Blessed to be a witness

Thursday, 1st September

More English than England

It was when we touched down in Auckland that I experienced something I've heard occasionally happens to travellers who have entered one too many new countries: I had no idea where I was. At first I thought I was in Christchurch, and was looking forward to checking into the hostel. Then I realised I wasn't, and then thought for a minute that we had just got an internal flight in Australia (though New Zealand and Australia aren't quite as close to each other as most non-visitors presume, the flight had only taken about three hours).

It was with mild irritation that I finally remembered we had in fact crossed yet another international border but now had to get yet another flight, which was by my reckoning the seventeenth since we left Dublin. This was because our plane out of Sydney had been cancelled. I was a bit perturbed when the official at Sydney immigration started saying that the queue was so big "because of the accident", but it turned out she meant a traffic accident in the city, not an air crash. Our plane had, apparently, never left Christchurch that morning for unspecified reasons, and we instead were re-routed through Auckland, there to catch a domestic flight to Christchurch. I hope they gave us extra air miles for our unscheduled stop.

We got there a few hours later than planned, but checked into our hostel and found it to be cheap, clean, friendly, full of amenities, and well situated for the city centre. Which is unusual. We found ourselves a very good, yet remarkably cheap restaurant for our evening meal, and finished off with a nightcap at an English pub in which I could have purchased Twiglets, Quavers or Wotsits had I not been so full. We walked back down Hereford Street, Manchester Street and into Gloucester Street in a Dickensian fog, and slept the sleep of the knackered.

The next day we slept in late, then wandered around the city centre. This place is so cute! It's the sort of city I just want to pick up and put in my pocket to unroll and look at on a rainy day. Back in Oz several Aussies compared the place to Canberra, in less than favourable terms. I disagree. It is indeed similarly leafy, well ordered, and feels amazingly safe, but unlike Canberra it's compact, has a focal point, and seems to have evolved rather than been planned by a turn-of-the-century modernist. Of course it might not have evolved; it might rather have been built along the lines of the Perfect English City, and it really does seem to have achieved this.

It has lots of art deco buildings, and a gorgeous weeping willow-dappled grass-banked river meandering through it, replete with punts - called the Avon. Jolly little tourist trams clank along the original tram lines past statues of Queen Victoria, Edwardian redbrick buildings, Belisha beacons, little parks lined with trees and featuring jolly-looking schoolboys in caps and blazers clutching hockey sticks. It was so gnteel, sweet and pleasant a place - with such good bars, cafés and restaurants - that we booked an extra night.

I said it about the village fete in Robertson in Australia, but this is even more obviously a distillation of England's positive bits - more English than England.

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