Things to do in Christchurch: Ferrymead Heritage Park

Ferrymead Heritage Park is a bit of a well kept secret, but it’s a great place to spend the day in Christchurch. The main part of the park is a mocked up Edwardian township, complete with houses, shops, a fire station, theatre and post office, and on some days a working tram and steam railway. Most of the buildings in the fictional township, Moorhouse, are open for you to wander in and out of, and on event days you can even send a postcard from the post office.

The most interesting aspect of the park for me was looking around the homes from different eras. The first one you come to is a very simple one-room wattle and daub cottage, of the type early European settlers built in the area when they first arrived. They’d live in these small cottages while the built a larger home from wood, and would often have oversized furniture they’d brought with them, squashed into their tiny new home. The cottage at Ferrymead Heritage Park has a piano in it, and an iron bedstead, along with the essentials of pioneer living.

There’s also a moderately grand Edwardian family home, with a smart sitting room stuffed with chintz and ornaments, set up to show life in the early days of electricity. The house, Curragh, was built a couple of blocks from where we now live in Christchurch. It was moved from its original site to the Heritage Park in the 1970s. Like the rest of the buildings here, it was relocated in pieces. The top floor of Curragh was raised off the bottom in preparation, and left overnight, awaiting the moving truck the next morning. Overnight a storm blew in, heavily damaging the top floor, which had to be completely rebuilt. The building wasn’t properly restored until the 1990s, but it’s very convincing now. The atmosphere inside was somewhere between a Scottish hunting lodge and a home-counties rectory.

Mary Kate, the eldest daughter of the family who built this home, was widowed in 1888. (Her husband was an alcoholic.) She had four young children, and to make ends meet began to lodge students in her home, which was about ten minutes walk from the University (now the Christchurch Arts Centre). The final boarder she took in was Ernest Rutherford, who would later go on to perform research which led to the first splitting of the atom. Ernest Rutherford is a bit of a Christchurch hero, though he was born in Nelson, and did most of his work in Canada and the UK.

During this time a romance (as the Victorians called it) began between Ernest Rutherford and Mary Kate’s daughter May, and they were married in 1900. They would have visited Curragh, a couple of kilometres away from Mary Kate’s town centre home, where May’s grandparents were still living at the time.

Curragh was interesting, especially with its connection to our neighbourhood, but my favourite home at the Heritage Park was a simple workers cottage. Just a cosy front room, one bedroom, and a little lean-to kitchen. I love the simplicity of this home, with its armchairs by the fire, and a front porch to sit on and enjoy the garden. I would very happily move in here, given half a chance.

In the kitchen is a real life Baby Belling oven, and a classic Kenwood mixer.

I think this cottage was set up as if somebody had been living there from the early Edwardian era, through to around the 1940s. There were a few electrical appliances, and some simply styled furniture, which I’d place as 40s. But there was also a very early telephone, and wall art on the Victorian language of flowers.

After the worker’s cottage, we had a peek in the school house, which is a fairly typical town school from the early colonial days. All ages would have shared one classroom. It’s a beautiful space, much nicer than the postwar prefab huts I spent most of my school life in. I was particularly in love with the beams.

On the wall of the schoolhouse, among the other remnants of life in the time when New Zealand was the edge of the British Empire, were the rules for school teachers, 1915.

  1. You will NOT marry during the terms of your contract.
  2. You are NOT to keep company with men.
  3. You MUST be home between the hours of 8 p.m. and 8 a.m. unless attending a school function.
  4. You MAY NOT travel beyond the city limits without permission of the Chairman of the Board.
  5. You MAY NOT loiter down town in ice cream stores.
  6. You MAY NOT ride in a carriage or automobile with any man unless he is your father or brother.
  7. You MAY NOT smoke cigarettes.
  8. You MAY NOT dress in bright colours.
  9. You may, UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES, dye your hair.
  10. You must wear AT LEAST two petticoats and your dresses MUST NOT be any shorter than two inches above the ankle.

On weekends and during school holidays, a tram runs a loop through Moorhouse, and out to another section of the Heritage Park, where there are vintage buses to admire. On days when the trams are running, your entry ticket includes unlimited tram rides. It was quiet the day we visited — we went on a public holiday, I imagine weekends are busier — so the tram was waiting for us when we decided to have a ride. And we got the whole tram to ourselves.

Obviously we sat on the top deck, to enjoy the view of the port hills and the estuary. Our private tram tour was great, it was worth the $10 entry just for this!

On Sundays and some public holidays there are also train rides, on a steam or diesel train. On these days entry costs $15, but your ticket includes unlimited tram and train rides.

It turned out that there was a fairly noticeable earthquake while we were trundling around on the tram, but we didn’t feel it because we were already rattling.

Once we’d done a full loop, we got off the tram and carried on exploring Moorhouse. There are various shops along the main street, a cinema which is open on event days (the next one is November 30th), and a gaol, with a bit of an alarming secret to be discovered.

These two cell wood-built lockups were once found all over small town New Zealand, and mostly used to shut up local drunks until they sobered up. For more serious crimes, suspects were chained up in the local lockup until they could be moved to the provincial jail.

Most of the buildings on the main street were open for our visit, at least enough to have a peek in. The post office and theatre were closed though, and we couldn’t get a Devonshire tea (whatever Devonshire is supposed to be). The working buildings in the park, like the post office, are run by voulunteers, and they’re usually only open on Sundays (train days), and for special events. So you don’t quite get the full experience, visiting outside of an event day. But it was fun having most of the park to ourselves too. Just us and the resident flock of interesting chickens.

We whiled away several hours looking into the shops, and especially examining everything in the homes, most of which you can walk into. Ferrymead Heritage Park doesn’t so much feel like a museum, as a real township that’s been left just as it was in the early 20th Century. It was very absorbing, just taking it all in. There was just time for a quick peek at the model railway sets, which are hidden in a building in the corner of the park, and it was closing time. We spent about three hours there, and didn’t see everything by any means. I had so much fun poking into local history in such an evocative setting, so we’ll definitely be back.

Next time perhaps we’ll go on a Sunday or an event day so we can see the Heritage Park in it’s full glory.

And, of course, have a ride on the steam train.

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