By: Christopher Cookson
People often ask what you can do in Blenheim, and sometimes the response isn't always very polite. I've heard responses that amount to, “If you don't drink wine, keep going.” As a local, I think that's pretty sad, so I've compiled a list of some things to do that effectively make up a grand circuit of Blenheim. Blenheim has the ideal climate for getting out on your bike, and it's an environmentally friendly way to get around. Technically, you can also do everything on this list on foot from start to finish, but it will take you several days to complete, whereas on a bike, you should just be able to fit everything into a day if you're fit.
This is certainly not an exhaustive list of things to do in Blenheim, but is based on things that you can do pretty much any day of the week, all year round, weather permitting. The list is organised in order, so that if you visit everything on the list, you will have ended up completing a grand circuit of Blenheim.
The Wine Station
If you ask anyone about Blenheim, the one thing they'll all agree on is that it's the centre of Marlborough's wine region. Not everyone likes wine, but there's no getting away from wine being part of Blenheim's identity. The nice thing about the Wine Station, is that although it is about Marlborough wine, it's also about a bit more. It also serves gourmet food, and features changing exhibitions by local artists and photographers. It also happens to be a station, actually a historic railway station, and stations mean trains. I love trains; freight trains, passenger trains, steam trains, electric trains, whatever. They've become a bit of an endangered species in the South Island, however if you're lucky enough to be in Blenheim over the summer, you're very likely to see the Marlborough Flyer steam train. The station is also one of the stops for the Coastal Pacific train that runs between Picton and Christchurch, and could even be the way you depart or arrive in Blenheim if you a visitor, or maybe even a local.
If neither trains nor wine are your thing, the station also happens to be the arrival and departure point for bus transport to and from Blenheim, and the official visitor information centre is just opposite, so it's a pretty good starting point for a grand tour of Blenheim.
Taylor River Reserve
From the station, it's only a short distance south to Riverside Park and the Taylor River. For better or worse, the river has always been a key part of Blenheim's identity. Flooding led to the town's original name of The Beaver, until someone came up with something with slightly better marketing potential, and since New Zealand was part of the British Empire at the time, officials had the idea of naming places after glorious victories over the French, or commanders who achieved those victories. Thus Blenheim is now Blenheim, even though it's hard to imagine such a formula for naming towns today. Māori were far more practical, and called the area Te Waiharakeke, literally 'waters of flax', or if you want a looser translation 'The flax swamp', which is pretty much what Blenheim was.
Given the river, and battles to contain it, has far more to do with the identity of Blenheim, than a bloody conflict somewhere in Europe over 300 years ago, following the trail along the river is a pretty good way to explore to true identity of the town.
You'll want to cross the river to the true right (the right bank, looking downstream), which you can do at the Crinoline Bridge footbridge within Riverside Park, (so named for a much earlier incarnation, which fashionable ladies of the day had difficulty navigating due to the bridge being narrower than their hooped skirts).
The Taylor River is the key feature that connects everything else on this list, with all the other attractions only a short distance from the river at various points.
The Taylor River trail itself is about 10km long, from Riverside Park to the Taylor Dam, with much of it either paved or sealed. There are plenty of spots to stop and sit to admire the view, and some picnic spots, but be warned, toilet stops are relatively few and far between. One nice feature is a series of poems by local school children on plaques at various points along the river, along with a number of plantings.
As you follow the river, you'll come to a footbridge, which crosses the river to the north to a car park and picnic area. There's also a pedestrian island to make it easier to cross the busy Nelson Street, and if you do so, you'll come to a right of way that will lead you through to Parker Street, opposite Blenheim Golf Course and Pollard Park.
Pollard Park is a beautiful area of gardens and trees with a small stream. There is a playground and there are toilets. Flower beds change with the seasons, and there is a long tradition of planting a large bed overlooking the stream with a message commemorating some event of significance. Think of it as being a bit like Google's doodles, but with flowers, and it's been going on long before Google thought of the idea.
Once you've finished enjoying nature's art, in the form of flowers, you might like to take in some human art. Blenheim has two major art galleries, the Millennium Gallery, which features a range of exhibitions including both local and national or international artists, and the Marlborough Art Society gallery which features predominantly the work of local artists. It pays to check out the websites of each gallery to see what's on and opening times. If you're counting, that's two places to visit, not one, but I've grouped them together, as if you're interested in one, you'll probably want to visit the other as well.
Retrace your path from Pollard Park, back to the Taylor River trail, but this time, instead of rejoining the trail after you cross the footbridge, continue straight ahead, which will take you onto Henry Street, past several churches till you come to a square. I haven't included Seymour Square as a destination in its own right, although possibly I should as it's very attractive with its fountain, formal gardens, and war memorial clock tower. It's definitely a place to enjoy, and is highly photogenic, especially at night with the coloured lights of the fountain, but unless you want to sit and chill out, read a book, or have a picnic lunch, I've always found it to be a place that I tend to admire in passing, rather than becoming immersed in the location in its own right, except when it's being used as a venue for events, but feel free to add it to your list. Basically, Seymour Square is not so much a 'doing' location, but more a 'being' location, where you just stop and let the world pass on around you.
Opposite the north east corner of Seymour Square, you'll find the Millennium Gallery, where you can check out their current exhibitions.
Once you've visited the Millennium Gallery, you need to retrace your path back to the river, and resume you travel along the river bank.
Once again, when you come to a foot bridge, you need to leave the river, and follow the path that leads from the bridge south, onto Beaver Road, until it meets High Street, then it's only a short distance west to the Marlborough Art Society gallery, without needing to cross the road.
If you like old stuff, and want to learn about Marlborough's history, Brayshaw Park is the place to go. It houses a variety of heritage organisations, including Marlborough Museum, Marlborough Vintage Farm Machinery Museum, Marlborough Vintage Car Club, Blenheim Riverside Railway, and Beavertown, a recreation of an early Blenheim street amongst others. Not all facilities are open every day, and some charge an entrance fee, however you can always wander along the Beavertown street, window shopping old Marlborough.
Apart from heritage, a very important feature of Brayshaw Park, if you've been following the river, is public toilets.
If your previous stop was the Marlborough Art Society Gallery, you can either retrace your path back to the river, or continue along High Street, and rejoin the river at the High Street Bridge. From here, it's about two kilometres to Brayshaw Park. Following the river trail, the most convenient entrance to Brayshaw Park is neither obvious, nor signposted, but about 50 metres after passing under the Burleigh Road bridge, it's possible to slip between a couple of white fence posts, and find yourself in front of the Vintage Farm Machinery Museum, in the heart of Brayshaw Park.
Omaka Aviation Heritage Centre
Many superlatives have been applied to the Omaka Aviation Heritage Centre; anyone who has visited rates it as outstanding. It's possible you're not interested in aviation history, but it's probably worth a visit anyway. There's a cafe on site as well, so if you need a caffeine fix or a snack as part of your grand tour of Blenheim, it's definitely worth a stop. If you're going to explore the exhibitions, you need to allow plenty of time here, as there is a good bit to see.
After Braysahw Park, you'll need to hit the river trail again where you left off, but when you get to a concrete rail bridge, don't be tempted to use it as a shortcut, even though it's the most direct route to the Aviation Heritage Centre. Instead, you'll need to carry on till you reach a ford over the Taylor River (which is usually dry, as the river runs through a culvert).
As I mentioned about the Taylor River, for better or worse, it's an integral part of Blenheim's identity. Due to its tendency to flood, the Taylor Dam was constructed to contain the river in times of flood. A side effect of flood protection has been the formation of a small lake that is popular with water-fowl, and a pleasant picnic area. It's also possible to walk a loop around the reserve.
If you've been following my grand circuit of Blenheim so far, after you've visited the Omaka Aviation Heritage Centre, you'll need to head back to the ford over the Taylor River, but this time, don't cross over. You'll find a somewhat narrower, and rather stony path that follows the true left (the left hand side when you're facing downstream) of the river. You'll follow this upstream and will find the track improves, but still is a bit stony in places, as there is no concrete or asphalt here. I've frequently ridden this track on my crossover bike, so you don't have to have a mountain-bike for it, but you may find it a bit more comfortable. You'll ride through a variety of scrub, with lots of wild fennel, until you'll eventually cross a bridge at Meadowbank Road. Immediately after crossing the bridge, you'll need to turn right onto a track that follows the river along the edge of a vineyard.
You'll know when you've reached the dam by the roar of water as it cascades over a concrete weir at the outlet of the dam. The last bit of the journey up and over the dam to the reserve at the other side is steep, so you may want to get of and push your bike.
There are public toilets here, which is quite handy, as you won't find the next ones for a while on this journey.
Wither Hills Farm Park
After you've reached the end of the Taylor River trail at the Taylor Dam, on your return, you may like to take the opportunity to survey all that you've explored by taking some or all of the Wither Hills mountain bike tracks.
Following Taylor Pass Road north from the Taylor Dam, keep a watch out on your right for the entrance to the Wither Hills Mountain Bike Park.
The Rifle Range Track from the Mountain Bike Park entrance through to the Redwood Street entrance to the farm park is relatively easy going. I've personally done it on a twelve speed crossover bike with my daughter in a child seat when she was a toddler, and she loved it. Quite a bit of this part of the track passes through trees, and the shelter makes the ride more pleasant both on hot days, and on cold, windy days. You do get to have some good views over Blenheim after a modest climb from Quail Stream valley. Speaking of Quail Stream, the entrance to the Wither Hills Farm Park at the end of Forest Park Drive is the last place you'll find a toilet, so you might want to consider a quick stop here before climbing up from Quail Stream Valley.
From Redwood Street, the track is wider, and is basically a four wheel drive farm track, but known as the Mapp Track, it is also much steeper, and there are areas with deep ruts, so you need better fitness, and a better bike unless you're prepared to get off and walk parts of it, but it's worth it for the views over the Wairau Plain, out to Cook Strait, and on a clear day, the North Island.
If you're not keen on riding the Mapp track, you can abandon the Wither Hills, and head back to town via Redwood Street, but you don't have to abandon the next two items on the list, just you'll do them in reverse, joining the Riverlands Rail Trail at the Blenheim end at McArtney Street, which is off Redwood Street. You won't make a true circuit, as you'll need to ride the rail trail in both directions, but you'll still get to visit everything in this guide.
If you make it to the end of the Mapp Track, you'll come out on Cobb Cottage Lane, only a short distance to the final point of interest to stop and visit.
Riverlands Cob Cottage
Riverlands Cob Cottage is a beautifully preserved example of pioneer cottages that were common throughout the Marlborough region in the early days of European settlement. It's beside the busy State Highway One, however it's accessible from Cob Cottage Lane, so you don't have to cross the main road.
Riverlands Rail Trail
If you've made it as far as Riverlands Cob Cottage, you need to retrace your path back to the railway line, where you'll find the Riverlands Rail Trail which will take you back into town. It's a pleasant, easy ride that's virtually flat, and you'll ride past vineyards to your left, with the Wither Hills behind them to the south, and the railway line to your right, so as list list started with trains, there's a good chance it might end the same way if you're lucky. The trail ends (or begins, depending on which direction you travel), in an industrial zone, near McCartney Street, which certainly isn't the most scenic, but you'll have avoided the main road, and you're only minutes away from the centre of town.
If you complete the full circuit, you'll have travelled a bit under 27 kilometres, which should be achievable for anyone with a reasonable level of fitness. If you've made it to the end, and you're sitting back enjoying something cold, and wondering whether there's some souvenir to commemorate your achievement, I'll put in a bit of a blantant commercial plug. I've written a couple of companion books, Wind on the Withers and Tales of the Taylor, available from this site's web store, which celebrate much of the area you've explored. I've ridden and walked the trails covered in this guide many times over every season to do photographic justice to them. If you're local, I hope the books might inspire you to repeat the circuit I've described, as the changing seasons bring something different each time. If you're a visitor, and only have the opportunity to do the circuit once, then the books can serve as a memento to the beauty that Blenheim has to offer, that's hard to capture in a day.