Park's treasures await discovery

Bridger Park in Eltham
Bridger Park in Eltham
Bridger Park in Eltham
Bridger Park in Eltham
Bridger Park in Eltham
Bridger Park in Eltham
Bridger Park in Eltham
Bridger Park in Eltham
Bridger Park in Eltham
Bridger Park in Eltham
Bridger Park in Eltham
Bridger Park in Eltham

To get there you dip down. Whichever way you enter, a short ascent is required. But this makes Bridger Park sheltered and windless on a squally August day.

Named after Ira Bridger, mayor of the town, it was a project designed - among other things - to provide jobs for unemployed locals.

It was, says South Taranaki District Council parks curator David Bruce, a "relief project". Worthy idea then, but its location has been both a feature and a fault.

"Back then there was a valley full of blackberry and willow. Ultimately its biggest fault is it is still essentially a gully - and a muddy one." Naturally mud makes an appearance in the wet, but a propensity to sloppy ground has been contained by a major renovation that began in the winter of 2012, finished last year and cost about $40,000.

The main lawn area looks out to the Mangawharawhara Stream and a small concrete stage. In 2012, STDC embarked on a project to reshape the lawn, which had become a falling away hillside blanketed in scrubby vegetation.

An original retaining wall had collapsed and that was the incentive to get in there, says Bruce.

In its place a new timber wall was constructed, running the length of the lawn. Above it a wide open garden was planted. Other parts of the park were also cleared out and tidied up in what was stage 1. More work is to come, including improvements to the access.

Bruce jokes about the steps down from one entrance - the carpark adjacent to the town squash club. "Designed by a committee," he quips. Too wide, too deep and now, years later, receptacles for piles of wet, slippery leaves.

Today, the newly planted garden above the solid retaining wall is dotted with a range of ornamental shrubs such as rhododendrons, azaleas, camellias and pieries. They're interspersed with native specimens like kaka beak and pittosporum, as well as ground covers such as hostas, hellebores and the useful Iris wattii.

Bruce uses the strappy plant with its pale blue orchid-like flower extensively in South Taranaki parks. In the harsher climate of the south it does far better than renga-renga lilies, for example. The original plant stock came from a bag of offcuts he brought from his home garden five years ago.

Up above, are four golden totara as well as ordinary totara, a rimu tree, magnolia, poplars and, on the ridgeline, deciduous trees planted long years ago

"In the past we weren't able to mow because it was so sloppy and wet so now we have a level platform running through the middle," explains Bruce. The lawn can also serve as seating for fine- weather events such as Arts in the Park.

He's unclear when the stage went in but there have been performances, with plates at the outer edge allowing for the positioning of structures.

Water-loving plants and a well- established row of kowhai dominate the planting on the stage side - the vegetation onto which people on the lawn look out.

"We knew this was going to be inundated by water so the plants are designed to, a, flow and b, be happy enough to bounce back after flooding."

Clumps of mondo grass and liriope sit in between variegated iris, bog primulas, the glossy kidney-shaped ligularia, Dieties grandiflora and the giant Geranium maderense.

He describes the planting plan as mixed, blending both natives and exotics, cultivated, organised garden with rambling bush.

Another specialty is daffodils. "I spoke to members of the Bridger family and a nephew said Ida [Bridger's] favourite flowers were daffodils so we've reintroduced them in the overhaul."

There is, however, very little of what he calls legacy material, interesting and tangible links to the past.

A steel post sticks up from the ground - it's likely to have been used years ago to position tracks on a bush tramway from the district's hinterland.

"Where it came from in South Taranaki I don't know, but there would have been some local mill owner who had his own system of light railway for getting logs out." So at some point the post - and a few others like it - have been used in the park to prop up retaining walls. "They would have utilised what they could grab when development took place."

In the park on the other side of the stream, far less has been done. Bruce has a long "what-to-do" list and admits it's a wilderness.

For example, the main entrance from Stanners St - opposite the town hall - is a slope but a new surface of fine gravel will make it easier to navigate.

The park can also be reached from a third entrance, a separate flight of stairs, better designed than those on the opposite side that we first navigated.

Over here unwanted seedlings need clearing out, as do weeds such as wandering willy and creeping ivy, stealthily cloaking a tree.

But there are still nuggets of interest. Bruce points to a cascade of moss, tumbling down a hillside with a bouncy-like form and sheen to its surface.

"I think it's stunning, it's real Hobbitsville stuff."

In addition there are established rhododendrons towering up, tree ferns with lacy canopies, hostas that pop up and a clump of rediscovered solomon's seal with its small, tubular-like flowers.

"Up to a point it's like moving into a garden for the first time, you wonder what it will come up next."

Bruce would like to know more about the park. There is little recorded about its history - few pictures, few stories. Any locals with anecdotes or photos are encouraged to get in touch with him.

Plenty is known, however, about the toy wall that adjoins Bridger Park.

Started in 1997 by local woman Fay Young, it began with one toy car left on a wall - and then cemented into place when its owner never returned.

Over the years hundreds more toys were added and more mortar slapped on until a 20-metre wall had morphed. Young died in 2000 and her ashes are interred in a doll's size church in the bushes behind the wall. There's also a miniature castle sitting alongside the church.

The third link in the chain is Stark Park on the main street in Eltham. The site of the first Stark store, it's a pocket park or infill park, says Bruce.

It's a neat, prim place with mosaic murals on the wall, pavers on the ground and contained planting. Designed by landscape architect Alice Cullen, the gardens boast korokia, coprosma, hebes, flaxes and prostrate kowhai.

Back at Bridger Park, Bruce is picking summer as the time to visit. "Watch this space because that's when things will be up and running. It's a little oasis in the middle of town, isn't it?"

Taranaki Daily News