Ghost walks (5) Thorndon Esplanade

My last ghost walk post described the route I took tracing the orginal Wellington shoreline through the CBD from Lambton Quay to Waitangi Park.

Thorndon Quay

Thorndon Quay

Successive reclamations of land have also left the original Thorndon shoreline far from the sea. Present-day Thorndon Quay follows the route of the Thorndon shoreline as it was when European settlers arrived.  But Thorndon Quay is not one of Wellington’s most exciting streets, and I was more interested in Thorndon Esplanade.  I first came across Thorndon Esplanade when I visited the Katherine Mansfield Birthplace museum on nearby Tinakori Road.

Katherine Mansfield Birthplace museum

Katherine Mansfield Birthplace museum

Thorndon Esplanade features in one of Katherine Mansfield’s stories – ‘The Wind Blows’.  The protagonist Matilda and her brother walk along  it on a wild windy day.

The wind is so strong that they have to fight their way through it, rocking like two old drunkards.  All the poor little pohutukawas are bent to the ground.

Thorndon Esplanade did not seem to be marked on any maps and I had no idea where it was.  But when I read Grahame Anderson’s ‘Fresh about Cook Strait’, which has a chapter on the harbour reclamations, I realised that it ran along the edge of the first piece of harbour land to be reclaimed in Thorndon, on the seaward side of Thorndon Quay.  The land was reclaimed in 1882 for the Wellington and Manawatu Railway Company and presumably pedestrians would have had to cross the railway line to get to the Esplanade although there is no mention of this in ‘The Wind Blows’.

Zig zag path, Thorndon Quay

Zig zag path, Thorndon Quay

On their way to the Esplanade, Maltida and her brother walk down the zig-zag path close to the far end of Thorndon Quay where it joins the Hutt Road.  They ‘stride … down the asphalt zigzag where the fennel grows wild and on to the esplanade‘.  On a spring-like Sunday afternoon, the air heavy with the scent of blossom from the gardens on Tinakori Road, I start off at the top of the zig-zag path and walk down under the pohutukawa tress.  From here there is no sign that there was ever an Esplanade.  You can’t even see the harbour, only the motorway bridge, railway lines and the Westpac stadium beyond.

View from zig-zag path

View from zig-zag path

As well as the pohutukawa trees that Katherine Mansfield describes, the Esplanade had tidal sea-baths and a band rotunda.  Sadly it was not long-lived.  The 1882 reclamation was further extended in the late 1920s, and the Esplanade disappeared beneath railway lines.  The residents of Thorndon would have had to go all the way to Oriental Parade for their bracing promenades by the sea.

Postcard of Thorndon Esplanade

Postcard of Thorndon Esplanade (see below for reference)

The Esplanade looks pleasant enough in this postcard, but in the photograph below, taken in 1910, it looks rather bleak.

Thorndon Esplanade 1910

Thorndon Esplanade 1910 (see below for reference)

I walk along Thorndon Quay in the direction of the CBD.  Looking at the 1892 Thomas Ward map, I think Thorndon Quay was once lined with houses, probably similar to the elegant villas on one side of adjacent Davis Street.  But presumably the railway line didn’t make for the best views, and now it is a mix of commercial buildings from different eras, housing some very disparate businesses.

Disparate businesses on Thorndon Quay

Disparate businesses on Thorndon Quay

Thorndon Quay curves around what used to be Pipitea Point.  A little further on from here is the Pipitea Marae, built in the 1980s for Wellington’s growing urban Māori population.  From the street,  the concrete panelled side-walls of the wharenui (meeting house) and the car park underneath certainly look  urban, but the newly-landscaped ātea in front of the wharenui is enclosed and peaceful, birds fluttering around in the trees along the perimeter.

Just above where the Marae is now was the Pipitea Pā, a village overlooking the sea and surrounded by cultivations.  About 80 Māori of the Te Ati Awa tribe were living here in the early 1840s, but they soon left the area, as a result of pressure from the early settlers. The New Zealand Company’s armed surveyors took over parts of the pā, building a police station, courts and government offices in the pā compound, and later, a hospital.

Railway sidings from Westpac Stadium

Railway sidings from Westpac Stadium

I take a detour up to the Westpac stadium concourse.  The vast expanse of concrete is dazzling in the sunlight.  Through the wire fence, railway sidings occupy the route of the former Esplanade.  The stadium hosted the Bledisloe Cup game the previous night, but now there is no one around apart from a man teaching a young boy to ride a bike.

I go back down to Thorndon Quay and across to the Thistle Inn, apparently the oldest hotel in New Zealand still trading from its original site.  The first Thistle Inn stood by the waterfront when it was  built in 1840.  It burnt down in 1866, and the current building was built the same year.  The remains of the original cellar can be seen through a glass panel in the floor, but not today, as the pub is firmly closed, perhaps as a result of Bledisloe Cup excitement the night before.

Present-day Thistle Inn

Present-day Thistle Inn

Thorndon Quay 1867

Thorndon Quay 1867 with Thistle Inn on left (see below for reference)

My walk is bookended by Katherine Mansfield stories.  The Thistle Inn featured in ‘Leves Amores‘, a story written when she was only 19: ‘I can never forget the Thistle Hotel.  I can never forget that strange winter night

NZ topo database - crown copyright reserved

NZ topo database – crown copyright reserved


Anderson G (1984) Fresh about Cook Strait
Kernohan D (1989) Wellington’s new buildings
Kernohan D (1994) Wellington’s old buildings
Mansfield K (1981) The Collected Stories of Katherine Mansfield
Te Ara o nga Tupuna trail
Thistle Inn website
Thorndon Esplanade Act 1891
Yska R (2006) Wellington: biography of a city

Photo references:

[Postcard]. Thorndon Esplanade & Baths, Wellington. New Zealand post card. G & G Series no. 105. Printed in Berlin [ca 1905]. [Postcard album of cards collected by Joye Eggers / Taylor. 1905-1970s].. Ref: Eph-B-POSTCARD-Vol-6-028-1. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

Thorndon, Wellington. Smith, Sydney Charles, 1888-1972 :Photographs of New Zealand. Ref: 1/1-019977-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

Thorndon Quay, Wellington. Ref: 1/2-021203-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

5 thoughts on “Ghost walks (5) Thorndon Esplanade

  1. Pingback: Wellington Faultline walk (1) | Rising to gale


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