Spectre rising of a spectacular past

Out with the old, in with the new. Cargill's Castle, in New Zealand, is a victim of time and evokes melancholic memories of the glory days of the town of Dunedin.

By Ceidrik Heward, Special to Explore
23:11 September 14, 2007

Out with the old, in with the new. Sadly, that is the way it has always been in a relatively young country such as New Zealand. To outlive any usefulness is a death sentence that particularly applies to old buildings. The 1960s and 1970s saw mass destruction of hundreds of structures in the name of progress.

Fortunately for Dunedin the rapid progress of the mid-20th century was minimal. As a result of being sidelined from the nationwide development, the city now boasts some of the finest Victorian buildings in the southern hemisphere.

Spectacularly perched close to the edge of a 300-foot cliff, just a 15-minute drive from city, the remains of Cargill's Castle weave a compelling spell. The decaying shell of this once-magnificent mansion, is staking its place as a unique attraction in a country lacking any notable ruins, let alone dramatic, moody ones.

Remaining glory

In 1997, the Cargill's Castle Charitable Trust was formed to preserve the remains of this historical building. At that time, the owner had planned to demolish it with permission from the Dunedin City Council.

But growing public awareness of the ruin's historic importance resulted in enough money being raised to purchase the property from the unsympathetic owner. The Trust now faces the challenge of getting enough money to stabilise the rapid decay of the castle.

Talking about preserving, it comes down to the question why? There has to be a good story.

Cargill story

Edward Bowes Cargill was the seventh son of Captain William Cargill, a founding father of the Scottish settlement New Zealand. In 1857, at 34-year-old Edward left Edinburgh, his hometown, to join his father and brother, John, in Dunedin (Dunedin is the Gaelic name for Edinburgh) where he quickly made a name for himself in the thriving young city. By 1898, Dunedin's Jubilee year, he became the city's mayor.

EB, as he was called, wanted a house befitting his status, a place that reflected his success.

He hired New Zealand's foremost architect, Francis William Petre, to design one unlike any other in the colony. In 1876, construction began on 'The Cliffs', however, it soon became Cargill's Castle.

To escape the pressures of the office, EB chose one of the most windswept places in New Zealand for his dream home. The location provided most of the 21 rooms in the house with spectacular and soul-soothing views across town, up the harbour and along the magnificent coastline to the distant Nugget Point.

Petre had recently returned from England and was impressed by the Italianate design, then popular in seaside mansions. The observation tower of Cargill Castle, a hallmark for this style of architecture, was a clever way to disguise the water tank The towers also gave the buildings the appearance of grandeur and power.

Tunnelling access

Shortly after the castle's completion, Edward's brother, John, hired Petre to do the sums on cutting a tunnel to a nearby inaccessible beach. This amazing engineering feat allowed the Cargill children access to a beautiful little beach.

The entrance resembles a large rabbit burrow and, being difficult to see, lay undiscovered for a number of years.

Even today, with a marked track, it takes an hour to reach the tunnel and to return to the flat land at the top of the cliff.

The gradient in the tunnel has been made safe by the formation of 72 steps. The passageway opens onto a little crescent-shaped beach surrounded by smooth cream-coloured cliffs.

However, at high tide, all this changes. The sand disappears. The booming of the surging ocean, as it bashes against the base of the cliffs, echoes around the sandstone amphitheatre producing a sense of foreboding.

This is a place of awesome beauty, but when the tide rises, this Jekyll and Hyde beach is also an extremely dangerous place.

Cargill's Castle was known for its glittering balls and weekend parties. The movers and shakers of Dunedin society made the rather arduous carriage ride along the steep, narrow, winding road to the cliff-top castle to enjoy the views, the music and the food the Cargill family lavishly provided. (Perhaps, the bone-jarring trip to the castle was the reason why EB had a toilet installed right by the front door!)

Life goes on

In 1892, however, a fire broke out in the kitchen and soon gutted the building. Only the grand piano and a few plates were saved.

Cargill wasted no time in rebuilding his castle, but he did not replace the lavish interior fittings. He did, however, spend money on adding a ballroom. (Prior to the fire, guests had used the hallway as a dance area).

When Edward died in 1903, the Cargill family sold his castle to Harry Lyders, the builder. Despite his attachment to his creation, he found it a struggle to maintain the large building.

The decline of Cargill's Castle had begun.

A succession of owners followed. In the 1930s the place became a restaurant. It was the centre of Dunedin's nightlife during the Second World War. It was during this time that tragedy struck the castle again.

A young American sailor, and a local female friend fell off the precipitous cliff 300ft to the rocks below. The sailor's body was recovered the following day. The girl survived. A second fire around this time only added to the castle's misfortunes and shortly afterwards, it changed hands again.

Changing hands, luck

In 1974, yet another owner, John Simpson, was refused planning permission to turn the castle into a hotel. He began to demolish the castle by removing the large windows around the sides of the building.

For some reason, he stopped any further destruction. However, with the windows gone, the building's decay was hastened. The wind and rain ate into the building's heart.

In 1996, the ballroom was hacked away. The remaining shell was now becoming fragile. Wedding parties started using the site as an evocative backdrop to bridal photos. The ruins began casting a special kind of magic. The spectacular location of the Cargill's Castle ruin makes it unique in Australasia.

The savage winds from Antarctica make landfall here. Many of the macrocarpa trees, planted as wind break, have been removed and the remaining ones are twisted and bent — a mute testimony to the frequent gales they have endured over the years.

Unique allure

The weather-stained concrete on the tower is cracked. The grand staircase has gone. The roof, too. But, the ruins look hauntingly magnificent.

This is a place of romantic melancholy. It whispers memories of triumphs and tragedies.

There is a magic in the sadness here, not found anywhere else in the country. The ambience of Cargill's Castle weaves a special power, a power as unique as the ruin itself.

— Ceidrik Heward is a New Zealand-based freelance writer

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