Nelson: Town of History and Trees

January 27, 2021
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NELSON is a lovely, leafy city at the top end of the South Island of New Zealand. It has a sunny climate, lots of old buildings both in wood and stone, and a frankly amazing abundance of hiking trails in the hills that overlook the town.

Nelson: An old historical precinct downtown

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

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

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

The hill on which the intended cathedral was built was called Piki Mai meaning ‘come hither’. It had formerly been the site of a pā, or fortified village, where worked pieces of a flinty, obsidian-like local mineral called pakohe in Māori and argillite in English, from which tools were made for trade all over pre-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 came to be known as Church Hill.

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

The old wooden cathedral was destroyed by an earthquake and a subsequent fire in the early twentieth century and was replaced by a new marble one, gothic in style but with a distinctive modern bell tower. The terrace is a bit more flash these days, as well.

The same spot in 2021

One thing you notice in this part of the country is that there are a lot of large, stately-looking trees even in areas that are not actually parkland. Trees that were deliberately planted a long time ago (if introduced), or that generations of otherwise axe-wielding colonists refrained from chopping down (if native), do now lend the the northern end of the South Island a special charm, both in town and in farming districts alike.

An Auckland newspaper of the 1850s famously complained of how “some goth of a settler” had just chopped down the very last of a grove sacred to the Māori on Maungakiekie, a prominence that had come to be known to the English-speaking majority in Auckland as One Tree Hill: though as of that moment it was no-tree hill. Anyhow, I get the impression that theNelson colonists did a better job of thinking ahead.

The locality on which Nelson was established is known in Māori as Wakatu or Whakatū: names that look and sound similar but don’t mean the same thing. All the same, Wakatu or Whakatū is routinely used as the Māori name for the modern city of Nelson. Lots of buildings and institutions in Nelson bear a version of this name.

I may come back and add further photos or information about this lovely city from time to time.

See also The Nelson App by


If you liked the post above, check out my new book about the South Island! It's available for purchase from this website.


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