Foreign affairs and frocks: A Day in the Life of the British High Commissioner

By Sophie Carter
Photography by Andy Hansen

Featured in Capital #89.
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Royal invitations, magical dinners, and counter-terrorism. It’s all in a day’s work for Iona Thomas, OBE.

In August last year diplomat Iona Thomas touched down in the Shaky Isles to begin her posting as British High Commissioner to New Zealand and Governor of the Pitcairn Islands.

The move hasn’t been difficult. Iona has developed a knack for adjusting to new cultures. Her family traveled regularly during her childhood, living in Germany, Belgium, and the USA. “It was perhaps inevitable that I’d end up doing something that allowed me to live and work in different countries,” she says. After returning to the UK for university, she again headed overseas, working with charities, then teaching in Malawi and Chile.

Our little capital is a change of pace for Iona, who has had previous diplomatic postings to Pakistan and Libya. It was her work in Libya that earned her an OBE, re-establishing a British Embassy in Tripoli, after it was evacuated when civil war broke out 2014.

May is shaping up to be a busy month in Iona’s hectic schedule, starting with the biggest event of her year, His Majesty King Charles III’s coronation on May 6. “I’m enormously privileged to be invited. It will be amazing to be part of such a historic occasion.”

Fashion-conscious Iona has asked Trelise Cooper to design her outfit for the event. Iona says she has enjoyed discovering Kiwi designers. “I firmly believe that you can never have too many handbags, so it’s been great to find talented local designers, such as Jessie Wong and her Yu Mei line.”

A coronation celebration is also being held by the British High Commission, at its Karori residence Homewood, which will recognise people from various voluntary sectors. Homewood will be bustling with guests throughout the month, and two Wellington on a Plate events are being hosted there. “We arrived during Welly on a Plate last year and really enjoyed going to a couple of events and experiencing the buzz it created, so it’s great to be taking part as hosts this year,” says Iona. One of these events, Aslan’s Table, inspired by C S Lewis’ Narnia novels, will offer a magical wintry feast, created by chef James Perry. The second event, Sensory Botanics, is all about gin, offering local and British tipples with live music and canapes.

Built in 1847, Homewood is one of the oldest buildings in Karori. “It’s a fantastic, iconic house and people are always sharing their memories of it with me,” says Iona, who lives there with her husband and fellow diplomat Matt Thoume.

Keen hikers, the pair have managed to see a lot of Aotearoa in a short time, exploring the Wairarapa and Central Otago, and in March they completed the three-day Routeburn Track in Fiordland. “We had amazing weather and the views were spectacular. The DOC huts were surprisingly comfortable too!”

On her return to England, Iona is looking forward to a “Sunday roast at the pub.” Coming recently from Pakistan, Matt misses the curry, though “we’ve found a few curry houses here that we like too.”

Having happily discovered ginger crunch and Whittaker’s chocolate, these self-described “brunch people” seem to have decided that Wellington is the icing on the cake.


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