Many memories layered beneath the Nelson earth

20:51, Aug 12 2012

In the middle of the 19th century, a group of London workmen made a strange discovery. Digging down into Oxford St, they found a trapdoor, and beneath it, 16 stone steps leading down to a red brick room with arched walls and a pool in the centre fed by a cold, bubbling spring.

It was an ancient Roman baptistery, destroyed to make way for a new building and hidden beneath the skin of the earth ever since.

London is full of such mysteries. When the valley of the River Fleet was cleared in the same era, an old street was discovered a metre below the surface, its paving stones worn smooth.

There's not so much of that in Nelson, although we could maybe count our hidden shoreline, long since buried, and Bridge St's Victorian brick sewer, given full glory in Nelson's latest heritage review.

But there are still layers of human stories beneath the earth, and for some people, memories build in the same way.

I stopped to talk with my neighbour the other day, and in 15 minutes he gave me of more of our houses' history than I could ever have gathered from a LIM report. Most of it was to do with the earth.


There were cars buried in the ground - he'd gone digging and found headlights, a bonnet, mattresses, bed frames, shells, stubbies and bones emerging from the grip of the soil.

He knew where the trees were from, why the steps were chipped, where old gardens used to be, and that the elephant-heart plum tree between our properties had its beginnings in the bowels of his pet goat, one of three that gave milk and entertained his young daughters.

But the earth, seemingly so permanent, is always on the move.

My neighbour also remembers when the hillside was much flatter. Poor drainage means that in winter, the water sheets down, gouging out gutters in the clay. He knows where there's buried timber that props up the hill, and can point to cracks in the wall from the strain of the earth, and places where the fence sticks out into mid-air from rain rinsing away the ground beneath.

He remembers when the SPCA came and killed his old goat, deeming it sick. They left the carcass there, and he arrived home one day to find her lying beneath the plum tree on the fenceline between our properties, her head pulled back, her throat slit, and her blood seeping out, soaking deep down into the earth.

Another neighbour remembers when there were native frogs in the nearby creek, long since drained and filled, and when her boys built forts in the scrub, which was cleared years ago to make way for a blank green park.

When the Olympic flame was carried down the heaving retail hub of Oxford St on an open-top bus two weeks ago, it was impossible to resist squinting and imagining a solemn gathering of Romans around a fresh burbling spring, or the River Fleet meandering through orchards and fields.

It's difficult to see life beyond the 80-odd years that make up our own cherished existence. But thanks to my neighbours, I've suddenly got a slight sense of history, of a stake in the ground - as well as in time.


July 28's column on the devastation cats wreak on our native wildlife resulted in a flurry of passionate responses. One farming reader called and told me that cats were needed because without them, the bird population would explode. Aaron of Motueka called it "a pathetic and undue attack on an easy target . . . Your column will serve only to incite more kitten drownings and intentional vehicular cat killings. Shame on you". However, Milton and Pete were thankful. "AT LAST! Someone has spoken out about cats and the havoc they create," Pete said. "I cannot understand why people [cat owners] are so nonchalant about cats and how much damage they do to wildlife, particularly birds." Milton had a very good point. He said: "If a schoolboy can be in trouble for throwing a stone at a kea and killing it, how much more should the irresponsible owners of cats killing native birds be responsible?"