Castlecliff was known in pre-eurpoean times to many Maori as Kokohuia after the flax flower. In summer the children from the fishing villages loved to play in the wetlands and a favourite game was running through hitting the flower stalks to release the orange-red pollen - the child with the reddest neck & face won!
Pakeha used the castle-like cliff as a navigation point for river steamers giving the area it's current name.
Castlecliff has an extensive history and was a seaside town of baches that was for a while an exclusive and independant township with it's own tramline to Wanganui. Other notable events have often centered around the beach - for example the Port Bowen wreck.
Many thanks for photos & background go to Laraine Sole author of "CASTLECLIFF - The Community on the Coast" published October 2008 ISBN 978-0-473-14214-8
Castlecliff port in the 18th & early 19th centuries was the transit point for goods into and produce out of the central North Island region. Below is a video on the history of navigating the Whanganui river.
History (from the Whanganui Council Castlecliff Coastal Reserve Management Plan 2005 (PDF copy right:
Maori history gives credit for the discovery of New Zealand to Kupe, the renowned chieftain of Hawaiki.
To the early Maori the coast to the north of the mouth of the Whanganui River was known as Kai Hau O Kupe.
Smart and Bates (1972, p.20) in their book “The Wanganui Story” describe Kupe’s discovery of Wanganui...
“After a short stay in the shelter of what is now Wellington Harbour, Kupe continued his journey up the West Coast of the North Island passing between the mainland and the islands of Mana and Kapiti, until he eventually passed the mouth of a large river (now the Whanganui) which he knew would give him access to the interior of the land.
Kupe decided to land on the north bank of the river but the rough water of the river mouth made a crossing of the bar too hazardous to attempt so he and his crew were confined to the coast for several days. It was during this enforced stay that Kupe found some difficulty in obtaining supplies of food for his crew. From this fact Wanganui received its first place name ‘Kai Hau O Kupe’; a literal translation gives the meaning as “the place where Kupe ate the wind””.
Early Maori Occupation Before European arrival and settlement:
Maori had a set routine of seasonal occupation of the tidal estuary. Smart and Bates (1972) produced a map of Pa Sites on the Lower Whanganui River. Pungarehu is shown on the north bank of the Whanganui River very close to the coast and is described as:
“The most seaward fishing Pa of the Ngarauru tribe, and often referred to in the Land Court records of the 1860’s as sited near the Pilot Station at Castlecliff so it would have been near the intersection of Morgan and Tregenna Streets. No visible evidence of this rather exposed fishing village has been discovered, but its importance to the Waitotara Maori was significant and its quick access to the ocean fishing grounds was an added advantage.”
Smart and Bates (1972, p.30) A limited number of artefacts of archaeological significance have been discovered at Castlecliff. One, an adze found near Thatcher Street, has been dated between 500 and 1000 years old, and is of the early ‘Moa Hunter’ type. The significance of this in terms of very early settlements has yet to be established.
The importance of Castlecliff Reserve for access to traditional Maori fishing grounds and other resources continues today as it has since long before European occupation of New Zealand.
European Settlement of the Area:
Kirk (1989, p.33), in his book “Streets of Wanganui”, states:
“The European name of Castlecliff first appeared in 1853. In that year a notice appeared in the Wellington newspaper advising mariners that the entrance to the Wanganui River could be picked up from the open sea by observing the castlelike cliff to the north of the entrance to the river. Indeed a high cliff did exist there at one time, but over the years it has been eroded by the sea.
In 1881 a meeting of residents of Wanganui was held to discuss a proposal that a railway should be constructed to Castlecliff. After discussion it was agreed to form a railway company. After the formation of the company in 1882 the township of Castlecliff was laid out.
In January 1883 the lease of 98 sections was offered by auction. With the sale of these sections Castlecliff was established although it was 1885 before the first passenger trains ran between Wanganui and Castlecliff.”
The Castlecliff Town Board was established in 1909. In 1911 it received a considerable boost when the following decision was made: “In the 1911 Wanganui Harbour Board election the party favouring an overseas port at Castlecliff was elected over the opposition of several influential merchants who wanted the Town wharf developed.” This decision resulted in the original wharf at Castlecliff being rebuilt along with further extensions of the moles and the construction of a wall to form a floating basin. The Harbour Board, and the development of the Port at Castlecliff was very important in the development of the young township.
This can be seen in the selection of street names. “The names selected for the streets in the new township were the surnames of the members of the first Harbour Board, which had been elected in 1877… the first block of streets were Bamber, Tod, Bryce and Morgan Streets. The second series of streets laid out were named after the members of the 1881 Harbour Board, Cornfoot, Polson, Laird, Cross and Thatcher Streets.” Kirk, (1989, p.33)
The Castlecliff Town Board existed until 1924 when it amalgamated with the Gonville Town Board and the Wanganui Borough Council to form the Wanganui City Council.
The suburb of Castlecliff continued to grow. By 1991 it had a population of 4044 people and 1391 occupied dwellings.
Castlecliff Coastal Reserve:
The area of land comprising the Castlecliff Domain Recreation Reserve is primarily land which has been formed over the past 100 years as coastal processes adjusted to port developments.
Mole structures were constructed on the North and South heads in 1877 to aid navigation at the river entrance by improving river depth and channel stability. The moles were later extended in 1911. The structures have resulted in accretion of sand as it becomes trapped by a dominant net north to south littoral drift.
The greatest change occurred adjacent to the North Mole where the coastline moved approximately 600 metres seaward between 1880 and 1993. The rate of progradation decreases in a northerly direction. The Castlecliff Domain was identified as a Reserve in 1918 when an area of 12 acres (4.9 hectares) of beach and dune land was reserved for the purposes of a “Public Recreation Ground”. A further 50 acres (20.2 hectares) of accreted land was added to the Reserve in 1957.
The Reserve is dominated by the Tasman Sea, instilling a sense of isolation and wildness. The many moods of the sea created by the tides, waves and weather provide escape from the nearby City. Cloud formations and sunsets are dramatic and the horizon line creates a sense of infinity. Black iron sand strewn with driftwood typifies the ruggedness of a west coast beach.
The climate is temperate, with warm summers and mild winters. The average annual rainfall is 906 mm, mean annual sunshine hours are 2087 and the average daily maximum temperature is 17.5 degrees Celsius (average daily minimum temperature is 9.6 degrees Celsius)
Wanganui townspeople have been travelling to Castlecliff to fish and swim since 1885 when the Wanganui Heads Railway Company commenced operation. Passenger rail transport between Wanganui and the township of Castlecliff continued until the extension of the tramway service to Castlecliff in 1912 seriously reduced the number of passengers travelling by train. The early 1900s was a time when many townspeople were either camping or building bachs at Castlecliff, with many travelling to and from work throughout the summer months.
Interest in the beach environs grew during this period and in 1911 the Castlecliff Surf Bathers and Life Saving Club was formed. The club reformed as the Castlecliff Ladies Surf Lifesaving Club,then became the Castlecliff Surf and Life Saving Club, and is now known as the Wanganui Surf Lifeguard Service.
The New Zealand Places Trust report that in 1912 a Tea Kiosk was built at the beach. This building was subsequently relocated out of the Reserve in 1935 to Puriri Street where it now serves as clubrooms for the Braves Softball Club. The building is part of Castlecliff’s history as it is registered as a Category II Historic Place under the Historic Places Act 1993.
The increasing interest in the beach sparked off a series of development schemes which included the erection of the Castlecliff Bathhouse in 1918, permanent shelters in 1923 and a beach pavilion in 1957. Other developments include the construction of the Duncan Pavilion, public toilets, car parking areas and the children’s playground.
During the Second World War at least five emplacements (pill boxes) were built near the coast. Of these, two are located adjacent to the Wanganui Surf Lifeguard Service building (now sand covered), two in the dune land of the Reserve, and the fifth was located by the Morgan Street toilets, however, it was destroyed by the Army in 1973. Initially these boxes were placed so a view of the sea and beach area was available, but natural processes at the coast have resulted in the dune sand moving and building around them. The earth mound has since been removed, and the sail is stored in the Castlecliff Lifeguards Pavilion and is available for use in the domain during times when events are being held.
A planting programme involving the public was held during Conservation Week in 1988. Over 1000 trees were planted along the reserve fronting Seafront Road. In November 1988 an earth mound entertainment stage with a portable ‘sail’ backdrop was erected in the children’s play area. In 1991 efforts to improve the appearance of the Reserve with a 22-point plan saw significant improvement in the visual appeal of the Reserve on arrival at the Rangiora Street entrance, with a number of planting beds being put in place. These beds were irrigated using trickle feed, and have stood the test of time and are now well established.
Within the Reserve formal paths tend to focus on the beach environment, providing access from the Domain over the dunes and onto the beach. A large proportion of users walk within the Reserve, forming their own tracks. Most lead to the beach, but some link with features within the Reserve, such as the World War II Pill Boxes.
The activities taking place in the Reserve based on natural features include walking, running, swimming, fishing, surfing, picnicking, bird watching, dog exercising, horse riding and exercising, sitting, watching, driving and playing.
A major reason for people visiting the coast has to do with the ‘visual experience’ and atmosphere. This changes significantly throughout the Reserve and is typified by the influence of the sea. Its vastness, ever-changing colours and moods offer different visual appeal from day to night and from season to season. From within the Reserve views of Mt Taranaki, Mt Ruapehu, Kapiti Island and the South Taranaki coastline are available. The black sands, driftwood and pumice provide a unique appeal along the beachfront.
Recent developments in the reserve include:
Upgrade of Rangiora Street toilets and refurbishment to Art Deco period style.
Fencing and barrier placement as per the 1994 Plan recommendations
Seat and picnic table installation
Construction of the fishing platform along the river edge at the eastern boundary of the Reserve
Significant upgrade and redevelopment of the playground and equipment
Development of new accessible toilets on the upper storey of the Duncan Pavilion, and demolition of the rear toilets
The adoption of a policy to open the changing rooms and toilets under the Duncan Pavilion each day during the summer months.
Continuous landscaping and planting in the Domain.
The Council and community are fortunate in having groups within Castlecliff actively working in the Reserve to improve the physical condition of the area.
Dolf de Roos, a well-known New Zealand property expert, commented on New Zealand coastal property in a recent article in his newsletter titled ‘Life is a Holiday by the Seaside’:
“The allure of the seaside is varied and deep seated by those in the work force who are no longer shackled to their place of employment and may seek to live by the seaside. Another Castlecliff Coastal Reserve Management Plan – 40 category may also want to move there: the vast and burgeoning masses of retired people including the bulge of baby-boomers who are headed for retirement. Therefore it is my contention that in the coming years, the value of seaside real estate is going to rise much faster than the comparable value of inland real estate. And this trend has already started to happen worldwide. In the United States the top 100 seaside counties have had population growths 50% higher than the national average since 1993. I imagine the statistics are similar in other countries”.
Given the increasing popularity of coastal real estate and the number of people nearing retirement in New Zealand in the next few years, it would seem logical that the quality of the amenities that Castlecliff Reserve has to offer could play a key part in the future popularity of Wanganui’s largest seaside suburb.