Christchurch: Everything's lovely in Garden City

By Jim Eagles

Punting in the Avon is a great way to explore Christchurch at any time of year. Photo / Jim Eagles
Punting in the Avon is a great way to explore Christchurch at any time of year. Photo / Jim Eagles

We were drifting gently down Christchurch's Avon River in our punt, enjoying the dabbling ducks, the pretty flowers on the bank and the serenity of travelling this way ... when a woman in a red jacket standing on the footpath shouted, "Are you nuts?"

The question was understandable: it was cold, a squally southerly was blowing and just at that moment one of the intermittent showers was falling.

But the woman, who had an American accent, was quite wrong if she thought we were uncomfortable: we were cosily tucked up under a couple of rugs and a waterproof blanket and there were umbrellas to hand should the rain get heavy.

"No," I shouted back. "We're not nuts. In fact, we're warmer than you. We're wrapped up in blankets and sheltered by the river bank. You're out there in the cold." She mumbled something in response but by then we had glided under a bridge and passed out of earshot.

Of course riding through the heart of Christchurch in a punt would have been nicer still on a fine day. But even in an unseasonal storm it was a delightful way to explore the Garden City. And somehow it seemed very Christchurch.

The other very Christchurch way to get around is by tram, less tranquil than a punt but elegant, relaxed and olde worlde, and stopping at most of the interesting spots in the delightful city centre.

Our exploration had started at Cathedral Square, heart of the city and home of the cathedral. This is a classic old church, dating from 1864 and built in an impressive gothic style, filled with interesting memorials and artworks, with a welcoming atmosphere _ and well heated.

Outside an old man was playing pleasantly on a flute and a statue of Canterbury's founding father, John Robert Godley, was frowning in apparent disapproval, possibly at a rather more modern piece of sculpture, the 18m-tall Chalice, erected in 2001 to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the settlement's founding.

At the nearby tram stop the cheerful red tram The Brill, built in Christchurch in 1921, was waiting so we climbed aboard and, with a ching of the bell, headed off on a circuit of the city.

One of the great things about Christchurch is the fact that most of the old buildings have been preserved so the passing parade outside the tram window included the wonderful old Canterbury Provincial Council Buildings, dating from 1858, the only ones still in existence; the former Municipal Chambers, built in 1887 in Queen Anne style, looking a bit like a fairy castle and these days housing exhibitions about the city; the formidable buildings of Christ's College, one of the oldest schools in the country, dating from 1863; the beautiful stone Gothic Revival buildings which once housed the University of Canterbury, dating from 1876, and these days accommodating crafts shops, art galleries and restaurants; and the impressive Canterbury Museum which had its beginnings in 1870. It was like a ride through yesteryear.

Sadly, we didn't have much time because there was a train to catch next morning, but we couldn't resist getting off at the museum to see Fred and Martle Flutey's paua shell house, moved up from Bluff and reconstituted inside the museum.

I have to admit being a bit cynical about this, but actually it was delightful. The house is the most extraordinary piece of kiwiana kitsch I've ever seen and the accompanying video about the Fluteys was just a joy.

By the time we came out it was drizzling but it was only a short walk through Christchurch's beautiful Botanical Gardens to the quaint old Antigua Boatsheds, built in 1882, and still acting as a base for boating on the Avon.

Our punter was Robert, a French-Canadian who said he had never seen a punt before coming to New Zealand to improve his English, but he definitely looked the part in his elegant straw boater and the commentary was excellent.

The River Avon, he explained, was the reason Christchurch existed. "The settlers came up the river from the sea and built their city at the point where it became so shallow they got stuck. But," he added hastily, "there is plenty of water for us." The Botanical Gardens, which were flowering magnificently on either side of our watery highway, had been rated among "the 10 most beautiful botanical gardens in the world". The lovely spectacle on either side made it hard to disagree.

The gardens had their beginnings in 1863 "when Queen Victoria sent an acorn to each of the British colonies to mark the marriage of her eldest son. It was planted on the banks of the river, inspiring the creation of the botanical gardens, and grew into an oak tree ... that tree there," he said, pointing to a huge old oak by the water's edge.

The mallards paddling all around, Robert said, "have lots of chicks but are not good mothers ... they lose a lot." But the paradise ducks, also sharing the river with us, "are very good parents ... I saw one attacking a huge eel that was threatening one of its young." A small tributary was "the first place in New Zealand where brown trout were released and there are still trout in the river today".

Robert also recounted tales about a controversial sculpture of naked wrestlers which could be spied through the undergrowth, an ancient bandstand which had recently been earthquake proofed ("so they can keep playing music in an earthquake"), Hagley Park ("the third biggest city park in the world after Hyde Park in London and Central Park in New York") and the punts we were riding in ("built by hand in New Zealand to traditional English plans").

Were we nuts to take a ride in a punt? We'd have been nuts not to. It's the perfect way to explore this beautiful city.

Jim Eagles travelled New Zealand by rail with help from KiwiRail, Air New Zealand and the regional tourism organisations along the way.

- NZ Herald

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