The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 10, Issue 1 (April 1, 1935)
Palmerston North: The World's Model Country Town
“My dear Helen,
“My ankle is all right again, but I shall stay on here till the end of the month. I've seen enough geysers, snow, and scenery and things, and this is the most surprising place. I've been absolutely whirling. The life is amazing and it doesn't seem like a country town at all. The shops are wonderful with all the latest things. My dear, I saw the twin of my mulberry marocain, forests of smart undies and new model hats, the book-shops have the latest books and all the magazines, and there are half a dozen good hotels. Between five and six is as busy as anywhere I have been on the planet and the lounges just as full of bright young things and glasses and trays and everything. Imagine it! I saw ‘Wind and Rain’ and ‘Ten Minutes Alibi’ at the local theatre last week. They go off to London here as if it were next door. Half the people you meet are either just back or going next month … there are two golf links, loads of tennis and croquet lawns and lovely parks, complete with gadgets, as Bill calls them, an enormous racecourse, and several within half an hour. The houses are more modern than ours, and I heard a woman ringing her daughter up in London on her birthday. I haven't been bored a minute … there seems no time… . By the way … .”
This is an authentic document. It reflects the surprise that anyone from older lands feels on finding what sort of place Palmerston North turns out to be when actually visited and examined. The letter, naturally, trails off into personal matters, and I propose to tell in the next few columns what the writer might have said if she had gone into some detail and treated the topic at a little length.
New Zealand, owing partly to its configuration (notably in its possession of many harbours and natural centres) but still more to wise early development policies, has largely escaped the ravening evils of centralisation. This has led to its possession of dozens of country boroughs whose amenities of life are quite equal to those of our large cities. The extent of this phenomenon is unique in the world.
For instance, when a farmer or business man sells out in New South Wales, he naturally gravitates to Sydney. In New Zealand he stays in the district, builds a good home, and proceeds to spend his leisure with the folks he already knows in and about the bowling green, the clubs or whatnot.
There are small towns in the world with the same sort of general standards of material well-being as Palmerston North, but they are holiday resorts or stopping-off places for sight-seers. Even these, however, lack many of the excellences of our town.
I am taking Palmerston North as the finest example of the claim that we have the best country towns in the world, because it is nothing else. It is simply a farming centre, largely living upon the distribution of goods to a large agrarian and pastoral population. It has no hot springs, ski-ing or big game-fishing. Its local industries and its trading organisations are the springs of its existence.
I am not going to weary you with figures about gasworks, abattoirs, electric light and power, drainage, sewerage, and the other highly efficient municipal undertakings. The telephone is almost universal in every house, and Queenstown or Russell can be rung in a matter of minutes. The transport system is by motor buses, a large, modern and imposing fleet covering the whole town area. In the light of modern developments, Palmerston North has been fortunate in avoiding the electric tram installations possessed by many smaller New Zealand towns. The hospitals, public and private, are up-to-date and of world standard efficiency.
These, interesting and marvellous as they may be, are commonplaces of New Zealand's surpassing standard of material comfort. It is as well, though, to remember with pride that many or most of them are lacking in much larger cities in U.S.A., England and elsewhere.
What I want to stress here is that this profusion of the amenities of life richly endows the provincial centres of New Zealand.
Let us consider the place.
The fortunate folk who dwell here have the remarkable combination of all the advantages of country and urban life.
Let us do the town and imagine spending a month in it with nothing to do but amuse oneself.
A supply of reading matter is assured. Not only is there a good municipal library, but a number of private ones in genuinely up-to-date bookshops, one of which could take its place with the good ones of the larger cities of other lands. All the English magazines, the weeklies of every description, most of the American and many foreign magazines are stocked. The New Zealander, according to A. P. Herbert, is the greatest reader in the world of the more serious literary and topical review type of weekly or monthly.
The general talk in club and home will be good. In this connection, let it be always remembered that such is the wide incidence of travel nowadays that Palmerston North is nearer to London than a town of its size in Shropshire. No day in the year sees less than fifteen thousand New Zealanders in London, and Palmerston North will have more than its proportionate quota.
Its two daily papers are on the full cable service and their readers are fully informed on world affairs. This country newspaper excellence was an everlasting source of wonder to A.P.H. who commented freely to the writer on the fact that whenever the train stopped, “a newspaper came aboard, well written on all topics and all the happenings of the day before in Czechoslovakia or Ireland.”
There will be no sign of provincialism, except the best sort of local pride, and I have flouted this by not describing the place as a city. We live, as it were, at the small end of the telescope, looking out, and are profoundly interested in international doings.
The drapery establishments would adorn any large city. As well as dozens of smaller ones, speciality shops and so forth, there are three palatial emporiums of city dimensions. Many a girl having bought the latest thing in London, finds that it has raced her to Palmerston North by an earlier steamer. What Americans call the “hardware store” is in evidence, modern and capacious and richly stocked. Commercial temples of real grandeur, house establishments devoted to all the recognised lines to fill the buyer's needs.
The petrol station is ubiquitous, the motor depots are as enormous as one would expect from the fact that this town and district has a car to every six and a-half inhabitants, the second highest average in the world, beating some of the States in the Union.
The scale of the businesses enables that no fee is levied for shopping locally. As we say here, the “prices are right.”
The hotels, and there are many, are capacious, modern and comfortable. One is owned by the oldest continuous holder of a license in the British Empire, as far as can be ascertained from the London Council of the L.V.A. In passing, let me say, that a widely travelled American visitor has just stated to the writer that the standard of the country town hotel in New Zealand is definitely the highest in the world. It is time that the bunk about the backwardness of our hotels for tourists should be refuted. I see that Vicki Baum says she had to wait in a queue for her bath in Auckland. I do not know where she dwelt, but another couple of shillings a day would have given her a room with bath in most hostelries anywhere in New Zealand.
As would be expected from a district containing one of the richest growing land areas of the world, the food is perfection. One hotel grows all its food, from pork to parsnips, on its own farm.
The rich soil makes gardening easy and every cottage has its blaze of colour.
The public gardens, notably in the Square and the Esplanade, are everlastingly beautiful. Who has not heard of the Cherry Tree Avenue, which is such a Dominion sight in a country of countless garden wonders, that excursion trains are run to it in the flowering season.
The schools, from the noble Massey College to the smaller primary establishments, are artistic, and something must be said of two superb churches. Owing to the rapid growth of ivy and Virginia creeper, and the luxuriance of lawn growth, buildings of this type soon wear an air of age and time-garnered beauty.
The general recreational facilities in Palmerston North are adequate to all tastes and to anyone's need. It is possible for the complete idler to live a fully rounded life of pleasurable activities without leaving the town.
Consider the local Opera House. Here in this farming centre, thousands of miles, and two oceans away from the world's cultural capitals, Pavlova has danced, Kubelik and Heifitz have played, Galli Curci has sung, Sybil Thorndike has given them “St. Joan,” just to take a few recent names at random. A legion of the great names of music and drama have been billed on its walls from Sousa's Band to H. B. Irving's “Hamlet,” from Jean Gerardy to Wilkie Bard.
This is the sort of fact that at one bound lifts Palmerston North into a different world category from any English or American town of its size.
There are two golf links, at least, and one of our pictures shows the ravishing beauty of one of them.
Bowling greens, tennis and croquet lawns, are in profusion. There seems to be one in every second street and many of them are large enough to carry national tournaments.
We show in our illustrations the bath of the free primary public school at Hokowhitu. This lovely scene cannot be matched. It is not the only one, of course, there being many school and public swimming baths in the town.
Be reminded that all these playing grounds, including the golf links, are within easy walking distance of the town and I want to emphasize the word “walking.” Fees are so low as to make the visitor gasp, and being of Scotch extraction, I want to point out that this low cost of recreation is one of the manifest advantages of life in our provincial centres.
Palmerston North is a railway centre (twenty-five leave it every day).
As is so seldom stressed in this country, transport is most convenient, serviceable and efficient. You can lunch at Palmerston North and breakfast in Christchurch next day. Half a day's journey takes one from Palmerston North to Wellington, Napier, New Plymouth or Te Kuiti. You can get a telegram on the train from Auckland, and change your destination from Dunedin to New Plymouth with only a delay of an hour or so.
As the roads are paved in every direction, motor travelling is luxurious and easy.
The Awapuni racecourse is a surprise. Commodious grandstands, fine gardens, and an array of old and noble English trees, make it a racegoers' paradise.
Its classic races have attracted horses whose names are known the world over. The track is oval and well turfed and the lawns superb.
Within a few miles each way from Palmerston North, too, are the splendid Feilding and Woodville courses, and Marton, where we had the felicity of watching a Royal horseman taking his place in a Bracelet field. Within half an hour, there are also the good little courses of Ashhurst, Bulls, Foxton and Levin.
It would be unforgiveable to omit the palatial grounds and buildings of the Manawatu A. and P. Association, one of the great institutions of the Dominion. The Manawatu Show, in its entry figures, its standard of exhibits, its contribution to the progress of farming science and general knowledge is of world importance. In the classes of sheep and cattle suitable to the Dominion, it is safe to assert that nowhere on earth are ever gathered for show purposes, the number of quality exhibits ranged here.
This short article cannot pretend to be an encyclopedia of the town of Palmerston North. Local enthusiasts are welcome to point out the very important items I have missed, including the aerodrome.
I simply repeat that Palmerston North has no peer as a country town, in the civilised world. This large statement is made soberly, and with only the one proviso; if Palmerston North has any rival peers, they exist only in New Zealand.
There is, after all, nothing miraculous about the statement.
The achievement of New Zealand is manifestly only the logical result of the original colonisation system of this “Britain of the South.” It was unique in history. It was planned from the beginning, carefully, thoroughly and systematically.
The settlers were hand-picked. They came here voluntarily to seek their fortunes in a new land offering opportunity to the adventurous and the dreamer of high dreams. There should have been no one among them who did not come from the boldest and best spirits of his particular locality. At any rate, scientific methods of selection, organised supervision, and every device of the best brains in England were employed to ensure that end.
There were sporadic infusions of other nationalities, but they confined themselves happily to Nordic races, particularly the fine array of pioneers from Norway, Sweden, and notably Denmark.
These select folk had a land on which to work their will and realise their dreams, which, of all the earth's surface, was the nearest in configuration, climate, and the nature of its soil, to the Britain they had left.
In the warmer and more plentiful sunshine and the milder air, everything grew a little bigger and better, that was all.
Palmerston North, then, is simply one facet of a British task, faithfully carried out on the best lines of the splendid visions of the founders of New Zealand.page 16