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City guide – Christchurch

Outside the cathedral, the street entertainers are in full flow. One is cracking a whip and getting the crowd to cheer him on with unseemly boldness. His jokes are just the right side of bawdy to keep the adults amused while the kids drag them in to watch the juggling of fire and chainsaws. It’s not very English, you know.

Even the road signs remind of glorious Albion. Around the city centre, the streets are named after the most English of cities. Gloucester, Hereford and Worcester streets all run parallel. Durham, Salisbury, Cambridge and Lichfield are similarly honoured. Then there’s Christchurch’s rather grand cathedral.

It’s a grand affair, modelled on Christ Church college in Oxford and finally completed in 1904 after a 46 year delay. Despite lacking in originality, the interior is fabulous to explore, and it’s possible to go climbing up the spire. More signs of little England can be found on the river which, of course, is named the Avon. Punting down it is a popular pastime, and for those wanting to do it the touristy way, you can even hire a man in a straw boater to do all the donkey work for you.

So far, so scones and tiffin, but start scratching below the surface and you discover that Christchurch has its own distinct character. It also has to be remembered that Christchurch is the closest that the South Island gets to having a major international hub. It’s the second largest city in New Zealand, with a population of roughly 350,000, and is the closest approximation of the big smoke you’ll get for hundreds of miles. The city attracts major concerts, an increasing number of international flights land direct rather than via Auckland and there are international standard museums and attractions. Meanwhile the Canterbury Crusaders rugby team – the best in New Zealand and arguably the best in the world – calls Christchurch home, and there is a packed year-round events calendar. On a more day-to-day level, Christchurch is beginning to inject a bit of cool into that stiff upper lip. Asian fusion restaurants, Maori art and some decidedly unfusty attractions await once you’ve stepped away from the county town clichés.

A big café culture scene has sprung up in recent years, while a number of microbreweries have found a receptive audience amongst the locals. These locals quietly know they’ve got it good - mountains, beaches and the gorgeous Banks Peninsula are just a short drive away, while the city is just the right size to keep you occupied without descending into a grim combination of rat race and suburban sprawl. In fact, what you might mistake for old fashioned English reserve is probably more an air of quiet contentment. It would be perfectly easy to visit for a few days and treat Christchurch as one big gardens, cathedrals and messing about on the river stereotype, but dig beneath the cliché and the city rewards in many ways.

One thing you don’t get in England is penguins. And you certainly don’t get female penguins called Elvis. She’s too waddly to be snake-hipped, but she sure is cute. And it’s possible to watch her swim with her pals from an underwater viewing platform at what is unquestionably Christchurch’s highlight. The International Antarctic centre is an enormous complex near the airport, and it is more than just a cool tourist attraction. It is the base not only for New Zealand’s Antarctic research missions, but for their American and Italian counterparts too. Around 70 per cent of visitors to the Antarctic go there from Christchurch, so the centre is as close as you can get without actually being there. Aside from the penguins, the clear highlight of the centre is the Antarctic Storm, which gives a proper idea just how nippy it can get. It takes place inside a large, glass- panelled room with an igloo and tent to shelter in (and, incongruously, a slide for kids).

The floor is covered in fake snow and the temperature is a parky minus five degrees. It’s only going to get worse, and that’s why we’ve been given snow storm coats and overshoes to don. Gradually, the temperature drops and a wind machine ramps up the chill factor. As it gets down to minus 18.7, a mental note is made that the Scott Base is not an ideal spot for an idyllic beach holiday. The centre also offers the chance to get a bit of an adrenaline rush with a ride on a Hagglund. Understandably, the average Nissan Micra doesn’t quite do the trick over frozen wastelands, so special vehicles are needed. The Hagglund looks like a truck and a tank have had a baby with growth deficiencies, but its tracks and general sturdiness mean it can handle most terrains. Very slowly, admittedly, but its creators were evidently quite into Aesop’s tortoise and hare yarn.The 15 minute ride goes over a specially designed course outside the centre, and has a touch of the fairground about it. Passengers are strapped in (rather uncomfortably), and then thrown round corners at precarious angles, up and down steep hills and through large murky brown puddles.

The Antarctic theme continues apace at the marvellous Canterbury Museum in the heart of the city, where an old research station has been transported over and placed inside a huge building.

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London

21st-22nd October 2017

Birmingham

28th-29th October 2017