NZ #6: Nelson

By: | Post date: January 3, 2010 | Comments: 1 Comment
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A town of 40,000 counts as the Big Smoke around these parts. Guess I’m in rural New Zealand now.

Nelson’s flat, by Wellington and Auckland standards, which makes it feel sunny and open. The Marlborough region which Nelson abuts gets the most sunshine of New Zealand—and they have the vineyards to prove it. They had some sunshine to prove it yesterday too, though once again I’ve been playing hide-and-seek with the rain: there’d been a downpour just before my plane landed, and the tarmac was still steaming through the coupling of aircraft wheels and morning light.

Nelson is a tourist gathering point, and at Saturday midmorning was teeming with ambling backpackers, oscillating around the Saturday market. A fair hippy quotient, with the requisite crystals and pan pipes and woodcraft, alongside the whitebait patties and cherries and bush honey-flavoured whisky. And universally ignored buskers, all of them on acoustic guitar.

Not my thing, really, but it looked like being most people there’s thing.

Nelson is presided over by a cathedral, which took decades to finish as cathedrals usually do, and switched architectural styles along the way, again as cathedrals usually do. The architectural switch would happen in Europe because cathedrals took centuries; here it took decades, but it was the 20th century, when everything started happening faster. Even in New Zealand, by the ’60s.

The fusion has worked out here: the slender belltower that the cathedral presents to the town centre is at odds with the squat strength of the entrance at the other side, but both are coherent where they stand.

As a hill in the middle of flatland, Church Hill was known to the Maori as Piki Mai, “climb hither”. Church Hill started out as Maori fortifications, and when the Maori weren’t using it, as Pakeha fortifications—Fort Arthur, garrisoned for fear of a revenge attack in 1842. There are signs beside the cathedral telling the history, but the cathedral itself sidesteps its forebears deftly with a Maori subtitle: Haere mai, Piki mai! Welcome hither, Climb hither.

To the east of the cathedral is the other tourist attraction of Nelson proper, South St. South St is a street full of 1860s workers’ cottages, painstakingly maintained as private residences and B & B’s. It’s all wood, house after house, which as you’ll have read normally gets my back up. But this manifestation at least had the benefit of neatness and affluence to it. They aren’t workers’ cottages any more. The tourists don’t seem to have paid South St much mind: it was deserted apart from a teenager taking his radio operated car for a spin.

Nelson is a port city, its foreshore littered with containers and timber. My taxi driver informed me that lots of timber workers have lost their jobs with the recession, and the timber exporters finding it cheaper to process the timber offshore. But the port is still a place of active commerce.

The port is also a place of waterfront seafood restaurants, and I was aiming to report back on the taste of Nelson scallops. However, the tourist map I was using did no capture the complexity of streets around the port. After half an hour of walking through containers, I gave up and went back into town—one street before the road that actually led to the restaurants. This means I owe myself a scallop dinner further south.

And that’s it for Nelson

One Comment

  • John Cowan says:

    The cathedral of St. John the Unfinished here in NYC was begun in 1892 and is still being worked on, so that makes more than a century, if less than centuries. It took five years just to dig the crypt into the Manhattan schist. Granted, nothing happened 1941-1981, but that's typical of European cathedrals too: Notre-Dame de Reims was mostly finished by 1300, but a bit was done fifty years later using the original designs, and repair work (still using the original designs) from WWI damage is ongoing.

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