Secrets of Wellington

By Sarah Hardie

Although I’ve lived in Wellington most of my life, everytime I go into the heart of the city I find something new, something tucked away down an alley, a piece of history I never knew about, a fascinating old building I’ve never seen before.

Old Bank Arcade

Old Bank Arcade

Wellington’s signature scent of well brewed coffee, and boutique shopping always brings me a sense of calm as I walk inside the Arcade, the so called grand old lady of the city which sits right in the centre of town. She has stayed true to her early 20th century origins by refusing to change the custard cream surface, as tall modern glass-fronted buildings rise up around her. Once a wharf, then a bank, she’s changed a bit on the inside, though not too much. But to see the secrets here you need to look beyond the shops and cafes. The old bank teller stations are still dotted around, as are the old fashioned mouldings skittering along most skirting boards, beams and window frames.

Old bank clockIt’s one of my favourite buildings and since the Canterbury earthquakes destroyed most of the region’s old buildings, I make a point of visiting the Old Bank Arcade whenever I’m in the city, because it may crumble in a powerful earthquake some day, and I would miss it dearly.

The big red safe from the old bank is a symbol of Wellington’s history, as is the shipwreck known as Plimmer’s Ark underneath the building that was rediscovered when the building was being renovated in 1997. The ship can be seen under the floor in the bank’s vault area. Also at the building’s entrance, suspended from the ceiling, is a golden clock which opens on the hour every hour to reveal the story of how this beautiful old building came to be.

Bolton Street Cemetery

You wouldn’t normally visit a cemetery while traveling, but if you’re like me and can see the beauty and sadness in the strangest of things, this crumbling place full of forgotten people is one to be explored.

It was Wellington’s first cemetery, and like the old bank, has held on despite the demands of progress. The resting place of many of the city’s early settlers, and once frequented by mourners, it is now surrounded by new buildings and a motorway. It’s now mostly visited by government workers on lunch breaks and curious explorers.

Getting there requires a trek up the extremely steep Bolton Street and a slow, inquisitive walk downhill among faded headstones overtaken by weeds and tree roots. What looks like a clearing fit for a picnic at the bottom is actually two mass graves, marked only by two squares of bricks, where 3700 exhumed bodies were buried in 1968 to make way for the motorway.

Courtenay Place

After a day spent wandering around in the past, it’s time to come back to the present and explore Wellington’s nightlife, which is about as diverse and interesting as its history. While its bar scene seems like any other city with the standard Sports and Irish bars, those after something a little different will find it behind unmarked doors and down hidden alleyways.

A walk through retro bar Boogie Wonderland, and through the corridor out back will take you to Alice, where the bartenders are always dressed up, everyone drinks out of teacups, and there are poster of the Red Queen on the wall.

Library, WellingtonFor the bookish types seeking a quiet drink in a place with no dance floor in sight, a trip to The Library on your Saturday night is in order.

Through a nondescript door next to Burger King and up a nondescript stairway, you’ll reach another door. While not packed with books, it looks like it is with its crafty wallpaper. Open it and you’re in a book lovers paradise, surrounded by walls full of books. Waitresses seat you as soon as you get in the door, and don’t bother getting up to to get a drink – they’ll get those for you too. All you have to do is sit back on a vintage couch, relax, chat, read, or simply look around at the books and vintage pictures depicting quiet country scenes, flowers in vases, and old cottages. The wooden blinds on the windows shut out the outside world.

The curious traveller’s paradise, Wellington has these and other secrets hidden away. Explore enough and you never know, you may stumble upon something even this lived-here-all-my-life Wellingtonian has never seen.


Old Bank Arcade

Old Bank Clock

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