Oamaru: Salute to town's finest era

By Rebecca Ryan

For more than a decade, the highlight of Oamaru's calendar has been the Victorian Heritage Celebrations in November.

Like a scene out of a movie, moustached men ride penny-farthings and women gather for high tea.

For some it's a way of life all year round, but from November 15-18 everyone has the opportunity to enjoy an array of traditional delights.

These include a street parade, a heritage bicycle championship, a gambling evening, vintage machinery displays, a 1949-style rugby game, art exhibitions, high tea, concerts and Victorian melodrama.

For many participants, the Grand Ball is the pinnacle of the celebrations. Women parade in dazzling Victorian gowns and gentlemen in tailcoats, dinner suits or military uniforms for an evening of decorous dancing.

For organising committee chairman Peter Amyes, the heritage celebrations go much deeper than donning a top hat, tails and a bow tie - it's about peeling back the decades and commemorating the birth and development of Oamaru.

"Victorian Heritage week is Oamaru's annual salute to the forefathers of the community, and the wealth generated during the era that enabled Oamaru to have what is now a unique collection of period architecture," Mr Amyes says.

Internationally, New Zealand's history is relatively short but that doesn't mean it's less colourful, he says.

Just south of Oamaru is Totara Estate, which pioneered the first frozen shipment of meat to England in 1882, and now provides an insight into farming life in the 1880s.

The Oamaru area was built on the back of the prospering farming community and the produce that came out of the district. The buildings in the Victorian precinct were built in response to the affluence.

This year's celebrations will also have a Dickensian twist - commemorating the 200th anniversary of the birth of writer Charles Dickens.

"The theme is topical and it's popular in New Zealand. Dickens was perhaps the most celebrated writer in the Victorian period."

Next year the theme will be "Victorian explorers", and 2014 will look at Victorian transportation.

Watching the town transform each November was what attracted Mr Amyes to become involved in the organising committee.

"When people get into period dress they take on the persona of the period. Women carry themselves. We see the etiquette of the time and the graciousness. Gentlemen are tipping their hats," he says.

"One of the good things, I find, is it actually brings the people who are interested in it together to enjoy it, get dressed up, go to a whole series of fun things within a short period of time and just enjoy life."

The Victorian Heritage Celebrations aren't about coming and having a look - they're about coming and participating.

"You are going to get so much more out of it by participating," Mr Amyes says. "Get a costume, make your own or order one from the Victorian Wardrobe. Even if it's just a top hat, a pair of tails and a bow tie. That's where the fun is, that's where you get into it, that's where you get the returns."

If you ask anyone in New Zealand what Oamaru is known for, it is its Victorian heritage. The celebrations are part of why the area is branded in such a way. "It's about bringing people in to come and stay in Oamaru. It's not a money-making event. It's an iconic event for the Waitaki community."

Accommodation in Oamaru is already being booked fast for the event, so where the Dickens are you?

For more information and a full programme, see: www.vhc.co.nz

- Hamilton News

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