Historic Clare Valley homestead Wolta Wolta is old English charm at its best. Step inside (and back in time) to take a glimpse behind the grand facade.
Robert Parker lives in a home straight out of Downton Abbey. The homestead in Clare is a grand old place but it wasn’t always that way. “When I first saw it, I thought it looked like a bloody cold, old hole,” Robert says. “But I saw potential. Like any place, it’s really just four walls. It’s what you do with it and the work you put in that counts.”
It was 2006. Robert was living in Darwin and his collection of antique furniture and cars was deteriorating in the Top End’s weather. He spotted Wolta Wolta online and flew south to check it out. “It needed a lot done to it but I thought, ‘Why not have a challenge and create something worthwhile for the future of South Australia and Australia?’.”
The home is like a time capsule. It was constructed in 1846 by pastoralist John Hope on a 95-square-mile station that originally stretched all the way back to Balaklava. In 1983, the property was ravaged by the Ash Wednesday bushfire. “It virtually destroyed the main house, apart from the stone work. The two-storey section (former servant’s quarters) was singed. It was quite horrendous.”
Well-meaning locals rallied together to help rebuild but when Robert’s renovations commenced in 2007 there was a lot to fix. “It was in quite a bad state. The ceiling was falling in and rain coming in. It was a mess. We spent 10 years of hard yakka trying to restore it all. Additions of annexes and bathrooms to make the house suitable for modern-day living.”
The view from the verandah across Emerald Valley is something special. “You’re completely surrounded by nature. The kangaroos wander down early in the morning to eat the fresh green grass. I also have deer and rabbits running around.”
Wolta Wolta means ‘lots of water and lots of pheasants’. Robert refers to the grounds as “a park” and delights in creating interesting pockets and focal points. There’s a story behind everything. For example, the old pre-fire stonework was used in the pond.
Robert lives in private quarters, and a cottage at the rear of the property is available as accommodation. A renovated barn is used for wedding receptions and there’s a bridal suite with a spa, too. The homestead is open to the public for tours.
Robert leads the way down a grand hallway. To the right is an entrance that’s more like a room in size. He points to a hunting table and chair. “This came with my great grandfather in 1842. He was the first chemist in Adelaide, a doctor of medicine and an alchemist.” He smiles. “Everything here is old. Like me.”
In the corner of the former school and nanny’s room, a beautiful lace dress hangs on a mannequin. “It belonged to my nanny,” Robert says with fondness. “I also have a ‘kitsch corner’ full of my nanny’s stuff. I cherish that in value more than most other things.”
The formal dining room, complete with a Victorian table, glassware, cutlery and silverware, is set as if ready for a grand meal for esteemed guests.
“I leave this set for all the [tour] groups that come through, which is quite a job when one has to clean it all the time.”
There’s an elaborately decorated urn in the corner of the room. “That’s an interesting one. The pictures and German writing tell the story of love between the boy and the girl and how he will save her heart and love and cherish her forever. All those wonderful things that boys say. Whether it happens or not is another matter.” Robert chuckles. “My grandmother on my father’s side was German. My grandmother on my mother’s side was Jewish. My great grandfather was English. I’m English, German, Jew. Quite a combination.”
A music room, to the rear of the main homestead, is Robert’s favourite place to relax.
There’s a bar in the corner for a tipple or two. “This is the most relaxing room because, if you’ve had a few drinks, you know you’re not going to knock anything over.” He laughs. “Accidents happen. People don’t mean to. They’ll swing on the chairs and just don’t think. When the tour groups come through, we put a chain across the doors because ladies with handbags swing them around.
It’s like putting a bull in a china shop.”
Fragile keepsakes also fill the formal drawing room, affectionately called ‘the ruby room’ – named for the hundreds of pieces of antique ruby glassware on display, polished to perfection. The spectacular room is inspired by his late pal Dame Ruby Litchfield.
“I loved her. We got on so well. I worked with her for many years with charities in the arts. I was quite young then. A real playboy in those days.” He grins. “She was a great, natural person who accomplished a lot in her life.”
Dame Ruby was the first woman appointed to the Board of the Adelaide Festival Centre Trust, was a founder member of Festival City Broadcasters and board member of Adelaide Festival of Arts, the South Australian Housing Trust and the Carclew Youth Performing Arts Centre. “She was the first lady of a lot of things. Everything she did was charity. She was gorgeous.”
Robert knew Don Dunstan, too. “He was very down to earth and a person you could easily communicate with. Before him, South Australia was very stuffy and non-progressive. He did a lot for SA, especially in the arts. If it wasn’t for him we wouldn’t have the Festival Centre. He was a great person and very easy to work with because he was prepared to listen. That was very important – rather than thinking you know everything.”
Robert loves to see his special collections enjoyed. “It’s a home that’s lived in and that’s important. People might think I’m a little queer. But I am. That’s another story.”
We move outside, towards the old-world-style barn. “The original chimney is there. We built around it – it makes a lovely focal point for photos.”
The barn hosts 80 people for a sitdown meal or 120 for a stand-up buffet-style wedding reception. “We like to keep it intimate. I don’t like those mass shows anyway – they’re a bit too much for me.”
The walls are strung with tapestries sourced from antique dealers, including McKay’s Mart on Unley Road.
“Life is a tapestry. We cherish and collect special moments… a wedding is one of them.”
Robert’s own life tapestry is a colourful one. He was born in Adelaide and built his first home at the tender age of 18. “I’ve done many things. I started off as an insurance broker and did quite well with that.
Building my own home gave me the urge to develop and create.”
When Robert’s father retired after a heart attack, he bought Mayfair Florist as a “little sideline project to keep him busy”. A second heart attack followed. “Being the only child, I wanted to do the right thing, so I went in full time to Mayfair.” Back then, Ikebana (Japanese flower art) and driftwood were all the rage and Robert provided elaborate arrangements for televised quests, charity shindigs and Adelaide Festival Centre events. He continued his passion for real estate through property development in Darwin, and established Golden Bali Travel, a travel business linking people between Adelaide, Darwin and Bali.
“My career has been all over the place but interesting and very creative. When I semi-retired at 57, I thought ‘I’ve got all this time now to enjoy life and do what I want to do’ and instead the last 20 to 30 years have just gone. It’s crazy.”
With a home like this to upkeep, Robert isn’t slowing down. He’ll never tire of the gob-smacking view as he rolls up the driveway in his 1960s Rolls Royce.
“Restoring the place has been a great labour of love: lots of time and effort but a lot of fun.” He grins. “I want to keep the whole collection together so that when I ‘pop off’ it can be used as it is now for functions and open to the public so that people can enjoy it. That’s life, isn’t it? You never know what’s around the corner. That’s why it’s terribly important to enjoy it every day.”
While you’re there…
“One of my favourite restaurants is Reillys Wines Cellar Door and Restaurant in Montaro. It’s in the Clare Valley and hardly ever gets mentioned. Their wine is good, their food is tops, and reasonably priced. An entrée size for me there is quite adequate.
Photos: Naomi Giatas
Know of any grand old historic homes you think we should know about in SA? Let us know in the comments below.