Two paths on the way home

Mountains cannot be surmounted except by winding paths.    

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

The Port Hills may not be mountains as such, but they formed a formidable barrier for the first European Settlers. Of course, Māori had a number of well-established trails across the landscape prior to European settlement. Many of these paths were used by European settlers and take the form of many of the landmarks and main roads of our modern city. While there are many paths taken by European settlers in the mid-19th century, two of the most important are the Bridle Path and the Sumner Road.

The history of these two paths is intertwined. When Captain Joseph Thomas selected the sites of Lyttelton and Christchurch on behalf of the Canterbury Association in 1849, he was faced with the difficult task of establishing a navigable path between the new port and township. After much deliberation, the route selected ran from the eastern end of the Lyttelton township along the Tapuaeharuru cliffs into Sumner. Due to the lack of local labour, Captain Thomas initially brought 120 Māori workmen from the North Island to cut the wide track from Lyttleton to Sumner using pick and shovel. The workmen cut an initial bridle path out towards Officers Point, filling up gullies as they went along. The toughest part of the construction was the section of road above what is today the Cashin Quay breakwater, where the workmen had to blast through solid rock to form a pathway. This was a monumental task which took a significant amount of time to accomplish, and the area came to be known as the “Sticking Point”. A review of accounts of the work carried out on the Sumner Road between 1849 and 1851 suggests that £4,730 was spent on the heavy excavation work and £360 was spend on forming the line, while a further £405 was spent on constructing retaining walls and £83 spent on drainage (Lyttelton Times, 16/5/1855: 9). This suggests that not only were the workmen blasting through the stone and forming up the line of the road, but they were also constructing drains and retaining walls.

By March 1850 Thomas had spent all of the £20,000 that the Canterbury Association had allocated for public works. When John Robert Godley arrived in April 1850, the depleted state of the funds forced him to suspend all but maintenance work on the Sumner Road (Ogilvie, 2009: 33-34). Although work had been halted on the Sumner Road, the anticipated arrival of the Canterbury Pilgrims at the end of 1850, meant there was still an urgent need to provide access to Christchurch and the plains.

As a temporary measure, Captain Thomas decided to improve the small track on the western end of the Lyttelton township, beginning at Ticehurst Road and leading up over the hills into the Heathcote Valley. With a budget of just £300, a work gang of 70 European and Māori workmen, a hastily constructed the path up the long spur and down into the valley. This track quickly became known as “The Bridle Path” (Amodeo, 2001: 152-153; Ogilvie, 2009: 34, 105; Height and Straubel, 1965: 122-123; Lyttelton Times 18/1/1851: 6)

The Bridle Path became a flurry of activity as the majority of the newly arrived immigrants disembarked and travelled over the Port Hills into Christchurch. Most accounts of the path at this time express dissatisfaction with the rough, hastily cut track. Edward Ward, who had arrived in Lyttelton on board the Charlotte Jane, indicated that “The little tract, which formed a sort of bay between the spurs of the hills, was of most irregular quality” (Ogilvie, 2009: 123). The steep gradient of the path meant that the majority of the trip had to be taken on foot with horses being dismounted and led over the steep summit. For most of the immigrants this meant carrying their possessions on their backs, though regular communication between port and plain by means of pack horses was established in January 1851 (Height and Straubel, 1965: 184; Lyttelton Times 18/1/1851: 5). The Canterbury Association appear to have continued to undertake some improvements to the Bridle Path during the first few years of the fledging settlement. Although the full extent of these works is not clear, in August 1852 a Mr Thompson was able to successfully drive the first empty two-horse dray over the Bridle Path (Lyttelton Times 1/2/1851: 3, 29/1/1851: 5, 12/4/1851: 2, 21/8/1852: 7, 10). Despite the success of Thompson’s inaugural cart trip, the path was still considered too dangerous for more than foot traffic and the occasional horse (Lyttelton Times 7/1/1854: 8, 16/5/1855: 6; Press 23/5/1914: 8).

By the end of 1864 the road board had spent £332 14s in maintaining and upgrading the Bridle Path (Press 5/1/1865: 3). The Heathcote Road Board continued to maintain and upgrade the Bridle Path for the remainder of the 19th century and into the 20th century (Lyttelton Times 6/1/1876: 1, 2/2/1882: 1, 13/3/1883: 1, 23/3/1886: 1, 30/9/1902: 6; Press 5/9/1872: 3, 9/5/1891: 3, 8/6/1896: 6, 14/2/1903: 9; Star 20/3/1874: 2, 28/4/1877: 2). The path remains a highly popular walking track today, although largely for more recreational uses. If you’re a pretty fit individual it could be a way to avoid that morning commute.

Going back to the Sumner Road, following the passing of the New Zealand Constitution Act in 1852, the newly formed Canterbury Provincial Council took over the authority for the formation and maintenance of the roads throughout Canterbury. The Council’s Ordinance of 1854 established a Lyttelton and Christchurch Road Commission to determine the best means of communication between the sea port and the interior. The commissioners confirmed that, despite the cost, the route via Evans Pass and Sumner which had initially been selected by Captain Thomas in 1849 was indeed the best option. However, they also determined that the portion of the line extending between Polhil’s Bay and Evans Pass should be constructed on a lower elevation (Lyttelton Times, 22/4/1854: 14). This new line of road was surveyed to the east of the original line in 1855 (Lyttelton Times, 12/11/1866: 3). This line of road is today known as the Old Sumner Road.

It took a further three years for the Provincial Council to form the Sumner Road from Lyttelton to Christchurch into a navigable path. During this time, the residents of Lyttelton appear to have become exasperated with the council’s efforts, for under their own volition they utilised prison labour to improve the drainage of part of the Sumner Road by installing necessary culverts and gratings (Lyttelton Times, 16/8/1856: 6, 12/11/1856: 7). The road was officially opened on Monday 24 August 1857 (Lyttelton Times, 26/8/1857: 4). Despite the success of the inaugural trip, it proved a perilous endeavour which indicated that the provincial council would have to undertake further works and invest more money before the road could be considered complete to a standard to allow carts to safety navigate (Lyttelton Times, 5/9/1857: 1, 9/1/1858: 4). By the end of the decade cart traffic along the road was steadily increasing (Lyttelton Times, 29/10/1859: 3).

As motorcar traffic increased after the turn of the century it became necessary to remove the dangerous zig-zag corners at Evan’s Pass by blasting a new straighter route. In 1913, it was decided that this new route was to extend from Captain Thomas’s original line of the Sumner Road (Press, 19/9/1913: 4). It was at this time that the line of road that had been laid out on the lower elevation on the advice of the Lyttelton and Christchurch Road Commission in 1854 (now known as the old Sumner Road) was abandoned. The new Sumner Road route to the summit was completed in 1916 (Ogilvie, 2009: 36).

Aerial imagery from 1925-1929 showing the diversion of Sumner Road. Old Sumner Road is visible as the lower road in the image. Image: Canterbury Maps, 2020.

After the 2010-2011 Canterbury Earthquakes, the Sumner Road was badly damaged, with tonnes of rock falling on the road. A massive repair project took place from 2015/2016 to 2019, and the original 19th century portion of the road, from Lyttelton to the start of the 1916 route, was monitored by an archaeologist. Excavations for the repairs of the road and retaining walls exposed larger sections of infilling using crushed and whole red scoria rock. Given the historic references to the infilling of gullies, it seems likely that locally sourced rock, much of it likely from the blasting of the rock for the roadway, was used for this purpose.

Rocks on the road as seen during a site visit before the repair works in 2016. Image: K. Webb.

The excavation behind one of the 20th century retaining walls. The red scoria fill recorded in this area is visible on the left and across the excavation area. Image: M. Hickey.

Interestingly, at least two drains constructed within the 19th century portion of Sumner Road had been constructed with locally cut and shaped red scoria blocks. Supporting this are newspapers references, including one mentioning the services of a mason to repair a drain after it was damaged by a cart (Press, 10/4/1872: 3). The use of this material is not unusual within the context of Lyttelton, as we have also found that an early drain (built in 1857) located within the Gaol complex was also constructed of red scoria. The drains found on Sumner Road were square with large red scoria blocks cut on the inner, top, base and side surfaces, but left uncut and rough on the outer sides. The use of these drains was evident as the base stones had well worn grooves cut by the water trickling through over time.

Looking down on the top of one of the drains. Image: M. Hickey.

Looking through the remainder of the red scoria drain while still in situ. Image: M. Hickey.

Rockfall remains a risk in some surrounding areas of the Bridle Path, but the path was used by a number of people in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake as both Sumner Road and the tunnel were closed. Recent works on the path for service renewal exposed a number of different stone and clay based track and fill layers. However, given the popularity and age of the track, the track was subject to many upgrades and repairs over time so these layers could be attributed to any phase of activity occurring in the 19th or 20th century. While we might not have too many subsurface finds that tell us about the settlers who used the track, the track itself is a recorded archaeological site and is a visible reminder of the challenge posed by the Port Hills.

The Bridle Path in 2020. Image: J. Whitmore.

A 20th century culvert with stone and clay fill around, and natural clay beneath. Image: M. Hickey.

By Megan Hickey and Lydia Mearns.


Amodeo, C., 2001. Forgotten Forty-niners: Being an account of the Men & Women who paved the way in 1849 for the Canterbury Pilgrims in 1850. Christchurch: The Caxton Press.

Height, J. and Straubel, C.R. eds., 1965. A History of Canterbury. Volume 1: T ed. Christchurch: Whitcombe & Tombs.

Lyttelton Times, 1851-1914. [online] Available at:

New Zealander, 1845-1866. [online] Available at:

Ogilvie, G., 2009. The Port Hills of Christchurch. Christchurch, N.Z.: Philips & King.

Press, 1861-1945. [online] Available at:

Star, 1868-1920. [online] Available at:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Time limit is exhausted. Please reload CAPTCHA.