My family moved to Dunedin when I was about 11, and as such I guess I missed out on some of the lore available to those who have been here their entire lives. Case in point, the two “castles” that would catch my eye and my imagination whenever I was driven into or out of the city. I’d press my face up against the car window and wonder what lay behind the dark arched portals, or imagine myself looking over the city from the ramparts. And I wondered, what were these medieval castles doing nestled in Dunedin’s industrial district?
Not long ago, while walking home along an unusual route that took me down Cumberland St, I found myself face to face with one of my childhood inspirations. Now that I’m an adventurer, I thought to myself, I’m practically obligated to explore.
The DCC have kindly left a clue in the form of plaque set under the archway, so I approached, ready to solve this mystery once and for all.
So it turns out my castle fantasy is pretty far from the truth. These structures are in fact the remains of a railway overbridge that was built in 1883 and taken down in 1977. And since 1977 is well within living memory for many Dunedin residents, I probably would have learned this a lot sooner if I’d thought to ask anyone about it.
And what of the arched portal with staircase beyond? Why that’s simply a convenient access for pedestrians up on to the bridge!
I climbed the staircase, noting the weathered stone and weeds which had taken root in the cracks.
I emerged at the top…and found myself in a very normal car park. Turned to gaze from the cragged mossy ramparts and discovered that the view was fairly unspectacular.
The eleven year old in me was unimpressed, so I made my way back down the staircase, turned up my nose, and went home.
Respectable Dunedinites of the late 1800s would have considered me very wise not to hang around, as this was once an area of ill-repute, frequented by sailors and delinquents and drunks. Passing by, I’d be considered lucky not to be beaten up or mugged or seduced (hang on, that last one might not be so bad!).
Gosh, Cumberland St is a lot less exciting these days!
A week later, I decided I might as well pay a visit to the opposing castle on Wharf St. So I took an even more convoluted route home, passing the wharf and new overbridge on the way.
Finally that wooden fence up there makes sense – presumably that’s where the iron bridge was attached.
Hmm, but what’s this?
The gate here is barred – a fact that only used to fuel my imagination further – and the stairwell is full of debris.
Since there was no access here, I decided to wander around the back just in case there was anything more to be seen. So I backtracked down Wharf St, into Birch St, and then turned into Robertson St, walking up the gentle incline designed to allow carriages access on to the bridge. There is still some of the original masonry wall at the edge of the road.
The rear of the castle was barred by a sturdy metal wall and gate. All I could do was peek around the side into the empty storage yard beyond.
My childhood imagination thoroughly replaced by the cold light of reality, I turned to go home, leaving the ghosts of the old bridge and Dunedin’s disreputable past behind.