Down the Avon to New Brighton, 1890 – Notes on a Christchurch Trip

By Fabian Bell

The Avon is a lovely river. Of course I know that many people will say that it is no better than a ditch, &c. I pity their want of taste. Of course the stream is narrow and does not contain any great volume of water there is nothing in the least majestic or imposing about it, but lovely is an adjective which exactly describes it. The winding circuitous course, the clear, sparkling water beneath, where every stone and weed and bank of sand, every bit of broken crockery and preserved meat tin is distinctly visible, the latter being perhaps too much in evidence; but what would you? Kerosene tins are a distinctly colonial feature, and even on the slopes of Mount Cook one cannot escape them. The willows are perfect in their way, both in number and size, and it seems difficult to believe that the largest of them is not half a century old; but the soil and climate suit them to perfection, and so they attain a beauty and symmetry which I have never seen equalled elsewhere.

Mr and Mrs Vaughan rowing on Avon November 1906.
Mr and Mrs Vaughan rowing on Avon November 1906. [2]
There are some people who only care for boating as a means of progression, and like a long, smooth reach of water with every facility for racing others again care for nothing of the sort unless it has a spice of danger and they can feel that life or limb are in peril. To such I fear the upper reaches of the Avon offer few attractions, for the narrow, winding course is not suitable for racing, and should our boat be upset by any evil chance it would not be very difficult to wade out. But there are others who love the clear, running water for its own sake – and to whom every flash and ripple, every clear, shining, luminous depth is a keen delight who watch with eager interest the arrowy movement of the trout as they glide swiftly over the sandy bottom, who love to rest in the shadow of the interlacing trees and look upward through’the clear, transparent green of the delicate leaves to the summer sky above, and feel in some strange, inexplicable way that they are nearer to all beautiful things, to the ideal life, than they can ever feel in any temple made with hands. To such – and there are more of such people than you or I fare at all aware of – l say go for a pull up the Avon on your next holiday, and if you don’t enjoy it “write me down an ass.” But  you will; you can’t help it. And then when you are tired tie your boat to the stump of a tree and lie in the bottom and dream the dreams which are so much sweeter than any reality or else step out upon the turf and take a stroll through the park or the gardens and admire the trees and the flowers, the manner in which the whole has been laid out, and the most trifling natural advantage made the most of.

Hospital and Boatsheds alongside the Avon
Christchurch Hospital Doctors’ Residence on left, and glimpse of the Antigua Boatsheds on the right behind the willows. [3]
There are picturesque features on either bank without number from the hospital, with its red brick timbered gables, to the solid structure of Wood’s mill, which stops our upward journey. The grounds of the hospital come down to the water’s edge, and are covered with the greenest and softest of turf; and I always admired a seat so placed as to command one of the prettiest views on the river, but I never saw anyone occupy that seat, so perhaps the invalids did not admire it so much as I did.

Then we come to the gardens and the two pretty footbridges, and looking back we see the museum spire rising up behind the trees, and pause to admire this addition to the landscape. Have you ever noticed how much the gable end of a building, the summit of a spire or tower, or even a stack of chimneys (if not too new) improve a landscape, adding to it a suggestion of life, and the contrast of regular lines to the uncertain ever-changing outlines of trees and clouds and cloud-capped hills? In nature as in art, contrast is always effective.

Canoeing on the Avon
Canoeing on the Avon. [4]
On again, and we find ourselves opposite the head master’s house, and admiring its umbrageous seclusion, and a really picturesque stack of chimneys discoloured with smoke and over-grown with ivy. Here the river is narrow and swift, and the boat grates ominously as we punt her along over the shingly bottom, using one of the sculls as a pole. Rather rough on the owners, as one of our party mildly suggests while another declares, “They are used to it,” but does not condescend to explain whether the “they “refers to boats or sculls or the owners of the same.

At this part of the river there are generally plenty of boys to be seen fishing, paddling, bathing, &c. but when I was in Christchurch the schools were all closed for the holidays, and the boys were conspicuous by their absence.” This will also account for the fact that although I saw the outside of many fine scholastic buildings, I did not enter any, an empty schoolroom being to me a very unattractive scene.

Armagh Street Bridge, Christchurch
Armagh Street Bridge, Christchurch, 1914. [5]
Some of the bridges are very fine, that of Armagh street a mass of solid masonry, and others are built of stone, more or less ornamented. Nearly all of these bear the name of some civic magnate during whose rule it has been erected, and whose name, it is to be hoped, will thus be preserved from oblivion. Perhaps some of the bridges are a little too pretentious for the slender thread of water they span but they are certainly solid and handsome, and for the reasons already given a bridge is always a telling incident in a landscape.

A few more shallows, up which the boat is dragged and punted somehow – there is no towing path here, so that simple form of getting out of the difficulty is impossible – and then we reach a wide curve of still water, almost deep enough to drown one; while overhead the willows meet and interlace their branches, and their long drooping tresses dip into the water and make a mysterious suggestive shade into which we plunge recklessly, scattering the lights and breaking the shadows as we scull through them (one must scull on the Upper Avon, for it is not wide enough for oars) and so almost before we are aware of it – and certainly before we desire it we come to the mill-pond and the mill, and pushing the boat into a narrow backwater between the trunks of two fallen trees light our pipes and yarn.

It was on these occasions that I heard some wonderful yarns of the river –  its past glories and present decadence, of the dam which had been removed by the municipal or some other irresponsible power, and which had once kept the river bank full and wondered to find how curiously human nature is alike all the world over, for always “the former things were better than these”; for just such stories, alike in nature if differing in degree, have been told me on the Thames and the Severn, the Warwickshire Avon and the Yorkshire Ouse, and many another river of the Old World. It seemed strange to hear the same thing in this new country which has, as yet, no past.

Avon River near New Brighton
At New Brighton showing bridge over the Avon River with barges moored next to the right bank. [6]
Then we began to talk of the delights of boating and other simple pleasures, and of how much those people loose who “see nothing in them,” and one of the party waxed enthusiastic and declared that if he were a rich man he “could purchase permission from the corporation to replace the dam, pay for all damages it might occasion on the low-lying ground, and finally give an annual sum to keep the channel clean and free from weeds.” This started a new kind of game, and each of us said what he would do if he were rich. One said he would “put up some concrete rocks at New Brighton,” a remark which elicited many ironical cheers. At that time I had not seen New Brighton. Later on, when I was privileged to view that uninteresting town I was able to appreciate the importance of this suggestion. Another – our kindly and genial stroke – declared that if he were rich he would yearly take a holiday party of men and women, who all had similar tastes the chief being a hearty love of nature – and similar disabilities – the chief a short purse – and transport them all to the lakes, or the Sounds, or some other charming spot; and this time the cheers were not ironical, but a strange silence fell upon us, and it seemed as if each one questioned his own soul concerning the lost opportunities which he had let slip. Happiness is a rare and beautiful thing. It is good to feel that you have been the means of giving it to another, though for ever so short a time.

Time’s up,” said the captain and we backed out into the stream and suffered the current to take us gently home. “This is what I call jolly,” said the hero of the concrete rocks, letting his scull fall into the rowlock and trail behind the boat. “That is the advantage of pulling up stream you get back so easily.” We agreed for if there was one thing in which C- – (sic) really excelled most men it was the art of doing nothing. He should have been a Turk of the Middle Ages; he was – an impecunious clerk of the the latter half of the nineteenth century.

Rowing on the Avon River 1906
Rowing on the Avon River 1906. [7]
It is not usual to boat on that part of the Avon which flows through the streets of Christchurch, but from Avonside downwards it is quite a considerable stream. Here there is plenty of room for racing, and two four oars can easily pass and repass each other — indeed, on a summer evening the number and variety of the craft render navigation quite exciting, especially when your coxswain is a little uncertain as to which side she should take, and you shout excitedly, “Pull to the right no, no, I mean the left — their right oh, bother! that won’t do; pull this line pull” And you come in contact with a large family boat, well ballasted, with broad beams, a full crew, and half a dozen passengers. They shout and try to shove you off, and then back themselves, and then in the general confusion you glide past, rowlocks touching, and breathe a deep breath of thankfulness that that danger is past, and give your coxswain a lecture on steering which, in her excitement, she invariably forgets.

But the stream is tolerably broad and of uncertain depth, for the water is no longer crystal clear as it was above the town, but thick and muddy and defiled with sewage, yet beautiful still. The trees are not so thick, and they cannot interlace overhead but they form lovely groups here and there, generally in the grounds of some fine mansion or closely embowering some rustic cottage. One such cottage, which seems fairly dropping into the river and is yet beautiful enough in its decoy to tempt any artist to limn (describe) its picture, has a romantic love story attached to it, which one of our party related; a love story with a very touching commencement and a sad common-place ending— disappointment on one side, folly and sin on the other one of those stories which shows us what a poor thing human nature is after all.

On again, under two or three bridges, with many arches, the shooting of which is a little exciting, as you may at any moment come into contact with another boat, unseen till then, in which the solitary sculler, with his back towards you, comes on in all confidence, in spite of shouts of, “Hi, there! look out; look alive, stupid,” from the boys on the bridge, who look forward to the excitement of a collision with breathless excitement, and are evidently much disappointed when the sculler suddenly awakening to the consciousness of danger, deftly backs with his right scull and allows you to pass him on the left, muttering sotte vose (intentionally lowering one’s voice for emphasis) , “Wrong side,” a remark which you pretend not to hear.

From these lower reaches of the river you catch occcasional glimpses of more extended scenes –  a stretch of river meadows with a farmhouse behind them, and in the distance the rugged outlines of the Port Hills, which so clearly mark out the crater of one of those huge extinct volcanoes with which the whole island of New Zealand is studded. These hills look wonderfully well in the sunset light, when they reflect a thousand tints of crimson, orange, and purple, and then fade slowly into a pearly grey.

Hark! what is that. A strange booming roar as of distant artillery. I looked questioningly at my companions. “The sea,” they said, and so it was. Strange that I should not have recognised a sound to which I am so accustomed. Oddly enough, though I knew that the sea must be very near, I had not thought of  it before. “Out of sight, out of mind,” and then all at once I felt a great longing to see it again, and. taking up my oar rowed with a will.

Homes beside Avon, 1920s
Homes along side Avon River, Christchurch, 1920s. [8]
Past houses great and small, handsome and ugly – the traditional tea-chest style of mansion which meets you all over New Zealand and stares at you with four straight walls past trees of many kinds, but chiefly willows, and so on to the mouth of the Avon and New Brighton. And so I made the acquaintance of that spot which is destined, so I hear, to become the bathing place, the summer resort, the future Margate, Brighton, Eastbourne of Christchurch. There may be more dreary places on the face of this earth, but I have never seen them. Picture to yourself 90 miles of sand, unbroken by a single rock, or hill, or other salient feature human habitations, when there are any, half covered with sand and dwarfed to the size of ant hills sand everywhere, on the beach, in the houses, in your clothes, between your teeth. The long swell of the melancholy sea I never thought it melancholy before — rising and falling on this huge sandbank. No merry tinkle of the shingle as the stones roll and tumble over each other. No rush of waves and spray over a resisting rock, no scrambling, no pools of salt water to explore, nothing but a wide, restless expanse of sea as dreary as the land, and a sandy, shifting, featureless shore as monotonous as the ocean. Plenty of fresh air, no doubt a little too much of it, when the wind blows over those 90 miles of sand. Some people might live there and not go mad, they must be strangely deficient in imagination. I knew now why one of our crew had wished to make some concrete rocks at New Brighton, and I respect him as a public benefactor.

Author of  “The House in the Fells,”” Recollections of Belgium,” &c. [9]


  1. Feature image: Schoolboy walking under the trees along the Avon River, Christchurch. ca 1880s-1920s. Photograph taken by an unidentified photographer employed or contracted by ‘The Press’ newspaper of Christchurch. National Library of New Zealand. ID: 1/1-017601-G
  2. Image: Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, 236-7530
  3. Photograph taken by the Steffano Webb Photographic Studio, Christchurch. Image: National Library of New Zealand . ID: 1/1-005227-G
  4. Image: Private postcard collection.
  5. Photograph taken by the Steffano Webb Photographic Studio, Christchurch. Image: National Library of New Zealand ID: 1/1-005315-G.
  6. Photographer: Radcliffe, Frederick George. circa 1910-19. Image: Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, 35-R341′
  7. Image: Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, 236-7573.
  8. Photograph taken by Samuel Heath Head, Christchurch. National Library of New Zealand. ID: 1/1-007132-G.
  9. Printed in Otago Witness , Issue 1989, 10 April 1890, Page 35.

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