Ramblings of a much published New Zealand author

11 November 2009

Valley Inn Tavern, Heathcote

I wrote and illustrated ‘The Good Old Kiwi Pub’. It was published in 1995 it was a snapshot of some New Zealand pubs as they were at the end of the 20th century. I have decided to share some of the entries from the book from time to time on this blog.

Much history lies in and around the Heathcote Valley and most of it is to do with the fact that the Christchurch settlement had, as its deep water harbour, the flooded crater of an extinct volcano - Lyttleton Harbour. When the first settlers arrived in 1850 they had to tramp up a precipitous bridle path to the saddle above Heathcote, from which they could gaze down into the estuary of the Heathcote and Avon rivers and across the tussocked Canterbury Plains to the Southern Alps.

It didn’t take the newcomers long to realize that a railway tunnel through the hills would make life easier and, amazingly, within nine years of the pioneers’ arrival trial shafts were being sunk by the English contractor’s agents. The first sod of the tunnel’s construction was turned on 1 7 July 1861 in the Heathcote Valley and the first passenger train ran through on 9 December 1867. The second tunnel was built in 1964 for road traffic, and a recently constructed gondola cableway now makes light of the old bridle path. Thus what should have been a peaceful valley enjoying its micro-climate - so favourable for orcharding - became an increasingly important artery between port and city.

The Valley Inn, I was assured, originated as an accommodation house for the workers on the Lyttleton Rail Tunnel; but the house was built in 1870, three years after the tunnel opened. The truth of it is that the workers were building a 500 000 gallon reservoir 65 metres above sea level on Te Tihi o Kahukura, otherwise known as Castle Rock, overlooking Heathcote Valley. It was the town supply for Lyttleton and its water was piped through the railway tunnel.

In 1877 the Valley Inn, with its trapeziform rooms and not a right-angle anywhere, became a licensed hotel. Out the back, beyond the garden where they hang the bar towels to dry, you can still see the original stables; in the lounge bar is an old, brick lined, artesian well, sunk in the 1860s, from which they drew water for the animals working on the tunnel.


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By Don Donovan