Wheeling through history

Photo: supplied
Photo: supplied

Lisa Scott finds herself at one with nature on an Alps to Ocean bike tour.

Lisa Scott
Lisa Scott

The mountain man and I borrowed bikes from Rob at Oamaru's Vertical Ventures, who do bespoke cycle tours around the Alps to Ocean.

Electric bikes, new-fangled. "Hard to do a wheelie on.''

We rode away from Steampunk's scientific futurism and into the past, through the public gardens, passing the picturesque Italian marble fountain, given to the city in 1912 by timber merchant James Craig and lit up at night in green and blue and purple, through Weston and on to a long straight shaded by memorial oaks planted for the fallen.

To the left, the Kakanui Range dusted with snow; in the foreground, swirled by the wind, yellow fields of canary.

We took a short detour to the church at Enfield, from where you look over at the hill crowned by the Gallipoli pine (three mates went away, only one came home, the seeds in his pocket). I was here on Anzac Day, the community still as small as when the loss of 14 of its kin utterly devastated it, here as throughout the district, leaving nought but widows and crosses from Oamaru to Duntroon.

Back on our bikes, the leaves orange, red and falling; the poplars like bony fingers on a chill winter hand, the land rolled out under a big sky, all the way from the mouth of the Waitaki to the mountains that feed it.

The average Alps to Ocean-er doesn't know it, but they are traversing the invisible intersection of North Otago's rural past, a crossroads of four enormous land holdings: Windsor Park, Elderslie, Burnside and Corriedale (now nothing more than the name of a breed of sheep), once employer, educator, church raiser and social worker and social hub for hundreds of families, ghosts now, breathed new life thanks to this most unlikely transportation in an area known for horse breeding (Phar Lap was sired at Elderslie).

This green and pleasant land, once barren and scrubby, was changed utterly by two men: Edward Menlove, from Petton, near Shrewsbury, and John Reid, of Stirling, who built a steamship to trade directly from Oamaru to London, were the most prominent landowners.

Burnside's Green Man windows. Photo: supplied
Burnside's Green Man windows. Photo: supplied

Reid's two estates, Elderslie, named in honour of the assumed birthplace of William Wallace, and Balruddery, together totalled 32,987 acres (13,349ha). On the east and north of the Waiareka Valley, Menlove had 13,289 acres in Windsor Park, his splendid mansion built from stone quarried at Round Hill. The liveried servants of these estates were regarded with awe by the youngsters of Enfield.

Before seed importation and the principal of afforestation were widely embraced in New Zealand, prior to the laying out of our country's municipal gardens, these men had a vision. A vision of trees. Reid planted more than 30,000 trees. The oaks in the driveway of his eldest son's house (who was given 5000 acres for a 21st present - which rather knocks sinking a yardglass into a cocked hat) Burnside, were in place 20 years before the grand bay villa was even begun.

Built in 1900, unique in the multiple set of bay windows and the octagonal wheel at the centre, it's "a smaller house'', just 21 rooms in the original footprint, in style and design of the Glaswegian tradition. The front door's stained lead-lights bear the image of ancient vegetative deity the Green Man, his features woven from leaves and branches.

A very Scottish family, the Reids would be influenced and changed by North Otago and, in turn, change it. A weir flows beside the entrance to Elderslie, destroyed by fire in 1957, once the entertainment hub of Oamaru's high society with a sprung-floor ballroom, a dining room table seating 24 and legendary banquets.

All that remains is the head gardener's house, green thumb ground zero. On the Weston-Ngapara Rd, ornamental gates stand in contrast to the rural character of the Waiareka Valley. Behind them is Windsor Park.

When Andrew Fairbairn arrived in New Zealand in 1865, his first job was laying out the gardens. It took two years.

At the time his family lived in Dunedin, so he regularly walked back and forth, a journey that took two days. As was customary in big English houses at the time, he laid out the terrace garden to match the sitting room carpet.

Cyprus, oaks, holly, pines, willows and maples, plantations of trees civilising bare land.

Electric bikes really motor when you put them in "High''.

I brrmmmm'd under bowers, their heavy boughs intertwined, a guard of honour for two unlikely men of greenery, pagan hearts beating behind their waistcoats.

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