Saturday, February 19, 2011
Christchurch - a touch of England
When New Zealand was known as Little Britain back in the day, people surely thought of Christchurch as Little London. While Dunedin and the Southland have strong Scottish roots, Christchurch is almost palpably of English descent.
Christchurch has a modern and vibrant Central Business District that shows off its more recent Asian immigration history, but parts of the city feel as if you are strolling around a small English village. The manicured gardens, the gorgeous flower displays everywhere, the weeping willows leaning into the gently strolling Avon, offer a nostalgic trip back across time and oceans.
The box stores in the United States have pretty much killed off little speciality stores in downtown areas. Men's clothing stores are gone, and forget trying to get anything repaired anymore. But Christchurch still offers a slew of old-time shops. On one block of New Regent Street - presumably named after London's Regent Street - alone, there's a wedding dress store, a shoe repairman, a Scottish store and two independent jewelers. I even saw a stamp collector's shop.
But, as if to underscore that New Zealand's past is its past, that same block is flanked by The Flying Burrito Brothers' Mexican restaurant at one end and an Indian restaurant at the other.
To further underline New Zealand's diversity, this morning there were three young Maori men perfroming a Mau rakau display and wielding taiaha, the traditional wooden Maori weapon. Right there on New Regent Street.
The area now occupied by Christchurch was, it is believed, originally settled by a Moa-hunting iwi in the mid-13th Century. The first Europeans didn't arrive until 1815. In 1850 four ships bearing about 800 settlers, known as the Canterbury Pilgrims arrived, and began work on what is now Christchurch in the region known as Canterbury.
They brought with them their farming ways. For much of its early time, Canterbury was said to "live off the sheep's back." That economy has diversified now, but the plains below the mountains are definitely still farming country.
The Gothic revival style buildings - especially the churches - put up by these early settlers were amongst the hardest hit by September's earthquake. Many of them are still in the metallic splints of scaffolding and work to restore them proceeds slowly and expensively.
Despite the modernizing and diversifying of the region, Christchurch still has a small-town England feel. With a population of 400,000, everybody seems to know one another. This motorman on the tram was shouting at people he passed. "Oy, get back in your store, Graham" and "How's business today, Stuart?" as he moved down New Regent Street at 8 km/h, the official walking speed of New Zealand.