A Little Piece of England

20th April, Christchurch, New Zealand

Ian writes:

Our morning began with some frantic ringing around of all the car and van rental places in Christchurch. We needed to get ourselves some transport for the remainder of our stay in New Zealand so that we could see all that the beautiful South Island has to offer. We very nearly went for a top-of-the-range camper van that Maui had on offer (1 left, which they normally hire for $155 per day that they were going to do for $72 per day, going down to $65 in May). It was an excellent deal, but we managed to get a cheaper deal with another company. Admittedly, it would be a more basic van, but we need to consider the finances first and not what model of microwave the plush van might have. Still, it was a tempting deal ...

With the knowledge that we had the transport arranged - and that it would be two days before we could get it - we booked in for another night at the hostel and then wandered into Christchurch to see what it had to offer.

I was told that Christchurch has a more English feel to it by Barbara, who was born there, and this was immediately apparant. As we walked along the Avon River, past a road sign that read Oxford Terrace and then watched a red-coated town-crier crossing the road, it felt like we were in Bath, Oxford or Chester or somewhere like that, not somewhere that counts the Antarctic, volcanoes and glaciers as close neighbours. A little piece of England? You betcha! Even the trees looked English, although that's probably not the case - they are probably native to NZ, but with Autumn upon us down here, the floor was littered with brown leaves and the branches only just covered with whatever yellow leaves were able to cling on despite the intermittent (but strong) winds.

The River Avon.

We took a brief walk around Victoria Square (more autumnal trees, nice water feature and a floral clock) then headed to Cathedral Square. Naturally, there's a cathedral there - that didn't take a lot of deduction - but there's another, more surprising feature in Cathedral Square: the wizard.

The Wizard and the Preacher

We had read in the Lonely Planet about the wizard who appears out the front of the Cathedral every day, and were told by someone at the hostel that he usually makes an appearance at 1pm. Only minutes later than 'scheduled' he appeared, sadly not in a puff of smoke or anything flash like that, but in a Volkswagen Beetle that had been two Beetles once upon a time, but were chopped in half then the front halfs welded together. It was a strange-looking car, and I can only imagine how disconcerting it might be if you were driving along, not paying too much attention as he pulls out in front, then suddenly realising that you have a VW about to hit you head on ... only to realise that it's the back of the car.

The wizard in Cathedral Square.

Anyway, the wizard announced his arrival with a few toots on a trumpet, then stood up on a step ladder and began his diatribe. Despite being surrounded by very young school children, he made his points about why the world was viewed in maps the way it is (why is the globe viewed as north being north?), what qualifies him as a wizard and all sorts of other religious and political points in a very high level manner. He might be classed by some as a crackpot, but I would call him an eccentric, and a very coherent one at that.


Suddenly, things went pear-shaped.

"That's a load of old bullshit! Bollocks!"

A man with a paunch, a small bag with a broken zip and the kind of red face you can only get from drinking strong liquor in a hurry was trying to have his say.

"How do you know [if it's bollocks]?" asked the wizard, "you've only just got here! You haven't heard what I've said."

At first, most people thought it was part of the act, but it soon became clear that this man had issues. And these issues were with the audience listening to the wizard's 'nonsense'. The angry-looking man began talking about God, asking who among us believed in Him, pointing across the audience in an accusing way. At this point a few hecklers started to pipe up, the best of which was the comment "We are all individuals" (check your Monty Python references, folks).

The preacher-wizard stand-off!

The interloper was getting angry, I think, because in his eyes we were taking the wizard seriously. We weren't, though - we were just treating the wizard as harmless entertainment while the other guy - supposedly a man of God - was a much less attractive proposition. One person in the crowd summed it up when he said: "I know who I'd rather have a cup of tea with," which got murmers of agreement.

It was funny to watch, but in a 'car-crash' kind of way - we cringed as he made a bigger fool of himself, and he didn't even have to wear a black pointy hat to look stupid. The wizard, in his defence, countered every argument eloquently and never reduced himself to the other man's level. Eventually, having been told off by one parent about his language, and shoved by a couple of kids ("They're just Maoris! Maaaoorris!" he protested as if they didn't count), angry red-faced man wandered off to sell the word of God elsewhere, but not before one last reproach to the crowd: "You're all lost, all of you!"

"And you've found the way then have you?" I answered back. "It looks like you've really landed on your feet!"

After the impromptu street performance we took a walk around a block, just to see what the shops were like. For the most part, the shops were all pretty ordinary, but the shops along New Regent Street were really special - it was as if this street had been designed in another European country and slotted into place, complete with the tram line that ran through it.

The shop frontages of New Regent Street.

We then made our way up the Cathedral tower. If there's a tower/spire/monument to climb anywhere that we visit, we have to do it. From the top we could see, among other things, the wizard making his way home for the day in his two-faced car. It was surreal from that high up, looking like he'd reversed in a big S-curve all the way out onto a main road. Actually, the whole last hour had been a little surreal.

The Botanic Gardens

Flowers in Botanic Gardens, Christchurch.

Moving on from Cathedral Square, we walked over Worcester Bridge, complete with its old red, wood-panelled telephone boxes (are we sure we're not in England? In the 1940s?!) and then further on to the Botanic Gardens. Yep, we'd only just been to our last Botanic Gardens visit in Wellington, but this looked promising. Maybe it's because it's further south, but the colours here were much more vivid. We barely scratched the surface, really, at these gardens, covering perhaps an eighth of the total area before the light started to fade and grey clouds speeded up our exit. I'm no botanist, and can only just about tell the difference between a tree and a shrub, but these gardens were really worth a look.

Manda took a photo of me standing in front of one of the red maple trees, and positioned me in such a way just to look silly (like that's difficult):

Ian with a red halo around his head.

But then I got her back, so we're all square. Hey, nice ear muffs!

Manda's lovely ear muffs

And that pretty much was it for the day: little reminders of England, a wizard defending himself against a pickled would-be preacher and a walk in the garden. Maybe we'll do it all again tomorrow.