Room to grow

Francesca Emms always joked that in a zombie apocalypse she'd hightail it over the hill to Featherston. So when Level 4 Lockdown was announced she waved goodbye to her flatmates in the city and spent six weeks at Longwood making quince jelly, drinking gin in the library and teaching her dad to use Zoom. She tells us about the historic house that's "just home".

By Francesca Emms

Featured in Capital #51
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My Mum likes to tell the story of the first time she and Dad took us kids to see Longwood. It was the summer that I was seven. Apparently I spun around singing, “I think I’m gonna like it here!” I don’t remember doing this. But I was an attention-seeking middle child obsessed with Annie so I’m sure it’s true. Anyway, I was right.

That first visit was spent racing around counting toilets (current count is 14), getting lost in the trees, and picnicking on the lawn. We got to choose which of the eleven bedrooms we wanted. I went for one with an archway over the door and a view of the front lawn. My older sister Georgia took the Yellow Room which boasts a fireplace and two entrances. Four-year-old Sammy was put in the Red Room, probably because it was closest to the Blue Room, the master suite, where my parents were. I felt like I could be any of the redheaded characters I loved – Orphan Annie, Pippi playing in her rundown mansion, or Anne of Green Gables letting her imagination go wild.

This dream house came with some challenges – its sheer size to start with. A restoration project becomes a marathon when the house covers 14,000 square feet and all the water pipes are 100 years old. The current Longwood was built in 1906 (after the original wooden one burnt down) and the oldest building on the site is the 1850s cottage where the builders of the original homestead lived while they constructed it. My parents have spent a couple of decades carefully restoring Longwood and the other historic buildings. I don’t remember the hard work – I was too busy having a marvellous time.

My early memories of living at Longwood include climbing up and down the fire escapes, exploring the bush and playing epic games of hide and seek. My best hiding place was the top shelf of the upstairs linen cupboard. I can’t tell you my second best spot because I still use it. We climbed trees, built precarious forts and raced around on a quad bike sans helmets. The best winter pastime was sliding down the stairs in sleeping bags. Looking back at the adventures we had, it’s incredible that I’ve never needed stitches or broken a bone. And apart from a mild concussion, sustained during a particularly fast slide down the stairs, our friends were mostly ok too.

Rumours of Longwood being haunted meant that friends on sleepovers frequently had to be driven home in the middle of the night. I’m sure they weren’t true but Mum and Dad weren’t taking any chances, inviting the local Catholic priest to perform an exorcism – well, a blessing. I still find it a bit unnerving to walk down the drive at night; the sound of the wind through the trees does nothing to calm an overactive imagination.

The highlight of any play date at Longwood was dressing up. The box room, tucked away in the maid’s quarters, would have been where the trunks and suitcases were kept. With a number of performers in the family, and a bit of a hoarding gene, we turned it into a fully stocked dress-up room. Shoes, wigs, masks, old costumes and op-shop finds all went in there and it became the go-to not only for us kids but also for my parents and their friends when they were going to costume parties. When Georgia was given a camera, photo shoots became a regular game. She would style Sammy and me and make us pose in character. The collection has grown over the years and now includes wedding dresses, furs, opera gowns and anything we thought might come in handy for a future show. We’ve had to cull a bit, but we still have the two most popular items: the pink tutu, which a nominated family member has to wear to hand out the presents at Christmas time, and the Batman cape.

The Adam Drawing Room, named for its Adamesque fireplaces and the wonderful plaster ceiling detail, has been the stage for many concerts and theatre shows: amateur productions our parents patiently sat through, as well as professional ones that the public actually paid to see. This room is where the Easter Bunny hides the eggs and where Father Christmas fills our pillow cases. It’s home to Mum’s grand piano which accompanies the weekly rehearsal of the Featherston Gentlemen Singers and our annual family carol-singing party.

Like our Mum, my sisters and I find it extremely difficult to part with books. There are literally thousands of them at Longwood. I remember them all over the house – in piles on tables, spilling out of shelves or lost in our beds. I once tried to count just the cook books and gave up around 600. The library is my favourite room in the house. The shelves, which are completely full, are divided into fiction and non-fiction, and alphabetized. It’s the coziest room in the house with its thick curtains, deep leather couches and fireplace.

Back in the day, Longwood was freezing. I remember using toilets with bracingly cold seats. We used open fires, hot water bottles and gas heaters to stay warm. There’s a beautiful Aga in the kitchen which also heated the bedrooms directly above. It was wonderful for slow cooking and the warming drawer was the perfect temperature to put cold feet on. If the power went out Dad would do a cooked breakfast just to prove we didn’t need electricity. The Aga had been run on coke; Dad converted it to diesel, then gas, then wood, but it never ran perfectly. One winter he tried charcoal and we’d leave the kitchen with headaches and/or slightly high. Now there are radiators throughout the house and a heat pump in the kitchen, though most of the open fireplaces remain. A borderline pyromaniac, I was caught many times playing with matches before Dad taught me how to safely set, light and maintain a fire. He instilled in me a deep respect for the art and danger of firelighting.

Winter at Longwood is roast dinners and snuggling up by the fire. Spring is daffodils. Summer is swimming and Christmas day is cricket. But Autumn is my favourite time of year. Do I need to tell you how beautiful Longwood’s deciduous trees are in Autumn? A couple of seasons ago we taught the next generation how to build up a pile of dry leaves and throw yourself into it. My two-year old nephew was a natural. My gatherer instinct is strong and I love to collect baskets of feijoas, trailer-loads of walnuts, and baskets of olives. I don’t want to toot my own horn but I’m the fastest at getting a sweet chestnut out of its spiky home and an excellent mushroomer.

People always ask, “What’s it like to live here?” Truth is, it’s just home. Magical, beautiful, historical, but just home.


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