several dairy farms in the Waitaki district – and he supplies the restaurant with beef and pork. But Dot remains at the centre of it all.
She is the one who dried flowers and converted an old barn into a shop to help fill family coffers when the children were young and money was tight. Other farm buildings were subsequently overtaken by a dizzying array of giftware and homewares, soon to be housed in a new purpose-built retail centre. It was Dot who created the lush, productive gardens from barren ground, transforming what she describes as “a gravel pit with not an ounce of soil.”
At age 74, she still helps Bevan make preserves in the restaurant kitchen and is wholly responsible for the grand floral arrangements that adorn both the castle and the restaurant. “They only take five minutes,” she insists. Though she does admit to spending hours digging and weeding and planting in the garden when she isn’t engaged in sword fights or sleepovers with the grandchildren. Or playing the piano. Or knitting. Or painting. Or showing visitors through her home.
On an unseasonably miserable Friday afternoon, the born performer quickly has her tour guests hooting with laughter behind their masks. She’s glad of her own mask, she tells her assembled guests, having lost a tooth two days ago. And her current costume is pleasingly cool after spending a month encased in brocade and velvet, dressed as Anne Boleyn. With perfect comic timing, she lists other wardrobe failures involving gaping bustlines and too-tight waistlines.
The one-hour tours run periodically throughout the year. The first time she opened the castle it was a sell-out fundraiser for breast cancer that saw almost 3,000 people traipse through the doors in three days. Recently, the $30 ticket proceeds are also helping fund construction of a stacked stone building, designed by Dot to resemble an old English mill house, to accommodate disabled guests or families. Once that project is complete, visitors will be able to stay overnight in the cottage on the edge of the island, or in the castle’s upstairs rooms.
Those who stay only an hour should be prepared for anything. On one recent tour involving 40-plus people, an impromptu operatic performance broke out on the staircase after Dot discovered some guests had held starring roles in her favourite musicals. The private show brought her close to tears; she was especially tickled to learn one of the singers had performed for the Queen of England several times.
Visitors are asked not to touch anything in what is, they are reminded, a private home. (Dot and Neil retreat to their original farm cottage while tours are running, as “poor old Smithy can’t bear the thought of people walking through his house.”) Guests see the extraordinary master bedroom, where a canopied bed lies beneath a painted light fixture featuring starry constellations in the night sky directly above the castle. They learn the provenance of grand chandeliers, marble fireplaces and elaborately-tiled bathrooms and might hear the stories behind a Parisian cemetery mural and a photograph of Dot and friends with Prince Charles.
Then, if they are lucky, their hostess may laughingly throw on a wig and witch’s hat and gather up a broom to utter an “abracadabra and weasel’s ear” spell, before ushering everyone out of her dungeon and into the real world.
Reported by Sue Hoffart for our Autumn 2022 issue