Oamaru, Ommaroo, let's call the whole thing off

“Fancy a trip to Jersey?” asked Kat. “If so, can you make the booking?”

I spent a happy half hour browsing flights and hotels before stumbling on a Eureka moment: there’s an Ommaroo Hotel in St Helier! Look no further - that’s where we’re going for the weekend.

The hotel started life as a row of four private houses, two of which were designed by the celebrated local architect, Adolphus Curry. His early successes included a plinth and a pedestal, but for some reason he’s more famous for a string of public buildings including Highlands College, Jersey Ladies’ College, banks, churches and an opera house. He was also involved in the restoration of ancient buildings, including Mont Orgueil Castle.

Adolphus gave Ommaroo Terrace a grand facade with intricate gables, balconies and verandas, similar to the colonial style of many of New Zealand’s finest heritage buildings.

I felt at home right away.

No one seems to know how Ommaroo Terrace got its name, but a panel in the hotel suggests the obvious link with Oamaru. Same name; just a different spelling. It’s good enough for me, at any rate.

Kat and I were given rooms in a more modern wing of the hotel, with views over the back garden and recently updated bathrooms. Breakfast was served in a palatial hall, which once hosted balls for the cream of St Helier society. I worked my way through the extensive buffet before pouncing on the general manager.

“Are you Ian Stephenson, by any chance?” I asked, knowing full well he was. He had that cautious look people have when they think a customer is about to complain about the bacon.

“I’d like to give you this,” I said, holding out a copy of Penguins under the Porch: a Yorkshireman’s Ode to Oamaru.

“Oh,” said Ian, arranging his face into a polite but still cautious smile. “Thank you!”

I told him how I’d gone to Oamaru, written all about it, decided to visit Jersey with my daughter, and chosen his hotel for the name alone.

“And there’s another coincidence,” I said. “You’re from Yorkshire, too - Driffield, I think? That’s where my mother grew up. In fact, my cousin still lives there. He’s a coal merchant.”

Ian was finding this all a bit baffling. It was still only breakfast time, and already one of his guests was regaling him with bizarre stories about Oamaru and coal merchants. It was going to be one of those days.

“How did you know I was from Driffield?”

“You’re on LinkedIn!”

“Oh, right! That makes sense.” Ian paused. “A coal merchant, did you say? What’s the name?”

“The firm is called F W Lawson - that was my grandad - but it’s my cousin Jolyon who runs it now.”

“Oh! I know Jolyon! We were at school together. Well, he was in the year above me, but I remember him well!”

In Oamaru, I was constantly amazed by the “two degrees of separation” thing. My other daughter, Alice, asked a friend for ideas about a road trip round the South Island. He put us in touch with Allan Dick, who - it turned out - lived across the road from my rented cottage in Oamaru. That kind of thing happened all the time. It was somehow fitting that it worked just as well in a colonial style hotel in Jersey.

Ian and I chatted for a few minutes more. He told me he spent several years working in a hotel in Rotarua, and - like me - when he first cast eyes on the hotel Ommaroo, he was instantly reminded of heritage architecture in New Zealand.

I finally let him get on with his day’s work, while Kat and I caught a bus to Jersey’s only winery. We enjoyed a tasty al fresco lunch (breakfast was such a long time ago) before joining a guided tour of the vineyard and winery. The guide looked and sounded like Michael Caine’s younger brother. I wanted to ask him tricky questions about “growing degree days” - something I’d learned about when talking to Renzo Mino at Kurow Winery - but Kat gave me a hard stare and I kept my mouth shut. Except when tasting the excellent wines, obviously.

We also went to a steam threshing fair and enjoyed a trip on Jersey’s only heritage railway. We shared a carriage with a local family, who kept pointing and waving at other locals along the way. I love the idea that everyone knows everyone else.

The most sobering visit was to the jersey War Tunnels. Dug by slave labour during the German occupation of the Channel Islands, the tunnels were meant to house an underground hospital. In the event, it was never completed, and visitors can now peer into unfinished tunnels with ghostly projections of men blasting and clearing rocks in near-total darkness. The rest of the tunnel complex houses a museum dedicated to the story of the occupation: Churchill’s decision not to defend the islands, the forced removal of Jews to concentration camps and death on the mainland, the stories of resistance and collaboration. I did not know, or did not appreciate, that after the D-Day landings in nearby Normandy, the Channel Islands were completely cut off from food supplies for several months. Local people and occupying forces alike slowly starved as food ran out.

The German authorities eventually agreed to permit the International Red Cross to deliver food and medical supplies to the islands. The 120,000 food parcels had been put together in Canada and New Zealand. Each of the parcels from NZ contained -

  • 4 oz tea

  • 16 oz corned mutton

  • 12 oz lamb and green peas

  • 6 oz chocolate

  • 16 oz butter

  • 16 oz coffee and milk

  • 6 oz sugar

  • 7 oz peas

  • 14 oz jam

  • 16 oz honey

  • 12 oz cheese

  • 6 oz raisins

Thank you, New Zealand. And thank you, Canada.

And thank you, Oamaru, for taking me to the wonderful Ommaroo Hotel.


The Ommaroo Hotel is on the left - partially concealed by the pastel-coloured houses on the right.