Ferrymead Heritage Park: A heritage community preserving a city’s past

Ferrymead Heritage Park was founded in 1964 and is located in Christchurch, at the site of New Zealand's first public railway (1863). It features an early 1900s Edwardian township that includes restored cottages and replica businesses, allowing visitors to see what life was like in early Christchurch. The Park also houses a large amount of old transport vehicles, equipment and machinery used around the city, and vintage or antique household items. It also has old trams and a steam train that visitors can buy tickets to ride.

Edwardian town – northern end

Although I lived in Christchurch for 27 years, I never visited Ferrymead Heritage Park. It seems strange to me now that I never visited, maybe it was because I wasn’t that interested in local history, or had other priorities. Now that I live overseas, my interest in NZ and its history has grown stronger and stronger. As a result, I have recently started visiting the Park whenever I’m back in the city.

The park is more than just a museum, it’s like a community. Heritage exhibitions are run by 16 history-themed societies and groups that the park is a home to. It serves to preserve Christchurch’s European heritage, with Christchurch established in the mid-1800s. Archaeological evidence indicates the Indigenous Maori people first settled in Christchurch circa 1250.

The Park is open seven days a week and most days of the year. It wasn’t busy on the two days I visited in the school holidays in July 2021, which meant that you could have many parts of the park to yourself. Trams run on weekends and throughout the school holidays, and the steam train operates on the first Sunday of every month. For the best experience, visit during the weekends when many volunteers from the different historical societies and groups are on hand to demonstrate how life, trades and machinery worked.

I started my weekend visit by heading straight to Moorhouse Train station to ride the steam train. The kid inside me couldn’t wait, and I figured it would be best to get there early in case there were any crowds. The steam train named "Peveril", was made in 1872 in Glasgow, and is the oldest preserved working steam engine in NZ. The train runs up and down what was part of the old rail line to Christchurch. It’s a short, but enjoyable journey. I stood outside at the end of one of the passenger wagons, and loved getting some coal soot on my face from the steam engine smoke, and listening to the sound of the engine and distinctive steam whistle.

Steam engine preparing to take passengers at Moorhouse Station.

Next was a tram ride, which follows a loop around the park and also includes a stop at an area showing how old trams were used after they were no longer in service. Many were sold and used as a kiwi bach (a small, often modest holiday home), and you get to walk through a fully furnished example. The tram continued back to the town and made regular stops around the Park. The tram driver was very friendly and great with kids, giving them a supervised go at operating the tram and ringing the bell (I was a bit jealous!).

Tram on the Edwardian street. The Park has many different trams, operating on a different days.

Again, keen to beat any potential crowds, I decided to go to the buildings at the far end of the park that house old forms of transport that were used in Christchurch or elsewhere in the 1800s and 1900s. The park has an impressive array of old trains, wagons, trams, vintage cars, ambulances, fire engines and aeroplanes. Many of which you could touch and hop into, for a great hands on experience. It wasn’t all transport related, there was a large variety of household, agricultural and industrial heritage pieces, most of which were used in the city. A glimpse out the back of the buildings gives you a sense that there’s many more old cars, trains and other vehicles in storage or needing restoration.

A building housing transport, household, medical and industrial heritage items. In the foreground is a Manning Wardle Saddle Tank Locomotive, built in 1914.
A building dedicated to fire engines. A 1928 Leyland fire brigade truck is in the foreground.
A building dedicated to aircraft, photo showing a 1958 Vickers Viscount V807 used for passenger services and is now the only remaining one in New Zealand.

I left the Edwardian town for last. This took longer than I anticipated to explore as I really enjoyed talking to the volunteers who were demonstrating different parts of Edwardian life, which included wearing Edwardian clothes. The onsite blacksmith talked me though how all sorts of metal equipment and supplies were made, in the heavily coal scented blacksmith workshop. Lots was to be learned from a volunteer in the nearby replica theatre and tea room, while indulging in a small high tea. Further down the street, I was again talking to a volunteer, this time cooking up a meal using a coal stove in the kitchen of a 1800/1900s house. I learned a lot, while taking in the smell of the lovely food being cooked up the old way. Talking with all the volunteers was the most enjoyable part of my visit, it brought the street scene to life, with the smells and sounds of the blacksmith workshop and old kitchen. What came across also was their passion for heritage and sharing their knowledge with anyone with an interest. They loved what they were doing and the connection it gave them to the city’s past, I found that heartening.

Replica theatre and tea rooms, also used by a local theatre company who put shows on for visitors.
Coal-fired oven in a 1800/1900s house.

I could have spent a lot longer at the park, but had other commitments. Ferrymead Heritage Park is an interesting mix of museum, interactive rides and an Edwardian town experience. It’s a relaxing, laidback place and has such a wide variety of heritage to explore. On a weekend visit, it’s the volunteers and their passion that really adds life to the park, making it more than just a museum. They are also doing really important work in a city that has changed so much over time and has lost many of its heritage buildings in a large, damaging earthquake in 2011. For this, I’m grateful.

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Darren Cottam

Living in Australia, but originally from New Zealand. Loves exploring and connecting with New Zealand history and heritage. Collects 19th century New Zealand tradesmen’s tokens. Delving into antique English ceramics, the ones that made their way to New Zealand and Australia. Sharing history and heritage on Twitter @ZealandEarly