Oamaru’s historic splendour

Oamaru’s historic splendour

On Saturday we were all up early for breakfast, to be ready for our day tour to Oamaru. With our highly knowledgeable guide, Diana Halsted, we took the coastal route to the church of St Barnabas, Warrington. Its entire west wall is composed of stained glass windows in French gothic revival style, three of them made in Munich soon after the First World War. We heard the fascinating story as to how these magnificent windows arrived at this tiny church in this remote spot, then joined with the organ to sing a verse or two of “Guide me, O thou great Redeemer”.  Next stop was Puketeraki Marae near Karitane and Hui Te Rangiora church, where Anthony Parata told us about its history and special associations with his family and Iwi. This is the little church in the Frances Hodgkins painting, Church Puketeraki, c1890. The view overlooking the bay at Karitane is almost exactly the same, although the church has had a small addition since then.

At Oamaru we visited Janet Frame’s childhood home, now run by the Eden Street Trust. This simple house accommodated her parents and their five children. It has not been restored but ‘reframed’, meaning its rooms look very much like they did originally, furnished with objects similar to those described in her writings.

In central Oamaru, the old harbour warehouse area is being revitalised with many of the beautiful whitestone buildings in the Victorian Precinct undergoing careful restoration. Local guides from Quirky Tours, dressed in period costume, took us on walking tours around its streets, telling us about Oamaru’s colourful past, until it was time to visit the Forrester Gallery and the Oamaru Opera House.

The Forrester Gallery is in a magnificent neo classical building built in 1882 for the Bank of New South Wales. The iconic whitestone building, designed by RA Lawson, was intended to compete with the neighbouring Bank of Otago. In 1979 the former Oamaru Borough Council was able to acquire the building through a bequest from a former mayor, the architect John Meggett Forrester, for an art gallery. The new gallery opened in 1983, after restoration and strengthening of the building. In the Forrester’s stack room, we admired the gallery’s collection of early Colin McCahon paintings, gifted by his sister, Beatrice Parsloe and her husband Noel. The gallery is about to be extended, which will enable the McCahons to be permanently on display.

J.M. Forrester also designed the 1907 Oamaru Opera House and former Municipal Chambers. Recently restored with extensive new backstage theatre facilities and conference rooms, the elegant building is a terrific asset for Oamaru. Originally it had a raking stage which gave very good sightlines. As we stood on the stage, we heard that during the theatre’s opening a Ford Model T was parked at the top of the stage. When its brakes failed, it upstaged the proceedings by rolling down the stage into the orchestra pit.

We ended our day in the Otago countryside with a delicious dinner at Riverston Kitchen and Garden.

Crispin Kay