NZ 4: Christchurch / Shapwick

Here is another of the occasional NZ road trip blogs. Today is 2 years since we were in Nelson so this is for the cousins reading this there… though of course all the names have been changed ..and wonderful Nelson is still a couple of hundred miles away…

Time to move on. The Sat Nav led us through Dunedin past the Octagon and the ornate but quiet Victorian railway station.

Stopped for petrol, got chocolate for the journey and then drove up and down over low hills until the outskirts of town.

We followed Highway 1, and, after a while, the road joined the coast with big breakers rolling into the empty shoreline.

Our journey hugged the coast, crossing the flatlands of the Canterbury Plains. We pulled in after a while and took a small road to the beach to see the Moeraki Rocks.

Massive circular boulders washed out from the cliffs.

Flat farmland and sea, bridges over large rivers with picnic areas to watch the icy bright mountain waters surge towards the ocean.


A view from one of the picnic spots beside the rivers crossing the Canterbury Plains south of Christchurch.

Our motel was in Chinatown at a junction by a long, straight road heading for the centre of the city. Amy had left a note for us when we checked in.

Jan phoned and Amy picked us up in the morning and drove us out into an earthquake ruptured city-scape.

In 85 we had loved it. A nicely planned city, neatly English in character though built on a grid. Its stone cathedral dominating the central square. Its university and museum echoing the Oxford college from which it takes its name.


Part of the University of Canterbury in Christchurch

In 2009, we found the cathedral dwarfed, the square infilled and obscured by the developing commercial city buildings. By 2019, the church was a broken shell, the tower gone and the nave open. Surrounded by safety hoardings, birds perched on the rafters.


Christchurch Cathedral damaged by the 2011 earthquake. Only the footings of the tower survive (bottom left)

Janet’s cousin Amy had lived here all her life. A much loved home, a gentle level city on the coast. Not like the brash metropolis Auckland, spread out between a series of extinct? volcanoes. Calm and gentile, Christchurch  was surely safe; but on 22nd February 2011, the earthquake struck, killing 185 people and churning up the lives of the survivors.

Apart from roads made impassable and cracks in the house, Amy said that her family had got off lightly, but it didn’t stop there…the city was hit by another massive shake in June. It was like a war..the aftershocks continued for 6 years.


It upsets that basic confidence in the ground beneath your feet. People increasingly needed help to cope with the uncertainties of living in such a place.

Tension to a point…  where a sudden noise cause a reflex dash… to an open space… away from tall buildings.

By the end of 2019, things had settled down but the evidence of collapse and dereliction surrounded us as we walked across to the new library. A place alive with youth and activity and the very latest in interactive communication and interpretation.

Christchurch is a vibrant re-emerging place but it will take money and time to decide what to keep and what and how to rebuild.

When we visited, it was only a little like the pictures I had seen of London after the blitz. Many of the more monumental stone structures were not to be refurbished. NZ has strict earthquake-friendly building regs,. structures need to be able to flex and withstand shifting ground…generally  low rise …built out of light materials.


One of the Christchurch trams near the Museum

Amy drove us to the beach at Sumner for lunch.

A gentle lapping of waters against the sand, no evidence of ground disturbance here.

As a hospital manager, she described the horrific day of the mosque shootings in March. The intensity and grief of the long day and finding in the dark that the car she parked in the morning now lay out of bounds in a high security zone.

How could a place like Christchurch be damaged again by such a cruel act of violence ….but why anywhere?

Afterwards, we drove to the Sign of the Takehe, high above the city, where Amy’s NZ  mum married her Brummy dad, Janet’s uncle. He’d decided to settle in Christchurch, far from Aston.

We looked down on the shifting settlement. ‘


View of Christchurch from the Sign of the Takehe

‘We have found that the houses on the old alluvial flood plain don’t work. Each time there is a tremor they are shaken apart. Property prices have collapsed there. People only want houses where there are good foundations’

Below us, Amy points out the areas which are ruined and overgrown.. compared with the new builds on the other side of town.

I think of other places where settlements have flourished, shifted and declined.

Like looking down on the wheat stubble fields north of Shapwick on the Kingston Lacy Estate in Dorset.

After harvest, we have found them by air photography and geophysical survey. Under each field, street after street of the once large Roman town, now shrunk to a village beside the River Stour.

Though the High Street still follows the old Roman road to Dorchester, the bridge has long gone. The quiet church now stands on its own beside the river still aligned with the abandoned Roman highway.

Kingston Lacy RAF CPEUK1934 1106 FP Jan 1947

RAF photograph showing the village of Shapwick in Dorset in 1947. The main Roman road from Badbury Rings to Dorchester once ran bottom left to top right in the photograph. The bridge would have crossed the River Stour which meanders across the road alignment top right of the photograph. The abandoned Roman town lies under the fields bottom left.

Diminished by a different sort of earthquake.

The political and economic disruption of the 5th-7th centuries rather than a series of sudden ground upheavals…but down through the years, the village community of Shapwick has survived and still stands.

1 thought on “NZ 4: Christchurch / Shapwick

  1. Just wanted to say – I always enjoy reading your thought-provoking, interesting and entertaining posts, and they are so beautifully written. Thanks for all the effort you put in to share this wonderful history that we are so fortunate to have all around us.

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