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The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 12, Issue 2 (May 1, 1937)

In Old Dunedin — A Barrel-Organ, Crab-Apples and a Castle

page 65

In Old Dunedin
A Barrel-Organ, Crab-Apples and a Castle

While the first Dunedinite was saying proudly to the rest of the carriage, “This is about where the view begins— you'd better look, you've never seen anything like this before,” and the second Dunedinite echoed, “Ah, wonderful view, it is,” the train pulled up.

So I didn't see the view. The first Dunedinite, sitting like Mephistopheles, still murmured about the superiority of this hillside scenery to anywhere else in New Zealand, till I suppressed him with a petulant, “Oh, it's just like Wellington.”

Confidentially, Dunedin isn't just like Wellington; hardly like it at all. They both have wild hills and wildish sea, but the towns have grown up so differently. Wellington is a queerly attractive city of red-roofed wooden houses, hanging on by their eyebrows to precipices. Dunedin is a city of fine old stone houses, ancient cottages (some with lilac bushes growing taller than their tumbledown roofs), and the Town Belt coming down to meet the streets halfway. It is, after all, unlike the rest of New Zealand—not because of that view, the country is overloaded with views; but because its atmosphere and individual characterization are quietly, defiantly apart. I suppose it's that drop of Scotch in Dunedin veins.

It is a city of hospitality, but there's more of home life about it than cabaret. It has cable-trams, very broad in the beam, like ancient market-women with ample behinds, scaling up its It eights to bits of the Town Belt, ticked off as Jubilee Park and so forth. It has a large and handsome stone house, “Littlebourne,” which was left to it by the late Sir John Roberts. My suggestion that “Littlebourne” should be used as a home for indigent poets and artists, who would probably add quite a deal of local colour before they tore one another's eyes out, was very coldly received. Nobody seemed to think much of poets and artists as a scenic feature. However, Dunedin has put up a whacking great memorial (stone again) to the memory of one of New Zealand's first poets, Thomas Bracken. There on a hillside he reposes, with verses from “Not Understood” carved on his monument, and hill winds blowing cool around him, with a scent of roses running wild to make them the sweeter. Dunedinites seem not quite sure whether Thomas Bracken was a good poet or not; at the Early Settlers' Association museum, though, I was given a copy of “Not Understood, and Other Poems,” and thought Bracken was treated more friendly-like by his compatriots and ex-fellow citizens than the average poet. And that is a good thing; for if he did write “Not Understood,” he also wrote some fine verse about Te Rauparaha.

There are tuis and bellbirds closer down to the main streets of Dunedin city than in any other city in the Dominion. This you understand when you see how near the Town Belt lies. The Gardens are within five minutes of the main street, and out of George Street, where the trams rattle along, one passes straight into Cosy Dell, rangioras, elderberries and supplejacks arching over the narrow bit of road. Dunedin people, also, are very nice to birds. One garden, belonging to a well-known resident, has bright-coloured scarlet and orange affairs, like artificial capsicum pods, filled with honey that the long-billed tuis can quaff, without competition from the thrushes and starlings.

(Rly Publicity photo.) A glimpse of Dunedin, South Island, New Zealand.

(Rly Publicity photo.)
A glimpse of Dunedin, South Island, New Zealand.

I stayed there two months, and watched the great umbrella of the weeping elm planted by Knox Church turn slowly from lifeless grey to green. Then it budded full, and came out in a soft whisk of leaves, saying “Summer” with every confidence. There are thousands of these old English (or Scottish?) pioneers, waving their high green hats at one another from street to street. The deep pink crab apples, which I hadn't seen before in anything like such profusion, massed the little Shakespeare garden with a blur of colour, between red and rose, and higher up, people made daily pilgrimages to the Rhododendron Dell. This is a specialty, rhododendrons and azaleas being collected from all parts of the globe able to do a garden well, and the result is little trees of apricot, butter-colour, bright yellow, rose, salmon, dawn-pink, scarlet—all the rich and rare colours you can think of, and blossom so thickly that one can hardly see the branches.

If you didn't like the weight and pressure of old traditions, Dunedin might oppress you. It is a place very page 66 page 67 much under the ownership of the past. In other parts of New Zealand, the pioneer days, good and bad, have died off, and their memory is only a legend, lost under the smoke of new cities. In Dunedin, you have to respect your elders. There is both charm and distinction in some parts of this carefully preserved past. I can't imagine a quainter place than the Early Settlers' Association Museum, to which I was introduced by a delightful old gentleman in a black velvet smoking-cap, who could remember, without a second thought, the names of the surviving passengers on Dunedin's sacred second, third and fourth ships. (I think the First Ship passengers have all died; in the house where I stayed, only a few years before had died an old lady, the first white girl ever born in Dunedin, and in the Hocken Library I came across a letter about her from the young mother of the first white baby boy. And everything was wild then, with snowstorms and bush, whalers and Maoris, and settlers going upstream to live in huts of sod and clay, and thresh out their grain by a process called “scutching,” which simply meant beating the wheat ears, by hand, into a cloth.)

Behind glass, in the Early Settlers' Association Museum, is the huge ball of string which one pioneer had saved all her life days, with her pious words, “Waste Not, Want Not.” There are tiny, unopened packages of sweets, brought out in the First Ship, and, believe it or not, an unopened bottle of perfectly good Scotch, which travelled to New Zealand in the same distinguished vessel. Spinning-wheels, clocks, old bits of china, old meerschaum pipes, the things the first comers made, loved and lived with, are all stored up and neatly documented, while the walls are covered from roof to ceiling with pictured pioneers, the gentlemen very stern and whiskered, the ladies very demure.

And I was allowed to play the barrelrgan It was a device not for frivolity, but for Sabbath afternoons, its entire repertoire being hymn-tunes. The old gentleman in the smoking cap informed me that one of the people who played it was “our former King”—now, the Duke of Windsor. With a proper sense of humility I turned the handle, and the old tune sounded as good as new. Journals and records of the pioneers are also very fully kept in Dunedin, more so than anywhere else; and, rightly, without any regard to their literary value, but as a simple narrative of the vanished world that moved about them. There is very little Dunedin can't unearth about Dunedin, by looking up its own records.

All the same, though this continuity of past and present produces a homeliness, I could understand why one Dunedinite liked the stone quarries better than anything else in the city. The hard, new rattle of stone, leaping clean and blue from dents pickaxed out in the hills, had about it a sort of promise for the future. Something hadn't stopped happening, it was still in progress, or about to happen differently, with a rattle and clatter of falling stones. I think the young are more impatient for their youth under the shadow of old trees and old houses than in other surroundings; and I think, too, that they are right. They have their own miracles to produce, their own city to pattern.

One steps into odd things, such as the pavement-steps which for no visible reason break the surface of little streets wandering aimlessly along to nowhere; children in the evening playing hopscotch, with big white bases drawn on the pavements, and one goes down among them by low pavementsteps which don't happen anywhere else. And a few miles out, towards Kuri Bush, clay huts press their yellow against the sides of old cliffs, and soon the sea is hoary with a fine flying mane of spray. You come into good surfing beaches, and hear how the early Dunedin Exhibition, years and years ago, left that queer old iron-roofed pavilion stranded by the wayside; and Jo-Jo, the dog-faced boy, used to delight the childhood of small boys who are middle-aged men now.

Larnach's Castle is another queer Dunedin story. Every city has somebody or other's Folly, but in spite of its fallen years and estate, Larnach's Castle apparently still impresses Dunedin enough to retain its proper title. There's another Dunedin castle, Cargill's, which has been turned into a tea-room; but I didn't visit it. Lar nach's I saw on a pouring wet day, when one was only aware of over weening branches, putting their heads together across the drive. Then the castle, grey stone, with battlements, livery stables, long flat lawns and flower-beds that would have been brilliant with just a kiss of the sun; it cost £200,000 to build, so I was told, and you can have it now for £5,000— another ideal home for indigent poets.

Dunedin-Christohurch Express approaching Port Chalmers, South Island, New Zealand.

Dunedin-Christohurch Express approaching Port Chalmers, South Island, New Zealand.

In spite of its strange and tragic story—beginning with a romance, taking in a great ballroom, music and floating frocks, ending with a suicide— Larnach's has never been presented with a family ghost; and yet you couldn't imagine a building better adapted to the comfort and convenience of the same. Its great spiral staircase, twisting up three stories, ends in a little stair by which one can climb out to the battlements. From the roof, the flower-beds look uncommonly flat and small. Some of its glories—the black marble bath, which cost hundreds, the carved ceilings, one of which took twelve years to complete, and really is magnificent workmanship—are still in place, and much has been restored in atmosphere, since, after a period of utter desolation, it was taken over by Mr. and Mrs. Jackson-Purdy, who use it as a setting for antiques, and have taken a lot of trouble over its repair. For a while, it was used as part of a mental hospital, and some of the plateglass windows didn't come of too well. Rather than remove the glass—which couldn't be replaced without very heavy expense—the present tenants have used deep-coloured cartoons of historical figures to hide the cracked parts. Of course, if the castle were in old Scotland, the home of castles, page 68 the long exterior walks wouldn't be glassed in. But when Larnach and his family came to live in the place, they found the wind and weather a little too uncanny for their tastes, and the glass was added.

We ate afternoon tea—in itself a noble pile, with lots of cream and strawberry jam—toasting our shanks by a blazing log fire in the castle ballroom, where now most of the antiques congregate, from Chelsea poodles to the musical box. The latter, for some obscure reason, I can't get out of my mind. It had a gilt face and several little tunes, sung in a sweet, tinkly voice, like a child singing in a fairytale; and possibly because I hate over loud radios and blaring gramophones so very much, I have made up my mind that one day I'm going to adopt the Larnach's Castle musical box, or one just like it. You could get fond of it, as of the cricket on your hearth. Nice people, crickets.

In Dunedin, when the need for change or entertainment comes into your head, either you talk, or else you get into a car, and see more Dunedin; hills with a few waifs and strays from clematis-season still blowing white stars across them, and byre walls, low built of old red stones, guarding sheep and cattle with a trusty, staunch air which is worth all the wire fences in the world. The landscape spins out to Mosgiel, where there are large woollen mills, and across to Saddle Hill, one of the points named by Captain Cook.

There was an older capital once, laid out at Waikouaiti. A Maori settlement lay down at the Heads, under the amiable presidency of a chief named Bloody Jack. Whalers were the oldest and hardest customers and a missionary's life was not a happy one, as I discovered by reading some of the plaints of a gentleman stationed there before there was any such thing as Dunedin City. He didn't like the Maoris, but had them badly on his conscience; I thought, “One day that could be turned into a story, and called Sad Sea'.” On the other hand, another early record tells of the surprising appearance across the seawaves of the Catholic Bishop Pompallier, wearing his full robes, and standing on a little blue boat.

Of their buildings Dunedin people are proud, and rightly so, though they have the critical faculty well developed, and a knack of hitting themselves off in a phrase. The Cathedral, they say, was the work of an architect; First Church the work of an artist. And they are particularly proud of their statue of Bobbie Burns.