Thursday, 30 April 2009

New Zealand’s Most English City: Christchurch

Wherever I’ve travelled in the World, or at least whenever I’ve done so with at least one other person, I’ve become distracted by the propensity of travelling companions to remark on the similarities between the far-flung place just arrived in, and some part of the sceptred British Isles.

This belief/need to believe that we are actually in familiar surroundings has obviously been prevalent for quite come time; witness the British-born place names which litter the hitherto largely-well named corners of the Globe.

Now, I will reveal to you why I am so distracted by these comparisons between Wigan and West Virginia, Falkirk and Fukuoka: it is because not one of these places ever looks even vaguely like the location that the desperate-to-feel-at-home traveller convinces themselves that it does.

Nowhere, it is my avowed contention, looks more like anywhere but itself. Indeed, were the World a litany of exact facsimiles of natural landscape or built environment, then the very act of travelling would be rendered a good deal less interesting than it actually is.

So, get this: Christchurch is not an English city. Nor is it New Zealand’s most English city. It is a fairly large town (if you insist on making domestic comparisons) miles from almost anywhere, on the other side of the World, in New Zealand, that does not look like it is anything other than just that. And, if I may absolutely and irrefutably prove my point by reverse argument, it is by saying that in all my travels around England, visiting almost every city and a good many towns, not once have I heard so much as a single, solitary soul say ‘ooh, this is just like Christchurch on South Island in New Zealand.’

That being dealt with, I’m happy to report that Christchurch is also quite a nice place. True, the entire place closes down at 5.30pm each evening. Almost no-one lives in the city centre and there’s clearly a lack of money to keep businesses going or vacant plots developed. A particularly derelict shack is advertised by an enthusiastic (if not delirious) estate agent as ‘benefitting from years of deferred maintenance.’

Perhaps Christchurch is the spiritual home of the ultimate understatements. It was from here that Captain Robert Falcon Scott set off on his ill-fated quest to be the first to reach the South Pole, with his expeditionary companion Lawrence Oates uttering the immortal words ‘I am just going outside and may be some time’ before heading into an Antarctic blizzard and the most honourable of suicides.

The best, though rather kitsch, way to get around ‘Chch’ (as the locals write it, but never say it) is by one of the restored trams which loop the city centre and afford the rider unlimited hop-on and hop-off travel for the price of a daily ticket.

There’s a handy commentary and warning of approaching stops and sights, but it’s no municipally-subsidised public service. It’s priced, instead, for the visitor market – so enjoy it as a tour rather than calculating the dollars per kilometre equivalent cost.

The recurring theme of Christchurch is undoubtedly parks. There are green spaces at almost every turn – some simple expanses of lawn and regimented trees; some, like the Botanic Gardens, World-class examples of their type. It’s a hard heart that fails to acknowledge just how pleasant the surroundings are, though some of the architecture runs the horticultural excellence a close race.

Regent Street is a fabulous example of the Spanish Mission style and, at the other end of the scale, the Christchurch Art Gallery is a modern palace of soaring glass and steel, encasing sinuous balconies and international-standard exhibition space.

Cathedral Square is the centre of daytime activity in the city, with market stalls and pavement cafes occupying the space between the Anglican Cathedral, some of Christchurch’s most historic buildings, a little modern sculpture and some pretty unremarkable, stumpy tower blocks. The tram and almost all bus routes converge here.

Those of a sweet-toothed disposition could do very much worse than seek out the Copenhagen Bakery on Armagh Street. Indeed, those of a savoury-toothed disposition won’t be disappointed either, at this award-winning café, patisserie and bakery with its cascading displays of freshly-crafted goodies. It’s also a particularly good choice for breakfast.

Beyond the hotel iterations, the dusk-induced closure of almost everything in central Christchurch tends to restrict the choice of restaurants for dinner. Two that stand out, however, are Cook ‘N’ With Gas on Gloucester Street (specialising in New Zealand lamb and beef) and the quirky wine bar cum Italian restaurant The Bicycle Thief on Latimer Square.

Named after a 1948 Italian film - 'Ladri di Biciclette' – it’s a small but popular after-work drinking spot, which merges into an atmospheric restaurant serving excellent pizza, pasta and other Italian specialities. The barman, in particular, is worthy of note as the mixer of mean cocktails and an encyclopaedic knowledge of his spirits, wines and beers.

Despite Christchurch’s exceptionally friendly daytime disposition, the lack of organised or commercial activity after dark does leave the city centre somewhat at the mercy of less salubrious residents and blow-throughs. For this reason, it’s wise to make use of one of the plentiful cabs for the ride home, which of course the restaurant will be happy to call.

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