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Clyde: Where the heart is

Mike White makes tracks to Clyde on the banks of the Clutha.

In August 1894, Violet Naylor sat at her dining-room table and picked up a fountain pen.

“Dear Dot,” she wrote to the nom de plume of the Otago Witness’ “Letters from Little Folks” column, “We live in Clyde. It is a very pretty place in summer, and even now the weather is very fine, and this is making the buds swell. We shall soon have some early flowers. I have four brothers; their names are Percy, Dyson, Willie and Ezra, and my sister’s name is Reita. We have two cats – Tom and Dan. We celebrated Arbour Day on August 1, and a great many trees were planted. I planted three, and the one I planted last year is growing up very well. Yours truly, Violet M. Naylor, aged 7 years.”

Outside, frost was preparing to settle for the night and smoke rose straight from the town’s chimneys.

Well over a century later, and well after Violet stopped writing letters to the imaginary Dot (who, for many years, was a man), some things have changed little. Winters are still icy. People still enter their homes at dusk with armloads of wood to feed fires. Buds still swell and burst into spring colour. Summers still sizzle. And Clyde, the small town on the Clutha River between Cromwell and Alexandra, is still very pretty, wonderfully so, whatever the season.

Read more: Inside the close-knit community that lives along the Cromwell-Tarras Rd | A Southern man goes for gold in Garston growing hops 

Clyde from a lookout above the town.
It wasn’t always so. When gold was discovered here in 1862, acres of tents were erected within weeks on the Clutha’s banks. Timber and calico and mud. Dreamers and drifters, surveyors then purveyors.

Violet Naylor’s father, Benjamin, a storekeeper provisioning the miners, was responsible for some of the first permanent buildings in Clyde, the stone and mortar structures still standing today on the town’s main street. These, and many other historic buildings, give Clyde an authenticity often missing in places like Arrowtown. Also missing are the swarms of tourists who empty out of buses and swamp pavements, meaning Clyde retains a quiet quaintness, and the prettiness Violet wrote of.

The Clutha rules one border of the town, hustling and twisting down towards Alexandra like an impatient man pushing to the front of a queue. Eddies swirl at its banks where the river turns back on itself and willows lean from its edge, gradually going gold in autumn. You think the surrounding hills are stark and bare, but look more closely and there’s colour everywhere: the pink flower and scarlet berry of rosehip, the yellow of broom, the blues of borage and wild thyme. Step off any trail and you’ll suddenly smell the thyme, so sensory you can’t help but check how long it is till dinner.

In town, cute cottages are tucked behind stone walls with roses curling over them. Across the river are the orchards the area is celebrated for, and the vineyards that have given Central Otago yet another crop to crow about.

A typical Clyde cottage.

Des Paulin used to have an orchard – planted 18 acres of bare land with his bare hands. Apples: granny smiths, sturmers, golden delicious, red delicious. Peaches: mayflower, briggs, golden queen, Mary’s choice. But he made his best money with nectarines, sending them to Auckland where they fetched 30 shillings a case.

He’s 92 and now lives in town, but he’s still growing stuff, rhubarb and strawberries, and tomatoes that seem reluctant to ripen in the small hothouse at his back door. “The world’s supposed to be warming up but I don’t know, I don’t believe them at times.”

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Mind you, he reckons the winters aren’t as bad as the old days when hoar frost would snap the telephone wires.

When he retired, he never thought of living anywhere else. “I was born here, I was quite happy here; good climate, good company, the pub works.”

He lives across the road from the bowling club where he still plays on Wednesdays, and within striking distance of the main street where he goes for a drink every week. “Two stubbies and that kills me.”

And he’s not far from the Clutha, where in the old days musterers would swim across hanging on to their horses’ tails. He used to swim in the river as a boy, in the sheltered alcoves upstream of the bridge, but you had to be careful not to get caught by the current.

“And the Clutha water’s not that warm, actually. It’s a fairly big piece of water to heat up.”

Des Paulin keeps warm, burning wood from fruit trees.
So big a piece of water it was inevitable engineers and politicians eyed it for hydro dams to produce electricity. And so the Clyde Dam was built in the 1980s, a million cubic metres of concrete poured to provide the cornerstone of then-Prime Minister Rob Muldoon’s Think Big policy. It was controversial from the start, with concerns about the earthquake risk and the soaring cost, strikes by workers, and the loss of the gorge above Clyde, which became Lake Dunstan. They re-routed the main road around the town, leaving business owners and residents fearing Clyde would become a bypassed ghost town.

Today, the dam sits above the town, a gargantuan grey wall, 100m high and nearly 500m wide, generating enough electricity to light Christchurch and Dunedin.

Carol Haig was one of the thousands who were drawn to the area during construction, and one of the hundreds who stayed and helped ensure the town’s survival. She’d grown up near Clyde but had ended up in Dunedin, with her husband John. “One day it was raining and I said to John, ‘If we lived in Central, we wouldn’t have to put up with this.’ And he said, ‘Well, find me a job.’ So I did. I wrote to the dam and asked if there were any jobs going.”

John started labouring with the Ministry of Works in 1981 and was there till the dam was completed a decade later.

Clyde Dam.

The ironic thing is that despite being conceived in tumult – political, environmental and economic – what’s been created by the dam is now so tranquil. Lake Dunstan above the dam is a playground for boaties and fishermen, the home of the local rowing club, and a destination for dozens of campervanners who pitch up on the lakeshore each night, oblivious to its fraught history.

“To most people, it’s just a dam,” says Haig. “It’s just there.” The majority of residents don’t know any different, she says, and it doesn’t dominate the town. Your eyes are instead drawn to the hills and lake and river. “You just look around, it’s beautiful.”

Even the main street, filled with holidaymakers and visitors in summer, is a joy. “I think it’s an awesome ambience to go down there and be part of the whole buzz, without even having to leave your town. And I personally love winters here. Have you ever seen spider webs in frost? They’re beautiful.”

Both her kids have moved back to Clyde and live around the corner from her. She has three grandchildren. She’s not moving. “Shit no. It’s got everything we want.”

Her roots in Clyde go back to her great-great-grandfather, Martin Marshall, who came here in 1863 and opened a shop selling newspapers, perfumes and tobacco. And Haig, who volunteers as a teacher aide at the local school and is involved with countless community organisations, feels she has the same onus as her ancestors did – to preserve the town’s historic heart and not cave in to kitsch development, while meeting residents’ needs.

“If we want to remain a village, with a laidback style, we have to take responsibility for it. And that doesn’t mean sitting on your arse, doing nothing. It means, when the council says, ‘Give us your opinion,’ you give it!”

And with that she’s off, on her electric bike, out of her cul-de-sac and down towards the school to help out for the afternoon, the tip of her turquoise scarf fluttering behind her.

A cyclist crosses the Clutha River at the beginning of the rail trail.
It’s bikes that have been a major factor in Clyde’s renaissance. Before the dam went in, the government got rid of the rail line that ran to Cromwell, stopping the trains at Middlemarch, 150km from Clyde. When the Department of Conservation suggested turning the disused rail route into a cycleway, people reckoned they were loony. Nobody thinks that any more. Now, thousands of tourists spend four or five days cycling across Central Otago, beginning or ending at Clyde.

“This week alone we’ve put close to 100 people out on the trail,” says Lisa Joyce from Bike It Now, one of four cycle companies operating in Clyde. It was only Tuesday. They do everything people want – pick them up, hire them bikes, transfer their luggage, book them lovely accommodation in lovely villages along the way. Joyce says kids can ride the whole trail from age 10, and they’ve had an 83-year-old complete it. And despite the reputation of Central Otago’s winters, you can do it all year round, she insists.

Like many, Joyce is new to Clyde. She came here to do IT on the dam and ended up buying into the bike company. For others, like Bruce Ramsay, ending up in Clyde was part of a retirement plan. After 32 years living in Marlborough, he and wife Gail felt they’d done and seen pretty much everything in the province and were looking for somewhere different when Bruce finished working at Air New Zealand. They found Clyde. “It’s quiet. I like fishing. I like biking. There’s plenty of part-time work if you want it. Everybody’s been so friendly.”

Ramsay was on one of his daily walks, from the house on a new subdivision they shifted into in August, down behind the golf course, along the river, up the hill, through town then home.

“I’ve lost seven kilos since I’ve been here,” he says. “It’s brilliant. I’m quite quiet about it, but anyone that asks, I say, ‘Shifting here’s the best thing we ever did.’”

Melanie Eade with her dog Mollie in the Eades’ new art gallery, which has been part of the town’s recent growth.

Melanie Eade made the move 10 years ago after she and husband Rex decided they’d had enough of Auckland. They bought a mudbrick house, ran a B&B from it, and then built an art gallery in central Clyde. Opened last year, it has work from 40 mainly Central Otago artists, including Eade’s own paintings. When she got sick two years ago, they thought about moving. “So we looked at the map and went all around – and we came back to Clyde.”

About once a month, they hook up their caravan and drive five minutes, over the bridge and up the other side past the dam, and stop under the trees on the edge of Lake Dunstan. “A lot of people say you go around a corner and there’s a different view. So for us here, we look out over the hills. But you go up and park your caravan by the lake and you wake up with the sun coming through the window and reflecting off the water, so you’re in a totally different environment.”

Then they walk or bike back to the gallery in Clyde each day, feeling as if they’re on holiday, and feeling as if they’re the luckiest people in the world.

The gallery they built is part of Clyde’s growth, and there is talk by the council of further development: a sewage system, a one-way system, a big carpark down by the river, a piazza off the main street. Everyone realises changes are needed, but what they fear is that Clyde will become sanitised, says Eade. “There’s a lot of us who don’t want Clyde to go the Arrowtown way. We like the little old buildings and the fact the people who are practising for the rail trail who haven’t cycled for 30 years can wobble down the road and back again – that’s what Clyde’s about.”

Olivers restaurant and accommodation.
Perhaps the best model for the town’s planners is Olivers, a restaurant and accommodation complex that is Clyde’s centrepiece. Built by Benjamin Naylor in 1869, the main building was rescued and renovated by restaurateur Fleur Sullivan in the 1970s. After Sullivan shifted to Moeraki, the building began to deteriorate and was abandoned for many years. In 2009, Auckland CEO David Ritchie and wife Andrea took a day off from skiing in Wanaka and stopped in Clyde for a coffee.

Across the road, they saw the neglected Olivers. “We decided we were looking for a project,” says David. “I’d had my fill of the corporate world and so we found a project: a series of eight stone buildings that were in differing stages of dereliction and decay. Most people thought we were mad – the buildings were all heritage-listed category one, the highest level. You couldn’t demolish them but for some of the buildings, that was probably the best thing to do, based on what they were. We just worked on them one by one, and we always foresaw it as a 10-year project.”

With Heritage New Zealand and conservation architects, the Ritchies restored and earthquake-strengthened the buildings over five years. Now there is premium accommodation, a fine-dining restaurant, a cafe that bakes all its bread and other food, a delicatessen, bar and micro-brewery, which have all helped make Clyde a destination rather than somewhere you skirt around.

The Ritchies had lived across the world: London, Melbourne, Kuala Lumpur, Auckland, Wellington – then Clyde. Given the history of broken promises from previous owners, locals were naturally suspicious of a couple of corporate flash-Harries taking over Olivers.

“I figured half the people here probably thought we were on some sort of witness protection programme, brought here to hide away,” says Andrea. But their reception was fantastic, and now there’s little chance they’ll shift from Central Otago, she says.

“It’s absolutely under our skin. When we came here, it felt like Clyde could go two ways: it could just stay as it was and the population could continue to age and wane. Or it could become something. And it has become something.”

Violet Naylor’s grave.
It was in the now-refurbished Olivers that Violet Naylor wrote of life in Clyde in the winter of 1894. Just outside town, as you head towards the rail trail waypoints of Chatto Creek, Ōmakau, Ophir and beyond into the Maniototo, lies Clyde’s cemetery. And in it lies Violet. She died in 1974, aged 88, without ever marrying or having children. Beside her are brothers Ezra and Willie who she wrote of – Ezra dying when he was just six, and Willie outliving Violet and dying in 1983, aged 91. Her father, Benjamin, is there too, beneath a grand marble headstone befitting his role in the town’s birth.

Back in Clyde, the streets are lined with trees that ripple in the westerlies and provide shade from scalding summers. Trees like the ones Violet and her siblings planted over the years. And from one of them, hanging over the berm, is a swing, its seat just perfect for a seven-year-old watching the buds turn to blossom.

Where to stay

Dunstan House

Grand 120-year-old building on the main street with wonderful wooden staircase, sunny verandah and individually restored rooms. Ian and Meredith Kerrisk are fabulous hosts, and it’s an ideal spot to start or end your rail trail ride. Rooms for $130-$260 per night, including breakfast. Ph (03) 449-2295, dunstanhouse.co.nz


Truly beautiful accommodation in historic buildings in the heart of Clyde. Guests also get to enjoy owner David Ritchie’s wonderful collection of antique maps. Rooms for $235-$425, including cooked breakfast. Ph (03) 449-2600, oliverscentralotago.co.nz.

Where to eat

There are several excellent places to eat in Clyde. The Bank Cafe on the main street is a good spot for a coffee, while the Post Office Cafe also does dinner and has a lovely open fire for winter. Paulina’s is a great new restaurant set up by its Chilean owner, and Olivers has a daytime cafe and fine dining in the restaurant, housed in its beautifully restored main building.

Otago Central Rail Trail

Most people start or end their Otago Central Rail Trail journey at Clyde. There are numerous companies that can organise all the logistics for this memorable bike trip.

This article was first published in the July 2018 issue of North & South.