A number of people have told me that Christchurch is the most English settlement in New Zealand, and from the very first moment I could see their point; for a start, as I wandered through the beautiful botanic gardens, I found myself following the River Avon, surrounded on either side by Oxford and Cambridge Terraces. The gardens themselves are a gardener's dream, with a water garden, a rose garden, a pinetum, a Primula garden, a daffodil woodland, a cherry collection, an herbaceous border, a fragrant garden, a conservatory complex, a New Zealand garden, a rock garden and more... they're certainly comprehensive. All this is surrounded by huge swathes of park, a smattering of art museums and some very posh schools, and right in the centre of town is Cathedral Square, home to a beautiful gothic cathedral with a huge spire, the top of which is made of copper after the original stone one fell into the square during an earthquake.
It's a bit strange, seeing red telephone boxes, school children in blazers and boaters, people punting down the Avon, trees like weeping willows, oaks and sycamores, and street names that are almost entirely based on roads in England... but every now and then you look through the trees and spot a tussock-covered hill in the distance, something that wouldn't crop up in the sort of English countryside that would be home to a city like Christchurch. Perhaps that's why Christchurch, beautiful though it is, doesn't quite convince as a genuine slice of England; I kept thinking of a watercolour with too much water and not enough colour, or a theme park version of Little England, though thankfully without the tackiness. Perhaps actually living in one of the cities Christchurch is trying to be – Oxford – has spoilt me. But by all accounts the Japanese tourists lap it up, as you can tell by the group photo stand in the square, where busloads of Asians cram onto the platform to have their tour shot taken with the cathedral in the background. At least that part's an exact copy of Oxford...
I arrived in Christchurch after a long journey from Wellington, which consisted of a cold and rather rough ferry voyage across the Cook Strait to Picton; a dark arrival in the South Island at 2.30am; a restless night in the back of the car in a suitable rest area; the long and winding drive to Christchurch, down the east coast of the island strewn with rough volcanic rocks, odd weather, and dangerous hairpin bends (which I took very slowly indeed); and finally my arrival at the home of the local Acorn dealer Graham and his wife Bev.
Their hospitality was as wonderful as I'd come to expect from the Acorn dealership, and following a baptism by fire and a few days' work visiting local schools and writing case studies, the weekend arrived and Graham, Bev and I headed out to the Banks Peninsula, a strange hand-shaped peninsula sticking out of the east coast of New Zealand, just south of Christchurch. The main town, Akaroa, is just beautiful, with an azure harbour broken by fingers of deep green volcano jutting out from the hills. The town itself is as pretty a seaside town as you will find, with an interesting mix of French and English architecture; apparently the French inhabitants and English inhabitants didn't mix, and there was a self-imposed apartheid in the town, both socially and architecturally, something that has disappeared in all but the buildings. After a leisurely lunch and a lazy walk down the sea front, we met Bev's parents who were holidaying in the family bungalow – a lovely couple, full of stories about New Zealand – before winding our way back home through a sudden rainstorm.
This struck me as odd, because I'd been told that Christchurch was one of the driest places in the South Island. In New Zealand the west side is very, very wet – the weather comes from the southwest over the sea, where the clouds pick up plenty of water, ready to dump it all on the west coast and the Southern Alps. This means that the east coast gets comparatively little rain, so where places like Milford and Taranaki on the west side get metres of rain every year, the likes of Christchurch and Napier get far less (Auckland, meanwhile, being on both the west and the east at the same time, gets an intriguing mixture of both, with one type of weather coming straight after the other). As a result, Christchurch weather is most enjoyable, which explains a lot about the lifestyle there... but it still rains. After all, this is New Zealand.
The second time I visited Christchurch, I was very kindly put up by another Acorn stalwart, Steve, and his lovely wife Jenni, in their house out near the beach in northeast Christchurch. The whole stay was very pleasant, more so because of Steve and Jenni's kids, two-year-old Ellie and nine-month-old Benjy; Ellie took quite a shine to me, driving Steve and Jenni to distraction with her constant demands as to whether Mark could come too, whether Mark was up yet, did Mark want a biscuit, and so on. Mark was quite happy with the attention, to be honest; it appealed to the unrealised paternal side in me.
I stayed with Steve and Jenni for four days, fitting in such pleasantries as a game of golf with Steve and Simon (another Acorn nut and great company to boot); a Christmas tree buying session with Steve; a Christmas tree decorating session with Ellie; a tyre shopping trip to replace all my tyres, inspired by the rather sad flat I got soon after my arrival; a total of four interviews and articles, my final work until Nelson; a pizza and video session on Saturday night with Simon and some of his pals, which, after living the life of a traveller, was worryingly enjoyable; some very, very strong and very, very drinkable beer at Chats, a lovely little pub round the corner from Steve's house; and some final planning for Christmas and the rest of my time in the South Island.
The Luxury of Civilisation
There are plenty of sayings peppering the English language that concern themselves with jealousy and bemoaning your unhappy lot – 'the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence' is probably the most classic idiom – but in New Zealand I feel I've found a way of slipping through the fence whenever I fancy; if my grass isn't green enough, I find some that is, and visit it. It's obviously a luxury that comes from being free of the constraints of job, mortgage and attachments, but that doesn't make it any less valid.
It struck me when I arrived in Christchurch for the third time, after exploring most of the South Island, just how different life in civilisation and the wilderness can be. I might have thought that Glenorchy, Queenstown and Te Anau were bustling metropolises when I came back from days of tramping, but Christchurch, the biggest city in the South Island, highlighted the little things in life that you so often taken for granted. Playing golf with Simon and Steve was so different to walking in the bush; eating roast chicken and roast potatoes was a taste sensation after trail food; drinking ridiculous amounts of beer and cider and dancing the night away was something I used to do at least once a week in London, but it now seemed debauched and luxurious after weeks of living on a budget. Christchurch was pure western luxury, and I overdosed on it. That's what I mean by being able to cross the fence; people working in offices look out on green fields and wish they were there, and people out in the wilderness dream of hot showers, decent food and beer on tap. In New Zealand I've been lucky enough to be able to hop between the two lifestyles at the drop of a hat.
So yet again Christchurch life turned into a succession of golf, drinking, junk food, comfortable beds and, worryingly, karaoke, and if it hadn't been for my car being broken into while parked on a suburban backstreet, I'd have found it hard to leave. However, the shock of losing my hiking boots, guitar, harmonica, empty backpack, torch, knife and radio to a casual car thief gave me a real urge to head out into the wilderness once again, so after Steve kindly leant me his spare backpack, I headed north, aiming in the general direction of Nelson, a step closer to the volcanoes of the North Island.