Heritage Festival can connect all who've called Auckland home

In my next life I am going to be the curator of a museum. An Auckland museum, and since I'm dreaming here I am going to have a completely free rein to create the heritage I see when I walk around the city.

Actually, this could be the guided walk organised for tomorrow at 10am, and the two Sundays to follow, as a feature of a heritage festival organised by the Auckland Council over the next fortnight.

You will enter this total sensory experience (mine, I don't know about the council's) near the seaward end of Queens Wharf. You won't be on a wharf, though, you'll be on a small sailing ship at anchor in 1840.

On board you'll meet some interesting characters that Governor Hobson has sent down from the Bay of Islands to set up a capital for the new colony. Their leader, an upright young army officer, Captain Symonds, is "a fine gentlemanly young man," according to the diary of Sarah Mathew who is also on board, with her husband Felton, the surveyor.


Symonds must have been impressive because Sarah had been a bit miffed that Hobson had chosen him ahead of her husband to lead the party. Hobson probably lost some faith in Mathew the first time he had sent him down to pick a site and the surveyor had chosen the place we know as Panmure.

It had been the largest Maori settlement of the isthmus in previous centuries but while Panmure was ideal for commanding the Tamaki inlet, the main route for waka passing from the north to the Manukau and the Waikato, it was too shallow for the port Hobson needed.

So he had come personally to the Waitemata, checking all bays with plumbing lines and exploring as far as Hobsonville before settling on the bay that you are standing on at the end of Queens Wharf.

Face the city, use your imagination and come ashore in 1840.

You are not walking, you are in a ship's boat in calm, sheltered water. To your left there is a high bluff that would soon be called Britomart Pt, to your right a lower headland that has long gone too.

At the Ferry Building, not there of course, you still have some way to row. There is no Quay St, no Customs St. You row up lower Queen St until the water laps at a beach curving away to your left, where Fort St is today.

Ahead of you, Queen St is a creek in a valley of flax and fern. It is marshy where it meets the bay on your right so you haul up the boat on the Shortland St corner.

There, you need to fast-forward a few months. The main street of the settlement, Shortland Cres, is a dusty dirt road bending up the hill much as it does today. Its buildings are wooden and just one or two storeys high but they stand side by side, competing for business and bearing names such as Nathan, Russell, Firth, Brown and Campbell.

Walk up the hill past the stores selling general merchandise and at the top of the rise you are on the Britomart bluff, or what remains of it. Here, Princes St led to to a fort on the point and the Albert Barracks for the colonial garrison whose dances and parties provided the nightlife in the young town.

Then wander along Waterloo Quadrant and you are more or less where the Government was. Auckland was the capital for 25 years and it is strange that so little of that time remains.

Apart from Old Government House (not the original) in the university grounds, there is just a plaque in little Parliament St behind the High Court to indicate where MPs from all over the country used to come for sessions of the legislature.

It is as though Auckland was so hurt by the decision to remove the capital to Wellington - more central and more peaceful considering the Waikato war - that the town expunged all memory of its former status and embraced its commercial future.

At the end of Waterloo Quadrant you are looking down Constitution Hill to Anzac Ave and the old railway station and the flash developments in the former marshalling yards. Remove them all in your mind's eye, let the sea come almost to the base of Constitution Hill, as it did.

Somewhere down there was the original Mechanics Bay where Maori traders from Orakei and Kohimarama used to beach their canoes and set up camp when they brought food and built houses for the settlers.

It is hard to say why heritage matters. It is not just the past, it is the place. People were here before us, it was their place too. It enriches me somehow.

Free bookings for the Heritage Festival's Sunday walks can be made on 0800 300 100 or info@aucklandwalks.co.nz