Christchurch: Gateway to Antarctica, rich in heritage, recovering from crises

January 26, 2021
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Put inquote from André Siegfried

WITH an abundance of gothic stonearchitecture and a large pedestrianised area downtown, Christchurch is morelike a quaint old city in Europe than a brash colonial metropolis.


The Christchurch Botanic Gardens, where I’m standing in thisphotograph, are next to the Canterbury Museum, founded in 1870, and also on theedge of the vast, downtown, Hagley Park.


The green-banked Avon River that snakes through the middleof town adds further charms to Christchurch. The river isn’t named after theAvon in Stratford, England, but after another River Avon in Scotland.

The Avon also bears the Māori name of Ōtākaro, meaning ‘ofgames’, because children always traditionally played alongside it while adultsgathered food such as flounder, eels, ducks, whitebait and freshwater fish fromthe river, its swampy surroundings and its estuary, which it shares withanother small river now called the Heathcote.

Today’s city has the Maori name of Ōtautahi, meaning‘of Tautahi’, a Rangatira or chief whose pā was on the ground of BanksPeninsula, the rocky quasi-island then known to the Māori as Horomaka or Te Pātaka[storehouse] o Rakaihautū.

Before the days of Tautahi, there was a Waitaha pā orvillage on the Ōtākaro called Puari, but in later years it seems that the siteof the future Christchurch was abandoned as a permanent habitation, as opposedto a place where one went to gather food.

All in all, the place that Cook named Gore’s Bay was a mostunpromising place to build a future city.

And yet there is one now. Indeed, I never get sick ofvisiting the thriving metropolis of Christchurch, or Ōtautahi, which is in factnow the largest city in the South Island, its current population of about420,000 overall.

The city was founded in 1851 by the so-called CanterburyPilgrims, settlers backed by the Church of England, who decided to build theircity on the site the Waitaha had abandoned, investing the more materialisticside of their faith in modern drains.

The World Monuments Fund has an online flier withcolour images of the pre-quake Canterbury Provincial Council Buildings andtheir Great Hall, including its stained-glass

The more you think about it the more improbable the very existenceof Christchurch, and then the way it turned out, all seem!

It’s there now, so enjoy it!

Well, first on my list would be the Christchurch BotanicGardens and Hagley Park, against which I’m photographed at the start. You couldspend hours here, even without visiting the adjacent Canterbury Museum and RobertMcDougall Art Gallery.

To continue, Christchurch has strong Antarctic traditions. TheNew Zealand, American and Italian Antarctic programmes are all based inChristchurch. The unique working museum known as the International AntarcticCentre, beside Christchurch International Airport, is definitely worth a visit.

See the website of theChristchurch Antarctic Office:

In town, you can eat lunch below the Robert Falcon ScottMemorial, a statue of the famous Antarctic explorer who began Christchurch’slink with the Antarctic by making the city his base before departing for thepole. Carved by Scott’s widow Kathleen out of white Carrara marble in 1916, thememorial stands on the banks of the Avon/Ōtākaro by Oxford Terrace and is quiteimpressive. White marble was chosen because bronze was in short supply due tothe First World War. But it was also said to be an appropriate medium becauseit resembled the ice of the Antarctic.

There is an excellentimage of the Scott Memorial on an old postcard, with detailed notes, on thewebsite South’sMuseum of Postcards.

Christchurch was also famous for along time as a city of cyclists. A documentary made in 1952 claimed that “onlyCopenhagen is said to boast more bicycles.”

Check it out here!

Unfortunately, Christchurch then succumbed to the automobileto a far greater extent than Copenhagen, although the effects were partlyremedied by the pedestrianisation of much of downtown Christchurch in the1970s, including Cathedral Square and Cashel Street. Here’s a picture of mewalking through Cathedral Square in autumn with a statue of an early founder,John Robert Godley, in the background.

Pedestrianisation was made easier by the development of asystem of one-way bypass roads that form a ring around the city centre. As aresult, the city centre is fairly quiet. A bit like the eye of a traffichurricane, perhaps.

As for the cycling that the city was once so famous for,though it went downhill in the automobile era, there’s now an extensive networkof cycleways in Christchurch, including Te Ara Ōtākaro Avon River Trail.

Since the earthquakes, the city centre has also started tobe encompassed by a ring of parkland called the Frame, built on demolitionsites. This should make the downtown area even more pleasant.

For many years there has also been a tourist tramway, whichsnakes right through some of the buildings downtown and trundles up and down anumber of the downtown’s mostly rather quiet streets.

The tramway passes by the Art Deco-style Bridge ofRemembrance on Cashel Street

The Bridge of Remembrance, Cashel Street,Christchurch. XXXX

Another Christchurch must-see along with the still-damagedChristchurch (Anglican) Cathedral in the middle of Cathedral Square.  There also used to be an equally impressiveCatholic basilica a short distance from the Anglican one, but unfortunately itcould not be saved.

Seethe 2011 documentary When a City Falls, with trailer on Made on the hop in the immediateaftermath of the quakes, the film now has a somewhat more cheerful sequelcalled When a City Rises, trailer on

On the other hand, there is now a ‘Cardboard Cathedral’, atemporary but innovative structure designed by the architect Shigeru Ban andmade, as the name suggests, of cardboard. Which is apparently quite strong ifit’s laminated enough times. Officially called the Transitional Cathedral, thisis on the corner of Hereford and Madras Streets.

The banks of the Avon/Ōtākaro are especially attractive towander along as well. You can even go punting! Punts are held in candy-stripedwooden buildings that date back to Victorian times, the Antigua Boat Sheds,which have been used for their original purpose and in their original form since1882.

Some of the old wooden buildings and archways inChristchurch are just as interesting as the ones made of stone.

It was near the Avon or Ōtākaro, on the west side of HagleyPark, that the tragic mosque shootings of 2019 took place.

Messages on a fence near the Al-Noor Mosque

On a more positive note, another must-visit part ofChristchurch is the Arts Centre precinct of old gothic buildings just east ofHagley Park. The tourist tramway goes here as well.

Finally, for the seaside, locally, you can go to New Brightonand Sumner Beaches. New Brighton Beach has a pier that sticks out from an 18-kmlong sandspit that guards the estuary of the rivers, while Sumner Beach has bigrocks and is also easier to get to from most parts of town, with a broadpromenade.

Additional Resources


2020,on iTravel tube:


“an ancient air”: AndréSiegfried, Democracyin New Zealand (E. V. Burns trans.), London, G. Bell & sonsLtd, 1914, p. 253


Christchurch App


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