Nelson: Town of History and Trees

January 27, 2021
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NELSON is a lovely, leafy cityat the top end of the South Island. It has a sunny climate, lots of oldbuildings both in wood and stone, and a frankly amazing abundance of hikingtrails in the hills that overlook the town.


An old historical precinct downtown

A screenshot of the Nelson Trails Map Viewer, filtered and rendered in black and white for clarity (2021). The urbanarea is to the left, an abundance of trails on hills overlooking the city is tothe right.

Nelson was the first New Zealand settlement to bedesignated a city, as far back as 1859. At that time, it had just gained NewZealand’s first Anglican cathedral, called Christ Church, on a small hill downwhich a terrace of formal steps soon cascaded to the street.

‘Nelson Cathedral’,Nelson Provincial Museum, BettCollection, photo reference no. 314710.

The hill on which the cathedral was built was calledPiki Mai meaning ‘come hither’. It had formerly been the site of a pā, orfortified village, where worked pieces of an obsidian-like local mineral calledpakohe in Māori and argillite in English, from which tools were made for trade all overpre-European New Zealand, were gathered together for safe-keeping.

In colonial times, hill-forts and stone implements(other than those of pounamu) both became things of the past, and Piki Mai cameto be known as Church Hill.

By tradition, the site of a cathedral had to be acity. And so, Nelson became a city by order of Queen Victoria. In truth, thesettlement was still little more than a village in those days. But today’s Nelsonreally is a proper city, complete with outdoor cafés and all the rest.

The old wooden cathedral was destroyed by anearthquake and a subsequent fire and was replaced by a new marble one in the1930s and 1940s, gothic in style but with a distinctive modern bell tower. The terraceis a bit more flash these days, as well.

The same spot in 2021

Along with the history, the bit about trees is also true.One thing that strikes you in Nelson and even in the surrounding countryside isthe absolute abundance of trees. This is true even in farmers’ fields of thesort that might be more devoid of anything except grass and the mostutilitarian shelter-belts in other parts of the country. The result is apleasantly random one that looks rather like an eighteenth-century Englishlandscape painting.

Farm trees in the Takaka Valley, west ofNelson. The countryside outside Nelson itself is quitesimilar.

Whether this is a response to the sunny climate,sheltered from the cold winds of the south by the mass of the South Island anda consequently greater need for shade, or whether it reflects some kind ofgreater local pride or conscious desire to replicate an old-time Englishlandscape of the kind the settlers left behind, I’m not sure. But it really doeslend the area some charm, in town and country alike.

The locality on which Nelson was established is knownin Māori as Wakatu or Whakatū: names that look and sound similar but don’t meanthe same thing. In fact, there are four separate traditions as to what thecorrect Maori name is and what it might mean; a fact that has probably held upthe designation of any official Maori alternative to the town’s colonial name,which honours Lord Nelson of Trafalgar of course.

All the same, Wakatu or Whakatū is routinely used asthe Maori name for the modern city of Nelson. Lots of buildings andinstitutions in Nelson bear the name Wakatu, or Whakatū.

Even, for instance, an old colonial pub at a spotcalled Four Spirits Corner: so-called because the crossroads used to boast twopublic houses (still there), a temperance hall offering spiritual guidance to thosewho’d overdone it, and a garage selling what used to be known as motor spirit!

The Wakatu Hotel (left) and neighbour, FourSpirits Corner

You might think the prevalence of theMāori names for Nelson is a concession to post-colonial sensibilities. Including,perhaps, a reaction to the long-hushed-up fact that Nelson, the man, was anardent fan of slavery who planned to take up an active political career againstthe proposed reforms of William Wilberforce once he’d hung up his uniform.Plans that would have been disastrous for Nelson’s future reputation, but whichwere cut short by the fact that he fell at Trafalgar and was thus elevated tothe pantheon of the immortals instead.

Detail from The Death of Nelson, by BenjaminWest (1806). Public domain image via the Google Art Project.

Well, no. Not entirely. The Nelson settlers have long beenaware of the Māori name for their locality, if not the fine history of all itsvariants.

Here’s an old photo of the Wakatu Hotel taken from prettymuch the same spot as our photo above, minus later verandahs but with the samename even then. It’s from a historical street plaque describing ‘The story ofFour Spirits Corner and the fire of 1866’.

I could go on about the charming and quirky city of Nelson or Wakatu/Whakatūat greater length than space here permits, and indeed I do


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