How to read a landscape

Some of you might have been to the St James Conservation Area, a remote and beautiful area managed by the Department of Conservation. You might have been cycling or walking there, or you might have been drawn by the romance of the famous St James horses. While there, you’re sure to have marvelled at the landscape, and I’m hoping that you might have paused to consider the human history of the area. Today, I’m going to tell you about the story I – as an archaeologist – see when I look at this landscape.

Looking up the Stanley River from Stanley Vale (William Fowler's run) to Lake Guyon (W.T.L. Travers' run). Image: K. Watson.

Looking up the Stanley River from Stanley Vale (William Fowler’s run) to Lake Guyon (W.T.L. Travers’ run). Image: K. Watson.

But first, why the St James on a blog about Christchurch? The St James station (which the St James Conservation Area grew out of, as it were) is representative of the sheep stations that played such an important role in Christchurch’s development, from early struggles over land tenure in the fledgling settlement, to providing important economic stimulus, and not to mention the political and social power of the runholders. Please, however, forget all notions of the landed gentry: it’s a myth.

St James horses. Image: K. Watson.

St James horses. Image: K. Watson.

Let’s start before Europeans arrived in Aotearoa/New Zealand, when Māori roamed the land, passing through the St James on trails that connected the interior with the coast (Brailsford 1984). They left little tangible evidence of their passage, although an archaeological site at Lake Tennyson tells the story of moa hunting in the interior, working stone tools (although not where they were found), and of networks of trade and exchange linking people across the country.

On the shores of Lake Tennyson. Image: T. Wadsworth.

On the shores of Lake Tennyson. Image: T. Wadsworth.

Like their Maori predecessors, the first Pākehā in the St James left little sign of their passage. There are the remains of a sod hut in the Edwards valley, though, that could be from some of the earliest runholders in the area, possibly dating to the early 1860s. It’s the location that suggests this, along with the fact that this hut doesn’t appear on any maps or plans, even maps that show old, ruined huts. This hut lies on the south side of the valley, tucked into the hillside, looking up at the northern part of the St James Range. It was small, probably with just one or two rooms, and its builders (probably also its occupants) would have worked hard to build this. The sod used tells the story of a treeless landscape, which would have made keeping fires going hard work in an era when fires were used for all cooking, as well as heating.

In the Edwards valley, with the remains of a sod hut and ditch and bank fence in the foreground. Image: K. Watson.

In the Edwards valley, with the remains of a sod hut and ditch and bank fence in the foreground. Image: K. Watson.

There was a hut pretty similar to this a bit further up the valley, at a place known as Scotty’s camp (next to a 20th century hut), where the Edwards flows into the Waiau. The only difference is that the hut in the Edwards valley had a ditch and bank fence around it, meaning it had a garden, probably consisting of fruits and vegetables, because it was a long way to the nearest supply town – probably pretty much back to Christchurch in those days. At 700 m above sea level, it would have been hard to keep that garden going over winter. The hut at Scotty’s, though, had no fence, suggesting no garden – in those early runholding days, it was much cheaper and easier to fence stock out than in.

The 20th century hut at Scotty's camp. Image: K. Watson.

The 20th century hut at Scotty’s camp. Image: K. Watson.

The next phase in the story is two men whose stories I love, perhaps because I’ve spent a long time researching and thinking about them, and they’ve developed personalities for me (I make no claims to the accuracy of these).

They arrived in the area in the early to mid-1860s, a bit after the first Europeans, with W.T.L. Travers taking up Lake Guyon station and William Fowler taking up Stanley Vale, making the two men remarkably close neighbours, given their distance from anywhere else. As it happens, Fowler built his house on Travers’ land. From this distance, there’s no way of knowing whether this was deliberate, or simply an accident. There were no fences, after all, and boundaries were defined by vague descriptions about heading east from point X until point Y was reached, or for however many chains/miles. While there was a dispute about the location of Fowler’s house, however, there was never one about him grazing stock on land that wasn’t his. Which suggests to me that he knew full well where his boundaries were, and where he was building his house.

Lake Guyon. Travers, William Thomas Locke, 1819-1903 :Photographs. Ref: PAColl-1574-30. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

Lake Guyon. Travers, William Thomas Locke, 1819-1903 :Photographs. Ref: PAColl-1574-30. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

Travers was just your average Renaissance man – photographer, scientist, explorer, lawyer, politician, and one of the founders of the New Zealand Institute (now the Royal Society; Shepherd 2014). His biography doesn’t even mention that he was a runholder, and it seems unlikely that he spent much time at Lake Guyon, preferring to leave the station in the control of his manager, William Newcombe, who I like to think of as phlegmatic. From my point of view, Travers did make the most of the time he spent at Lake Guyon, taking photographs, such a rare but valuable resource for us to draw on (he also did quite a lot of exploring). These photographs are wonderful, not just for enabling interpretation of the archaeological remains, but for the life they show us.

Mr William Newcombe, his wife Mary (nee Embury) and children on the shores of Lake Guyon, circa 1870s. Photograph taken by William Thomas Locke Travers. Image: PA7-22-04, Alexander Turnbull Library.

Mr William Newcombe, his wife Mary (nee Embury) and children on the shores of Lake Guyon, circa 1870s. Photograph taken by William Thomas Locke Travers. Image: PA7-22-04, Alexander Turnbull Library.

In particular, they show us William Newcombe and his family. Yes, he lived up that remote valley with his wife and children, in a house that grew a bit like topsy. Today you can still see the chimney remains, mounds of stones peeking up through the grass, right on the water’s edge. Strangely close to the water’s edge to my way of thinking – the lake would have been lapping at the building – and so exposed to the nor’west winds that howl down the valley. What the photographs don’t show is another hut, tucked away amongst the (exotic) trees at the base of the hillside, nicely sheltered from the wind. Perhaps a shepherd’s hut? They also don’t show the garden Newcombe and his family grew and tended: cherry, mint, elderberry, strawberries, raspberries, gooseberries.

A hut tucked into the trees at Lake Guyon, next to Newcombe's garden. Image: K. Watson.

The remains of a hut, tucked into the trees at Lake Guyon, next to Newcombe’s garden. Image: K. Watson.

Fowler’s garden was actually a bit better: he had raspberries, hazelnuts, gooseberries, currants, rowans, hawthorns, ash trees, sycamores, primroses, willows, poplars and snapdragons. And all this at a considerable height above sea level. A lush garden he might have had, but Fowler faced many problems and cantankerous is the word that springs to mind when I think of him, as he was involved in innumerable court cases, including one against his own son. Some of the reports on these in the papers suggested a pretty grumpy man. I think he was probably stoic, too – he lasted here for some 30 years, long after Travers had sold out.

Looking down on the Stanley Vale homestead site, showing some of the exotic plantings. Image: K. Watson.

Looking down on the Stanley Vale homestead site, showing some of the exotic plantings. The poplars in the distance are on drains that Fowler dug. Image: K. Watson.

Part of the problem was that, in choosing the best location for his homestead (tucked neatly into the lee of the hill, with bush nearby for a good supply of firewood), Fowler had built on someone else’s land. Not only was this detrimental to good neighbourly relations, it also meant that he was isolated from the rest of his run. Also, there was no good road access to his station – of course, there wasn’t really any road access at all, just some flatter stretches of land than others. All of this meant that Fowler’s woolshed was some six miles from his house. Across someone else’s land. Which is never going to work out well in an industry plagued by scab. Travers had a woolshed on his land too, which was much closer, but neighbourly relations appear to have been such that it was not possible for Fowler to use Travers’ woolshed.

The sheep dip at Lake Guyon, which was adjacent to the woolshed. Image: K. Watson.

The sheep dip at Lake Guyon, which was adjacent to the woolshed. Image: K. Watson.

Instead, Fowler had to drive his sheep out over Fowler’s pass – a route some of you might have walked or mountain biked. If you haven’t, and you’re keen on that sort of thing, I’d highly recommend it. No doubt because of the distances involved, Fowler built a hut at the woolshed – not, I hasten to add, the hut known as Fowler’s hut, which was really built for a rabbiter named Henry Barker, and his wife. Nothing at all to do with Fowler, he just happened to own the land on which the hut was built. It’s a great hut, but not the sort of hut that runholders typically build: it’s a bit luxurious for that.

Fowler's Pass track, in somewhat inclement weather. Image. K. Watson.

Fowler’s Pass track, in somewhat inclement weather. Image. K. Watson.

Not only was Fowler running sheep, he was planting exotic grasses and draining paddocks, which has left drains and plough marks visible today. While there was lots of ploughing in 19th century New Zealand, little evidence of it survives, because the land continued to be worked, destroying the evidence of that earlier ploughing. But not on Fowler’s land. The plough lines are easy to see when you’re there today and, if you know what you’re looking for, you can see them on Google Earth. So cool! Something usually so ephemeral, preserved. And think, too, of those men and their horses, the effort to get the equipment to where it was needed, the seed, training the horses, draining the land. This was hard work.

Fowler's hut (before recent DOC work to preserve the structure). Image: K. Watson.

Fowler’s hut (before recent DOC work to preserve the structure). This hut was built in the early 1890s, for a caretaker on the rabbit-proof fence. Image: K. Watson.

In the end, though, both Fowler and Travers sold up and left, moving on to other things. I don’t have a clear picture in my head of the McArthurs, the brothers who added Lake Guyon and Stanley Vale to their holdings, creating a station of some 200,000 acres, most of it more than 800 m above sea level. Hard, economising Scotsmen, perhaps. And they made it work, in spite of the rabbits and the climate and the terrain. Ambitious and driven, then. Tough.

The St James woolshed. Image: K. Watson.

The St James woolshed. Image: K. Watson.

They moved the station homestead from the Styx River to the Peters valley, where many of the station buildings remain today. Not the homestead, though. It burnt down in the 1940s (by which time the McArthurs were long gone) and was never replaced. Today, though, you can wander amongst the trees that sheltered it from the southerly and the nor’west, inspect the long drop they would have used, and count the dog kennels that remain.

The St James homestead, as it is today. Image: T. Wadsworth.

The St James homestead, as it is today. Image: T. Wadsworth.

And think, too, of the men, women and children who lived here, in such splendid isolation. In a world where it was cheaper to build a concrete chimney than cart in bricks from Rangiora or Christchurch, where electricity must have come late in the piece, and where rabbits were such a problem that a fence was built to keep them out. We laugh now at this folly, but perhaps think instead of the men whose livelihoods were threatened by such a small, furry creature.

The rabbit-proof fence, alongside Tophouse Road. This was built by the Hurunui Rabbit Board in the 1880s. Image: T. Wadsworth.

The rabbit-proof fence, alongside Tophouse Road. This was built by the Hurunui Rabbit Board in the 1880s. Image: T. Wadsworth.

All of the sites I’ve mentioned – and more – exist in the St James Conservation Area. I say go, explore, and see what stories you can find in the landscape, on the trails that have existed for hundreds of years, in the ruined buildings, the remains of sheep dips, those glorious mountains.

Katharine Watson

References

Brailsford, B., 1984, Greenstone Trails: The Maori Search for Pounamu. A. H. and A. W. Reed, Wellington.

Shepherd, R. Winsome, 2012. Travers, William Thomas Locke. Dictionary of New Zealand Biography. [online] Available at: http://www.teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/1t105/travers-william-thomas-locke

4 thoughts on “How to read a landscape

  1. Hi Katherine
    Would you be willing to share a copy of this report? I am on the Canterbury Aoraki Conservation Board and we are talking about the future of the St James stewardship land quite often at our meetings. I think it would be good if other members understood the layers of history there.

  2. My great, great grandfather was William Newcombe so found your record of the trip to Lake Guyon very interesting. I will go there one day.I live in Nelson so not far. They were true pioneers.

  3. My great-great grandfather was also William Newcombe. I tramped up to Lake Guyon via Fowlers Pass, mid-January this year (2020). I wish I had read this article before I went there with my young friend Cameron Manson. I did note the iron sheep dip and the tiny gooseberries, which, I might add were very bitter. I was left with the impression that the true pioneers were those that had to live in such remote, isolated places, particularly the pioneer women, such as William Newcombe’s wife Mary.

    A note for Ken. While Fowler’s Pass is a bit of a grunt, from there on the track is pretty easy and is well marked. If you are able, it is well worth the effort.

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