There’s that slightly overused saying – you can’t beat Wellington on a good day, which is more or less true. When there’s little wind and the harbour is placid and the streets are bright, Wellington is the loveliest city in the world.
But the saying implies a flipside – the bad day upon which Wellington most definitely can be beaten. And due to the cosmic coin-toss that is the weather, it seems that Wellington has been having a few too many non-good days lately, especially on weekends. It can leave a person, not just a city, feeling a little beaten.
But recently there’s been a bit of nice weather, and on weekends too. One particularly fine weekend was so remarkable that it made the front page of the paper. And on that weekend, even though it was still a really cold winter’s day, because it was sunny and not cloudy or raining, people did what they do in Wellington on nice days – they headed to the beach for an ice cream.
I joined the beach exodus and boarded an omnibus to Days Bay. It always feels like a place that used to be quite special in previous decades. Like the sort of place where people would have packed a picnic, jumped in their automobile and parked right on the beachfront, enjoying a lovely cold sunny day at the seaside.
A search on the National Library’s website indeed found evidence of Days Bay’s golden days in the 1930s, with this beach at the edge of the universe:
But it turns out that Days Bay was a happening place even earlier than that.
In 1890 a fellow by the name of John Williams bought Days Bay and turned it into a resort, complete with a hotel, pavilion, tennis courts, hockey fields and a great big crazy-arse water chute.
The hydroslide at the aquatic centre in Porirua has nothing on the old Days Bay water chute. The little boats seated eight people and went hurtling down the tracks at 50km/h before splashing down into the pond below.
All the National Library’s photos of the water chute show gentlemen and ladies in their Victorian casualwear both queuing to have a go on the chute, and also watching others having their turn. It looks choice fun and would have been absolutely thrilling, though probably not so much on a cold, windy day.
But eventually the chute was closed and the resort was sold off, and parts of it were turned into a park. Could it be that the climate of Days Bay isn’t actually nice enough to work as a resort location?
I’m not sure when the water chute went out of operation, but Robin Hyde’s novel The Godwits Fly, published in 1938, has this account of a visit to Days Bay:
Behind lies a small brown artificial lake, with swans sailing, their breasts only slightly soiled from the mud of their nests, their black bills snapping for bits of bread. Once there was a Day’s Bay Wonderland Exhibition, and the derelict water-chute still stands, from which flat-bottomed pontoons used to bounce out on the lake.
I wandered around Williams Park, searching for remnants of the old water chute. The hill where the chute ran is covered with thick foliage, but at the foot of the hill, just around the side of the pavilion, is a small brown artificial lake.
It’s now the home of ducks, with its unusual teardrop shape being the only clue that something different used to be here.
Compare and contrast these two photos taken from the end of the pond. The first taken in 1912, back when the chute was in full operation, with a nice long queue of people.
And this is the pond today. There are no crowds, only ducks:
In fact, most of Days Bay has that feeling, that things use to be different, grander. The pavilion building is now a cafe cleverly called Pavilion, with the building itself having been surrounded by a strange bus-shelter-like veranda.
But maybe that’s how Days Bay works – it’s a memory of a warm summer’s day, with ice cream trickling down your hand as you try to win the tongue vs melt race.
And when it’s a rare sunny day in winter, we’ll still go to the beach in our merinos and polarfleeces and have an ice cream, even though it’s so cold and there’s no chance that the ice cream will melt onto the fingerless woollen gloves we have to wear while we’re holding the cone.