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Canterbury places

by  John Wilson

This is a comprehensive guide to the towns, coastal and inland areas, and other places of interest in Canterbury.

Cheviot district

Conway River

Short river that forms part of the northern boundary of the Canterbury region. It drains hill country south of the Kaikōura Ranges and enters the sea at Conway Flat.


Settlement 14 km north of Cheviot and 65 km south-west of Kaikōura. It takes its name from a local sheep run owned by a classical scholar, Edward Lee. He saw a likeness between a local hill and the Greek Mt Parnassus, mythical home of the god Apollo and the Muses.

Parnassus was the railhead for the main line north from 1912 until rail construction resumed almost 30 years later. It declined from 1980 when a new road north of the Waiau road bridge diverted traffic from the township.

Waiau River

A 169-km river that rises in the Spenser Mountains and flows across three intermontane basins – the Hanmer Plain, the Amuri Plain and the Cheviot Basin. Between these basins and the sea, the river flows through gorges. On the Amuri Plain, some of its water is tapped for a major irrigation scheme.

A road beside one of its tributaries, the Leader River, connects Parnassus with Waiau in the Amuri district. This road was on several occasions used by traffic between Kaikōura and Christchurch when floodwaters threatened the old bridge across the Waiau River.


Small rural service township 115 km north-east of Christchurch and 14 km south of Parnassus on State Highway 1. Its 2013 population was 375.

Local hero

The purchase of large pastoral runs by the Liberal government in the 1890s allowed people of modest means to get into farming. The government, and especially the minister of lands, John McKenzie, gained enormous popularity as a result. The town of Cheviot was originally named McKenzie, and the street names commemorate Liberal politicians.

The township began in the late 19th century after the subdivision of the 33,600-hectare Cheviot Hills run. This was named after the range of hills on the border between Scotland and England. Owned by William ‘Ready Money’ Robinson, it was one of Canterbury’s largest 19th-century properties. In 1892–93 the government purchased it and subdivided it into small farms – a landmark event in the breaking up of large estates. In the Cheviot Hills Domain are the foundations of Robinson’s Mansion House, which burned down in 1936.


Settlement 8 km south-west of Cheviot. Like Cheviot, it developed after the 1893 subdivision of the Cheviot Hills run. It became the railhead of the main trunk line in 1907, and the station is now a tourist stop. It continued to thrive after the railway continued north, but as roads were improved, its local service role diminished.

Gore Bay

Beach resort 8 km south-east of Cheviot. Until the railway reached Domett in 1907, goods for Cheviot came and went by sea, initially using surfboats at Gore Bay. In 1879 William Robinson of Cheviot Hills built a slipway and shed at Port Robinson, 4 km to the south, where ships could anchor in the lee of a headland, to be serviced by a boat worked from the slipway. There is still a slipway at Port Robinson.

Hurunui River

A 138-km river that rises on Harper Pass. Its north branch flows through Lake Sumner. In its middle reaches it crosses the Amuri district. The historic Hurunui Hotel is on the river’s south bank by the State Highway 7 bridge. Close to the river’s mouth is a settlement of fishing huts and holiday homes.

Amuri district


Settlement situated on the north bank of the Waiau River on the inland road to Kaikōura, 23 km north-east of Culverden. Waiau made the classic rural Canterbury shift from accommodation house to township. The river was bridged in 1883. In 1919 Waiau became the terminus of the branch railway from Waipara (now closed), but by then it had been eclipsed by Culverden. It has survived as a rural service centre.


Township 97 km north of Christchurch and 23 km south-west of Waiau, with a population in 2013 of 426. The population of the Amuri district, of which Culverden is the chief service centre, increased between 1996 and 2006 from 1,713 to 1,950, thanks in part to extended irrigation on the Amuri Plain.

Culverden became a railhead for the old Waiau branch line in 1886. The saleyards, long crucial to the farm economy of the Amuri, were built two years later. From 1890 until 1989 Culverden was the seat of the Amuri County Council.

Lowry Peaks Range

Rugged range of hills, crossed by a single road between Cheviot and Culverden, which separates the Amuri and Cheviot basins.

Balmoral Forest

One of Canterbury’s largest exotic forests, this was planted on poor land on the north bank of the Hurunui River, but suffered damage from fire in 1957 and from wind in 1975. After the last windblown logs had been railed out, the Waiau branch line, the last in Canterbury, was closed in 1978. There is a popular picnic and camping area on the southern side of the forest, by the Hurunui River.


Settlement 26 km south-west of Culverden, 7 km off State Highway 7. Back-country roads to Lake Taylor and the head of the south branch of the Hurunui begin at Hawarden.


Settlement straggling along the base of a limestone ridge on the inland side of the Weka Pass, 8 km south-east of Hawarden. First settled in the 1860s, it grew after the railway had been built through. At nearby Pyramid Valley, a large deposit of moa bones was discovered in 1937.

Saving or spoiling?

Ancient Māori rock art in a limestone shelter at the Weka Pass is protected against vandals by a floor to ceiling fence. But archaeologists, who established the value of the drawings, were the first vandals. In 1929 the director of the national museum had the drawings over-painted in red and black house paint to make them more visible.

Weka Pass

The road and railway from the northern end of the Canterbury Plains into the Amuri district passes over a low point in limestone hills known as the Weka Pass. Rock art on the walls of limestone overhangs dates from more than 500 years ago. The pass was used in the early 1860s by the first gold miners heading for the West Coast over Harper Pass, and a little later by wagons bringing out the first of the Amuri wool clips.

Hanmer and Lewis Pass

Lewis Pass

The Lewis Pass, at the southern end of the Spenser Mountains, leads from the Lewis River (a Waiau tributary) into the Maruia River (which flows into the Buller). The 863-m saddle was used by Māori, and crossed by Henry Lewis in the early 1860s. It was not an important route to the West Coast goldfields, but after the road (now State Highway 7) was built during the 1930s economic depression, it became the main route from Canterbury to Westport and Nelson.

The St James Walkway is a popular five-day, 66-km walk through forested and farming mountain country east of the Lewis Pass Road. It was the country’s first walkway to pass through subalpine country.

Jacks and Jollies Passes

These two passes immediately north of Hanmer lead into the upper Clarence Valley. Jollies Pass was crossed in 1852 by Edward Lee and Edward Jollie with 1,800 sheep, opening the inland route for Canterbury runs to be stocked with sheep from the Wairau. The better road now crosses Jacks Pass.

Hanmer Springs

Spa and health resort 70 km south-east of the Lewis Pass. The town’s permanent population in 2013 was 840, but many holidaymakers and tourists visit the thermal pools there. A day trip from Christchurch to the springs is a popular excursion.

The hot springs in the Hanmer basin, known to Māori, were discovered by local runholder William Jones in 1859. Bathing facilities were opened in 1883.

Swimmers’ signals

Early bathers at Hanmer Springs did not wear swimming costumes, so the pools were used alternately by men and women. It is said that a pair of trousers hoisted on a pole by the dressing shed signalled ‘men only’, while a skirt indicated that women were in the pools.

A sanatorium was built in 1897. During the First World War it was replaced by a convalescent hospital that later became the Queen Mary Hospital. It treated people with joint disorders, and later those suffering from psychiatric illness and alcoholism.

A wooden hotel of 1897 was replaced in 1932 by the Hanmer Lodge. At the springs themselves, a complex that opened in 1978 is now a major tourist attraction, with 10 thermal pools and other facilities. The Hanmer State Forest Park protects early plantings of exotic trees.

Lake Sumner

Large, scenic lake on the Hurunui River, not far from its head. Lake Sumner has an area of 14 square kilometres and is the centrepiece of the Lake Sumner Forest Park. It is on the route across Harper Pass and was an important source of food when Māori were bringing pounamu (greenstone) from the West Coast to Kaiapoi.

Harper Pass

Harper Pass leads from the head of the north branch of the Hurunui River into the Taramakau valley. It was the main route for Māori bringing greenstone from Westland to Kaiapoi. It was also the first of the Southern Alps passes crossed to the West Coast by a European, Leonard Harper, in 1857, and was used by the first gold miners flocking to Westland in 1864. It is now used only by trampers.

Amberley district


Remnant of lowland coastal forest about 5 km south of the Hurunui River mouth, protected by spectacular limestone bluffs which reach into the sea. Archaeological sites identify Napenape as a place important to the early Māori of Canterbury. It has been accessible by road since the 1970s.


Locality 33 km south-east of Cheviot. There is a group of fishermen’s houses and holiday cabins at the mouth of the Motunau River, 14 km south-east of Greta Valley. Offshore is tiny Motunau Island. Motunau was the site of the first sheep run in Canterbury, taken up in 1847. Fossils are found in the hills behind Motunau.

Greta Valley

Settlement at the Motunau turn-off on State Highway 1. Until the 1970s, there was no more than a school there, but in 1975 the local body decided to make a new township nearby. A tavern and shop opened and sections were sold, but Greta Valley never became as large as planned.


Settlement 5 km north-west of Greta Valley. It developed after the railway arrived in 1902. Because it lies off State Highway 1, it has remained a small local centre. Its growth was checked when Greta Valley township was built nearby.


Settlement and district at the junction of State Highways 1 and 7, 55 km south-west of Cheviot and 58 km north-east of Christchurch. It is the headquarters of the Weka Pass railway, a 12.5-km long section of the former Waiau branch line which closed in 1978. Excursions are now offered on a scenic stretch of the line. Extensive plantings of vineyards have made Waipara the main wine-making area in Canterbury.

Waipara wines

Grapes were first planted in the Waipara valley in the 1980s. Some 28 wineries produce award-winning wines, especially pinot noirs and rieslings, noted for their intense flavours. There are over 1,200 hectares of plantings. Waipara has an ideal climate for grape growing, with high sunshine hours, hot dry summers and long autumns.

Waipara River

River draining the Okuku Range. State Highway 1 crosses the Waipara River just south of Waipara township. Above and below the highway, the river has carved small but spectacular gorges through limestone. Fossils of marine reptiles were first found in the river in 1859 and one, a mosasaur skull found in 2004, is thought to be 65 million years old.


Town on the northern bank of the Kowai River, 47 km north of Christchurch. It had a population of 1,575 in 2013, and is the headquarters for the Hurunui District Council. It owed its early growth to the railway line and its stockyards. Nearby Amberley Beach has holiday cottages. In Amberley there is a memorial to Second World War hero Charles Upham, who for many years had a farm at the mouth of the Conway River.

Ashley River

River, 90 km in length, that rises in the Puketeraki Range and flows into Pegasus Bay. Its Māori name is Rakahuri. Ashley Gorge is a popular picnicking and camping spot. Above the gorge, the river flows through Lees Valley, one of the region’s characteristic basins between mountains. Below the gorge, the Ashley flows across the plains north of Rangiora. Wetlands south of the lagoon at the river’s mouth once reached to Kaiapoi.


Settlement 4 km south of Amberley. Leithfield flourished until the 1870s, but was bypassed by the railway. After 1876 Amberley became the chief town in the district. In the 1950s, the main highway was re-routed east of Leithfield, but the township has just survived. Nearby Leithfield Beach is a holiday resort.

Kaiapoi district


Farming locality 16 km south of Amberley and 33 km from Christchurch, with a 2013 population of 903. An increase from 540 people in 1991 indicates the town’s popularity with Christchurch commuters. A rope and twine works, which initially used flax from local swamps, closed in 1987. Waikuku Beach is a small coastal settlement on Pegasus Bay.


Town 6.5 km north-east of Kaiapoi. Between 1996 and 2006 its population surged by 67%, and by 2013 had increased further to 2,679, largely because it is within commuting distance of Christchurch. It is in an area of mixed farming, market gardening and fruit-growing.


Settlement between Woodend and Rangiora, 6 km north of Kaiapoi. Land was reserved there for Māori in the 19th century, and Tuahiwi has remained the main settlement of the Ngāi Tūahuriri hapū (sub-tribe) of Ngāi Tahu. A Māori mission was established at Tuahiwi in the 19th century, and a historic church (1867) is one of the settlement’s notable buildings. Te Wai Pounamu College, a school for Māori girls which later moved into Christchurch, was founded at Tuahiwi in 1909.

Pegasus Bay

The broad sweep of coastline north of Banks Peninsula takes its name from the vessel Pegasus, which surveyed this part of the South Island coast in 1809. Seaside suburbs of Christchurch lie on the southern end of the bay. Further north, holiday settlements, some with campgrounds, lie behind dunes. The beach is sandy, unlike the shingle beaches of the Canterbury Bight south of Banks Peninsula.


One of the principal towns of North Canterbury, 19 km north of Christchurch. It had a population in 2013 of 5,860, a drop of 21% since 2006. Another 2,000 live mainly on lifestyle blocks in surrounding country districts. The decrease in population was a result of the severe damage suffered by Kaiapoi in the September 2010 Darfield earthquake and again in the February 2011 Christchurch earthquake. The effect was especially severe in east Kaiapoi and along the river, where almost 1,000 homes were located in the ‘red zone’ and had to be demolished. Some important heritage buildings such as the museum (formerly the courthouse), the Methodist parsonage and the community centre were also lost.

The site of the large Ngāi Tahu pa, Kaiapoi, is 11 km north of the town. Built in the 1700s, it was besieged and sacked in 1831–32 by the forces of Ngāti Toa leader Te Rauparaha.

The town developed in the 1850s on Kaiapoi Island, between the south and north branches of the Waimakariri River. Subsequent river works have channelled the river south of the town.

Kaiapoi was a busy port in the 1860s. After the railway reached Kaiapoi in 1872, the port remained in intermittent use until 1967. A small coastal trading vessel, the Tuhoe, now offers trips on the river.

Local industries have included freezing works, woollen mills, sawmills, factories for furniture, electrical appliances, clothing and shoes, and general engineering and quarrying.

Warmth in wartime

Established in the 1870s, the Kaiapoi Woollen Manufacturing Company was a major local employer for over a century, producing goods with a national reputation for quality. The mill boomed especially in times of war, making woollen uniforms for soldiers fighting in the South African War, the first and second world wars, and the Korean War.

Waimakariri River

161-km river that flows into the sea just north of Christchurch. Renamed the Courtenay by the Canterbury Association settlers, it soon reverted to its Māori name, poetically translated as ‘wintry cold water’. The most northerly glaciers in the Southern Alps feed its headwaters, in Arthur’s Pass National Park. It flows through a wide upper valley with spectacular glaciated landforms, then threads through a deep gorge. The lower reaches of the gorge are seen by travellers on the train to Arthur’s Pass.

Rangiora district


Small rural service town 12 km north-east of Rangiora. Sefton for a time was a centre of dairying. Today a particle-board manufacturing plant dominates the district. In 2013 the town had a population of 624.


Farming locality 11 km north of Rangiora. Small orchards planted between 1914 and 1916 made it one of Canterbury’s few fruit-growing areas. The orchards that survived beyond the Second World War flourished in the 1950s, but today only the church, domain (public park) and hall remain.


Principal town of North Canterbury, 11 km north-west of Kaiapoi and 27 km north of Christchurch. Rangiora lies between the Waimakariri and Ashley rivers, inland from State Highway 1 but on the main north railway line.

Starting in 1852 as a sawmilling town, Rangiora became the administrative and commercial centre for a large area of farms and orchards. It attracted residents commuting to Christchurch for work, with the population more than doubling from 1971 to 2006. Although the town suffered some damage in both the 2010 Darfield and 2011 Christchurch earthquakes (the major department store Farmers was lost), there was less damage than further south, which encouraged new residents. The 2013 population of 13,332 was a 12% increase on 2006.

Rangiora has some historic buildings, including the Anglican Church of St John the Baptist – one of Canterbury’s largest and most beautiful wooden churches, designed by Benjamin Mountfort. Heritage buildings demolished after the earthquakes included the 1882 Masonic Lodge.


Township 17 km west of Rangiora, named after General Sir Edward Cust, a founding member of the Canterbury Association. Cust developed in the 1860s as a rural service town. A church from that time is one of the town’s historic buildings. In 2013 Cust had a population of 447.

Whipping up a treat

Littledene, a study published in 1938, discusses the importance of food and baking in country towns at the time: ‘The farm wife takes a pint of cream, six eggs and the spur of the moment while the meat and potatoes are cooking – and lo! – a cream-sponge-cake six inches high, with two inches of whipped cream in its depth. The cookery section of the Littledene Agricultural and Pastoral Show is like a confectioner’s heaven.’ 1


Town 33 km west of Rangiora, with a 2013 population of 1,905. Close to once-forested foothills, Oxford started in the early 1850s as a sawmilling town. In the 1870s, 11 mills were operating. A major fire in 1898 curtailed milling and the last mill closed in 1912. The town survived as a rural service and retirement centre. Crawford and Gwen Somerset did pioneering social research there in the 1930s, referring to it as ‘Littledene’.

Puketeraki Range

One of the major foothill ranges of North Canterbury. Rivers to the east of the range flow directly onto the Canterbury Plains. Those to the west form northern tributaries of the Waimakariri River above its gorge.

    • Quoted in H. C. D. Somerset, Littledene: patterns of change. Wellington: New Zealand Council for Educational Research, 1974, p. 26. › Back

North and west Christchurch


Northern suburb that was for a long time a separate town. It developed when Canterbury’s first meat-freezing works were built there in 1883. The freezing works remain. In 2013 the population was 7,809, a 21% increase since 2006, partly because apart from some minor liquefaction, damage in the Canterbury earthquakes was minimal.

Christchurch International Airport

International and domestic airport at Harewood, a locality on the outskirts of Christchurch. In 1935 the Christchurch City Council bought land there for a municipal airport, opened in 1940. Through most of the Second World War, Harewood was an air force base. It later became Christchurch Airport. International flights began in 1950, and the airport was New Zealand’s first served by international jet planes in 1965.


Northern suburb between Merivale and Bishopdale. From 1850 the sawmilling village of Papanui developed beside a rare patch of native forest, which was quickly cut out for timber and firewood. Papanui then became a residential and commercial village. Tramlines arrived in 1880 and there was a Papanui railway station on the main north line. Since the 1950s suburbs have sprung up beyond Papanui and Northcote, which were once on the city limits.


Suburb between Papanui and Fendalton, where large tracts of state housing were built after the Second World War. It includes an industrial zone for electronics companies.


Suburb adjoining the northern boundary of Hagley Park. Merivale was fashionable from the 1860s. In the 1990s, rising land values led to a burst of subdivision and infill housing. Merivale's shopping centre on Papanui Road was badly damaged in the February 2011 earthquake, and St Mary's Anglican church (built in 1926) was demolished.

St Albans

One of the city’s largest inner suburbs, between Merivale and Richmond. Originally a working-class settlement, it was a separate borough from 1881 until 1903, when it became part of Christchurch City. The suburb was badly hit in the February 2011 earthquake, with much liquefaction, and building damage which resulted in the demolition of houses and shops. Lowered ground levels produced chronic flooding in the Flockton Basin.


The most expensive of Christchurch’s suburbs. Through the late 19th and early 20th centuries fashionable houses were built there. The main route to Christchurch airport runs through its centre.


Suburb on the banks of the Ilam and Waimairi streams. ‘Ilam’ was one of the homesteads on the large holdings that ringed early Christchurch. A new Ilam campus for the University of Canterbury was planned in 1949, but the move was not completed until 1975.


Suburb by western Hagley Park. It extends to Church Corner (Upper Riccarton), where the main roads south and west of Christchurch diverge. Lower Riccarton is a shopping centre along Riccarton Road. The city’s first major shopping mall (now Westfield Mall) was built there in 1965. With the closure of the central city following the February 2011 earthquake, Westfield Mall became a major shopping centre for the city, and traffic on Riccarton Road became very heavy.

Riccarton Bush (also known as Deans Bush) is the only surviving swamp forest on the Canterbury Plains. In 1843 the Deans brothers established a farm on the edge of the area, now a public reserve. The Deans’s cottage (1843) and house are publicly owned.

Aviation milestones

In 1928 Charles Kingsford Smith landed his plane, the Southern Cross, at Wigram airport after making the first flight to New Zealand from Australia. In 1953 Christchurch airport was the finishing line for the London–Christchurch international race, the last of its kind.


Residential and industrial suburb between Upper Riccarton and Hornby. Aviation promoter Henry Wigram established a flying school there in 1916. The landing field was named Wigram Aerodrome when the government bought the school and airfield in 1923. Wigram was a Royal New Zealand Air Force base until 1995. The Air Force Museum remains on the site.


This western industrial suburb began as a village where the railways to Southbridge and Little River left the main line. It now has a major shopping centre. Local freezing works and glass works have closed, but the fertiliser works remain.

Central Christchurch

The magnitude 6.3 earthquake that hit Christchurch on 22 February 2011 destroyed buildings in the central city and caused 185 deaths. Many of the buildings had been weakened by the magnitude 7.3 earthquake that affected the city on 4 September 2010. On 30 July 2012 the Christchurch Central Development Unit of CERA (the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority) issued a Blueprint Plan for the rebuilding of the city inside the four avenues. 

The Avon River

This river rises from springs in the western suburbs, winds through the city and north-eastern suburbs, and enters the estuary it shares with the Heathcote River. Christchurch was built on the first extensive area of dry land above the rivermouth.

The river’s Māori name was Ōtakaro. It was later named after the Avon River in Ayrshire, home of the Deans brothers, settler farmers. The river banks, with neat lawns, gardens and trees, add to the city’s English character. Raupō, flax and rushes have been planted to evoke its original appearance.

A stretch at the Fitzgerald Avenue bridge was long used as a rowing course (this is now downstream at Kerr’s Reach). Recreational boating through the central city remains popular.

Victoria Square

Originally the Market Square, with a motley collection of buildings, Victoria Square became open green space at the time of Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee in 1897. It was renamed in 1903 when a statue of Queen Victoria was unveiled. After the present Town Hall opened on the square in 1972, stretches of adjacent streets were closed and the area was landscaped. The square was badly affected by the February 2011 earthquake and was closed until November 2012. The town hall was badly damaged but eventually restored. A large hotel overlooking the square was demolished, but the casino to the north-west was relatively undamaged and remained open.

Cathedral Square

Originally Ridley Square, this cross-shaped space in central Christchurch was, like Latimer and Cranmer squares, named after an Anglican martyr. Its Gothic Revival cathedral, designed by English architect George Gilbert Scott, was begun in 1864 and completed in 1904. The cathedral was severely damaged in the February 2011 earthquake, but is to be rebuilt with substantial taxpayer assistance.

The First World War memorial by William Trethewey and the large sculpture ‘Chalice’ (2001) by Neil Dawson were unscathed, but the statue of John Robert Godley toppled over and was damaged.

The square was closed until July 2013 when the cordon around the red zone was lifted. Efforts to draw pedestrians back included art installations and floral displays. The Blueprint Plan envisaged a performing arts precinct, a library and a convention centre to the north of the square.

The Māori name for Christchurch

Christchurch takes its Māori name, Ōtautahi, from the of Tautahi, once situated on the banks of the Avon River. The pā (fortified village) was near where European settlers unloaded vessels that brought goods up the Avon.

High Street precinct

Commercial and retail area just south of Cathedral Square, down High and Colombo streets and three cross streets – Hereford, Cashel and Lichfield. It contained historic commercial and industrial buildings, many of which were damaged in the February 2011 earthquake. Cashel Street saw the first recovery of retail shopping in the inner city with the establishment of a Re-start mall based on shipping containers. The Blueprint Plan envisages this area as the future retail precinct.

Along the river north of the Bridge of Remembrance (a First World War memorial), a thriving bar district known as ‘The Strip’ was destroyed by the earthquake.

The cultural precinct

Area of Worcester Boulevard between Cathedral Square and the Canterbury Museum, designated a ‘cultural precinct’ in the early 2000s. The Gothic grey-stone buildings formerly occupied by the university became a flourishing arts centre. There was severe damage to the buildings in the February 2011 earthquake, but a major restoration project heralded the return of arts activity. The Christchurch City Art Gallery on the corner of Worcester Boulevard and Montreal Street functioned as the civil defence headquarters after the February 2011 earthquake. However, the building suffered damage to its foundations and the gallery closed. It reopened in December 2015.

Hagley Park

Public park with playing fields and deciduous trees, named after the English estate of Lord Lyttelton, a Canterbury Association leader. The park is divided by roads into three sections – Little Hagley (a woodland), and North and South Hagley. In South Hagley, one of the country’s oldest sporting buildings, an 1860s pavilion, stands by the cricket oval, which was developed for international matches following the loss of Jade Stadium (formerly Lancaster Park). In 1906–7 much of North Hagley Park was used for the New Zealand International Exhibition. In the 1960s a plan to build a motorway across North Hagley Park was bitterly opposed, and finally quashed.

The Christchurch Botanic Gardens lie within a loop of the Avon River that was designated a government domain (park). Some of its magnificent trees were planted in the 1860s and 1870s.

The four avenues

Major roads bordering the inner city. When first laid out, the city’s southern, eastern and northern sides were defined by wide streets, later renamed Moorhouse, Fitzgerald and Bealey avenues. Antigua Street north of the Avon River was renamed Rolleston Avenue. ‘Within the four avenues’ means the inner city.

East Christchurch

East Christchurch, especially the low-lying areas close to the lower reaches of the Avon River, was the part of suburban Christchurch most severely affected by the earthquake of 22 February 2011. There was considerable liquefaction and damage to the foundations of buildings, and much land on both sides of the river was declared a red zone unsuitable for construction. Residences in this zone were removed or demolished.


Suburb near the lower reaches of the Avon River. Burwood was the site of a plague hospital built at Bottle Lake in 1902. Now Burwood Hospital, it specialises in treating burns and spinal injuries. In the north-east of the suburb was Queen Elizabeth II Park, a 25,000-seat stadium built for the 1974 Commonwealth Games. It was so badly affected by the earthquake that use of the park was abandoned.


Suburb between central Christchurch and Shirley. Known originally as Bingsland, it had working-class houses, small shops and artisans’ workshops. Liquefaction and land movement were extensive in the eastern part of Richmond in the Canterbury earthquakes. Land along the river was red-zoned, and considerable depopulation followed. Some older gentrified houses were lost.


Suburb north and east of Richmond. Shirley developed somewhat later, gaining large tracts of inter-war bungalows. A major shopping centre, The Palms, is at the intersection of Shirley, New Brighton and Marshland roads. It was damaged in the earthquakes and closed for six months. North of Shirley, the Marshland district has been a major source of vegetables and fruit for Christchurch, but subdivisions are encroaching on market gardens.


Working-class suburb north of the Estuary, originally a small village around tram lines running to New Brighton. Many state houses were built there after the Second World War. Bexley, on the north side of Aranui, was the suburb most affected by the earthquakes, with most of the land red-zoned, requiring the removal or demolition of extensive recently built housing. 


Suburb south-west of Aranui. Between 1958 and 1962, sewage treatment works were built where a sewage farm had been established in 1882–83. There are oxidation ponds and the Te Huingi Manu wildlife refuge. There is also a crematorium and four cemeteries – Bromley, Ruru Lawn Cemetery, Memorial Park and Linwood. It is the site of engineering works and a number of housing estates.

New Brighton

Seaside suburb on the sandy beach of Pegasus Bay. In 1894 New Brighton gained a pier, like Brighton in England. This was demolished in 1965, but there is a concrete replacement (opened in 1997). From 1887, trams brought city folk to the beach. New Brighton and the area was governed by its own borough council from 1896 until 1941.

Seaside shopping

For a time from 1946 New Brighton was the only place in New Zealand where shops were allowed to open on Saturdays (they were closed on Mondays). People flocked to the coastal suburb on their day off, but once Saturday trading began nationwide in the 1980s, business dropped off markedly.

From the 1950s houses spread south down the Brighton Spit. North of New Brighton, North Beach had its own tram and trolley bus lines into the city. The suburb of Parklands has grown as land has been subdivided. The Canterbury earthquakes took a toll on New Brighton's commercial centre, with the loss of eight buildings, mostly south of the mall, and a decline in population in neighbouring red-zoned suburbs.


Large working-class and lower middle-class eastern suburb. Linwood was one of the independent boroughs that in 1903 became part of Christchurch City. Linwood Avenue was the line of a planned canal between the estuary and the Avon River, but this was never built. The large Eastgate shopping mall at the intersection of Linwood Avenue and Buckleys Road was damaged in the February 2011 earthquake and substantially closed until September 2011. Linwood also lost two Victorian buildings: Holy Trinity Church and Linwood House. Falling rolls and damage led to the merging of two pairs of primary schools and the closing of the intermediate school. Houses were damaged, but few were demolished.

North of Linwood in Avonside all the housing along the river was red-zoned, while to the south in Phillipstown Jade Stadium was condemned and is being demolished.

The Estuary

Tidal body of water, separated from Pegasus Bay by the South New Brighton sand spit. The waters of the Avon and Heathcote rivers mingle in the Estuary to flow out to sea past Shag Rock. Until the Lyttelton rail tunnel was opened in 1867, small ships passed through to wharves on the Heathcote and Avon, bringing heavy goods from Lyttelton. A sewage treatment works (with large oxidation ponds that form an important wildlife refuge) replaced the old sewage farm on the north side in 1962.

The Port Hills

The Port Hills

Hills between Christchurch and Lyttelton Harbour. They are the eroded remnants of the northern rim of the Lyttelton volcano, and run from Godley Head at the entrance to Lyttelton Harbour round to Gebbies Pass at the harbour’s head.

The 1867 Lyttelton rail tunnel cut through the hills, which were a major barrier between city and port. The older Bridle Path crosses the hills between Lyttelton and Heathcote. The road over Evans Pass from Sumner to Lyttelton was completed in 1857, and carried all traffic between the city and its port until the road tunnel was opened in 1964.

The Summit Road, which followed the crest of the Port Hills from Evans Pass to Gebbies Pass, was built during the 1930s on the initiative of H. G. Ell. Along its route are quaint rest houses: The Sign of the Takahe, The Sign of the Bellbird and The Sign of the Kiwi. Large areas of the hills are publicly owned, but sheep farming continues.

The epicentre of the February 2011 earthquake was at the Port Hills, so the area suffered substantial damage. Over 700 properties were eventually red-zoned for demolition or removal. The Summit Road was affected by huge rock falls, and the section from Rāpaki to the Bridle Path was opened to cyclists and walkers only in 2014, with the route further east closed to all.

In the footsteps of pioneers

When the Canterbury Association settlers arrived at Lyttelton in 1850, the road to Christchurch via Sumner had not been completed. They had to carry their worldly goods up the steep bridle track, which led over the saddle to the Heathcote Valley. It is now a well-used public walkway, with memorials and seats to mark its significance.


Seaside suburb at the eastern end of the Port Hills. There was a village there from the earliest years of European settlement, and it was an independent borough until 1945. Until the road tunnel of 1964, the main road between Christchurch and Lyttelton passed through Sumner.

Linked by tram to the city from 1888, Sumner became a popular resort for city folk. Cave Rock, an unusual volcanic lava deposit on the foreshore, has delighted many generations of Christchurch children. Car access became easier after 1937, when a road alongside the tram causeway across McCormacks Bay was opened.

Most of Sumner occupies the flat floor of a valley, but from the early 1900s houses were also built on Clifton Hill and Scarborough Head.  By the 2000s the appeal of living near the sea boosted the number of apartments, cafés, bars and restaurants. The earthquakes hit the area hard – properties on the hill, especially Clifton, suffered from landslips, while houses below, close to the cliffs, were in danger from rock falls and cliff collapses.


Suburb on the southern shore of the Avon–Heathcote estuary. The area grew as a residential suburb from the early 1900s. One of the oldest archaeological sites in Canterbury, from the moa-hunter period of Māori culture, is centred on a cave and flat ground at Redcliffs. There were deaths from rock falls in the February 2011 earthquake.


Suburb lying in a valley on the western side of the Port Hills. At the foot of the Bridle Path and at the northern portals of the rail tunnel of 1867 and road tunnel of 1964, Heathcote became an industrial centre, with early brickworks and maltworks. Along with the neighbouring ‘sun-trap’ valleys of Horotane and Avoca, the valley supported orchards. Heathcote was exposed to serious falls of boulders and rocks in the 2011 earthquake.


Location near where the Heathcote River enters the Estuary. After the first European settlers had climbed over the Bridle Path, they had to cross the Heathcote River on their way to the site of Christchurch.

The ferry from which Ferrymead takes its name began operating in 1850. Prior to the Lyttelton rail tunnel, goods were shipped to wharves on the lower Heathcote River. The railway from Christchurch to the wharf at Ferrymead opened in 1863. This was the first public steam railway in New Zealand. Ferrymead Historic Park, a major museum of transport and technology, has been developed since the 1960s. Ferrymead lost a supermarket and shops in the 2011 earthquake.

Cashmere Hills

The oldest suburb on the lower flanks of the Port Hills. The first houses were built in the 1890s. It flourished after trams reached The Sign of the Takahe rest house. Cashmere became fashionable, with a slightly bohemian reputation. The name came from the Kashmir estate owned by early settler John Cracroft Wilson, who was born in India.

Other hill suburbs which grew later include Westmorland to the west, and Huntsbury Hill, Hillsborough and Murray Aynsley Hill to the east. Further east, Mt Pleasant and St Andrew’s Hill overlook the Estuary. Most houses in the area suffered some damage in the February 2011 earthquake.

South Christchurch


South-eastern suburb of Christchurch. Industries like wool scouring, which needed plentiful water, grew along the Heathcote River, and Woolston became a centre of industry. Its position on the railway line to Lyttelton increased its industrial importance.

In the 20th century Woolston became the centre of New Zealand’s rubber industry. There were also a shoe polish factory, and a gelatine and glue works. Factory workers living nearby gave Woolston a strong working-class identity. It was a self-governing borough until 1921.

Brass and rubber

In May 1883 the Woolston Brass Band was formed, continuing the English working-class tradition of band music. It is now the Skellerup Woolston Brass Band, named after its major sponsor, rubber manufacturing firm Skellerup Industries Ltd. The band has a national reputation and has won numerous championships.

Heathcote River

River flowing through several of the city’s southern suburbs. The springs which feed it are south-west of Christchurch. Industries became established along the lower Heathcote River from the 1850s, especially in Woolston and Radley. Several wharves on its banks were used by small ships which crossed the Sumner Bar into the estuary.

The river was badly polluted until the Woolston industrial sewer was built in 1966. Flooding was also severe, but from 1986 the Woolston Cut allowed floodwaters to bypass a long loop of the river. The Canterbury earthquakes increased the danger of flooding.


The most fashionable of Christchurch’s southern suburbs, along with neighbouring St Martins. Where Ōpawa Road crosses the Heathcote River was the site of a kāinga (small settlement) in Māori times, known as Ōpawaho. The same name was used for the Heathcote River. Much of St Martins, and Beckenham to its west, remained farmland until well into the 20th century. There were no areas red-zoned after the earthquakes, but the supermarket and other businesses were irreparably damaged.


Central suburb north-west of Ōpawa. Sydenham was a self-governing borough from 1877 until 1903. Its working-class residents were employed at factories along the railway line that separates Sydenham from central Christchurch. From the 1950s on, most of the cottages and small houses disappeared as the commercial and light-industrial zone spread south.

The suburb was known for political radicalism in the 19th century, and was a centre of the prohibition and women’s suffrage movements.

In the 20th century, the Sydenham electorate was staunchly Labour. One of the members who represented Sydenham in Parliament, Mabel Howard, was the country’s first woman cabinet minister. Many historic commercial buildings, especially along Colombo Street, were lost in the February 2011 earthquake.


One of the larger southern suburbs, Spreydon had its own borough council between 1911 and 1921. Lacking major institutions or facilities, it has had a low-key identity. However, Pioneer Stadium, a leisure centre, opened in 1978. The many streets lined with inter-war bungalows give it architectural interest.


Inner industrial suburb west of Sydenham. It grew around the Addington railway station, which opened in the 1860s. Factories and warehouses spread along the railway line. The railway workshops were Christchurch’s largest industry for many years. Christchurch’s new railway station opened on part of the former workshops land in 1993.

Also bearing the Addington name were the stock saleyards, show grounds and trotting race course. Addington has flourished since the earthquakes. With the inner city cordoned off or damaged, cafés, bars, restaurants and cultural institutions like the Court Theatre have sprung up or moved there. Rugby League Park was rebuilt to become the Christchurch Stadium and the city’s major rugby venue following the abandonment of Jade Stadium.


One of the fastest growing suburbs, at the city’s south-western boundary. Halswell was a separate village on the highway to Akaroa on Banks Peninsula until tracts of the former green belt were subdivided. It is now almost joined to the city by housing.

Lyttelton Harbour


Town picturesquely sited on the steep sides of an extinct volcano, above the port at Lyttelton Harbour. It is 12 km south-east of Cathedral Square in central Christchurch, via the road tunnel through the Port Hills, opened in 1964. In 2013 Lyttelton had 2,859 residents, many of whom commute to Christchurch to work.

In 1850 Lyttelton was a town of about 300 when the site of Christchurch was still bare plain, but Christchurch overtook it during the 1850s. The town’s role as the region’s port was assured with the opening of a rail tunnel in 1867.

The Lyttelton Harbour Board (1877), now Port Lyttelton Company, developed the inner harbour. Large reclamations, for petroleum storage tanks in the 1920s and the Cashin Quay container berth in 1965, ensured the port’s importance. A new container terminal was opened in 1977.

Lyttelton was close to the epicentre of the magnitude 6.3 earthquake that devastated Christchurch on 22 February 2011. Many Lyttelton buildings were destroyed in the quake. They included Holy Trinity Church (Canterbury's oldest stone church), the Harbour Light Theatre, the Empire Hotel and the historic Timeball Station, which had been damaged in the Darfield quake. The Timeball tower was rebuilt and reopened in November 2018.

Godley Head

Locality on the north side of the Lyttelton Harbour entrance, named after John Robert Godley, the founder of the Canterbury settlement. It became a military reserve in 1851. An 1865 lighthouse was relocated down the cliff face in 1942 when coastal defence works were built. Department of Conservation notices give information about the Second World War gun emplacements there. As a farm park, it is a popular recreation area.


Village 5 km west of Lyttelton. When land was being set aside for Ngāi Tahu after the land purchases of the mid-19th century, a reserve was created at Rāpaki. There has been a Māori village there ever since. Rāpaki’s historic buildings include a church, a school for Māori pupils and a meeting house. Above Rāpaki, the peak Te Poho o Tamatea recalls the visit of the great navigator Tamatea Pōkai Whenua on the Tākitimu canoe.

Governors Bay

Small settlement near the head of Lyttelton Harbour, with access to Christchurch over Dyers Pass. The residents (870 in 2013) are mostly commuters. The village grew in the early days of English settlement, and significant historic buildings include St Cuthbert’s Church (1860–62) and the Ohinetahi Homestead (1864), which has one of New Zealand’s finest formal gardens. Both were restored after being seriously damaged in the September 2010 earthquake.

Grey’s greeting point

Governors Bay takes its name from one of New Zealand’s best-remembered governors, George Grey. It was here that he waited on board HMS Fly to welcome the first Canterbury Association settlers on their arrival in December 1850.

Quail Island

Island at the head of Lyttelton Harbour. From the 1880s it was a quarantine station, for people and then animals. In 1901 and 1910, the island housed dogs and ponies destined for British Antarctic expeditions. Between 1918 and 1925 it was a leper station. Now a reserve, it is being replanted with native vegetation.

Charteris Bay

Farming locality 5 km by boat south from Lyttelton. It is the site of Orton Bradley Park, named after the son of an early settler who gave the family farm to the people of Canterbury. Farm buildings include an 1848 cottage and a working, water-powered machine shed. There are fine plantings of exotic trees.

Diamond Harbour

Suburb of Lyttelton on the sunny south side of Lyttelton Harbour. Diamond Harbour is the fastest growing community on Banks Peninsula. Its population and that of Charteris Bay and Pūrau grew from 879 in 1991 to 1,467 in 2013. Still standing are the original cottage and later homestead of Mark Stoddart, the early settler who named the bay for the glint of sunlight on water.


Township at the head of Pūrau Bay, 2 km south-east of Diamond Harbour. In 1853–55 Robert Rhodes, from a notable early Canterbury family, built a substantial stone homestead, which still stands. The bay is a popular picnic and camping spot.

Rīpapa Island

Island just off the southern shoreline of Lyttelton Harbour. Its substantial ‘musket pā’ was obliterated when Fort Jervois was built (1885–1895) for coastal defence. The island had served as a quarantine station between 1873 and 1885.

Banks Peninsula

Banks Peninsula

Mass of volcanic hills (1,165 sq km) jutting from the Canterbury coast between Pegasus Bay and the Canterbury Bight. The highest point, Mt Herbert (Te Ahu Patiki, 920 m), overlooks Lyttelton Harbour. It is less than half the height of the volcanoes before they became extinct.

The hilly terrain, wetter climate and history of podocarp forest clearance make it more typical of parts of the North Island than of Canterbury. The hills are farmed, but tourism now has more economic importance. Cheese was one of the first products exported from Banks Peninsula (to Australia) and a small cheese factory remains at Barrys Bay. Akaroa is the principal town. Other small settlements are connected by steep, narrow roads.

Island or peninsula?

In 1809 the vessel Pegasus surveyed the South Island east coast. At that time the most definitive map of New Zealand was that of James Cook, who had identified Banks Island (named after Joseph Banks, a botanist sailing with him). But when Captain S. Chase of the Pegasus tried to sail between Banks Island and the mainland he discovered the ‘island’ was in fact a peninsula.

Little River

Settlement about 25 km west of Akaroa. A coaching stop on the route to Akaroa, and the terminus of a branch railway from 1886 until 1962, Little River developed as a sawmilling settlement, supplying timber to Christchurch. It is now a farm service town which also caters to travellers to Akaroa. The railway station is now a shop and visitor centre. Some residents commute into Christchurch. Wairewa (Lake Forsyth) meets the sea at Birdlings Flat, a small beach settlement with a few permanent residents.


Township 84 km south-east of Christchurch and about 25 km east of Little River. The resident population – 624 in 2013 – is stationary, and more than 60% of the dwellings are holiday homes. The town sits on the eastern side of the splendid harbour from which it takes its name.

Canterbury’s oldest town, Akaroa was founded in August 1840 by French settlers. It has been suggested that French interest in New Zealand speeded up Britain’s decision to annex New Zealand. By the time French settlers arrived, the Treaty of Waitangi between the British Crown and Māori chiefs had been signed.

Akaroa has a fine collection of 19th-century cottages and houses. The French associations are evident in street names. Once a fishing and farm service town, it now serves mainly holidaymakers and tourists. It has become a popular port of call for cruise ships, with 90 visits scheduled during the 2019/20 season. 

About 5 km south is a small Māori settlement, Ōnuku, with a historic church and modern meeting house.


Scattered collection of holiday homes on the opposite side of Akaroa Harbour from the town of Akaroa. The road to Wainui passes through French Farm, where for a few years in the 1840s, the French navy had a presence.

Peraki Bay

Remote bay south of Akaroa, now inhabited by a few farming families. The first permanent settlement of Europeans in Canterbury was the shore whaling station established in 1837 there by Captain Hempelman. A monument marks the spot.

Le Bons Bay

Farming locality 11 km north-east of Akaroa, first settled by the French. For many years the only access was by boat. The remains of the jetty can still be seen.

Okains Bay

The largest of the Peninsula’s eastern bays, 20 km north-east of Akaroa. It supports a number of farms. The Okains Bay Māori and Colonial Museum has an important collection of Māori and early European artefacts, and a meeting house.

Little Akaloa

Farming settlement and bay 25 km north of Akaroa. The bay provides shelter for small boats.

Pigeon Bay

Bay 20 km north-west of Akaroa. It was settled in the 1840s, before Christchurch was founded, by the Hay and Sinclair families. The village at its head survives as a cluster of houses and holiday homes.

Port Levy

Locality (sometimes known as Koukourarata) 14 km south-east of Lyttelton. It was the site of a large Māori reserve in the 19th century, and still has quite a high Māori population. Monuments mark important sites in the introduction of Christianity to the South Island.

Porters Pass to Arthur’s Pass

Porters Pass

Pass between the Torlesse and Big Ben ranges. The road from Canterbury to the West Coast turns up the Kowai River into the hills just beyond Springfield, crossing Porters Pass into the Castle Hill Basin. The pass was named in 1858 after the Porter brothers, who had a high-country run nearby.

Torlesse Range

One of the best known of the foothill ranges, clearly visible from Christchurch and lying immediately ahead of travellers on the main road west. It is named after one of the Canterbury Association surveyors who laid out the Canterbury settlement. Its highest peak is Castle Hill Peak (1,996 m). The range separates the Castle Hill Basin from the plains. Much of the range has been included in Korowai–Torlesse Tussockland Park.

State Highway 73

Road crossing Porters and Arthur’s passes. Much of what is now State Highway 73 was built in 1865–66 to connect Canterbury to the West Coast goldfields. Horse-drawn coach services continued to cross Arthur’s Pass until the Ōtira tunnel opened in 1923.

Castle Hill

Castle Hill, which has spectacular limestone outcrops, lies between the Torlesse and Craigieburn ranges, and is crossed by State Highway 73. It is popular among rock climbers, and known for its rare native plant life. Castle Hill Peak rises 921 m above the surrounding rocks.

In 2004 part of Castle Hill Station was purchased by the Department of Conservation to link Craigieburn Forest Park to Korowai–Torlesse Tussockland Park. Broken River drains the basin into the gorge of the Waimakariri River.

Craigieburn Range

One of the major foothill ranges of the Southern Alps, between the Castle Hill Basin and the upper Waimakariri and Harper rivers. In basins with winter snow there are several small skifields developed by Christchurch clubs (Mt Cheeseman, Broken River, Craigieburn and Olympus), and a commercial field (Porter Heights). Craigieburn Forest Park protects beech forest on the range.

Ōtira Tunnel

Railway tunnel beneath the Southern Alps, giving an alternative route through Arthur’s Pass to Ōtira near the West Coast. The eastern entrance of the 8.5-km tunnel is across the Bealey River from the Arthur’s Pass township. The tunnel was begun in 1908. Breakthrough came in 1918 but the tunnel did not open until 1923. It was important because it allowed West Coast coal and timber to be brought east. The tunnel slopes steeply from the Arthur’s Pass end down to the Ōtira end.


Many long-established skifields can be visited from Christchurch. Some were set up by ski clubs, but can be used by members of the public. Temple Basin skifield, high in Arthur’s Pass National Park, dates back to 1929.

Arthur’s Pass

Pass over the Southern Alps between the headwaters of the Ōtira River and the Bealey River. Its summit marks the boundary between Canterbury and the West Coast.

The pass was used by Māori parties bringing pounamu (greenstone) across the Southern Alps. Crossed in 1864 by Arthur Dobson, after whom it was named, it was chosen for the road to the West Coast goldfields the following year. The road was opened in 1866. Later the Ōtira tunnel took the railway line beneath the Pass.

The township developed from around 1908 as a construction camp for the tunnel. Some of the iron huts remain as holiday homes.

The headquarters of Arthur’s Pass National Park (created in 1929, originally 48,600 ha but now 118,472 ha) are in the town. The eastern parts of the park support native beech forests. The highest peak in the park, Mt Murchison (2,400 m) is at the headwaters of the Waimakariri River. The prominent peak just west of the pass is Mt Rolleston (2,270 m). Above the pass is the Temple Basin ski ground.

Darfield district


68 km north-west of Christchurch, Springfield is the last settlement on the plains before the main road west turns to cross Porters Pass. The railway to the West Coast veers off to begin its spectacular journey through the Waimakariri Gorge.

The Springfield Hotel was a coaching stop on the road west from Christchurch. When trains became the usual way to travel between Canterbury and the West Coast, the station refreshment rooms were well patronised. Water from the Kowai River, just beyond Springfield, was tapped in the 1870s to feed one of Canterbury’s early systems of stock water races.


Tiny farming settlement between Darfield and Springfield on State Highway 73, 9 km south-east of Springfield. Sheffield sits where the inland Highway 72 crosses the main road west. Its pub remains, but the once prominent railway station and goods shed have been removed.


Settlement at the foot of the Malvern Hills, 15 km west of Darfield. It is notable, historically, as the location of the Homebush Brick and Tileworks. The nearby settlement of Coalgate takes its name from the area’s mineral resources. The Glentunnel Domain, by the upper Selwyn River, is a popular camping spot.


Settlement 7 km south-west of Glentunnel and just north of the Rakaia River. Hororata is the site of an early substation built when power began to flow from Lake Coleridge. Nearby are Coton’s Cottage, the restored cob dwelling of an early settler, and a church built in 1910 after the death of politician and premier Sir John Hall, as a memorial to his wife. The church was badly damaged in the Darfield earthquake of September 2010, as was the Hororata homestead.


Locality 5 km east of Glentunnel. The Deans family, the first permanent European settlers on the site of Christchurch, also bought land near the Malvern Hills. At Homebush they farmed and ran a large brick-making and pottery works. The brick woolshed on Homebush marks the Deans family’s early presence in the district. The Homebush homestead was severely damaged in the September 2010 earthquake.

Selwyn River

River which flows 95 km from its source on the Big Ben Range to Te Waihora (Lake Ellesmere). Its Māori name is Waikirikiri. Several small rivers rising in the foothills between the Waimakariri and Rakaia rivers combine on the plains with the Selwyn. In summer, the Selwyn and its tributaries often run dry across the plains, but the rivers flood when rain comes from the south or east. The river was once a renowned trout fishery, and there are fishing cottages, known as the Selwyn Huts, near its mouth.

Where the wind blows

Darfield is often called ‘the township under the nor’west arch’. This refers to the arch of cloud that appears above the mountains to the west, when the north-west wind blows.


Town 45 km west of Christchurch. Centrally located on the plains, it is an administrative centre. It has flourished, with the 1971 population of 830 increasing to 1,935 in 2013. Although isolated Canterbury rural towns are mostly in decline, those within commuting distance of Christchurch, like Darfield, have grown. Darfield was close to the centre of the 7.1 magnitude earthquake on 4 September 2010; the Greendale Fault was just to the east of the town. Although there was no loss of life, there was considerable damage to buildings in the Darfield district.

Ellesmere district


Town 22 km south-west from Christchurch, named for Canterbury’s last provincial superintendent, William Rolleston. It was once a small railway junction, where the West Coast railway line leaves the main line. A 1972–74 plan for a substantial ‘new town’ was abandoned, but Rolleston has since grown fast. Between 2006 and 2013 its population more than doubled, to 9,555.


Town 13 km south-east of Rolleston, with a 2013 population of 3,924. Nearby Lincoln University was founded as a college in 1878 to provide a practical education in farming. The original Ivey Hall, now surrounded by modern buildings, is a notable historic site. At the college scientists developed new sheep breeds and wheat crosses. Students now also train for careers in parks and recreation. Many staff and students commute from Christchurch.


A military base since 1918, Burnham is 6 km south-west of Rolleston. The population of the camp in 2013 was 1,089. Originally the area was the site of Burnham Industrial School (1874) for neglected or troublesome children. All Saints Church (1864) was moved to the school in 1901. In 1882 the transit of Venus was observed from Burnham, and a stone cairn commemorates this.


Township 40 km south-west of Christchurch, with a 2013 population of 471. In the early 1870s a town was laid out just south of the Selwyn River, but when a railway station was built 5 km south in 1874, Dunsandel developed there instead. It is the main rural service town between Christchurch and Rakaia.


Principal town of the Ellesmere area, a large tract of farmland 43 km south-east of Christchurch between the main south road and Te Waihora (Lake Ellesmere). In 2013 its population was 1,506. The town has been a centre of local government since 1864. Ellesmere College is the high school for the district.


Township 19 km south-east of Dunsandel, and terminus of the branch railway from Hornby. Southbridge has lived in the shadow of its larger neighbour, Leeston, the seat of local government. Yet unlike other Ellesmere townships – Irwell, Killinchy and Brookside – which have almost disappeared, Southbridge still has shops and active social institutions. Its population rose from 636 in 1991 to 858 in 2013. Its most famous son was the All Black Dan Carter.

Kaitorete Spit

Huge bank of shingle which separates Te Waihora (Lake Ellesmere) from the Pacific Ocean. Technically the Kaitorete Spit is a ‘barrier beach’. Though farmed, the spit is one of the least modified environments of lowland Canterbury and supports the region’s only large stands of pīngao (native sedge).

Te Waihora (Lake Ellesmere)

Largest lake in the Canterbury region (around 20,000 hectares in area), and the fifth largest enclosed body of water in New Zealand. It is about half the size it was when Europeans began settling in Canterbury. Shallow and slightly brackish, it was an abundant source of eel and flounder for Māori. It remains a wildlife habitat of international significance because of the birdlife. In 1998, ownership of the lake bed was returned to the Ngāi Tahu people.


Canterbury people use the word ‘huts’ for a fishing and holiday settlement at a lake or river mouth. Most of the dwellings were once literally huts. The Ellesmere area has the Rakaia Huts, Selwyn Huts and Greenpark Huts.


Tiny settlement at the outlet to Te Waihora (Lake Ellesmere), 11 km south-east of Southbridge. There are the remains of two important in Māori history, a Māori church and a cluster of fishing huts.

Rakaia Huts

Cluster of holiday homes and fishing huts on the north bank at the mouth of the Rakaia River. Rakaia Huts has intriguing examples of early New Zealand bach (holiday cottage) architecture.

Mid-Canterbury Plains


Second-largest urban centre in Canterbury, 85 km south-west of Christchurch. The population in 2013 was 16,903. The site was originally a treeless plain, but the Ashburton Domain is now beautifully planted.

An accommodation house was built on a ferry reserve on the Ashburton River bank in 1858. The town, surveyed in 1863–64, served local farms. Industries also sprang up, including flour mills, dairy factories, freezing works, brickworks, a glass works and a motor-body works. Grain stores and stock and station agencies lined the main road and railway line. A stretch of the Tinwald–Mt Somers railway line, which closed in 1967, is kept at the Plains Vintage Railway and Historical Museum south of the town.


Settlement 35 km north-west of Ashburton. For many years Mayfield held the largest A & P (Agricultural and Pastoral) show outside Christchurch.


Farm-service township 30 km north-east of Ashburton. Between 1991 and 2013 its population rose from 762 to 1,113. The town grew on the south bank after the Rakaia River was bridged in 1878. A leaping salmon sign on State Highway 1 tells travellers that it is a fishing centre.

Ashburton River

90-km river that flows in two main branches across the Canterbury Plains. The south branch rises in small glaciers on the Arrowsmith Range. The north branch drains foothill ranges east of the Lake Heron basin. A group of huts at the river mouth, known by the river’s Māori name, Hakatere, developed from the 1900s. Another group is at Wakanui, just north of Hakatere.


Farming locality 17 km north-west from Rakaia. John Cathcart Wason took up the Corwar run in 1870, and then laid out a village in the manner of an English estate. After he sold up in 1900, the village disappeared. Trees, a church and schoolhouse remain as reminders of Wason’s failed vision.


Town 34 km north-west of Ashburton and 94 km south-west of Christchurch. Methven stands on the high plains at a point where six roads converge. Between 1880 and 1976 it was the terminus of a branch railway from Rakaia. Like other rural service towns in the region, Methven declined during the 20th century, but the opening of the Mt Hutt skifield reversed the downturn. Between 1991 and 2013 the permanent population increased from 978 to 1,707.

Mt Somers

Tiny settlement near the foot of Mt Somers itself, 48 km north-west of Ashburton. Coal, building stone, silica sand and lime were mined in the area, and the town was linked to Tinwald by rail. On Mt Somers there are reserves and popular walking tracks.


Farming locality 24 km south-west of Ashburton. In the 19th century, John Grigg aimed to make his 13,000-hectare property Longbeach the best farm in the world, by draining large swamps near the Hinds River. Grigg also helped start the meat-freezing industry in Canterbury. His statue stands in Ashburton.

On location

The Methven-based Edoras tour offers fans a chance to visit the Lord of the rings location in the Rangitātā valley near Mt Potts. The snow-capped mountains and vast tussock plains featured in the movie trilogy, are now a backdrop for souvenir photographs of fans holding replica swords.

Canterbury Bight

Coastline between Banks Peninsula and the low headlands near Timaru. The shingle beach has been known as the Ninety Mile Beach since the 19th century. The only settlements are the clusters of fishing huts at the mouths of the Rakaia, Ashburton and Rangitātā rivers.


Hydroelectric power station 11 km north-east of Methven. Opened in 1945, it is fed from the 66-kilometre Rangitātā diversion race, which ends at the top of a terrace above the Rakaia River. The station has a head of 104.2 m and a capacity of 25,200kW.

Mid-Canterbury ranges

Browning Pass

One of the lowest of the passes across the Southern Alps. It leads from the Wilberforce River, a tributary of the Rakaia River, to the Arahura River. A Māori route to the West Coast’s pounamu (greenstone) rivers, the pass was also used after gold was discovered on the West Coast. But the track cut during the 1860s fell into disuse, and most who cross the pass today are trampers on the Three Pass Trip (across Harman, Whitehorn and Browning passes) from the headwaters of the Waimakariri River.

Lake Coleridge

Long, narrow 36-sq-km lake in a glacial hollow in the upper Rakaia valley, 510 m above sea level. Lake Coleridge water flows through the country’s first large state hydroelectric power station, built between 1911 and 1914. Water from the Harper, Acheron and Wilberforce rivers was later diverted to flow through the lake and powerhouse. Its nine generators produce 34,500kW. The lake is popular for fishing and boating.

Mt Algidus

Sheep run between the Rakaia and Wilberforce rivers. Mt Algidus was called Rakaia Forks when it was taken up by William Rolleston in 1861. It became famous after the publication of books by Mona Anderson, who lived on the property. A river rules my life (1963) and The good logs of Algidus (1965) are classics of Canterbury high-country life.

The high country

In A river rules my life, Mona Anderson describes her first impressions of the Mt Algidus high-country station: ‘The house lay in a sheltered little basin and from the back door I looked out over the Wilberforce, still in one of its quieter moods, to Mt Oakden, a scarred mass of ancient rock 5,000 feet high. … In the damp morning air [the mountains] looked close and enormously tall so that I wondered if the sun would ever get over them.’ 1

Rakaia River

The largest of Canterbury’s rivers. It runs for 145 km from the Lyell and Ramsay glaciers to the sea. Its main tributaries are the Wilberforce and Mathias. The highest peak on the Rakaia divide is Mt Whitcombe (2,638 m). In its upper reaches, the Rakaia valley has landforms shaped by the great glaciers which formerly filled the valley. The river is subject to a water conservation order.

Arrowsmith Range

High range lying east of the main divide between the Rakaia and Rangitātā rivers. The highest point, Mt Arrowsmith, is 2,781 m. Small glaciers feed the South Ashburton, Cameron and Lawrence rivers.

Lake Heron

Lake between the Old Man and Mt Taylor ranges to the east, and the Arrowsmith Range to the west. It drains into the Rakaia River. Other smaller lakes nearby – Clearwater, Camp and Emma – are known with Lake Heron as the Ashburton lakes. In 1934 sites at Clearwater were leased and small holiday houses built. Lake Heron is an important habitat of the endangered southern crested grebe.

Mt Hutt

Mountain rising abruptly from the plains to 2,185 m on the south side of the Rakaia Gorge. A basin on the south-eastern side is now a commercial skifield.

Rangitātā River

121-km river that separates mid-Canterbury from South Canterbury. The Clyde and Havelock rivers join near Erewhon Station to form the Rangitātā. The Rangitātā diversion race supplies irrigation water to the plains inland from Ashburton. It also feeds the Highbank power station 60 km away on the Rakaia River. The river is protected by a conservation order.

    • Mona Anderson, A river rules my life. Wellington: Reed, 1983, p. 18 (originally published in 1963). › Back

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How to cite this page: John Wilson, 'Canterbury places', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 23 July 2024)

He kōrero nā John Wilson, i tāngia i te 14 o Hepetema 2006, reviewed & revised 6 o Hūrae 2015, updated 17 o Ākuhata 2015