Clever Christchurch: Back, after two years, to a city that just keeps getting better

August 18, 2023
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THIS July, 2023, I drove my newly-acquired Nissan Elgrand campervan to Christchurch, also known as Ōtautahi or Ōtautahi Christchurch, for repairs, and to catch a plane to Auckland.

(Like many places in Aotearoa New Zealand, Christchurch is in the process of acquiring a Māori name, a renaming that is more disputed than most as not all Māori favour Ōtautahi. With some irony, it turns out that the city was never officially named Christchurch in the first place either, so I suppose can call it what we like. However, I will stick with the most familiar name.)

I left the van at the South Brighton Holiday Park for my editor to pick it up and take it back down the West Coast (more posts coming on that!)

Meanwhile, I took the opportunity to catch up with old acquaintances, including the city itself. A city that just seems to keep getting better and better.

I wandered around the Arts Centre, which used to be the campus of the local university before it moved to the suburbs. The Arts Centre was built in the 1880s in the style known as Gothic Revival, a very popular style in old-time New Zealand.

Perhaps the founders wanted to make it look as though Christchurch had been there ever since the Middle Ages, as opposed to having been erected on a swampy site just a generation or two before.

So effective was the fake that a French visitor named André Siegfried wrote that Christchurch had already, by 1904, “an ancient air . . . the strange, tranquil and respectable appearance of an old European city.” (I’ve got a reference for this at the end.)

In 1958, New Zealand was visited by Nikolaus Pevsner, the former editor of London’s Architectural Review and a world-renowned expert on gothic architecture, both the original sort and the later Victorian revival. In a transcript of a radio talk published in the New Zealand Listener on 12 December 1958 under the title ‘Towns and Traditions’, Pevsner wrote that

The University [today’s Arts Centre] and the Museum at Christchurch — these are very typical examples of the official architecture of the High Victorian moment in New Zealand. I need not tell you how admirable was the confidence and the ambitiousness to erect such buildings in the sixties and seventies [of the 1800s] in towns still of a tiny size. They are of course Gothic and they are of the local stones of the South Island. Here again Christchurch and Dunedin read as against Wellington and Auckland.

Another famous example of the Gothic revival is the battered Anglican Cathedral, still being restored and as yet without its spire. Here’s a photo of the cathedral with the statue of city founder John Robert Godley in front. The statue is one of the oldest monuments in New Zealand, cast at Coalbrookdale (England) in 1865 and erected in Christchurch in 1867.

Next to the cathedral is the wonderful Citizens’ War Memorial, a really classy piece of work, which photographed well on a winter’s day.

It is called the Citizens’ War Memorial because the official city war memorial is actually the Bridge of Remembrance with its impressive gate, unveiled in 1924.

The Bridge of Remembrance

There was a push among ordinary citizens and ex-soldiers for another memorial of a more conventional sort, and the Citizens’ War Memorial, also known as the Soldiers’ War Memorial, was unveiled in 1937.

It has the look of the sort of thing you come across in London. Indeed, according to Heritage New Zealand/Pouhere Taonga,

Chris MacLean and Jock Phillips, in their book on New Zealand war memorials [The Sorrow and the Pride, 1990], have argued that one could make ‘a good case…for it being the finest public monument in the country’

The bronze figures were cast in Britain, and I assumed that they had been designed by some famous British sculptor. But amazingly, they were the work of a local boy named William Trethewey, “a monumental mason by trade ‘supplying angels and carving headstones’.”

Not bad for a monumental mason by trade. In fact, there has always been a lot of talent in Christchurch, a sort of strange surplus of intelligence that is the subject of a recent book called Bloomsbury South. Take, for instance, the fact that one of the students who studied and performed early modern physics experiments at the old university was called Ernest Rutherford.

I also checked out the considerably more over-the-top Arts Centre Memorial Window, in which a line of Kiwi troops aided by Captain Cook is defending a pantheon of British historical heroes, assorted pioneers, a nurse, a wounded soldier, and a Māori, from the World War One-era Germans and their allies, unflatteringly depicted as scarlet sea monsters. Now that’s what I call a memorial window — none of your soppy stuff.

Here is a video I made, which includes a wander along Cashel Street as well.

It was a couple of weeks after the new mid-winter public holiday of Matariki, first officially celebrated on 24 June 2023. Matariki is the Māori name for the constellation known by the Greek name of the Pleiades, which rises in the middle of winter in New Zealand.

Here’s a photo along Worcester Boulevard looking toward Rolleston Avenue and the Canterbury Museum.

I also wandered along the Avon or Ōtākaro, the river that runs through the middle of Christchurch.

Downtown Map showing the course of the Avon / Ōtākaro


There were informational panels about water life, and also about early industries powered by water wheels.

I saw lots of billboards of happening events!

It was a Sunday and the weather was pretty miserable, so there was just about nobody around. I took this photo of a pretty red umbrella over a cafe table, obviously awaiting better days.

There was some really impressive modern architecture to add to the old stuff. The present Christchurch City Art Gallery was opened in 2003. It suffered some damage in the earthquakes of 2010 and 2011 and had to be closed for repairs that took until 2015.

Outside the front of the gallery, there is a statue of a bull on top of a piano, by the sculptor Michael Parekowhai, with the curious title of ‘On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer’.

A sign introducing the Christchurch Art Gallery next to ‘On first looking into Chapman’s Homer’, a bronze sculpture of a bull on a piano by Michael Parekowhai, near the corner of Montreal Street and Gloucester Street.

‘On first looking into Chapman’s Homer’ in front of the Christchurch Art Gallery.

And then there is the equally amazing Te Pae / Christchurch Convention Centre, shown in the next few photos, which opened in 2020.

There were some billboards outside the Convention Centre that described the personification of each of the stars of the Matariki cluster.

Matariki Stars

More of the Matariki Stars

Here’s a video I made, which includes the lovely footpath outside Te Pae.

The tourist tram goes past Te Pae, and you can follow it onto Cashel Street.

A tourist tram beside the Convention Centre

Tramway and the Gate at the Bridge of Remembrance, on Cashel Street

Gate at the Bridge of Remembrance and bend in the tramway

Next to the Bridge of Remembrance, there are the covered Riverside Markets, well worth it as a place to revive yourself on a day like this.

Riverside Markets Argentina Day

Argentina Day Programme

Bacon Bros is on the outer edge of the Riverside Markets. There is also another outlet elsewhere in Christchurch.

I made a video about the Riverside Markets:

I also made my way to Victoria Square, named after Queen Victoria of course, after she died in 1901. Before that, it was known as Market Square or Market Place and was the actual original centre of Christchurch, before the centre of the city shifted to Cathedral Square.

Here we are back in the more traditional Christchurch, but again with a monument to V.R., unveiled in 1903, that is once again well above the average.

The statue was intended to inform future generations about the first fifty or so years of Christchurch and the surrounding Canterbury Settlement, in addition to reminding them about Queen Victoria herself. So, it has panels on the plinth that represent ‘Manufacture’, ‘Education’, ‘Agriculture’ and ‘Pastoralism’, plus a depiction of early settlers arriving at Lyttelton, which you can see in this image along with ‘Manufacture’, and a panel representing soldiers setting off for the South African War of 1899–1902.

Statue of Queen Victoria in Victoria Square, photo by Michal Klajban, 28 February 2020, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

It also has a plaque giving details of Queen Victoria’s dates of birth and death, and a roll of honour for the South African War. There is more information about this interesting monument on the website of Heritage New Zealand/Pouhere Taonga.

Of course, these days, Victoria Square is a bit more bicultural as well. A monument called Mana Motuhake, consisting of two symbolic representations of waka or canoes, was unveiled near the Queen Victoria statue in 2019.

One of the two Mana Motuhake statues, A statue of Captain Cook by local monumental mason and sculptor William Trethewey is visible in the background at the right. I am not sure what the square artworks are.

It’s also worth visiting the Air Force Museum of New Zealand at Wigram. The following photos show one of their prize exhibits, a Mark XVI Spitfire with the RAF registration TE 288.

TE 288 in the Air Force Museum at Wigram, photo by Oren Rozen, 5 March 2015, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Built in May 1945, just a little too late to see action in Europe, TE 288 has a more modern bubble-type canopy rather than the kind they had in the Battle of Britain, clipped wings (an option for later Spitfires that were to be flown at low altitudes), protruding cannon on the wings and a more pointed tail.

But apart from those changes, it otherwise looks a lot like the Spitfires that were flown in the Battle of Britain nearly five years earlier.

In fact, close-ups of TE 288 appear in the famous British 1955 Battle of Britain-era film Reach for the Sky, and another Mark XVI now at the Auckland War Memorial Museum, TE 456, was used for flying scenes.

Another view of TE 288 at Wigram, photo by Bernard Spragg, 4 November 2020, public domain image via Wikimedia Commons. This image is at about 25 MB on the source page, so you can see a lot more detail there.

TE 288 has been painted to look like a third Mk XVI that did see some action, Murray Lind’s ‘Rongotea’. This annoys the purists.

Here’s an older post, from 2021, called Christchurch: Gateway to Antarctica, rich in heritage, recovering from crises.

Next week, I will be blogging about the lonely windswept beaches northeast of Christchurch, from Te Karoro Karoro or the Brighton Spit to Waikuku Beach.

(The sentence about “an ancient air” comes from André Siegfried, Democracy in New Zealand, E. V. Burns trans., London, G. Bell & Sons Ltd, 1914, p. 253.)

If you liked this post, check out my book about the South Island (2021)! It’s available for purchase from this website,


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