At first glance there seems nothing remarkable about the swampy scrubland which lies in the shadow of Mount Harper on the northern banks of the Rangitata River. Separated from the valley road by the braided course of the river, it is easily bypassed by tourists, as they journey further inland to visit Mount Sunday, the filming location for Edoras in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. It is only when you closely examine the area using Google Maps satellite imaging that you notice an unusual circular patch of land. Long since overgrown, it shows signs of having been altered by human activity at some stage in its past.
A physical journey to the site, itself a difficult undertaking unless you are in possession of a boat or a 4WD, would offer more clues. There you would find the ruined remains of concrete culverts, causeways, bund walls, machinery, and buildings. These are the only reminders of a facility which, at one point, attracted up to 3,000 people in a single day; the Mount Harper ice rink.
Even at the beginning of the twentieth century, ice skating was already a well established pursuit for those who lived on the remote back country stations in the foothills of the Canterbury mountains. For early settlers in the nineteenth century, the winter months could be bleak and gloomy. One of the means of passing the time for those residing in the high country was ice skating. Newcomers to the region were told of lakes set further inland, which froze so hard during winter that a team of bullocks could be lead across the surface. Lake Ida, near Lake Coleridge, was one such popular destination for the sport.
In the 1860s, the owner of the Lake Coleridge run, Charles Harper, used to organise week long skating parties in which people from surrounding stations would be invited to participate. Each day the group would meet at his station and ride out to the Lake Ida, where they would enjoy a day of skating. In her account, Station Life in New Zealand, Mary Anne Barker, describes the setting of one such outing:
“On either hand rose up, shear from the water’s edge, a great, barren, shingly mountain; before us loomed a dark pine forest, whose black shadows crept up until they merged in the deep crevasses and fissures of the Snowy Range.”
Weekends in the mountains
Prior to the construction of the Mount Harper rink in 1931 and 1932, ice skating in Canterbury had largely been confined either to these high country residents (some of whom made their own private rinks), or members of winter sports clubs (in 1930 the Canterbury Winter Sports Club began construction of an ice skating rink and toboggan run on Mount Cheeseman at the foot of the Craigieburn Range).
Although it was a pastime which couldn’t be so easily undertaken by the average citizen of Christchurch, it was still popular enough for a local industry to arise. By 1934 Ice skates were being manufactured locally at the firm of P. and D. Duncan who used boots made in Christchurch by Duckworth, Turner and Company Limited. It was in this same year that a synthetic ice skating rink opened in Christchurch on Kilmore Street opposite the Caledonian Hall (it is possible that it was not feasible to operate, as by 1936 it appears to have become a roller skating rink).
That outdoor skating was a popular activity for the people of Christchurch can be seen by a 1937 article in The Press which estimated that up to 600 people left the city every winter weekend to find suitable locations for skating.
The Mount Harper ice rink
The Mount Harper rink was constructed by Wyndham Barker (1886-1958). The son of a Rangitata farmer, he developed a passion for ice skating while living abroad in Europe. Upon returning to Canterbury, it seems he had a desire to raise the profile of the sport in New Zealand. His rink would differ from other rinks in that it was the first purpose built public ice skating rink in Canterbury, and possibly the southern hemisphere.
The rink was set on land leased from Mount Possession Station, in a cold location which remained without sun between the months of May to August. After the first rink failed to prove satisfactory, another was constructed. The number of rinks expanded until there were at least eight (though not all were successful at forming ice). Buses would bring visitors all the way from Christchurch, and after crossing the Rangitata River on a punt, they would initially take in their surroundings from the warmth of the ‘skate shed’ (in reality more of a clubhouse and cafeteria) before venturing out onto the ice. There they could enjoy not only skating but tobogganing, curling, and ice yachting. Floodlights were also installed for those who were willing to brave the chill and skate at night.
Perhaps the most significant sport performed at the rink was ice hockey. In 1937 Barker established the Erewhon Cup, an ice hockey tournament which continues to this day.
The Mount Harper rink continued to provide the people of Canterbury with an array of winter sport activities until it was finally closed to the public in the 1950s. Left to fall into ruin, it is now located within the Hakatere Conservation Park and administered by the Department of Conservation.
Skating in the city
Despite the closure of the Mount Harper rink, the ice would soon come to Christchurch. When Victoria Lake in Hagley Park froze in 1945, it was followed by calls for a permanent artificial ice skating rink to be established in the city. In 1952 Centaurus ice rink opened at what is now 12 Centaurus Road, Cashmere. The rink operated until 1982 when it closed and was demolished. The location of the former rink became the site of Torvill and Dean Lane, which was named after British skaters, Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean, who won a gold medal at the 1984 Winter Olympics for ice dancing.
In 1985 the Alpine Ice rink opened on Brougham Street. Today, the venue is the home of the ice hockey team, the Canterbury Red Devils (formed in 2005).
Do you have any images of ice skating in Canterbury or of the former ice skating rinks which you would like to contribute to Kete Christchurch?