Another world over the hill
Aflood tide of melancholy washes over me as I look down London Street, pock-marked with demolition sites…a street that once pulsated with the sounds of musicians, buskers and entertainers.
I can vividly recall the town’s exciting bohemian vibe; its jaunty hole-in-the-wall bars, funky nightspots, rustic theatres offering soul food and belly laughs, ritzy restaurants and cosy cafés affording striking harbour views.
At the corner of London and Canterbury streets is a vacant lot that has seen several remarkable transformations since seismic upheaval reduced many of its colonial buildings to rubble. Within weeks of the February 2011 earthquake the site was designated as the improvised, unofficial town square…a symbolic statement of Lyttelton’s recovery.
Even before weeds sprouted through the rubble, entrepreneurial bright sparks and ‘glass-half-full’ residents had created a Petanque Club, a Children’s Play Area, a Free Food Exchange and good sorts were serving snarlers and fried onions while outlining ambitious plans for a new town.
The site has now magically transmuted into a thriving transitional arts project. Sculpted forms, painted pillars and lampposts, striking Gaudi and Hundertwasser-style seats and stalls provide an exhibition showcase venue for local artists.
The Lyttelton Master Plan provides for this strategic site to become the town’s pulsing heart as the future permanent
civic square. The 3,000 innovative residents are determined to revitalise the town. In the process they are redefining the skill of public consultation by involving a large section of the community in their planning.
Lyttelton is not a place that likes to stand still and positive things are happening. Fisherman’s Wharf, Roots and Everest Indian restaurants are all thriving. The Port Hole and Irish pubs are great places to relax with drinks. Tommy Chang’s has become a great bar and small music venue. Wunderbar has returned and jazz fills the air at Freemans Restaurant. A new tapas bar, called Civil and Naval opened in August.
Project Lyttelton member, Wendy Everingham, tells me her organisation is committed to recreating the soul of a sustainable community in this important port town. ‘A lot of spontaneous things are happening,’ she says. ‘Now that the earthquake recovery work is well underway, we have the freedom to dream and create some wonderful things. Gap-fillers and pop-up facilities are gathering momentum. Yesterday we had the I Spy Treasure Hunt and today the Festival of Walking begins with leaders who are expert in ecology, flora, art, poetry and photography. There’s even a family pushchair walk.’
Whether you enter the town from the road over the Port Hills or through the Lyttelton Tunnel, it feels like you’re arriving at a different world. The townscape is a blend of volcanic slopes, colonial building facades, a working port and pleasant beach settlements scattered around a tranquil harbour. When you gaze in wonder at the harbour’s serenity, it beggars belief that you’re seeing the caldera (collapsed crater) of an extremely violent volcano that last erupted ten million years ago.
This appealing port town is the product of Edward Gibbon Wakefield’s dream of an idyllic aristocratic and theocratic idealism. He aimed to transport whole classes of English Anglican society to Canterbury and perpetuate their way of life. As with most human endeavours it proved less than ideal and within one year it was necessary to build a large jail in Oxford Street. The hard-labour gangs built most of the roads and stone walls around the town, as well as Fort Jervois on Ripapa Island and a Quarantine Station on Quail Island.
Talking to local residents and business people, I get the feeling that the reconstruction of this town is going to be a long haul, perhaps ten years or more. Funding is a major issue, complicated by the reluctance of insurance companies to underwrite risks in this earthquake zone. But despite the huge challenges ahead the sense of community is tangible.
Surveying the scene I shudder to think that Lyttelton may continue as the poor cousin to the revitalising city over the hill. One bright spot is the accelerated flow of generous donations for the reinstatement of the heroic Timeball Station, including one donor willing to foot much of the bill. Nothing will boost the local community spirit more than the sight of the timeless Timeball tower on the skyline.
Wendy is pleased to be back in the old Visitor Centre, which survived the earthquakes with only moderate damage. ‘Old wooden structures seemed to stand up well in the quakes and our one survived.’ She is delighted that the Farmers’ Market has moved to the main street each Saturday. It acts as a focal point for locals and visitors.
The Farmers’ Market has been an essential part of the local scene since 2005. Producers of quality food and drink sell direct to the public. Stallholders with fresh fruit and vegetables, free range eggs, bread, meat, cheese and plants sell at the market every week. It’s a not-for-profit enterprise by Project Lyttelton and local volunteers.
Port activity has increased in terms of cargo loads and Christchurch demolition rubble is being effectively used to form a 10ha reclamation area. However, passenger numbers are well down. Over a 16 month period to April 2013 some 86 cruise ships visited Banks Peninsula but sadly only four came to Lyttelton. It seems that the cruise companies are reluctant to risk their passengers in a current earthquake zone and have adopted Akaroa as the first port of call.
‘Life seems to have sped up since the quakes,’ one resident tells me. ‘Looking back to that time it seems like an eternity now, so many things have happened. At other times it seems like yesterday.’ People are being kept informed of developments with a weekly e-newsletter to residents around the harbour and a periodical community paper.
One thing that has held the community together as a tight-knit entity is the Time Bank that has operated since 2005. Over 500 people are registered and they all benefit by using their credits to obtain other services, thus building a community one trade at a time. The Time Bank data base has proved very useful for civil defence purposes, linking people to accommodation, help and repairs. The bank has a paid coordinator funded by donations, the Farmers’ Market, garage sales and the Canterbury Community Trust.
Driving back to Christchurch, I follow the coast via Corsair Bay and Rapaki to Governors Bay. At every turn there are startling views across the water to Diamond Harbour and Quail Island. A thousand diamonds sparkle on the sunlit surface of the water.
The wonderful port community will once again rise to prosperity and abundance. Project Lyttelton, the Time Bank and the dogged determination and resilience of its people will see to that. They have come through the most challenging time in their 170 year history and are committed to restoring the town. The Bohemian vibe, festival atmosphere, quirky shopping and high quality eateries are returning with a flourish.
Lyttelton Harbour at its placid, ivory-smooth best
The spic and span working port is marred only by the absence of cruise ships
Fisherman’s Wharf longs for the crowds of customers to return for their ‘Fush & Chups’
The Lions pounce when visitors come for a sausage sizzle in the Town Square