As our Canterbury Association surveyors buried their markers around the area that would become Cathedral Square, just metres away to the south east stood a large Raupo swamp (now High/Lichfield Streets) full of the best of our native fauna and flora. They had been encountering similar boggy areas since their surveying began in 1848 with the ground below them repeatedly giving way, baptizing them over and over in the wildest of the untamed Canterbury Plains.
After the earthquakes of 2010 and 2011 (which included devastating liquefaction) many of us asked why Christchurch was built on a swamp. The answer is simple: The example that the Deans brothers had made with Putaringamotu (Riccarton) was too impressive to ignore. Since 1843, in near isolation from Waitaha’s (Canterbury) other early settlements – such as the whaling stations of Banks Peninsula (Te Pataka o Rakaihautu), Port Levy and Akaroa – the brothers and their employees had worked the land and turned their farm into a beautiful Garden of Eden; Christchurch’s first fruit trees were so laden with produce that the branches bowed toward the ground under their weight. The Deans proved the soil was the best with their hoof-stock being well fed and healthy – even in the great shadow of their centuries old Kahikatea forest (Riccarton Bush). Over time, the area of Christchurch city and her suburbs were drained to make the region more liveable.
The plains of Waitaha took centuries to develop – being formed from water, soil, sand and stones flowing toward the sea from the Southern Alps. This made quite an interesting ecosystem that can still be seen in our soil today. Even with excavations happening around the city these past few years, Kahikatea and Totara stumps are still being uncovered and the waters of the Avon and the Heathcote reveal similar discoveries in their beds from time to time. Natural waterways made their own way into the landscape and mighty Kahikatea forests grew, their roots anchored in constant ground-spring water and covering the plains for hundreds of years. Riccarton Bush is our last surviving pocket of such a forest. This natural history became the theme of celebration and acknowledgement as Canterbury approached a new millennium and our 150th anniversary of settlement. Artist Neil Dawson – in what would be a key Year 2000 project – designed the ‘Chalice’ that would be placed in Cathedral Square.
At 18 metres high, the hexagonal structure leaves its base like a ‘gush of water’ interweaved with different leaf types that represent eight indigenous forest species that once grew in the area. The background of hexagons references the more modern European covering for the Square while the shape of the Chalice mirrors the right way up Christchurch Cathedral Spire – now demolished.
* Image courtesy of Roger Wong – https://www.flickr.com/photos/rogertwong/4359826985*