Where a station once grew

Crean's Country

Last updated 17:00 07/03/2008
Tucked away: Blythe Valley in North Canterbury is an enchanted place of tree-clad slopes and strong community spirit.

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Blythe Valley's farming history lives on in its people and its land. Rounding a bend on the winding shingle road, I am waved down by a woman in a farm truck.

Some cattle being are being driven up the road and she suggests I wait until they pass. It is a chance to interrogate a local about the area and so I agree.

The area is Blythe Valley, which follows the Blythe River through rugged hill country, down to the North Canterbury coast, south of Cheviot.

She tells me this is great beef and sheep country. It staves off drought longer than most of North Canterbury. The tree-clad slopes trap mists that drift in from the sea, and the land soaks up their moisture.

Local folk have a strong community spirit. They hold great parties at Christmas. They are proud that, in a paddock up the road, brothers Rob and Bruce Deans started kicking a football around, on their paths to All Black stardom.

When the cattle have trotted past, she directs me to the farmhouse of local historian Joan Murray.

Murray is one of many single women teachers who came to country schools and married local farmers. Just before she arrived, in 1951, a severe earthquake struck. She vowed to leave as quickly as possible but, of course, she stayed.

Her great interest is the area's past. She shows me articles on local history, some of them written by herself.

She tells how Frederick Weld was impressed with the district and acquired a licence to graze sheep here, early in 1851. He had gained his impression when walking from Lyttelton to Flaxbourne, in Marlborough, a trek through forbidding and largely uninhabited terrain.

Weld came from aristocratic English stock. He was later Premier (Prime Minister) of New Zealand and Governor successively of Tasmania and Western Australia.

In partnership with Charles Clifford, he had established stations already in Wairarapa and at Flaxbourne. He now convinced Clifford they should start a station in this area.

So Clifford landed sheep on the beach near the mouth of the Blythe River, thus founding one of Canterbury's earliest and most significant sheep stations. He named it Stonyhurst, after the college they had both attended in England.

Stonyhurst covered nearly 30,000 hectares, extending from the Hurunui almost to Motunau Beach. For many years, its only access was by sea. The station today is only a tenth of its original size. It once contained the Blythe Valley. Now its northern boundary touches part of the valley.

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The first loss of land was through the sale of 12,000ha in 1863. A decade later, William "Ready Money" Robinson, of Cheviot Hills, bought 4000ha.

Clifford's son, George, who had bought out Weld's share of the partnership, was overseas. Fearful of losing Stonyhurst, he rushed home, freeholded what land he could and bought some back from Robinson.

Land taxes around 1900 forced Clifford to sell land for small farms. The block including Blythe Valley was subdivided for settlement.

The Government bought another block after World War 2 to settle returned servicemen. The old soldiers had no electricity or telephone. Access was by packhorse track and perilous river fords.

I decide to make a detour and see this mythical Stonyhurst for myself. The steep and narrow road dips and soars and twists through an enchanted land. Copses of English woodland trees, rows of Australian bluegums and clumps of conifers close around rolling paddocks studded with patches of native bush that stretch up to nobby hilltops, all against a backdrop of the Pacific Ocean.

Banks Peninsula, where Weld started his long walk, is only a faint outline far to the south, but the pioneer connection is still in sharp focus. For Stonyhurst remains in Clifford-family hands. John Douglas-Clifford, who farms it now, is a fifth-generation descendant of Charles. His father, a Douglas, inherited the station from his uncle, who was a Clifford.

The link with the pioneers is important to Douglas-Clifford.

"We are very proud of it and we want to pass it on to our family. It's not a bad place to be farming," he says, with typical rural understatement.

"There are not many places like it in the world. It has a good climate and it's good stock country. It's not really isolated; it's only an hour-and-an-half to Christchurch."

This clean limestone country, where stock thrives, was once famous for its racing stud. George Clifford was a leading figure in Canterbury racing and president of the New Zealand Racing Conference for 34 years.

Born in 1847, George was sent to England to study at Stonyhurst, too. He qualified as a lawyer and was a widely read scholar. But the antipodean Stonyhurst drew him back and he became a successful farmer. He died in 1930.

Many travellers exploring these coastal hills will feel drawn back by the aura of this place, too.


- The Press

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