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Published: 14 April 2023

By Andy Ross

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The charm of small town lives

Across Aotearoa there are settlements, villages, towns and farmsteads, easily accessible and not too far from anywhere. 

Many of these places sprang up to exploit a resource. On the West Coast, gold and coal mining along with timber led to the opening up of the region to road and rail traffic. New towns opened up to cater to new arrivals, and ports led to the development of places like Greymouth Mawhera, Kawatiri Westport and Hokitika. In other parts of the country farming and milling brought communities together and these needed a central point for imports and exports as well as shops and banks. In Waimate, for example, once a seasonal hunting area for Maori people, timber milling led to the expansion of the settlement and nowadays supports farming communities who grow berries (and make excellent ice-cream with those berries) and make extremely good pinot noir wine! In the North Island, places like Taihape, an community that once was a hub for the transport of wool and now is a stop for visitors,  make use of their rural identity to draw people to the town. 

New Zealand's geography has played a large part in the establishment of these places, but it is the New Zealand temperament that has allowed such places to flourish long after the importance of their original purpose has declined. These settlements allow people to live rurally but with ready access to modern amenities and that is ideal for someone wanting to pursue creativity while also having space and freedom. 

It is not new, however, this phenomenon. In the days when going to the shops to purchase clothes was not as simple as it is nowadays, each small town had its draper and haberdasher, tailor and dressmaker, and often the wives of parliamentarians would travel from Wellington to have dresses and outfits made in Westport. A recent conversation in the local Greymouth theatre lobby revealed that there are family links to Michael Mattar who created gowns for the fashionable from his hometown of Taumarunui in the middle of the last century. 

As people become increasingly mobile and transport links improve, the ability to live and work in what are usually perceived as "remote locations" becomes more attractive. The original reasons for the location of these small settlements and towns might have vanished but a new reason for them to remain has assured their future. Long live small town life!