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Walking up to Northland

In Wellington for a family member’s significant birthday, Mary-Jane Richmond found a way to the suburb where she grew up, through the town belt.

The Wellington suburb of Northland lies up in the city's northwest hills, between Karori and Wadestown and next to Kelburn.

You can walk into the city down any number of windy paths and roads and on almost all of them, looming to your left, is Tinakori Hill, or Te Ahumairangi as it is known now.

These days the expanse of green reserve, part of that marvellous Wellington natural asset that rings the city and is known locally as just “the town belt”, is criss-crossed with walking paths. It is part of the Northern Walkway, which starts in Johnsonville and ends in Kelburn at the Botanic Gardens, or the Cable Car if you want to breast one last hill.

As a teenager, I sometimes walked to school in Thorndon from Northland down Garden Road and Glenmore Street and then Tinakori Road. When I caught the bus, which was most days, the bus would pick me up at the top of Woburn Road and follow Northland Road down through the Northland Tunnel then the Karori Tunnel, into Glenmore St past the Kelburn Viaduct and down past the Botanic Gardens.

Here to the left was Te Ahumairangi and clinging to its slopes, up precipitous narrow streets, were small wooden cottages, rarely touched by the sun (the sites faced south).

Not too many years later those cottages were being renovated as people came to realise the value of living so close to the city. Colonial became chic.

Now, some 50 years later and on a visit to Wellington for a family member's significant birthday, I had the chance to check out one of those renovated cottages at the top of one of those steep streets. It came up on airbnb when I was looking for somewhere to stay (family member's house being full).

As it happened, the house was right beside the start of an entry point to the Northern Walkway.

We stayed there for three nights and I was a bit surprised by the steady stream of runners and walkers setting off up this path, or emerging from it.

So it was on the third day I decided to see what was up this track, and where it might lead. I had a look on Google maps and thought it should take me up to the suburb of my childhood home.

Which is what happened, though I knew a few moments of confusion at one stage at the end when I took a couple of wrong turns, orienteering not being one of my natural talents. My excuse is that since the early 1970s, a lot of building has gone on here on slopes that I remember being covered in gorse.

Young pilot remembered

Wellington was not on its best behaviour weather-wise but it didn't rain or blow, and the views are spectacular even when the faraway Orongorongo Ranges beyond the harbour are draped in cloud.

The track from the top of St Mary Street climbs steadily but levels out and doubles back to an easy hike through bush. A number of other tracks branch off at different points and would take you across to Wadestown or higher up Tinakori Hill.

I was bound for Northland though, and in the end it was a relatively easy half-hour walk. The track came out at the Stellin Memorial Park, new to me. Here is a plaza offering stunning views across Wellington and beyond, and the harbour, and a plaque telling the story of the park's namesake.

James Kingston Stellin was a New Zealand Pilot Officer serving in the RAF. A memorial to James Stellin was erected at Saint-Maclou-la-Brière, a small village in the Seine-Maritime region of Normandy, in 1964. It was here, on 19 August 1944, that Stellin gave his own life to save the village's inhabitants.

He was flying an RAF Hawker Typhoon fighter-bomber when he was killed in action. Operating mainly as “tank-busters”, the rocket-armed Typhoons played a crucial role in the successful Allied campaign in Normandy. In August 1944 alone, Stellin's 609 Squadron flew 461 operational sorties, and destroyed at least 42 German tanks and 88 motorised enemy vehicles.

A memorial plaque to James Stellin, originally housed at the Kilbirne RSA, is now held by his old school in Wellington, Scots College. The college has other memorabilia relating to Stellin, including a flying satchel recovered from his crashed Typhoon.

In 1964 following the death of his father, the land now known as Stellin Memorial Park was bequeathed to Wellington City Council in memory of James Stellin.

The lookout was built in 1977.

Leaving the park I decided to complete a loop back to our holiday rental, which meant heading down to Northland Road, walking past my old primary school and the old school room where I went to kindergarten. Opposite the Methodist Church, and next to the former fire station (now apartments) I took a left down Garden Road, a familiar short cut to any Northland resident, winding its way to Glenmore St.

Here you could cross the road and wander through the Botanic Gardens — always a treat on a visit to Wellington. It's an easy walk to the Lady Norwood Rose Garden where in the right season the roses are spectacular, and all year round the Picnic Cafe offers good coffee and cake and other nourishments.

From here I went down the steps into Glenmore St, and scaled the heights of St Mary St back to our comfortable holiday house.


CLOUD COVER: Not one of the capital's better days, but still a spectacular view across Wellington from the James Stellin Memorial Park in Northland.
YOUNG HERO: The plaque at James Stellin Memorial Park remembers the RAF pilot after whom the park is named.
A BETTER DAY: Stepping out the front door of our holiday rental at the top of one of Thorndon's steepest streets, this is the view that greets you.
STILL THE SAME: The St Anne's School Room, next to St Anne's Church at the top of Woburn Road in Northland. In the 1950s, this was the home for the Northland Kindergarten.
HELPING HAND: A comprehensive information board at the Stellin Memorial Park provides a map of the paths which criss-cross Te Ahumairangi Hill.
SOFT UNDERFOOT: One of the well-used tracks on the Te Ahumairangi Hill section of Wellington's Northern Walkway.
SHORT STAY: Our holiday rental — an old two-bedroomed cottage similar to many others in Thorndon and dotted around Wellington's hills. Our hosts had renovated it to a comfortable modern standard with polished floors and a very well-equipped kitchen. The bed linen was top of the range, definitely a plus for me.