October 17, 2019

In the garden: History repeating

Grandly planned, cared for and now lovingly restored, the gardens at Auchendarroch House will bring joy for many more generations to come

This garden is a blend of great history, vision, dedication, love — and a whole lot of ongoing cash. 

Back in the early days of our state, Scotsman Robert Barr Smith and his wife Joanna purchased some 42 acres of land in the small hamlet of Mt Barker in the Adelaide Hills. The Oakfield Hotel was already in existence on the land, with its first licence having been issued in 1861. Robert and Joanna purchased the land and buildings in 1878 for the then princely sum of £3000.

 Records show that they planned and constructed a 30-room mansion in the “French Renaissance of the Modern School” style, which was built around the existing hotel. This new residence was to be the family’s summer house. Barr Smith later named the property Auchedarroch, which derives its name from the Scottish Gaelic term “holy place of the oaks”. That is perhaps the first reference to the planting of oak trees on the property by the original owner and Barr Smith, many of which are still standing today.

The Barr Smith family divided the property into sections; mainly for farming but importantly three acres for an orchard and three acres for a garden. Over the years the garden took shape, with hedges surrounding the entire property, large expanses of lawn by the house, and many exotic English trees including cedars, chestnuts, maples, conifers and some 50 oaks. 

There was a full-sized croquet court and many large flower and rose beds, focusing on a central rose arbour with a floor of tessellated tiles and comfortable seating. The family held many public events and were most benevolent in growing vegetables and fruits, giving them away to the community. One can only imagine what grandeur, style and elegance this garden and grounds offered the community and township.

After the death of Robert in 1915 and then Joanna in 1919, the house and land were put up for auction. In 1921, it was purchased by The Memorial Hospital, to be used for the next 50 or so years as a convalescent home. 

It was during the early 1970s that I first discovered Auchendarroch house and gardens, when visiting my mother-in-law who was there recovering from pneumonia. I remember finding the house quite foreboding; to me it appeared to be perched on a rise looking down on the small town of Mt Barker. Sadly, the gardens, grounds and lawns, were unloved. 

The government of the day bought the land in 1976 and sold off the house and garden areas separately. Not a great deal is known about what happened to the grounds for those intervening 75 years, but I suspect it was cared for to some degree, as many of those early planted trees including the rare golden oak Quercus alnifolia are still growing there today. As fortune would have it, the garden “bones” still remained. 

Happily for the property, the baton of ownership and stewardship was about to pass to another well-known South Australian family of Scottish heritage. The Wallis family, whose name is well known by South Australian movie-goers, purchased Auchendarroch house and surrounding gardens and land in 2000. Hugh Wallis founded the family company in 1953 and today both Wallis cinemas and Auchendarroch House are in the good hands of his wife Lorna, daughter Michelle and granddaughter Deanna. 

Michelle has taken on the mammoth task of faithfully restoring both the house and garden. With the help and advice of many of my horticultural colleagues, such as noted garden historian Trevor Nottle, Hills garden design expert Merilyn Kuchel, rose experts Kelvin and Merv Trimper, and a long connection with the Wadewitz family, to mention but a few, the Auchendarroch garden is back on track to its heyday magnificence.

A roll call of plants growing in the garden is a who’s who of the botanical world. The garden grows nine varieties of oak trees, 15 new camellias, drifts of spring and summer flowering bulbs, and a medicinal and herb bed that remembers the property’s time as a convalescent home. Plants in this garden include, rosemary, thyme, chamomile, hyssop, lemon balm and many others.

Many of the existing garden beds, lawns and boundary gardens have been replanted, irrigated and mulched. There is also a rose garden that honours the family past and future, featuring roses such as “For Your Eyes Only”, the name of Hugh’s favourite movie, and “Aloha”, a reminder of his love of holidaying in Hawaii. The “My Hero” rose was Deanna’s addition, planted in her grandfather’s memory. 

There are also some 27 French Delbard roses, including “Avignon”, “Belle Parfume”, “Blue Emotion”, “Carmagnole”, “Chartreuse de Parme”, and “Claude Monet”, which have been planted to complement the rose collection. David Austin roses are also well represented with favourites such as “William Morris”, “Abraham Darby”, “Graham Thomas” and “The Endeavour”. 

As we strolled around the garden recently, Michelle reminded me that every single nook and cranny and every layer has a story or memory attached to it. It is a garden that is coming back to life for us all to enjoy and treasure.

I couldn’t help but think that if someone, more than 100 years ago didn’t design and plant such a garden we would all be the poorer for it today. However, the most important thing that the original hotel owner, and then the Barr Smith family, did was the planting of the trees that now are sentinels of the beautiful grounds for all us to enjoy. 

That’s what I call vision and generosity; they were planting them all those years ago for us to appreciate today. It would be pleasing to think that such far-sightedness is still with us today. Do we have leaders who would plant trees today to offer our grandchildren shade and comfort for tomorrow?

The good news for the general public is that the garden and grounds on the northern side of Auchendarroch can be viewed without charge. It is also possible to book tours of the house and garden, which includes a High Tea. During the warmer months, look out for upcoming events such as Roses & Rosé and Camellias & Canapes. 

The garden is a credit to Michelle, her family and loyal staff. It’s their way of honouring what the Barr Smiths began, and also what Hugh Wallis envisioned for Auchendarroch House. 


This story first appeared in the August 2019 issue of SALIFE magazine. 

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