Sunday, September 18, 2011
Ruatane in Real Life: My Old Home Town
The wide sweep of the Bay of Plenty stretched to the edge of Amy’s sight, and straight in front of her ocean met sky all along the horizon, broken only by White Island with its constant puff of smoke.
- Sentence of Marriage, Chapter 1
Many small bays and harbours are held within that wide sweep of the Bay of Plenty. I slipped in one more, and called it Ruatane.
Ruatane is my own invention, but it's inspired by the real-life small town of Opotiki. Earlier this month I paid a visit to my old home town.
Apart from a hurried trip twelve years ago for a funeral, it was my first visit in decades. I left Opotiki at the age of 17 to go to university, and have spent little time there as an adult. But I grew up there; went to school there; fell in love and married there. The early memories are buried deep, but they're part of my core.
Opotiki never grew very large, its growth overtaken by towns to the west that were closer to the railway and to major highways. Partly thanks to this, many of its old buildings have survived, including some that (in their Ruatane versions) play a role in my books.
The Anglican church was built in 1864. Old photographs show that it had a more open setting in its early days, with plenty of room for buggies to pull up in front. I got married here (and many of my characters are in the congregation of Ruatane's):
The Courthouse - a little newer than Ruatane's version, but the building that I had in mind. The marriage that gives Sentence of Marriage its title took place here. I voted for the first time in this courthouse, as did the women of Ruatane in 1893, the first election after women gained the vote.
The Royal Hotel! Just don't go round the back and up the stairs (I should add that I have no reason to believe there's anything scandalous about the real life version):
The wharf has a boat ramp that's popular for launching pleasure boats, but it's a quiet place compared to the years when it was the hub of coastal steamer traffic linking Opotiki with the rest of the country.
Opotiki's theatre was built in 1926, and it's one of New Zealand's oldest purpose-built cinemas still in use.
Opotiki holds an annual silent film festival, and this was one of the motivations for our visit. We thoroughly enjoyed the film, complete with piano accompaniment, patrons dressed in period costume, and sweets rolled down the aisle.
The cinema is from a later period than my books have (so far) covered, but I suspect it will make its way into a future work. It'll be interesting to see what the people of Ruatane make of it.
We spent much of our brief visit just wandering around the town, searching for the familiar and adjusting to the unexpected. As so often happens with a return to childhood haunts, everything seemed far smaller than I remembered. It's a pleasant town for walking, the town land nestled into river flats and the streets almost empty of traffic. There's even a very nice place to eat in what used to be a shop: Nikau Café, where we had excellent venison for dinner and a fine breakfast the following morning. Espresso on the main street of Ruatane!
It's a strange sensation, seeing again places that are distant but exquisitely clear in memory, like images seen through the wrong end of a telescope. An unsettling experience, but also a rather wonderful one. I think we'll be back, and this time it won't take us so long to return.