W is for Wellington

Wellington has been my home since 1986, except for a three-year period in Bangkok. I grew up and went to university in the South Island. When I told people that I was moving to Wellington, their immediate reaction was one of sadness and sympathy. “Oh you poor thing,” they would say, confident in their convictions that no-one would actually choose to live in Wellington.

I didn’t really know what to expect. I’d visited Wellington a couple of times, and had formed no real opinion one way or the other. Wellington of course was notorious throughout the rest of the country for being a) the seat of government and therefore full of politicians and the home of government servants, and b) very windy (not necessarily as a result of a above). The combination of all of the above, according to the rest of the country, was the worst of the worst, creating a cold, grey, windswept city where you couldn’t trust anyone. But Wellington offered many more employment opportunities.  Besides, D was going to be there.

I found a beautiful city that has become my home and that I’ve grown to love. The harbour is stunning, surrounded by the hills that give the city its character. Lenny Henry, at a performance I went to recently, said that the buildings in Wellington look as if, in the middle of the night, they have all decided to shuffle up to the edge of the harbour, simply to be closer to it.

Oriental Bay and the inner harbour

You can’t beat Wellington on a good day, as the saying goes.  The air is crystal clear, the entire city sparkles, the harbour is as blue as blue. We feel light, joyous, as if a burden has been lifted from the entire city. No matter the time of year, we flock to the harbour – walkers, joggers, skateboarders, children on tricycles, cyclists, and fishers. We sit eating our lunch or a passionfruit gelato looking back at the city skyline, and watch the hardy, exuberant folks who are swimming or playing a game on the new sandy beach that the council installed, kayaking or yachting in the harbour. The fountain in Oriental Bay plays, and the new water whirler installed on the wharf entertains.

More cerebrally, we can follow the  Writers’ Walk around the harbour, stopping to read quotes from our favourite local poets and writers, sculpted into the landscape.  My favourite is from Bill Manhire,

but I also love these:

A perfect calm day on Oriental Bay

It’s true you can’t live here by chance,
you have to do and be,
not simply watch
or even describe.
This is the city of action,
the world headquarters of the verb –
Lauris Edmond. From The Active Voice.

and

Their heads bent, their
legs just touching, they
stride like one eager
person through the town,
down the asphalt zigzag
where the fennel grows
wild…the wind is so
strong that they have
to fight their way
through it, rocking like
two old drunkards.
Katherine Mansfield. From The Wind Blows

I love Wellington in all its moods. Today for example it is cold and raining, but I love the sight of the mist hanging around the peaks of the hills in my valley, enveloping the lush dark green ponga ferns.

We have weather here – real weather! I love a good storm. When the northerly blows, the clouds whip across the sky with amazing speed, in a big hurry to get somewhere else. Wellingtonians walk the streets angled forward into the wind, struggling against the wind, clinging on to the traffic or street light poles, as small light bodies risk being picked up and tossed back like rag dolls.

Protoplasm by Phil Price moves and changes with the wind.

When the southerly blows in from Antarctica, the temperatures drop, postures change, our shoulders rise and necks tense, we shrink into ourselves, hunched up against the cold wind, and scuttle along to take refuge in warm cafes or bookshops.  In Wellington, umbrellas are of dubious merit. The odds are that your umbrella will blow inside out at least once on your journey to or from work or the gym or the cafe. Locals are expert at flicking them back the right way, angling it into the wind, and setting off without getting too wet. Much of our public sculpture is wind-related, designed to move with our winds.  Resistance after all is futile.

The hills dominate the landscape, and few of us live on the flat. We enjoy views, and I get slightly claustrophobic now when I visit people who look out their windows only to see a fence or another house. Wellington architects are adventurous and innovative, working with steep sections – my own house is spread over five different levels. Some houses can only be accessed by steep flights of stairs. Our Posties and rubbish collectors are the fittest in the country. My aunt and uncle used to laugh that they were only ever greeted at their door by breathless, panting people who had made the climb to their house. These days, increasing numbers install private cable cars to carry them between the street and their houses. My friend Camille has one. I’m personally very thankful for it.

The beauty of Wellington is that it is compact and accessible. I live in a northern suburb. It takes about 7 minutes by car to get into the central business district, if traffic lights and parking spaces cooperate. Rush hour lasts around 30 minutes – rush half-hour! Once in the CBD, you can walk pretty much anywhere in about 20 minutes, accessing the political, cultural, sporting and physical heart of the city. Parliament buildings are just over the road from my favourite supermarket, and office workers often picnic in the grounds.  A few years ago, it was not uncommon to pass the PM walking down the street at lunchtime. My dentist’s office is just down the street from the current Prime Minister’s residence. I park outside it sometimes, but haven’t seen her. (She obviously sends someone out to get her lunch!) The harbour is only minutes away, and the more picturesque Oriental Bay is still only 15 or so minutes walk from most city offices. My mother and I had lunch there yesterday. My husband walked over to join us from his office. The sports stadium is on the edge of the city near the railway station. A Friday night game sees thousands of public servants walk to the Cake Tin after work, watch the game, and afterwards return to the bars and restaurants, which are soon full to bursting.

In the last decade or so, Wellington has developed a reputation for being New Zealand’s cultural capital. There is a vibrant café scene here, and we have more restaurants per head than any other city in NZ (apparently more than Melbourne and New York but I’m not sure I have the numbers to verify that), and they are damn good ones too. The last three years Cuisine magazine’s restaurant of the year has been in Wellington. There are countless art and culture activities throughout the city. Te Papa the national museum is based here. Controversial it may be but it brings people into the city, and has some wonderful exhibitions. We are the home of the Symphony Orchestra and National Ballet, and there is some great local theatre. We constantly have good intentions of seeing more than we do. There is an exciting and funky fashion scene too. My sister-in-law who lives in Melbourne (Australia’s fashion capital) comes to Wellington to shop – under my expert tutelage of course!

If the culture and harbour get too much for you, there is a nature sanctuary only minutes from the city where you can walk in native bush, and make friends with rare native birds and ancient tuatara. Unthinkable a few years ago, , movie location tours are now also available. Peter Jackson filmed scenes from the Lord of the Rings in the green belt on Mt Victoria, within a few minutes walk of the entertainment hub of the city, and scenes from King Kong were filmed on the coast just south of the city. It is so strange for us to recognise parts of our own city in blockbuster movies.

The public cable car, which runs from Lambton Quay, taking students to the university, commuters to the suburbs above, and tourists to the lookout and gardens. Scenes from the Lord of the Rings movies were filmed in the green belt you can see above the cable car.

Wellington has been described as the perfect little city. We have all the services of an exciting capital, with none of the disadvantages of a large city.

Still, if our weather was a little warmer, I wouldn’t complain.

Come and visit. We’ll give you a warm, if inevitably blustery at times, welcome.

A mid-winter Sunday afternoon on the harbour.
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7 thoughts on “W is for Wellington

  1. Helen, Wellington now is so different t 15 or 20 years ago. I’m sure I’d still be able to find a cafe with scrumptious scones for you though!

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  2. my goodness. what a lovely post–and what a great description of your city. i feel i know it; ;it reminds me of my hometown of duluth, with the hills and the harbor and the storms and the lakewalk.

    i love the writers walk idea. what a great thing to do.

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  3. I chose it too! Truly the best place to call home I’ve ever found (and I’ve been lucky to live in some very nice places indeed). In fact, if I was granted any wish tonight, it would be to be whisked away from my contract here in Italy back to wonderful Welly. Thanks for the photos and pitch perfect description of Wellington.

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