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Farm reinvented as wedding venue

Words by Annie Studholme, images by Annie Studholme and supplied

Once home to one of the country’s leading red deer herds, Mark and India van der Wilt have put Bangor Farm back on the map, transforming it into a thriving wedding venue and function centre.

Driving up the magnificent avenue of 160-year-old trees to Bangor Farm with views of Mount Hutt and Mount Torlesse, it’s hard not to be blown away. Steeped in history, Bangor is reminiscent of the grandest English country estates emanating classic Capability Brown style, complete with a lake and oak avenues, as well as elms, ash, and other English trees.

With all this history, it’s easy to see why Mark and India van der Wilt were drawn to the property almost five years ago. Originally from Arrowtown, Central Otago, Mark had spent many years working in the film industry before opening a small quarry on land they owned in the Gibbston Valley, while India came from a background in retail.

In a bid to be closer to family and their other black-sand mining interests on the West Coast, the couple decided it was time to move north to Canterbury. Mark’s mother’s family came from Kuriheka in North Otago, a place which has always held a special place in his heart. “I wanted a place that had old trees [like Kuriheka] and that would be a home for the girls and son, Sam,” says Mark.

“We looked at the [Bangor] homestead but walked away from the amount of work it required. Driving up the original main entrance to the deer shed block, it just blew us away. It was the trees. It felt like a French television commercial. Weddings immediately sprung to mind. We could imagine a marquee there in the grass and thought what better way to share the special piece of history, environment and this feeling with others.”

Originally covering 2400 hectares, Bangor was once one of Canterbury’s grandest old country estates, revered for producing fine sheep and wool, and its heavy wheat growing land. It was first purchased by the Ward brothers in 1854, who were nephews of the Viscount of Bangor in Ireland. They came with grand plans of establishing an English-style deer park. Upon their arrival they built a small stone house with earth floors and started establishing the grounds, planting many of the English trees that still thrive today. Sadly, after the ship carrying a herd of deer was lost at sea, it took more than a century for Viscount Bangor’s dream to be realised.

After one of the Ward brothers tragically died in a yachting accident in Lyttelton Harbour, Bangor was sold to well-known engineer George Holmes. Holmes was responsible for building New Zealand’s first railway network, including the Christchurch to Lyttelton railway tunnel that opened in 1867. In 1870, he started work on the new classical colonial style homestead at Bangor.

The homestead and 1100 acres were later sold to A.E.G Rhodes in 1919, who gifted it to his daughter on her marriage to Major George Hutton. It remained in the Hutton family for three generations until it was sold in 1987.

In the years since the Hutton’s owned it, Bangor passed through many hands. The homestead has undergone significant alterations, previously being used as a luxury guest lodge and now back into private ownership, and the property has been carved into many small holdings.

The first deer park at Bangor was started in 1980 bringing Viscount Bangor’s dream to fruition but it was renowned deer breeder Clive Jermy that took it to the next level setting up Stanfield’s Stud there in 2008 with the building of the impressive deer antler museum and sales complex.

Jermy had been an influential player in the fledgling deer industry since the early 1980s when he secured the franchise for genetics from great English deer parks Woburn Abbey and Warnham Park. He started out in Cambridge, before moving south to Bushey Park, near Palmerston, where he ran a large operation with 1000 velveting stags, 750 breeding hinds for venison, 250 breeding hinds for velveting replacements, in addition to the red deer stud, an Eastern European stud, and a Hereford cattle stud.

On moving to Bangor, the operation was downsized, focusing exclusively on red deer genetics, but continued to lead the market. The deer antler museum contained hundreds of heads, including some red deer world records. Unfortunately, circumstance saw the Stansfield’s Stud at Bangor sold in 2015. The estate was bought by a developer Keith Sutton, who subsequently subdivided the estate into current blocks today.

Having fallen in love with the mature oak trees which dominate the landscape, the van der Wilt’s, purchased the largest block of what remained of the estate and the deer farm of 70 hectares, dedicating 20 hectares to the Deer Shed Venue while leasing the remainder out to a neighbouring farmer where they have built a new home.

Being located five minutes from Darfield and only 30 minutes from Christchurch and interest in rural, romantically rustic weddings increasing, setting the property up as a wedding venue where people could embrace nature, country, and farming influence, while enjoying a slice of history seemed like a no brainer.

Initially they considered putting up a grand silk-lined marquee permanently amongst the oak trees, but later realised the honeydew from the mature trees would mean they would be constantly trying to keep it clean.

Their eyes turned to the imposing deer trophy museum, function centre and deer sales complex. With the main room being 60 metres long by 30 metres wide, and more than 8 metres high, the massive space had potential. But the task in front of them was monumental, which is where India’s passion for design and attention to detail came into play.

“As we weren’t going to have events that involved stock units, we had to get a resource consent. The process took around 18 months giving us time to take on the exciting challenge of converting the deer shed,” explains India.

During that time the outside of the buildings were stained black. Inside, they painted the Long Dining Room to make it light and bright, fitting lights that had been rescued from St Luke's Church in the city after it was demolished following the Christchurch earthquakes. The selling auditorium was retained and comfortably accommodates up to 200-plus guests for speeches and presentations with professional sound equipment, microphones, and projectors.

Once the octagonal main deer yards were removed, the couple set about transforming the big open space into an industrial rustic barn-style room. The deer yards made way for a concrete floor complete with cracks to make it look old, and a huge fireplace was added to give people a wonderful place to gather. Ply on the walls was also stained dark. A colossal 3-metre-high crystal chandelier now forms the focal point of the room. It can easily seat 300 with plenty of extra space for a dance floor. The entire complex is powered and heated using generators and solar power.

“It’s about emotions,” explains Mark. “We want to make it more appealing and create that beautiful ambience, but at the same time we don’t want to lose the shed vibe because that’s what people like about it. We are providing people with an empty biscuit tin and how they want to dress it is completely up to them. Anything goes. We are completely flexible. They can bring a horse or a Mr Whippy van.”

With his years of film experience, Mark has carefully created hundreds of ideal backdrops for photo opportunities around the grounds for people to capture their perfect day, from a wooden bridge over the ponds to the wilderness of the oak forest. Quiet horses can even be arranged on request. They also have some unique outdoor spaces for the wedding ceremony, including The Folly.

“The only thing we had here was the trees, we’ve had to add it all. It’s interesting for photos, but also for people to look at. We keep adding more all the time,” says Mark.

He’s also made it his mission to bring back some of the history, wherever possible reusing materials, scouring antique shops and second-hand dealers for the perfect pieces. The outside seating comes from Lancaster Park and the dilapidated iron front gates were found lying in the grass on the demolished Canterbury Breweries site, harking back to the old Wards Brewery, which brings them full circle as it was the Ward brothers that first owned Bangor last century.

Neither Mark nor India knew anything about running a wedding venue when they first started, though the similarities to the film industry are not lost on Mark. He says with weddings you essentially still have a director, producer, client, catering, hair and make-up, and wardrobe.

Admittedly, the van der Wilt’s have learnt a lot along the way and have made their share of mistakes. Like when they splashed out on buying rectangular trestle tables with matching white chairs only to find out that most brides prefer rounds. Now they offer both.

They held their first weddings at the Deer Shed in 2018 and since then business has boomed. This wedding season (from the end of September to the end of April) they have more than 40 weddings booked in with two on most weekends, Friday and Saturday, with Sunday’s reserved for showings. “One of the biggest things I love starts with showing prospective clients the Deer Shed and watching the moment they fall in love with the place which results in an incredible journey for us all - that’s an absolute buzz,” says India.

While the wedding business is a gigantic leap from traditional farming, like any farmer, it has its busy times, laughs Mark.

India takes care of everything with the help of daughters Emma (19) and Ella (17), working with clients to liaise with their own florists, caterers, bands, and celebrants, aided by additional cleaning staff. No wedding is too big or too small. It requires a lot of dedication to provide the perfect venue especially when you’re holding weddings back-to-back, weekend after weekend, she explains.

While many brides come with set ideas, India says some are just happy to go with their suggestions. The trick has been knowing what’s important, being able to help people with suggestions when they’re lost and encouraging them to come up with their own ideas, so each wedding is unique to every couple. She’s continually amazed.

Though it’s all-encompassing during the wedding season, both Mark and India enjoy it. “We really try to have a friendly and relaxed atmosphere, making everyone feel welcome. It’s a lot of fun meeting all the different people. It’s not like any other business, people are always happy. It’s a real privilege to be a part of people’s special day,” says Mark.

While they also offer corporate events, team building, product launches and anything in between, for now, the focus remains firmly on weddings.

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