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Gardening with Gael - Gardens grace gold rush town



IMG 6573-338Somewhere in a waiting room Box picked up a magazine and read an article on Ophir, a small settlement in Central Otago. Rich in historic buildings and lovely old-fashioned gardens it is a popular stop for people enjoying the Central Otago Rail Trail.

This summer we spent Christmas with our daughter Ruby and her family who live near Omarama, a small town near the Southern end of the Mackenzie Basin. Omarama is well situated for exploring Lake Ohau, Benmore, the Clay Cliffs and then through the Lindis Pass to Wanaka, Alexandra, Clyde, Cromwell and, with a small diversion, Ophir.

“I’m sure you are going to love this little town,” Box assured me, and I did.

We approached the town via the O’Connell bridge (well worth a visit) which crosses the Manuherikia River. Pretty much a one street town, the original buildings were saved when the town sank from a social and commercial centre during the gold rush to near obscurity after the gold dwindled.

One of the country’s most authentic and significant settlements, the town is undergoing a renaissance and we could absolutely see why. We were there early summer in time to see the gardens flowering with an abundance of roses, hollyhocks, lavender and perennials. The main street features many original houses and shops built from the local schist, concrete, stone and wood, ideal backdrops for the traditional English gardens for which it is renowned. Hollyhocks, I have discovered, take two years to flower so there is a bit of organising to enjoy them every year.

Box discovered, half way along the main street, a group of charming little cottages now available for rent run on similar lines to our Milestone Cottages, each with its own entrance and garden. Right next door was a man trimming his white standard roses. I complimented him on his garden and he came over very happily, ready for a chat. He showed me the schist paths he had uncovered and an old waterway also lined with stones and I remarked that they added to the attractions of the gardens.

New houses are subject to strict regulations but sadly not so the gardens. He was lamenting the garden opposite, which he said had been the jewel of the street; an outstanding herbaceous border, huge climbing roses and flowering trees. New absentee owners had bought the cottage and in the space of a couple of days had had most of the garden chain sawed. He and his neighbours watched in horror.

“So sad,” he said to me, “it was a remarkable example of that kind of garden.”

It had since become an Airbnb. I thought about these gardens when I was writing my last article. Carefully tended by their owners they provide pleasure and joy to the population and visitors. One of the old buildings has been turned into a lovely cafe with views across the street of further rustic buildings and gardens.

Back to Omarama, where Ruby was waiting to tell us we were off to ‘pick our own’ raspberries for Christmas Day. What a treat for us.

In Ophir, summer gardens flower with an abundance of roses, hollyhocks, lavender and perennials. The main street features many original houses and shops built from the local schist.

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