Wednesday, March 7, 2012

A shipwreck and the magical musical clock

It’s my favourite building in the whole of Wellington, one I walk past every day on my way to work, and one I have always admired, yet, even though I have been inside before, I never truly appreciated it’s beauty until Tuesday afternoon.
Usually when I see a great old building, I’m often disapointed with the pictures that come out of it because while it may look pretty on the outside, the inside is most often a stock-standard building full of the same old shops or offices. But it was almost impossible to pick which photos to put on here. When you’re not shopping and you’re just looking, taking it all in, that building has got to be one of the most interesting I have ever been in.

So I Googled it the day before I went and found out some fascinating facts about a shipwreck, a musical clock, and a man named John Plimmer, who I will tell you about in my next post.

My rush to get there (a great day to break in new heels) was less due to the fact that I had a short lunch break, and more to do with getting there at 1pm on the dot. Why? A golden ball-shaped clock hangs from the ceiling of the arcade, and on the hour, every hour, it opens to the sound of music to reveal a series of scenes depicting old Wellington and, when you go upstairs to get a closer look at the scenes, one of those wise old museum voices tells you a bit of history.

I didn’t get my hopes up that it would still be there because, like the trams that used to run through the city, it sounded like one of those classic things that would have become lost in the twenty-first century. But, as I stood pinned up against a wall trying to avoid the lunchtime rush and probably looking like a far-too-eager tourist, I held my camera at the ready and at 1pm sharp, the music started and it opened! Realising I couldn’t see it from below, I ran upstairs and there it was. Classic, timeless, beautiful.

A woman appeared next to me, who I have a feeling had seen me gazing intently at the clock and then rush up the stairs, so followed me to see what the fuss was about, and she asked, “how often does that happen?”. I replied, “Every hour on the hour apparently”, and she looked stunned and said how she had lived in Wellington for years and never knew it was there. I told her I had lived in Wellington all my life and even I didn’t know!

Another interesting feature of the Old Bank is the shipwreck buried underneath the reclaimed land.

The remains of the 1848 Inconstant were discovered not so long ago, in 1997 when the sadly neglected building was given new life and restored. In 1849, it set sail from Plymouth bound for South Australia with 209 Irish female migrants on board. Bound for Callao, Peru, with a cargo of tea and animal skins, it never made it to it’s destination. As it entered Wellington harbour in October 1849 to replenish the ship’s supplies, it hit rocks at Pencarrow Heads and was stranded.

The Royal Navy helped the crew haul the stricken ship off the rocks and towed it to Te Aro. No one had the money to make the Inconstant seaworthy. Shipwright William McKenzie bought the vessel at auction and sold it to John Plimmer in 1850 for £80. Plimmer gained Governor Grey's approval to locate the vessel on the foreshore at Lambton Quay. He then had to haul the Inconstant from Te Aro.

"...when the tide was down they fastened empty oil barrels and hogsheads all round her, and laid out a large anchor away in deep water... high water began to haul on to ropes with about forty men... And all the people passing came to lend a hand and in Barrett's Hotel she was christened the Noah's Ark..."

When the ship was in place, Plimmer had the bilges filled with spoil, a pitched roof was added to the midsection of the hull, and the upper works of the bow section were cut away. The lower part of the ship formed a basement and a small bridge provided access to the Ark from Lambton Quay.

In January 1855, the largest earthquake ever recorded in New Zealand, measuring 8.2, struck Wellington and lifted the shoreline at least a metre, tipping over the ark. Although the ark was righted, the water level around the hull was too shallow for vessels to dock at.

The ark was demolished in 1883 and the ship’s ribs were cut down to ground level to make way for the building of the National Mutual Life Association head office.

In 1899 the hull was exposed again during excavations for the new Bank of New Zealand head office and in July 1997, during excavations for the modification of the Bank of New Zealand buildings, the remains of the Inconstant's hull were uncovered, a discovery which led to an archaeological investigation of the site.

I didn’t want to leave, but time was short. So I left wearing a huge grin, tempted to take a ride on the cable car, walk to Karori Cemetery, visit the Alexander Turnbull Library and Katherine Mansfield's birthplace - all at the same time, if only it were possible. But we shall save that for another day. Stay tuned.

"Not possible. Maria had looked at those buildings thousands of times. The dates carved into the masonry were supposed to be old and worn, barely readable to those who had no interest in looking.
But they were new and pristine.
She stood, leaning against what she new as the Old Bank Arcade but was now actually a bank and the only one that, in her time, was not crammed in between high rises. It gave her a sense of comfort to lean against this building she had leaned against, walked through, shopped in, and had coffee in many times before, yet at the same time a sense of dread was slowly creeping in, settling itself in the pit of her stomach.
Maria was definitely still in Wellington, but she was a long way from home."
- Missing Since Tuesday, by Sarah Hardie


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