August 13, 2008

Golden Days in Arrowtown

By CREAN, Mike

Bells rang out in Arrowtown over the saving of three rundown cottages from demolition.

The 130-year-old miners' cottages were rotting away. Arrowtown residents and heritage advocates nationwide feared their owner, a property developer, would use a loophole in planning laws and let them deteriorate until they became dangerous and had to be removed.

The Queenstown Lakes District Council last year bought the cottages for $1.9 million.

They stand in a row of heritage buildings on one of New Zealand's most photographed streets. Pictures of the tree-lined street with its dozen cottages fronting directly on to the footpath are instantly recognisable to many people.

The narrow main street defines Arrowtown. The cottages line one end, opposite the graceful stone library building. Stores, cafes and bars line the other, their verandas giving a Wild West look to the town.

Snow like cake icing hangs off eaves when I drive in to the street - and then out again, because there are no vacant parks. It is mid-morning, mid-week, mid-winter, but already tourists are cluttering the footpath and wandering into the road to take photographs.

The cottages are a major attraction to tourists, which explains the town's celebration over the council rescue package. Residents know it could be the saving of Arrowtown.

William Fox discovered gold in 1862 by the river named the Arrow because of its swiftness. A major rush followed. Prospectors fanned out over the surrounding area. When the easy gold was cleaned out, by men working with shovels and pans, mining companies moved in with sluice guns.

Arrowtown grew up on the south bank of the river as home to the company miners. It was a boom town of booze and fist-fights and bawdy entertainments. Then gold returns dwindled, mining ended, people moved away.

Arrowtown hung on for half a century as a sleepy hamlet where old- timers charmed the few visitors with stories of rumbustious days. Improved transport brought increasing visitor numbers after World War 2. The trickle became a flow. Now it is a flood.

Arrowtown relies on tourism. Once regarded as part of a pleasant drive from Queenstown, on a circuit including Lake Hayes and Arthurs Point, it is now an attraction in its own right.

I watch men restoring the decaying cottages and cannot stifle a sigh of relief that these simple dwellings will survive. They will still be evoking images of the golden days 100 years from now. My feeling reflects public sentiment. As council chief executive Duncan Field said when the purchase was announced: "Everyone's ecstatic. It's gone around town like wild fire and everything I've heard has been positive."

Village Association chairman and real-estate agent Richard Newman has lived here for 30 years.

"Visitors say what makes Arrowtown special is the character of the main street and the feeling of history," he says.

He believes tight controls on building developments and the caveats which the council has attached to the three cottages ensure heritage sites will be protected.

"People are keen to preserve the historic character. They are very sensitive about it. The strict heritage controls that are now in the District Plan came from the people.

"There is a lesson to other towns - look after your history. The Department of Conservation and the Historic Places Trust and the council worked together. But the key is, the community cares; it put the controls in place. There is a good community base and people care about the town," Newman says.

Further evidence of caring is the excellent museum and the re- created Chinese gold-diggers' settlement in a gully at the western end of the town.

But how does this reverence for history square with the brash new housing developments that sprawl over gentle slopes at the eastern end of the town?

Newman says residents have been attracted to Arrowtown because of its "community feel". Many have moved from Queenstown, because it has lost its sense of community. They make the 15-minute drive each day to work there.

Newcomers feel equally strongly about protecting Arrowtown's character. Many oppose further development proposals.

It's as if Arrowtown is content to let Queenstown swamp itself in hotels, confident that the historic goldmining town's identity as a destination is sufficiently established, by advertising and word-of- mouth, to ensure the tourists will visit.

Visitors are well catered for. Many of Arrowtown's old shops have been converted to new uses, while retaining their heritage value.

Wining, dining and souvenir hunting are in. Butcher, baker, candlestickmaker are out.

Those who come back, and back again, may experience autumn glory in golden hues, winter's icy magic, spring's wake-up call to nature, the melting moments of full-blown summer.

This town, more than any other in New Zealand, has four distinct seasons. And three distinctive cottages.


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