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The English Penchant

Leeth is a Colorado freelance writer and photographer

If a river’s character can be used as metaphor for the area it travels through, the Avon is the essence of Christchurch.

Rising from the suburbs of this city of 318,000, it takes a 13-mile dawdle east to the Pacific, weaving past rambling parks, lavish gardens and medieval-style buildings. Grass-lined and willow-shaded, the river, like the town, appears like an English garden of unpolluted allure and innocence; of the “Howard’s End” era, rather than our current “Beavis & Butt-head” times.

Like England’s Avon River in Stratford, birth and burial place of William Shakespeare, New Zealand’s Avon is a beauty spot, and I follow it with pleasure, tracing its bends--both by boat and by foot--during my five-day exploration of Christchurch. My route passes riverside restaurants where diners eat lunch beneath patio canopies, a European walking street, lush stands of flowers, parks where families gather.

From its banks I hear faint riffs of forgotten music coming from nearby Hagley Park. Like melodies from the piper, they lure me toward a summer concert. There, on a temporary stage, I find a band playing seductive songs of surfing, psychedelia and unrequited love: anthems of my youth. Four thousand listeners cluster on the lawn.

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A gray-haired couple creates their own grassy dance floor. Clasping hands, they twirl and twist, her chiffon skirt swirling. Up front, teenage girls ride boys’ shoulders, swaying to tunes that were golden oldies before they were born. Their love beads and tie-dyed clothes must have been lifted from their parents’ memorabilia stashes.

A free festival of peace and harmony--generations bonding with music--it’s the Woodstock fable on a modest scale. I am reminded that Christchurch has a reputation for nurturing eccentricity.

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The largest city on New Zealand’s less populated South Island, Christchurch sits at the eastern edge of the Canterbury Plain, a broad flatland that stretches from the Pacific Ocean on the east to the foothills of the southern mountains on the west. Sheltered by the mountain’s rain shadow, it is one of the driest and flattest areas of New Zealand, perfect for raising cattle and growing grain.

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Shiploads of English emigrants founded Christchurch in the early 1850s. They established farms and homesteads along the Avon and laid out their settlement in an orderly grid pattern. The architecture, parks, gardens, trees and churches give the town a British look.

In the center of the town is Cathedral Square. Anchoring one side of the brick-paved plaza is the cathedral, a steepled stone edifice completed in 1904 in Gothic Revival style. I climb the steeple’s 133 narrow steps, lugging camera gear, and am rewarded by a stunning panorama of the city: its high-rises towering over old stone buildings. Snaking through town is the tree-shrouded Avon.

Diagonally across the street from the cathedral stands the now closed century-old Italianate Chief Post Office. In the space between, trees cast summer shade, and pebble-grained planters enclose islands of greenery. It is summer in New Zealand, February 1995 by the calendar, a warm and tempting day. A pageant of humanity strolls through the square, and I watch from my perch on a park bench. Busloads of tourists empty out onto the street and pose for photos in front of the cathedral. Local mothers push strollers and lead toddlers by the hand. The show turns spellbinding when the Wizard arrives.

The sorcerer sports a white robe trimmed with gaudy red and gold flames. An antenna-topped pith helmet covers his long, graying locks. He is such a local fixture that he is listed in many guidebooks.

What the Wizard is best known for is bewitching oratory. From atop a stepladder, he spouts rhetoric bound to delight those who find talk radio entertaining. With the ire of Don Imus and the tone of Rush Limbaugh, he blasts bureaucracy, Americans, feminism and male weakness.

“Adam committed the worse sin of any man,” he tells the crowd. “He obeyed his wife. See what that got him!”

Males cheer and women jeer as he continues his spiel, railing at the inequities of cohabitational bathroom etiquette.

Onlookers watch from the steps of the cathedral, the city’s most celebrated house of worship. Of totally different character, the town’s first church, St. Michael and All Angels Church, stands a few blocks away, near the Avon.

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Built from native pine and painted glistening white, beautiful St. Michael’s remains one of the largest wooden churches in the world. The present structure was completed in 1872, financed in part by renting pews to parishioners.

A caretaker gives me a tour of the sanctuary. She says her name. It sounds something like Clee-ah.

“Do you spell that C-L-E-A?” I ask.

“No, C-L-A-I-R-E. Clee-ah”

My ears have not adjusted to the local accent, which falls somewhere between a lime-juice pucker and a shrimp-on-the-barbie drawl.

Claire shows off one of New Zealand’s finest collections of stained glass windows. The windows on the west side depict the nine orders of the angels. In the center, St. Michael represents the archangel surrounded by other angels and cherubs. Another window depicts the resurrection of Jesus. Claire seems especially proud of the canoe-shaped pyx (a container for the Eucharist), hanging by chains from the ceiling above the alter.

“It was given to the church by the Maoris,” she says. New Zealand’s first settlers, the Maoris were Polynesians who journeyed by canoe from other Pacific islands about a thousand years ago.

The Avon River reflects Christchurch’s serenity. It wanders through the city in slow, relaxing yawns. Placid and serene, the stream invites visitors to float its waters. Some rent paddle boats or canoes. The romantic ride in punts: flat-bottomed boats of varnished wood with broad, square ends. White-garbed men stand on the sterns, propelling the boats forward using long poles to push through the water. (Rentals cost about $7 for a 20-minute ride.)

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The punts launch near Worcester Boulevard Bridge in the center portion of the five-block-long Worcester Boulevard pedestrian mall, which begins at Cathedral Square. Horse-drawn carriages clomp down the avenue past vivid red phone booths that look like London imports. Restored trams, turn-of-the-century New Zealand and American trolleys, ply the center of the road on rails that loop 1 1/2 miles through downtown and the city. This may be the most British section of the town that promotes itself as “the most English city outside England.”

I board one of the streetcars and listen to the conductor’s narrative as we pass a statue of Antarctic explorer Robert Falcon Scott. The Englishman left Christchurch in November 1910 on an ill-fated race to be first to reach the South Pole. He made a harrowing passage across some of the most inhospitable land on Earth only to discover the Pole already flagged by a Norwegian party. Roald Amundsen had arrived there 34 days earlier.

One of the world’s southernmost cities, Christchurch remains a gateway to Antarctica. Near the international airport, a huge compound houses administration and storage centers for American and New Zealand Antarctic research. The complex includes the International Antarctic Centre where sound and light shows and hands-on exhibits reveal Antarctica’s natural history.

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The continent’s human history is told in the Hall of Antarctic Discovery in the Canterbury Museum, where Worcester Boulevard ends at Hagley Park. On display is one of the world’s largest collections of memorabilia from explorers who challenged the polar reaches.

The museum resides in one of a group of Gothic-style buildings that the tram passes on the first turn of its route. Beyond is the grassy quad of Christ’s College grammar school, an island of untrammeled green surrounded by Gothic-stone edifices.

The tram passes a lad coiffed with a glow-in-the-dark Mohawk. My waitress at the Winnie Bagoes pizza restaurant (pretty good pizza) has donned enough ear and nose rings to set off an airport metal detector. Earlier in the day I had watched as a city employee used a high-pressure hose to remove graffiti painted on a downtown wall. But this seems to be the extent of Christchurch’s rebellious nature. Violent crime is so rare that New Zealand airports don’t even require that passengers pass through metal detectors before boarding domestic flights.

I ride the tram to Victoria Square where it makes a scheduled stop and fails to restart. The conductor jokes with passengers while his partner calls for help on a cell phone. As they await repairs, I leave and start walking northwest.

I cross the Avon on an iron bridge decorated with filigreed railings. Beside the river in front of Town Hall, the impressive Ferrier Fountain sprays water from silvery dandelion stalks. A short distance away, a floral clock tells time with hands of budding blossoms. Nearby towers the Christchurch Parkroyal, one of the town’s fanciest hotels. Christchurch Casino lies just behind.

New Zealand’s first gambling emporium (opened in 1994) is a peculiar blend. Outside, it looks like a grounded Sputnik: a ball with antenna attached. (It’s supposed to resemble a roulette wheel.) Inside, wall murals depicting a rather tame Roman orgy surround the gaming tables.

Ads on brochures distributed to tourists claim the casino provides the “South Island’s only dignified adrenaline rush,” but today the place appears nearly vacant.

“Is it always this empty?” I ask a blackjack dealer standing behind her deserted table.

“Oh no, it’s wall-to-wall people on weekends,” she says, sleepily.

After hearing a slot machine jackpot announced with the blare of an alarm, I crave a more soothing environment. I find it at the Botanic Gardens, where pathways access 75 acres of trees and flowers. Wandering through, I ogle color and inhale the delicate scents.

The Avon flows along the garden’s perimeter. Canoes float by, coasting under a foot bridge that provides access to Hagley Park. The 450-acre enclave includes a golf course, tennis courts and sports grounds.

The sunset sky turns yellow, then crimson. The park empties. Only the soccer teams still go at it in the enveloping darkness.

As I turn toward the lights of the city, I see a middle-age woman strolling alone, seemingly unafraid. Her lack of concern accentuates the contrast with metropolitan America. At home, my wife will not even walk three suburban blocks to the supermarket after dusk. But out here, the realities of home seem more than a hazy hemisphere away. They lie somewhere in the ‘90s.

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GUIDEBOOK: A River Runs Through It

Getting there: Air New Zealand flies from LAX to Christchurch with one change of planes in Auckland. Or fly United nonstop to Auckland and change to Air New Zealand or Ansett Airlines. Or fly Qantas to Christchurch with a change of planes in Sydney. Advance-purchase, round-trip fares start at $1,586.

Where to stay: I stayed at the Central City Apartments on Gloucester Street, P.O. Box 34003, Christchurch. From the United States, telephone 011-64-3-351-5515. Rates $60 for a double. It has pleasant, self-contained units with bathrooms, TVs and microwave ovens.

Christchurch Parkroyal, corner of Durham and Kilmor, P.O. Box 1544, Christchurch; tel. 011-64-3-365-7799. Rates $265 for a double. This is a luxury hotel with three restaurants and a business center.

Windsor Hotel, 52 Armagh St., Christchurch; tel. 011-64-3-366-1503. Rates $65 for a double include traditional English breakfast. The hotel is a bed and breakfast with shared bathrooms.

Where to eat: Main Street Cafe and Bar, 840 Colombo St. Vegetarian cuisine; dinner less than $25 for two; tel. 365-0421.

Oxford on Avon, corner of Oxford Street and the Avon River; burgers, sandwiches, pork, chicken, roast beef; dinner less than $17 for two; tel. 379-7148.

Winnie Bagoes pizza restaurant, 83 Lichfield St.; pizzas run $9 to $18 for a large; tel. 366-6315.

For more information: New Zealand Tourism Board, 501 Santa Monica Blvd., Suite 300, Santa Monica 90401; tel. (800) 388-5494 or (310) 395-7480; fax (310) 395-5453.

In town, travelers should stop by the Christchurch-Canterbury Visitor Centre at the corner of Worcester Boulevard and Oxford Terrace, a few blocks west of Cathedral Square, overlooking the Avon River; tel. 379-9629.


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