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Memories of Christchurch as a very different city

Sonya Stevens - 01/07/2011

I grew up in Christchurch, went to school there, was a college and university student, taught at Elmwood school and worked as a journalist on the Christchurch Star. As a young woman in the 1960s I moved to Sydney where I took up a journalist's position on a daily metropolitan newspaper, eventually meeting and marrying a fellow journalist from the same paper. I have lived in Sydney ever since, raising two children, studying, and resuming work as a sub-editor on weekly magazines.

As shock after shock hits my old city, buildings tumble down, churches are destroyed, roads cracked, gardens swamped in liquid, I find it almost unbearable. Most of all, it is the people I think of, long-time friends who are having to cope with the devastation and whom I love more than ever for their bravery. Several have by now left their homes temporarily to have a restorative break.

For myself, as I ponder photos taken by Christchurch Press photographers and others sent to me by friends, I see my memories of places I lived and worked in as now only that -- memories.

I picture myself as a child riding my bicycle along the winding, beautiful Avon River on my way to St Margaret's College in Cranmer Square. No ruts in the road, only glossy ducks on the river. In fact, I used to ride no hands -- a skill I was somewhat proud of but today would find impossible on the damaged roads.

In those days I lived in Winchester Street, Merivale, and in primary years would walk to junior school through Andover Street past the playing fields and swimming pool to the classrooms. The school was rebuilt some years ago to take in the senior classes but the earthquakes have wreaked havoc with the site.

And then there was Cathedral Square -- the heart of the city and the best place to find excitement and to meet friends. I remember standing at the Bryndwr bus stop waiting, waiting, waiting, for a bus to get me home in time to avoid a parental inquisition. From the stop, I would look up at the cathedral which towered over the square and imagine the glow of green light that flickered through the windows inside the church on a sunny day.

Catherdral as it was
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I posted letters in the central post office.

Old post office
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I was a regular consumer of 'the pictures' in all corners of the square. I especially remember the Regent Theatre with its distinctive dome. (Many cinemas were moved to other locations before the earthquakes, but I still see them in my mind.)

Regent on Worcester
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I went shopping at Ballantynes and worked in the cardigan department during student holidays. And I shopped in Cashel Street, wandered into Whitcombe's (Whitcoull's) for a book fest, ate at a fish restaurant with funny slidey chairs, and bought cream cheese from the only deli in town. I walked down High Street window shopping and had my hair cut in a salon on the second floor of an old building that fell victim to the quakes.

Sometimes I would ride the bus up to the Takahe on the top of Cashmere Hills which was great fun. In my teens, I was a passenger in my mother's car on the Summit Road from where we could look over the Port Hills to Diamond Harbour, Governor's Bay and Charteris Bay.

overlook the harbour
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I remember a winding drive down the steep Summit Road in my grandfather's car. This was a once-only because I was car-sick sitting in the back seat while we negotiated the steep curves. I believe this road has been destroyed.

On rare and special occasions we would visit Sumner Beach, watch the rolling waves and eat ice-creams. There were no rocks on the road, Shag Rock was intact, and the drive was easy, not sticky with swampy mud.

I used to read the words written under the statues that dotted the city centre, such as those of John Robert Godley and my favourite hero, Robert Scott, whose Antarctic adventures and tragic end gripped my imagination. I can still recite his final words, beginning "I do not regret this journey.."

I sat my university exams in what later became the Arts Centre and took lectures in adjacent university buildings. Can it be true that this historic area is now in ruins?

I wonder whether the little hotel my husband and I stayed at several years ago survived the earthquakes. It was in Colombo Street, south of Bealey Avenue but before the Square, and on the opposite side of the road from the Asian restaurant said to serve the best nasi goreng in the city.

And I remember the beautiful, green Christchurch Gardens with colourful blossoms and flowers that only bloom in coldish climates. Is the heated glasshouse that nurtured tropical plants still in one piece?

These are among my memories of the city before the earthquakes ripped the heart out of the CBD and much else. I still find it hard to comprehend the extent of the devastation, although the photos and TV reports give graphic testimony of it.

When I was a child we certainly experienced mild earthquakes that rattled the windows or blew the curtains through the shutters. Nothing led me (nor others) to predict the future calamities that would befall Christchurch. Yet despite this I feel my ties with the past stronger than before as I realise gradually what has been lost.

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