Notes on a Christchurch Trip By Fabian Bell
Part V: A Visit to Some of the Suburbs and a Parting Nor’ Wester
The room in which Bishop Julius was entertained at luncheon the other day is a particularly striking one. It is in the building which was formerly (when each province had its separate Government) the Provincial Chambers, and is now utilised for any public function of special interest or importance for which such a room is suitable. It is not very large, but it is beautifully decorated, the ceiling being particularly fine — strikingly so in a country where architecture is certainly not one of the chief features — for it must be confessed that the majority of our buildings are certainly neither ornamental nor durable. The outside of the edifice is of grey stone, overshadowed with two or three fine trees. It is situated on the bank of the river and near to one of the pretty bridges already referred to, so that both outside and in it may be justly considered an ornament to the city.
The railway station is one of the ugliest public buildings in Christchurch, and quite the most awkwardly situated, for with the curious perversity which seems so generally to distinguish this particular branch of the public service, the station, instead of being placed in the centre of the town, is at the extreme verge, and in the very lowest part, so that it is quite a distance from there to the business part; of the town, and a still greater distance to the fashionable quarter. So inconvenient is the station, and so awkward the situation, that it is quite customary for passengers travelling northward to take a tram to Papanui and catch the train there, instead of going to the terminus, by which means they save both time and money, a fact that I could scarcely credit when it was first brought to my notice.
Papanui is one of the chief suburbs of Christchurch. It is between two and three miles distant from the centre of the town, and the whole road is lined with houses more or less ornamental, many of them mansions worthy of the merchant princes who dwell there, and who evidently take a pride in their fine houses, gardens, and other belongings. I must confess that I did not admire these gardens so much as some in and around Dunedin; but this was because our hillsides afford such extraordinary facilities for landscape gardening that it is almost impossible to equal them in any piece of perfectly level ground.
Locomotion is easy in Christchurch, as I mentioned before, and decidedly cheap, for there is a considerable amount of competition; thus, for instance, there are no less than three distinct lines of conveyances between Cathedral square and Papanui. First in importance as, in size, the steam motor, dragging after it one or more trams ; then a horse-tram, not particularly clean or particularly swift; and finally an open waggonette, very pleasant in fine weather and when the dust does not blow in clouds. The drivers of these vehicles appear to be at deadly enmity with each other, and they quarrel for every intending passenger just like the same number of Turkish dragomen or Irish cabmen. Sometimes these passages at arms are very amusing.
One bright summer morning about 7 o’clock, when I was intending to go to Papanui en route for Rangiora, I saw two ladies laden with parcels enter the square and approach the tram-starting place. They were evidently fair game, and three youthful conductors prepared for the struggle. “Here you are, mum ; this way for Papanui,” cried one. ” No, no ; this way. You could not trust your precious life with him,” retorted another. “Now, look you here, mum, you had better not go with either of ’em ; I’m the real Mackay. Those fellows won’t neither on ’em take you to the station ; they’ll just drop you at the bridge,” said the third conductor in most persuasive tones. The ladies visibly wavered. This gave fresh energy to their tormentors. The smallest boy of the three, and by inverse ratio the most impudent, sideled up to the elder lady and said in a stage whisper, “He ran over a man yesterday.” “You liar ; I didn’t.” “Warn’t your fault, then ; you tried your best,” was the swift retort, silencing for a moment rival No. 2. But during this time No. 3 had succeeded in drawing his vehicle to tho edge of the pavement and in taking possession of some of the parcels. No. 1 tried to secure the others; but this was going rather too far. The ladies followed their property and entered the waggonette, the driver of which triumphantly mounted the box and cracked his whip around the heads of his discomfited rivals, who immediately turned their attention to the discovery of some new victim on whom to exercise their blandishments.
I got up on the outside of the car attached to the steam motor, and remembering my drive to Sumner, prepared to enjoy myself. But this was not to be ; the tram, only half full and with no ballast in the lower part, oscillated most unpleasantly, and as, for some reason or other best known to himself, the driver put on extra steam, we went at a great pace, and the movement was by no means agreeable ; indeed, once or twice I was reminded of the switchback, and was inclined to hold on and wish that I had gone in the waggonette, which rolled gaily on in the distance, overtaking, or nearly overtaking, us, at the stopping places and sinking into the distance again as we forged ahead. From my elevated seat I had a splendid view of the houses and gardens we passed, many of which were still closed to the light and air of the lovely summer morning.
On the way we passed Matron’s ostrich farm (the fine exhibit will no doubt be remembered by all visitors to our Exhibition), and I saw the ostriches wandering about the paddocks and apparently feeding on the grass and otherwise enjoying themselves. At first I could not think what strange kind of cattle these might be, but when told I regarded them with great interest, though with a certain amount of disappointment, for none of them were white, and I had somehow imbibed the idea that all ostriches were white as snow, and was not at all prepared to accept them in any other disguise. Anyhow, they seemed strangely at home, and when I once recognised the fact of their existence I was pleased to see them so well acclimatised.
We passed like a flash, and at the end of about 20 minutes reached the little village of Papanui, with its white church, pointed spire, and pretty churchyard full of flowers. We reached the station in admirable time ; indeed, owing no doubt to the extra spurt, we were there much too soon, and I was pleased to see that the waggonette, ladies, and parcels also arrived in due time.
On the way to Rangiora we passed Belfast and Kaiapoi. The former is noted for its meat-preserving works. I had some idea of paying them a passing visit, but the smell discouraged me. Like Seneca, I object to smells, and especially such as these ; for in truth there were several, each one distinct from, and rather worse than, the last. I was, however, told that these smells were healthy, just as I have been told that the odours of a tannery at Home were most sanitary, and some wonderful instances of improved health and immunity from disease among the employes were told to me. Of course I did not attempt to dispute these facts— how could I?— but merely said I would rather go on, and felt very thankful when we left the smells behind. At Kaiapoi there is not much to see except the woollen factory, and having already visited those at Roslyn and Mosgiel I did not care to make the experience a third time, for I am not sufficiently an expert to be able to appreciate the differences of style and workmanship, if there are any. It is, however, a pleasant little town, and I was sorry to hear that it is not very prosperous just now, and that its church affairs have, never recovered the blow dealt them by the difficulties with Mr Carlyon.
The railway passes through some very pretty country. Of course it is all perfectly flat, but the snowy mountains in the distance, glowing a thousand soft opaline tints of pink and purple, were lovely to look on, and gave a sense of breadth and distance and a most charming background to the peaceful rural landscape, cottages and farms, fields of waving corn, green meadows full of cattle divided by quick-set hedges, with occasional clumps and avenues of trees. All looked settled, peaceful, prosperous. There were no signs of that struggle with the adverse forces of Nature which is so apparent in some other and less favoured parts of the colony, such as the tussock land of South Canterbury and the bare hillsides of Central Otago. It is this very struggle with, and ultimate conquest of, Nature which forms one of the attractions to the pioneers of a new country; but this phase of existence had been satisfactorily passed through by the district we were now admiring, and the peace and prosperity of a successful middle age had fallen upon it. Indeed, wherever I went in Christchurch and the neighbourhood peace and prosperity seemed the most suitable terms in which to describe all that I saw. Bustle, activity, energy are the distinguishing traits of Dunedin ; for we are nothing if not go-ahead. Compared with the tone of Christchurch and the neighbourhood we seem still in our vigorous youth, with a dash of the restless fervour which does not know when to be quiet, and is sometimes rather oppressive to its quieter neighbours.
We passed some fine plantations of willow, birch, silver poplar, and other trees, and at one spot we saw hundreds and thousands of plants of the native toi grass waving its long graceful tresses in the wind and forming a very agreeable contrast to the lines of fence and paddock. We crossed the broad bed of the Rakaia— a mere expanse of rough shingle, with a tiny thread of water winding promiscuously through the centre. A full mile wide it was ; and it was not difficult to picture its appearance in times of flood, when great volumes of surging water would rush and tear along and almost fill it from bank to bank. Looking at the Rakaia, one could not doubt that; one was in New Zealand. There are no rivers like that in the Old Country, and it is one of the physical features of New Zealand which must always stamp its impress upon the country. Standing on the banks of the Avon you can dream yourself back to the dear Home Country; standing on the bank of the Rakaia you are bound to face the realities of life and burn your ships behind you.
Rangiora is the centre of a wide pastoral district, and is a place of some importance, but to the casual visitor it is rather uninteresting. The buildings are small and low, and there is nothing striking in the street architecture. On the day that we were there, however, there was considerable excitement among the inhabitants, for they were preparing for a ball in the evening. Balls are evidently not very common events in this country place, and this one was expected to be something very superior. In every home that we visited some allusion was made to it, and the ladies were very busy preparing in some way for the important event, so that by the time we left we had got up quite a lively interest in it, and were half inclined to accept one of the many invitations to “stop and see it out.” But our holiday had come to an end ; we had to leave Christchurch on the following morning, and spite of the many inducements held out decided to follow our first plan and return to town by the evening train, which we did, looking, however, with much interest on the seven vehicles which rendered the little station quite a lively spot, and which had all come to meet expected friends from the Christchurch centre of civilisation. We heard afterwards that the ball was a great success, and felt sorry that we could not have shared in the dissipation.
On the following morning my holiday was at an end, and I had to leave Christchurch. I did so with great reluctance, for I had never enjoyed a holiday more; and now that I look back upon it I feel that I still enjoy it in thousand happy memories. Still, when I shut my eyes I can see again the swift crystal-clear waters of the Avon, the golden green lights and grey wavy shadows of the overhanging willow, the smooth trunks dotted and flocked with light, one tiny spire pointing heavenward, the gardens and their myriad flowers, the bushy depths of the park in the mysterious evening light, or the handsome churches and schools, the cave rock of Sumner, and the volcanic crater of Lyttleton. Memory makes these things our own for ever, and thus most true is the trite quotation — A thing of beauty is a joy for ever.
But Christchurch did not let me go without showing me a touch of her ugly side. All the time I was there people said, “Ah, but this is exceptional weather ; very cold for the time of year. You should experience a nor’wester.” Now, I am fond of cold weather, or at least I do not like great heat, and I have a wholesome dread of hot winds, so I found no fault with the weather, which was very bright and smiling, and suited me exactly. But on the last morning the sky was grey and lowering, and it blew a regular nor’wester. The heat was suffocating, and when you opened the carriage windows things grew worse instead of better, for the hot air was laden with dust which blew into our eyes and lungs, and made things generally unpleasant. The wide plain was of a dreary, uniform grey ; the distant mountains were scarcely visible except as grey clouds — everything was grey, houses, people, paddocks, even trees. The colour and the beauty had all died out of the landscape, and nothing remained but an overpowering sense of heat and oppression. At every station the people were complaining, and it seemed to grow hotter as one went further south. At Timaru they were watering the verandahs of the houses, and the passengers who got in declared that they had never known so hot a day; but when one crossed into Otago it soon felt cooler, and at Oamaru the air was quite fresh. Thus I could truly say that Christchurch turned her back on me when she bade me farewell. 
- Source: Christchurch Museum Library; Author:Burton Bros.
- Burton Brothers (photography studio), 1800s, Dunedin Unknown (photographer), 1800s, Christchurch. Reg. No.: O.034075 Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa.
- Burton Brothers (Dunedin, N.Z.). Burton Brothers :On the Avon, Christchurch. Burton Bros. Ref: PAColl-4496. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.
- Otago Witness , Issue 1892, 15 May 1890, Page 30.