I had a playground you could not imagine. Thousands of people drive over it every day, and they can’t imagine it either. There was water. There were fish. Drive softly, for breakfast swam here.
There were seashells, sandstone and a dash of sandy beach. There was a pretty wooden footbridge. The naval training shed, HMNZS Ngapona, now landlocked and jutting into the motorway, stood on legs above the waves. There were skids and boatsheds along a rocky shore.
Looking north-east you saw old ships—scows, coasters, barges. There was the slog of the maul, the tok-tok of the caulking mallet and the distant racket of steel riveting. There were slips and greasy ways down which craft slid freshly repaired or wood-shaving new. There was Casey’s sawmill, with rafts of logs corralled and ready for hauling up a ramp into the screaming ripsaw. There was the chuff-chuff of steam power; the shriek of the knock-off whistle; the smell of wet sawdust.
Watermen went hazing along in grey punts, sculling one-handed with long sweeps of the oar over the stern. There were rickety jetties. Sturdy tugs with rope-scarred bollards and car tyres for body armour butted about; great coir hawsers rose dripping and twanging from the sea. Ocean-going ships went up the 600-tonne harbour board slipway, to be released later with a mighty rumble of iron wheels and a whoosh as they hit the water.
We saw it all some 70 years ago from the sun porch of our little cliff-top house at the city end of Auckland’s St Marys Bay. But no more. What we see now—for we’re still there—is an eight-lane motorway carrying more than 170,000 cars a day and an immaculate array of 1500 pleasure craft in New Zealand’s largest marina—Westhaven with a matching display of superyachts at Orams, on the eastern shore, where the mills and shipyards were.
Away to the north-west is the spider-work of the harbour bridge. By night the car lights encircle the harbour like an army—the poet’s Assyrian cohorts with “the sheen of their spears . . . like stars on the sea.” A mightier host in the marina has its moment of brilliance at sunset each day, when the dying light tingles on the aluminium mast-tips like a stroke on a celeste. And over on the North Shore, for just a few minutes, glass-fronted tower blocks become gorged with reflected flame, gradually quenched from the ground up as the sun goes down.
The price for this modern spectacle was St Marys Bay itself, once known as the Ponsonby waterfront. Its entire southern shore—beaches, walls, steps, coves and crannies—was filled in to provide access to the harbour bridge. The thriving maritime village of boat-builders and yachting and rowing clubs at the foot of St Marys Road was wiped out. So were the Shelly Beach baths at Point Erin. Now all that remains of the bay is its name, applied to the nouveau-chic suburb above the cliffs.
Looking back on the changes, I am amazed to realise that the former scene of nautical clutter and raw industry was not much older than the motorway which displaced it is today. The main harbour reclamation from Victoria Park outwards was in place by 1914, giving St Marys Bay an eastern wall. The harbour board slipway dates from 1915, and adjacent industries must have appeared around the same time. The main breakwater was finished in 1928, and the Westhaven extension got its name only in 1941.
Then, in 1956, at the Fanshawe Street end of the bay, an earth road began to reach, tendril-like, into its wide-open waters. This would be a containing wall for piped dredgings and the creation of new land, over which naval reservists would drive to their stranded training shed and local residents walk their dogs. Many who now see the grassy ground between motorway and cliffs think it was always there.
The motorway and bridge opened in 1959, and a new normality was soon established. The open anchorage became a regimented parking lot close-packed with pleasure craft tethered to floating walkways.
Soaring property values bestow a sense of membership in the bay of today. Residents pride themselves on living in a “character” suburb, and the word “historic” is bandied about, but there is little awareness of those who lived here when the cottages, villas and bungalows were much newer and worth a lot less; people whose names are still on the title deeds.
Nor would you expect it. They were ordinary folk: the odd professional or business person, shopkeepers, shipyard workers, teachers, newspapermen, tradesmen; families seldom well off but steadfastly decent; neighbourly types, conformist and eccentric in equal measure. Many worked in the city, 20 minutes’ walk away. A few still remembered the earlier reclamation of Freemans Bay.
With their children moving on to new suburbs like Kelston, Glenfield and Pakuranga, the parents grew old and the houses were sold. Now everything has been skewed: the water has shifted and the views have changed; the locals are better off, the children are fewer and the houses beget garages; there’s a continuous, motorised hum down by the water, and one-way traffic up at Three Lamps. Café culture has replaced the old maritime lifestyle.
In the last half-century some magical radiation much kinder than a neutron bomb has taken out the old residents while leaving structures intact and making respectable what it has not destroyed. The process has given St Marys Bay a new heart, which beats proudly but has cost it a lung, since the neighbourhood has lost its breathing space, its wilderness dimension, its watery wasteland.
As a child I might have taken more interest in New Zealand history had I known that Captain Hobson, our first Lieutenant-Governor, not only hunted pirates and fought bravely in the West Indies but got mud on his boots as he walked with companions along the St Marys Bay shore in June 1840 in search of a settlement site. Soon the inshore shallows were doomed, for Hobson wrote in October of that year that the northern bank of the harbour was “too precipitous and the other is bounded by a flat that denies approach, but which will hereafter be reclaimed to become beautiful quays.”
Veteran tugboat skipper the late Lawrence Soljak told me the Westhaven breakwater was laid directly onto a mudbank. In his boyhood, a friend fell overboard out there and was shouting for help—“and we said just put your feet down and walk.” I myself remember how, a century later, pleasure craft lay stranded at low tide in the middle of the Westhaven anchorage.
It isn’t surprising, therefore, that the Auckland Harbour Board had a plan in 1918 for extending Fanshawe Street along the St Marys Bay foreshore and round Point Erin into Herne Bay, linking up with all down-roads as far as Wallace Street. It didn’t come to anything, though; and in 1930, when my parents moved from lodgings into their little house overlooking the bay, the setting, though a ferment of colonial industry by day, was tranquil at night and at weekends. In calm weather you could hear the clock on the Ferry Building strike.
They were reluctant to go to bed on their first night so they sat for hours on the open porch drinking tea, watching the lights of the ferries and finally just listening to the lapping water and the occasional plop of jumping fish.
The tiny section was intensively landscaped, with a path winding through a rock garden, a patch of lawn, and concrete steps down the sheer drop of the cliff. An extension to the house has since ruined the garden, but the steps are still there and now lead . . . nowhere, really. The land at the bottom is an urban offcut, an oddment created by engineers and used as a car park. But where the steps stop there begins in my mind’s eye the arena of boyhood, a lost world. I know what’s there—I’m perhaps the only one who does. I know where the bodies (of crabs and cat’s-eyes) are buried.
The way down is overhung by bulging stonework and a huge pohutukawa whose writhing span has more than doubled in my lifetime. The explorer has to clutch at branches and kick footholds in the earth and leaves that choke the steps.
At the bottom the steps descend into an underworld of silt and buried memories. Let me reconstruct the landscape. About two metres below there’s a shelf of papa rock some five metres by three. Built onto it is a stub of wall designed to foil the beating waves, and an apron of concrete descending to a triangle of dark, coarse sand. The slope was slippery, so we used mossy steps hewn in the soft rock to descend that last metre or two to the beach.
Our actual boundary was a metre or two out from the cliff edge. A concrete wall, the words “Scarborough Bros 1930” etched in it by the landscaping contractors, buttressed a ledge wide enough to store a Z-class yacht.
Few people remember the gentle seashore that disappeared in the 1950s. Where there was water, air and light, all is now earth. Some four metres under, the old St Marys Bay slumbers intact, the beach’s ribs of weathered sandstone sealed in petrified mud.
We got 250 pounds compo from the Auckland Harbour Bridge Authority for loss of frontage.
Most of the houses all the way Point Erin had sea access of kind or another. Looking west, the next two properties along from our rock platform had boatsheds with wooden skids. Our neighbour, Claude Edwards, owned the 1890s keeler Aorere, moored out by the breakwater. On a post just a few metres away was a big triangular marker, which incoming sea traffic lined up with another some distance offshore to steer clear of mud banks.
Shimmering flashback: Christmas Day, 1943. My mate Arch Whorskey and I, both aged 12, wearing trendy floral shirts known as in-or-outers, crisply new, launch our freshly painted clinker dinghy from Edwards’ skid into the opal waters filling the bay. How lightly she rides. Admiring relations have gathered to watch. We have just thrown off our dark suits, stockings and ties after church. Was liberation ever sweeter?
Our own rock landing was for rest and contemplation, for hauling out the dinghy, and somewhere to leave your towel as you breasted the tide. You swam from the chill shadow of the overhanging trees into sunlight, and across to the naval training shed. Its launch steps led up to a deck, shipshape with coiled ropes, a flagpole and three whalers suspended on davits. Near the inshore end of the deck was a small, projecting pulpit from which trainees twirled a long lead line, flinging the weight as far as they could towards the cliff as they took simulated soundings. Shuttered from view on the shed’s outer, or northern, side was a four-inch gun.
You dived back in, and dived again, until the call to breakfast came drifting down from the sun porch windows, up on the cliff top.
High water was all the better for the contrast with low tide, when the whole bay became a squishy wilderness. In the pre-war years, when the pace of life allowed more enjoyment of the city’s natural blessings, people used to fret over the waste of a good tide.
“Of all summer pastimes sea bathing is one of the most popular, and at the same time one of the most healthy,” the New Zealand Herald warbled as far back as 1914. Only one sex at a time could use the new Shelly Beach baths, it pointed out, and more changing sheds were needed for better utilisation of the beaches.
“There’s a lovely high tide,” my mother used to say, though her older sisters, Tott and Nell, were more likely to take the water than she was. I learned to swim down behind our place when I was eight or nine, letting the tide drop a little before going in.
“Mother!” I would shout, my piping voice carrying easily up to the house on a calm Sunday, when the timber mills and shipyards were silent. “I swam eight strokes!” Words of encouragement would float down from above.
Over the next few years, scarcely noticed by a world at war, my friend Arch and I spent most of our free time roaming the St Marys Bay shore.
We were salt-caked and muddy, suntanned, armed to the teeth with spears, sheath knives and shanghais, and always on the lookout for a drifting dinghy or flotsam to cobble into a raft.
We made canoes from roofing iron, with boxwood at stem and stern and pitch off the road to seal the leaks. Paddled by hand, these unstable craft sank instantly in ramming battles, but were easily raised, emptied and returned to the fray.
We had huts and hideouts. We made fires of driftwood, and baked spuds and onions in the embers. Our rope swing from the highest tree was famous in mudlark circles for its exciting swoops over the water. We discouraged casual use by hauling it up with a light line and pulley at end of play.
Arch and I could hit anything with a stone. The term was to chuck or “bish” a rock. Any floating object drew a barrage. So did clusters of crabs. Armour-clad and with excellent cover, the crustaceans could survive anything but a direct hit.
Pohutukawa roots were our ladders up the cliff to the best ambush points. Imagine a calm morning with the sea spreading green and serene. Around the headland come a couple of brothers from further along the bay, poling their dinghy ever so stealthily, with a flatfish spear. They dare not make the slightest ruffle as their eyes probe the water for flounder. All is silent. The very bay holds its breath. Then comes our fusillade from above. The dinghy heaves as the sea all around erupts, boils and churns with missiles. Flatfish flee, as flat out as flatfish can go. The brothers rave. Let me just say “sorry,” 60 years on.
By the time we were 13 and had our school 880-yards certificates, earned laboriously at the Shelly Beach baths, Arch and I could make it over-arm out to the harbour board jetty. That was when the bay was a bay. Anyone who descends our concrete steps today can stroll much of the way dry-shod, on an asphalt driveway skirting new-mown lawn.
There was another way down the cliff besides the concrete steps—a kindly cleft below the second twist in the garden path. Here the bank fell steeply to a shallow ledge before the final drop to the beach.
On the ledge we built a lean-to that evolved into a marvel of construction, as strange in its way as a beaver lodge or an ant hill: a four-storey driftwood palace that wavered in harmony with the trees to which it was braced with battens. The top floor was reached via a horizontal gangway from the descending path.
This edifice, called Looney Lodge, had such refinements as a ship’s iron ladder and a bicycle bell connected by string to the house above. It was held together with rusty nails scavenged from round about.
Gangs being outlawed at our school, admirers of whatever the hut represented had to call themselves the Looney Lodge Club—as opposed to the Owl Gang, whose members went to another school.
Several of us were taking the beach route to Point Erin one Sunday afternoon when there was a sudden barrage of stones from the heights above the West End Rowing Club. We were under attack. The rowing club was on the shore below Ring Terrace—reached by public steps that still exist. Boy coxswains, who made up the Owl Gang, had dug a roomy cave under a large pohutukawa tree on the cliff above the clubhouse. This was their fortress, and the source of the ambush.
It didn’t last long. With stones flying everywhere, one of our braver lads sprinted up the steps and took a well-aimed shot, and one of the enemy, a boy named Billy Pledger, was led off with blood streaming from a head wound. It was all over for the Owl Gang. Some time later, after heavy rain, the undermined pohutukawa came down in a landslide and stove in the side of the clubhouse. A published picture of the devastation showed two young coxswains-cum-cave-diggers standing by, with expressions of studied innocence.
This episode of savagery and bloodshed, plus my mother’s complaint that our hut was harbouring cockroaches, hastened the end of Looney Lodge. Arch and I chopped away the main supports, then the restraining battens. The whole tottering structure vanished over the cliff edge with an appalling rush, and shattered into matchwood on the shore below—all but the top floor, which floated away intact. Not a houseboat, exactly; more a sea shanty.
Why shouldn’t I be glad, like everyone else, that the bay was sacrificed to speedy road transport between Auckland city and its north shore? Look at the time saved, the benefits of easy access, the stimulus to growth on the other side.
Something in my psyche is probably unresolved. For when I left Auckland in 1954 to see the world, the bay’s inshore area was intact, and when I returned at the end of 1959 it was gone. Cars sped over reclaimed land to and from the newly opened bridge. Dancing on the grave, so it seemed.
All change has an element of loss, and the killing of the St Marys Bay shoreline is perhaps, for me, a paradigm for greater loss: the passing of so many people who knew it and loved it. A network of feeling, dependence and concern for the place as it was has been obliterated; the people dead, gone elsewhere and replaced by other, different people who do not know the reality of then. And I say that without wishing to detract from contemporary concerns and the reality of now.
The inner-city wilderness of the open bay has been reduced from a state of infinite possibility to one of rigid limitation. It has gone from a nature zone to a noisy, fume-laden one. I mourn the lost foreshore freedom, the sand, the very rocks. Even the sometimes treacherous footing, and the sharp-edged shells, fragments of rusty metal and weathered chunks of glass that could waylay bare feet.
I had, of course, known the bay was doomed. But it is still a shock to look citywards from the Shelly Beach Road overbridge and see how completely it has been blotted out, when a causeway in direct line would have spared much of the inshore area.
Recently, though, as I strolled out to Westhaven from the bottom of Curran Street, I made a simple but pleasing discovery. The green sea was lapping at the sloping stone wall, sucking softly on a submerged stub of post. There was no wind, and nothing to stir the muddy bottom. Something was constant after all: the water’s tranquillity.
The tide continues to rise and fall against the Westhaven breakwater; in and out, like slow breathing. People fish; boats come and go. There is the old measured rhythm.
What’s left of St Marys Bay is very much alive.