If you could build any city you wanted, what would you produce?
Chances are you could do no better than Christchurch, New Zealand - a bit of England deliberately transplanted, by settlers who came 12,000 miles from their homeland in 1850.Christchurch, which has been called "the most English city outside of England," was indeed originally planned as a model English settlement. The aim of the Canterbury Association (formed in 1847) was to plant on the opposite side of the globe an Anglican cross section of an English shire.
The name "Canterbury" was chosen for the province, to honor the Archbishop of the Church of England; and the city's charter is the oldest in New Zealand (1856), though it's not an old city. With 330,000 citizens, Christchurch is the third-largest city in New Zealand, after Auckland and Wellington. Its atmosphere is Victorian, with distinctively English architecture, statues, parks, rectangular city squares, and gardens, all united by the tree-lined River Avon.
Nestled on a fertile plain of the Banks Peninsula, sheltered on the east by the South Island's Southern Alps and slightly inland from the ocean, Christchurch and its surrounding Canterbury comprise a tender land. Approaching from the landward Port Hills side, one sees tranquil suburbs and sweeping, soft green and blue views of fruitful slopes and gentle surf, extending northward along a sparkling white strand.
Central to the town is Cathedral Square, with its handsome Gothic cathedral. The brick-paved pedestrian square surrounding it is crowded with birds and people feeding birds, flower sellers and noontime dawdlers. Since the square looks like it had been in place forever, it's a little surprising to learn that it was rescued only about 15 years ago from a welter of disorganized motor traffic.
Of special interest is the Four Ships Court, where complete passenger lists of the Canterbury Association's first vessels are inscribed in the pavement. With even-handed equality, a monument in the court records the Maori hapu (family groups) located in the Canterbury block when the pilgrims arrived.
Surrounding the court are atmospheric old buildings, notably the old post office, and the Canterbury provincial government buildings, which were only used for about 10 years, because provincial government was abolished in 1875 in favor of New Zealand central government.
However the great hall of the Chambers building (still used by courts today) remains a spacious, mellow example of Victorian high Gothic design. The old city council chambers near the river now house the Canterbury Travel Council, from which guided tours of the city set out daily; or you can pick up a map-pamphlet and conduct yourself.
Nor is Christchurch denied the ubiquitous statue of Queen Victoria. A large imposing one was erected in nearby Victoria Square in 1903, and there too is the city's oft-photographed floral clock.
Some of the most inviting prospects are along the River Avon, a tree-lined little stream that meanders through the town, past grassy parkways and walkways, under picturesque bridges. The stream then loops around a 75-acre botanical garden, which this "garden city of New Zealand " proudly proclaims to be one of the finest in the world. (An ideal way of viewing all this is from a rented canoe, available daily at the Antigua Boat Sheds.)
The garden is a part of Hagley Park, a city-locked green space of 500 acres, set aside with admirable foresight by the founding fathers. A riot of flowers in their seasons, flowering shrubs and trees, and giant old indigenous trees and vines alternate with "introduced" trees, a sampling of the trees of old England. Also along the river is Friendship Corner, containing trees that commemorate Christchurch's sister cities _ Kurashiki, Japan; Adelaide, Australia; Christchurch, England; Seattle, Wash., and Gansu Province, China.
Only a few minutes' walk from Cathedral Square, on the edge of the park, stands the Canterbury Museum, a comfortable spot for browsing through specialized collections of art, artifacts and local memorabilia. (The museum shop has some of the most interesting and reasonably-priced items I encountered anywhere in New Zealand.)
Of special interest is an extensive Antarctic collection, including the sort of clothing and boots used for exploration at the turn-of-the-century. Among unique displays are the sledge of Roald Amundsen (discoverer of the South Pole), the first tractor used in the Antarctic, and the first motorized sled _ a failure, because of its excessive weight and vulnerability to the cold.
(Incidentally, a U.S. base near Christchurch is headquarters for Operation Deep Freeze. U.S. planes take off from there to drop supplies to research bases in the Antarctic. Tour guides enjoy pointing out that the South Island of New Zealand is the only place in the world where you'll find an American base on one side, and a Russian base on the other _ similarly supplying Antarctic research.)
Isolation makes New Zealanders resourceful in creating their own entertainment, and the residents of Christchurch do so through a variety of recreational and artistic means.
Pleasantly situated on the banks of the Avon is the imposing Town Hall, with six public areas that can accommodate 4,750 people, including the main auditorium seating 2,644. Completed in 1972 and lined with rare southern woods, the hall is noted for its fine acoustics, and is home to the Christchurch Symphony Orchestra. And many fine choirs in and around the city carry on the English choral tradition.
The Court Theater (which Dame Ngaio Marsh helped to found) and the Southern Ballet are both housed near the Museum, in the former buildings of Canterbury University, now known as the Art Center. There book stores, art shops, and restaurants share space with craftsmen demonstrating sculpture and painting, jewelry making, Maori carving and artifacts, and a host of other crafts. A thriving colony of Canterbury artists exhibit at the Robert McDougall Art Gallery and many private galleries. Nor should one overlook the Maori arts and crafts at the Nga-Hau-E-Wha National Marae.
Many demonstrations center around wool weaving, including rugs, hangings and clothing. Wool is still a staple of the economy, though prices have fallen markedly. New Zealand has developed a cross breed of wool, especially durable for carpet, with China the largest single customer.
Not just the downtown, but the whole city (and its suburbs) are saturated with endearing, inviting English charm. It's an Anne of Green Gables kind of place, a Prince Edward Island of the southern hemisphere, that you can't imagine people ever seriously wanting to leave, and climate is part of the attraction. The summer average maximum is 70 degrees F., and winter average is 53 degrees, with seldom a frost or snow. Though winter can be raw, anytime is pleasant in Christchurch.
The buildings of Christ's College, and Christchurch Boys' High School, both private boys' schools, feature ivy-covered halls enclosing the playing fields of Olde England. And a walk down almost any cozy residential street reveals pretty homes, mostly either Victorian with gingerbread decoration, sheltered balconies and verandahs, or English bungalows.
Some are Tudor style with timbered second-story trim. Yet even homes of modern design fit in well, since the unifying element is flowers _ subdued and modest in quaint gardens, rioting along fences, or blazing in brilliant beds. In fact, the preoccupation with flowers in this "garden city of New Zealand" is reflected in the almost continuous flower shows that occur during summer.
To the sports-minded, Queen Elizabeth II Park offers the first-rate facilities built in 1974, when the city played host to the Commonwealth Games. Nearby Orana Park is an open-range wildlife reserve, with rare exotic animals, and a kiwi house that shelters the country's unique, flightless bird. In Canterbury's lakes and rivers, sportsmen catch trout, record-size salmon and such native fish as whitebait and kahawai.
Visitors might enjoy driving through the neigboring Port Hills for valley and ocean views. A favorite destination is Takahe, a stone mansion with a sweeping view, where Devonshire teas and smorgasbord lunches are served.
Hiking in the Southern Alps affords spectacular views, and during winter there's good skiing. In summer, nearby seaside towns, including Lytleton (the port of Christchurch) and Akaroa, invite swimming and all other beach pastimes.
Christchurch puts you within striking distance of a dozen coastal and mountain resorts. And a summer visitor to the South Island should seriously consider continuing on to the great Fiordland National Park, Milford Sound and upland lake country, blessed with some of the world's most breathtakingly beautiful scenery.