Just as the rings on a tree reveal much about its past and the conditions it’s lived through, you can read much into the layers of history of a property through its garden developments and house alterations. The homestead and garden at Noojee Lea, the country estate of Charles Curran AC and his wife, Eva, near Canowindra in central-western NSW are a case in point.
There’s the orchard, filled with citrus, stone fruit, almond, pistachio, pear, mulberry and fig trees, that’s existed since the property was first selected in the 1860s. Of course, it’s been augmented and replaced through the years, just as the homestead, which was built in the early 1900s by then owner Frederick Matthews, has evolved. It remained in the Matthews family until 1936 when it was sold to the Traves family, who in turn sold in 1951 to Frank Felton, who is credited with installing central heating and adding a guest wing to the house. The Feltons sold to the Buckley family, who owned it until the Currans purchased it in 1981.
As a Sydney businessman with extensive media interests, board positions and philanthropic activities that include his role as chairman of the trustees of St Vincent’s Curran Foundation, Charles was looking for a country escape for his family and friends when he bought the 998-acre (403-hectare) homestead block. Through the years, he has expanded his holdings to 5500 acres (2225 hectares) of agricultural land that grow lucerne, cereal crops and raise prime lambs as well as a 450-acre (182-ha) vineyard planted to Chardonnay, Semillon, Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Gris.
The Currans enjoy family time at Noojee Lea and, through the years, have adapted the homestead and grounds to accommodate the extended family when they gather for events.
One of the first amendments to the garden was to plant an avenue of plane trees on either side of the driveway approach to the homestead. This was part of a plan designed by Sydney landscaper Marcia Hosking. Her design included a number of replacement trees in the orchard and a Chinese elm in the front lawn, which is enclosed by a circular drive. The elm is now a key feature of the front garden and head gardener Bob Fallon recently removed an understorey of roses, which distracted from the splendour of this 40-plus-year-old entry statement. Rose beds and potted bay trees frame the front of the homestead and there’s a croquet lawn and a tennis court with a wisteria-covered pergola on one side.
In 2010, landscape designer Sally Bourne from nearby Gooloogong extended the garden to the north, which allowed the orchard to be expanded. At the same time, the timber fence to the south of the front garden was removed to open up the views of the vineyard and Belubula River flats beyond. She was also responsible for the addition of a silverberry (aka Russian olive) double hedge beyond the croquet lawn which was intended to become a windbreak for a proposed swimming pool.
In 2015, the Currans engaged celebrated Victorian landscape designer and horticulturalist Paul Bangay to design the garden of their Sydney home, so the following year, they asked him to design a courtyard at the rear of the Noojee Lea homestead. His response included a central fountain with herb gardens, loads of French lavender, rose bushes and other shrubs. The house edge of the courtyard is formed by an outdoor patio designed by architect Susan Rothwell. It’s lined with wisteria and opens via matching double French doors to the kitchen on one side and the guest-wing kitchenette on the other. The patio becomes party central when the family is in residence and, depending on the size of the event, two long tables can be used to accommodate guests. “We didn’t want one long table interfering with the view of the courtyard, so we chose two separate tables,” Charles explains. “We have five children so, when all their children and friends are here, it can be quite a gathering and we join the tables up.”
Susan Rothwell also suggested installing a Dutch gable roof on the carport, a device favoured by Leslie Wilkinson, the founder of the University of Sydney’s School of Architecture. “It’s a pure fluke, but the central hallway of the house lines up perfectly with the fountain in the courtyard and the centre of the garage,” Charles says. “It’s all very pretty when it’s lit up at night.”
While Charles says he’s not a gardener by any stretch of the imagination, he loves being among the greenery and is greatly inspired by public gardens, including the Chelsea Physic Garden, which is near his London residence. It probably inspired the wide pathways he asked Paul to install in the walled garden, the latest addition to Noojee Lea’s landscape.
“Part of the double silverberry hedge was dug up to make four walls for the garden,” Charles explains. “Whereas the symmetry in the western courtyard is perfect, the entrance to the walled garden turned out to be anything but, as the centre of the croquet lawn doesn’t line up with the central axis of the walled garden. Instead, Paul designed a drystone archway, which does align. Visitors come through the arch and do a bit of a dog’s leg to enter the garden proper. It’s quite a lovely surprise to come through the arch to discover there’s more beyond.”
And more there is indeed, as the garden has two main avenues that intersect at a central pond. The beds in between include four vegie gardens surrounded by masses of French lavender, rose bushes planted together for colour — white Pope John Paul, yellow Soul Mate and blushing pink Clair Renaissance. At the far end of the garden, there’s a rose room with a bench seat, enclosed by an arbour, which will eventually be covered with Pierre de Ronsard roses. Other Bangay features include two berry cages, which look like aviaries but are actually designed to keep the birds out so the soft fruit that grows inside can thrive.
“I’m sure Bob [Fallon] has a sleeping disorder that can be traced to the installation of the netting in the berry cages,” Charles says. “With our input, designers come up with these bright ideas, but the responsibility for enacting them falls to Bob. We’re lucky to have him, as well as two local nurseries, Eureka Plants and Perennialle Plants, which have been able to advise on the best plants for this environment and climate.”
Ever community-minded, for the past couple of years, Charles and Eva have opened their garden in conjuction with the Canowindra Garden Club for a day in spring. “It’s lovely to share the garden with visitors,” Charles says. “The Lions Club held a sausage sizzle and the Country Women’s Association did sandwiches and tea and coffee so families could come to make a day of it. There are a lot of good people in this community, so it’s our way of thanking them. All funds raised go to Canowindra Soldiers Memorial Hospital. Last year, 600 people came out here, so it was a great response and gratifying to see so many people supporting a local cause.”
The complete story was originally published in Australian Country issue 22.2. Click here to subscribe to our magazine
Words Kirsty McKenzie
Photography Ken Brass