Nelson: Secrets and lies (on the PM's pillows)

By Victoria Bartle

There was a night, not so very long ago, when the Prime Minister slept in my bed. Quite a conversation-stopper, that one, and it's true ... sort of.

Before I could drop this salacious dollop of news, I had to wait until New Zealanders had voted John Key into the top job. I figured making such claims about a mere Leader of the Opposition wouldn't have the same effect.

So, as the election campaign raged last year, I kept quiet about my luxurious night in Nelson's very elegant bed-and-breakfast establishment, Warwick House, and waited for the result.

Truth is, of course, when I retired to the cavernous and sumptuously decorated Bayview Suite, I flopped amongst the feather pillows completely alone.

The PM-in-waiting was not standing beneath the stunning oriel window serenading me, nor reclining on the window seat at the end of the room, the Tasman Sea as his dramatic backdrop.

No, the only crooning I heard that night was from the frogs in a nearby stream, clearly revelling in romance, and not a single note of it was directed at me.

John Key had been there, all right, it's just that he'd left about 12 hours before my arrival, the mattress had long cooled and the bed-linen had been replaced - fresh, crisp and like new.

Not that a mere PM-in-waiting would have impressed the ghosts of the 155-year-old Warwick House much, because over the decades it has seen plenty of romance, mystery and excitement.

For instance, there's the gentleman - his identity a mystery - who left behind the blade of his duelling sword.

Owners Nick and Jenny Ferrier discovered the blade in the dust at the bottom of the 100-foot-high tower, where it had clearly lain for decades.

And that's just one of the intriguing finds made during months of renovation.

"We would get up each day, pull on our overalls and have a meeting to discuss what we wanted to achieve that day or that week," Jenny remembers. "We'd take our cellphones and go off in different directions to do our own jobs somewhere in the house, and then we'd meet outside again for a morning-tea break."

Such is the house's size (1115sq m), the Ferriers still sometimes resort to finding one another with a cellphone call.

Another long-kept secret was revealed by a plumber who had once worked inside the house. He suggested Nick and Jenny check out the manhole in a particular cupboard.

"Nick and I clambered through the manhole and into darkness. All we could see were cobwebs and rat droppings - and then I noticed a huge shape ..."

The shape was a stunning set of stained-glass windows framed in native timber, hidden away 70 years earlier when much of the mansion was converted into boarding rooms, the top 2m of the walls, the beautiful ceiling beams and high windows all covered by false ceilings.

But those coverings have now been removed and the house restored to its former glory. The ballroom is once again a magnificent 30sq m expanse. The carved kauri ceilings are once more on display. And under layers of carpet installed over the years, the Ferriers discovered a 1.5-inch thick, spring-loaded, heart-matai timber floor, especially designed for ballroom dancing.

Nowadays, the ballroom is where bed-and-breakfast guests sit down to a food-laden dining table. Homemade preserves, fresh seasonal fruit, delicate porcelain, shiny silver and real tea and coffee pots make for an impressive setting. All that's missing is a penguin-suited butler, though Jenny and Nick do a fine job of making guests feel cared for.

Warwick House is known locally as "the castle" thanks to its age and turreted tower.

It's considered one of the finest and largest examples of early Victorian Gothic Revivalist architecture in New Zealand, Nick says, and is the oldest private stately home in the South Island.

The Ferriers' rescue mission and Jenny's penchant for interior design have resulted in three beautiful guest rooms for travellers to choose from. The Bayview Suite (of prime ministerial fame) was once the gentlemen's smoking room and offers the castle's best view of the Tasman Sea.

The Tower Suite adjoins the tower and the Peacock Garden Suite is a tranquil room which is almost hidden away.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Direct one-way Air New Zealand airfares from
Auckland to Nelson start at $95. The 80-minute flights are often
available from $49. Check grabaseat.co.nz

Warwick house: Warwick House is in central Nelson and close to the Abel Tasman and Kahurangi National Parks.

What to do: The Nelson School of Music's Winter Festival features numerous visiting artists and is held from July 10-26.

Victoria Bartle was a guest of Warwick House.

- NZ Herald

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