Things you never knew about Pukekura Park

Often called the jewel of New Plymouth’s crown, Pukekura Park is one of the many must do’s in Taranaki. The 52 hectare park is perhaps most well-known for hosting the annual TSB Bank Festival of Lights, but there are several park secrets that even locals don’t know about.

Pukekura Park was once a wasteland with a stream

Pukekura Park’s story started in the late 1800s when New Plymouth lawyer Robert Clinton Hughes saw Pukekura Stream and persuaded the Taranaki Provincial Government to purchase 12 hectares around it for use as a recreational reserve.

The original stream valley was full of gorse, ferns and wild bush, and was cleared by an independent park board who managed the park until 1929 when it was handed over to the then-New Plymouth Borough Council.

The stream was dammed to form the lake that you see today using earth removed from the neighbouring site that is now a cricket ground (it was once a hill like the surrounding viewing terraces).

In 1876, ‘The Rec’ was established and the name was changed to ‘Pukekura’ which means ‘red hill’ in 1907. 

The story behind the red bridge

Thousands stop to take photos of Pukekura Park’s famous red ‘Poet’s Bridge,’ but what many don’t know is that the name isn’t actually named after the poetic thoughts that enter your mind as you gaze at its beauty…

When Pukekura Park extended its main lake to the south, it became very apparent that a bridge was required to help people walk its circumference more comfortably.

Finding the funds for such a bridge proved to be difficult until J. T. Davis, a member of the independent park board, won 150 pounds at the races on a horse called ‘The Poet.’

The bridge opened on 11 March 1884 and stood until just before the second World War where it was replaced due to deterioration.

The new bridge was painted red, inspired by the famous red bridge in Nikko, Japan.

A red flag

While you can’t swim in Pukekura Park’s lake nowadays, it was once a hub for swimming sports and canoe races. The location for the current Tea House on the Lake was originally where the springboard and bathing shed were situated.

After being dammed, Pukekura Stream was lined with boxed clay and supporting embankments were raised. Fresh water was then used to fill the lake.

Pukekura Park was a lot of fun, but there were still many rules. Not only did everyone have to wear neck to knee bathing costumes, but women and men were not allowed to swim together.

Cannon Hill, the small hill located behind the band rotunda, was where a large red flag would be hoisted to announce that it was time for ladies to swim – this was between the hours of 8am and 1pm daily except for Sundays. When the red flag was flying, men weren’t allowed in the vicinity of the lake.

It has a history with Royalty

Pukekura Park has hosted a number of royals since it was established.

In January 1954, Queen Elizabeth II and the Duke of Edinburgh visited New Plymouth and had an official reception at the cricket ground. Hundreds turned up to catch a glimpse of the new queen.

One year earlier, what is now the TSB Bank Festival of Lights saw its humble beginnings when a fountain with lights beneath it was installed to commemorate the Queen’s coronation.
In November 2015, Pukekura Park hosted Prince Charles and Camilla for a high tea in the upper gardens of Brooklands Park. The royal couple met with 500 invited guests for the formal gathering. They were scheduled for a tour of Pukekura Park’s fernery, but unfortunately that aspect of the visit was cancelled due to flight delays.

Whale bones 

Apart from once bearing a red flag, Cannon Hill also used to display several cannons and you can still see a square of concrete on the summit where a cannon used to sit.

The bones from a large baleen whale that died near Okato in 1893 were, for many years, an additional feature on the slopes and may be seen in some old photographs.

A movie star 

In 2003, Pukekura Park was transformed into one of the film sets for Warner Brothers’ movie The Last Samurai, starring Tom Cruise.

If you watch the film closely, you will recognise the cricket grounds being used as the parade ground where the Japanese troops are trained.

This is where Nathan Algren (Tom Cruise) invites a young recruit to shoot him in the movie. You can even see the cricket terraces in the background! See the official move trailer below:

50,000 plants

The fernery at Pukekura Park is home to an ever-changing display of around 50,000 plants.

What many may not realise is that apart from the first house of ferns, every plant in the displays is kept in an individual pot, one of the reasons is due to differing soil and hydration needs of each plant.

It takes a lot of time and effort to keep the plants well-watered and every single plant is watered by hand. In summer when the plants are more thirsty, it can take one person up to eight hours to complete the watering alone!

Borris the eel

Aside from the ducks, Pukekura Park’s lakes are home to a lot of wildlife.

When the lake was half-emptied for maintenance a couple of years ago, several species of native shellfish were found, a feral goldfish community and a large community of eels.

he most famous eel is ‘Boris’ who has made many news headlines over the years. The blue-eyed behemoth can often be found by Tea House on the Lake, snacking on chicken pellets thrown by kids to the ducks.

Boris the eel also stars in this cartoon which featured at the TSB Bank Festival of Lights in the early 2000s: