The Rough Diamond
3 August 2022
Diamond Harbour knows how to sparkle. But it’s not that ‘showy’ kind of sparkle that exists here; rather it’s an understated beauty that gently twinkles. Kathy Catton investigates the delights of this Banks Peninsula village and meets some of the gems in its midst.
Take a look on Trip Advisor, and you will read that Diamond Harbour is described as “a gem awaiting a shake-up”. And I get what the critics are talking about. On arrival in this approximately 2000-inhabitant village on the other side of the Port Hills to Christchurch, your first impressions might lead you to believe that you have arrived at a rather understated seaside hangout. One that is just far enough away to be separate from its big parent of Christchurch and yet close enough to warrant the drive over the hills. But closer inspection reveals a peaceful getaway location, oozing with characters who all seem to love nature, love making a difference, and love community spirit.
Nestled on Banks Peninsula’s northern coast, on the southern shores of Te Whakaraupō (Lyttelton Harbour), the area was named by Mark Stoddart, who is reported to have bought 500 acres of land in the area in 1856. Comprising peripheral settlements of Church Bay, Charteris Bay and Purau, the centre of the village is almost quintessentially English in feel, with a village cricket pitch and rugby field being surrounded by amenities such as a medical centre, library, community centre, hairdressing salon and eatery.
It’s this sense of community that stands this place apart. Think of any club, and Diamond Harbour has probably got it. The local phone directory lists a total of 49 clubs and associations, including the obvious favourites of the rugby club, Playcentre, a bridge club and neighbourhood association, alongside more unusual offerings such as a photography club, meditation group and Tai Chi.
I spoke to Ron Dubin, IT consultant and editor of the local Diamond Harbour Herald – a monthly A4 hand-folded local newspaper, to discover what makes the area so appealing to locals.
“The place has got a real village feel, and that appeals to many. It doesn’t feel like a suburb of Christchurch, and because of the geographic location [being 40-minutes’ drive from Christchurch’s city centre] it’s got its own sense of community here,” he says.
Ron’s been living here for 12 years, and as well as editing the local rag and website, he also runs the weekly meditation group, and he volunteers at the local library. He loves the community spirit of the place and marvels at the natural beauty of the location.
“I was brought here by the harbour and the sea. I view Diamond Harbour as lots of interacting communities all interfacing with each other,” Ron states, using his techy language. “I remember when I first arrived, I got talking to a friend, Colin McLeod, in the library. He mentioned they needed volunteer librarians with some IT skills, and before you knew it, I was involved.”
And there are plenty of residents who operate the same way. A fundamental philosophy of ‘ask the questions, get involved, invite others’ exists here.
Stoddart Cottage is one such example of how the community have mucked in and embraced this little piece of history. The cottage was built in 1862 and is the oldest building still standing in the village – Godley House, built in 1880, was critically damaged in the 2011 earthquakes and subsequently demolished. In 1990, the quaint colonial cottage was registered by the New Zealand Historic Places Trust as a Category One historic building. The famous New Zealand impressionist artist Margaret Stoddart grew up in the cottage.
“It’s a beautiful spot,” says Karen Colyer, who has lived in Diamond Harbour since 2001, and is Secretary on the Stoddart Cottage Trust. “A few of us formed a co-op for the cottage, had a few garage sales to raise some funds, and by 2017 we had it re-opened after the quake damage.”
Open to the public Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, the cottage is home to monthly art exhibitions and a small shop displaying handmade crafts.
“There is always something interesting to look at, and the art space is booked up two years in advance,” states Karen. She and the Stoddart Cottage Trust members were instrumental in working with the city council and a historic building company to bring about the restoration of the cottage. Karen prides herself in being part of this very active community.
“It’s a magical spot,” says Karen. “I also work at the Lyttelton Information Centre, and I often suggest to visitors to Lyttelton to take a trip across the harbour on the ferry and check out the sunny side of the harbour.”
Orton Bradley Park is another gem in the sun-drenched basket of the harbour. The 650-hectare private country park offers fantastic walking tracks that provide a variety of terrain and vistas, including small waterfalls, massive exotic trees, farmland, native regenerating bush and harbour views. For families with children, it’s an excellent opportunity to explore the streams, build dams, check for bugs and climb trees. And for extended families, it provides a perfect place to have picnics. There are activities for all generations, from historic buildings and machinery to the extensive rhododendron gardens, arboretum and café.
Ian Luxford, Park Manager, says he loves the fact that this country park exists so close to Christchurch. “There is so much beauty here,” he smiles. “I love the walk up the valley following Te Wharau stream, with the sunlight highlighting the boulders and the water. I also constantly have to remind myself to look up to appreciate the mature trees in the park. The 50-metre high gums, and the massive redwoods and oaks, to name but a few. Other favourites for me include the gardens in the spring after rain, with the smell of flowers and damp earth. And the kererū (New Zealand pigeon) doing their display-flying is always mesmerising, as is the change in colours of the exotic trees in autumn.”
Many visitors come to Diamond Harbour from Christchurch for a day trip. They either drive or catch the Black Cat passenger ferry that runs a regular service to coincide with the Christchurch bus network. It’s an ideal starting point for an active day. From the wharf, it’s a steady climb up to Mount Herbert, the highest point on the peninsula, where you are rewarded with a stunning unbroken view up the coast to Kaikōura. For the more sedate visitor, there’s always the option to saunter to one of the local beaches, which are typically near-empty and rival any other in the country. Or for the thrill-seeking, there is the semi-ritualistic wharf-jumping that takes place in the summer months by most teenage locals. And all in good spirit and warm-heartedness.
For visitors by sea, tucked close to the shore of the harbour is Ripapa Island. Originally the site of a fortified pā for Ngāi Tahu, later a fortress was built on the island to defend against possible Russian attacks. According to the stories, the pā was constructed in the early nineteenth century by Taununu, a Ngāi Tahu chief who had moved south from Kaikōura. Several skirmishes were fought on the shores of the island. It remained occupied by Ngāi Tahu until around 1832 when the chief of Te Whakarukeruke left to help defend Kaiapoi against Te Rauparaha. The island is therefore of particular significance to Ngāi Tahu as a place of memories associated with these battles and the ancestors who died in them. It is also for this reason that visitors are asked not to eat while on the island, as this denigrates the tapu (sacred) status of the land. Today, the hapū of Ngāti Wheke, based at Rāpaki across the harbour, are the guardians of Ripapa.
Only accessible by boat or kayak, the island was used as a quarantine station from 1873 to 1885, and in 1880 the island was used temporarily as a prison. The quarantine buildings were dismantled when the island was incorporated into the coastal defence scheme around 1886 due to a ‘Russian scare’. A walled fort was built and occupied by the army until the end of World War I and re-occupied again during World War II as part of the harbour defences. The island has been managed by the Department of Conservation (DOC) since 1990 and has an “actively managed” status.
“We ask people visiting not to climb the walls,” says Andy Thompson, Operations Manager at DOC. “We recognise the historical significance of the island, and we want to preserve this in partnership with Ngāi Tahu. Our two biggest challenges for the island are how we can improve public access so that more people enjoy the island and also how we obtain the resources to protect the island’s fabric and tell the stories of the island and bring the island to life and acknowledge its past.”
Whether it’s a day trip or a longer séjour, it’s worth checking Diamond Harbour out. Summer highlights include ‘Live at the Point’, a series of Sunday afternoon free live music events, accompanied by food vendors and local children’s stalls of cupcakes and hand-made bracelets. Winter highlights include the warmth of the sun on a still Canterbury morning. Weather experts tell me it’s a little like a climate microcosm here, with temperatures typically five degrees warmer than its big sister hub, Christchurch. If you can cope with the fact that it’s a little rugged around the edges, you might just see the beauty that settles here.
Like so much that Banks Peninsula has to offer, Diamond Harbour is not widely known outside the region. It’s certainly off the tourist track for now. Locals love the advantages of a big city close by, but that it’s far enough away to have its own identity and sparkle. For them, there’s nowhere else quite like it.
Story and images supplied by NZToday-RVLifestyle magazine.
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