Today, however, there’s little sign of this, and Parnell is characterised by its expensive real estate, with an eclectic mix of old cottages and large, modern mansions, as well as an inviting selection of top restaurants, clothing designers, artisan markets, parks, gardens, and impressive public architecture ranging from the iconic Parnell Baths to Auckland’s Anglican Cathedral.
The main drag – Parnell Road – revitalized in the 70s, has a quaint, village atmosphere, with little, brick-paved courtyards featuring exclusive boutiques, upmarket contemporary art galleries, cafés, bars, and smart restaurants run by some of the city’s top chefs. There’s also a good collection of ‘cheap and cheerful’ ethnic restaurants, coffee shops and lunch bars if you’re in more of a hurry. Covering practical matters, a dairy and laundromat have been at the top of the road for as long as anyone can remember, and cater to the myriad of new apartments springing up in the area.
Parnell is also home to a couple of excellent weekend markets. La Cigale, in St Georges Bay Road – voted Auckland’s best food market for the last eight years – is open every Saturday and Sunday morning, and offers a huge selection of products from New Zealand artisan growers and producers as well as imported goods. Fresh produce, fresh breads and pastries, French cheeses, Italian pasta, salami and sausages, local olive oils, Manuka honey, pâtés and terrines, it’s all there, and stallholders will probably invite you to sample before you buy! Like any good French market, there are communal tables where you can sit, enjoy a coffee and watch the world go by.
On a smaller scale, but no less popular, is the Parnell Farmers’ Market behind the Jubilee Building on Parnell Road. It’s also stocked with fresh produce, baking, flowers and deli products, and is open on Saturday mornings from 8am-12 noon.
The Jubilee Building, which straddles the boundary between Parnell and its more commercial neighbour, Newmarket, is a well-known landmark in Auckland. Known by many older residents as the Blind Institute, it was built in 1890 as a school and home for people who were blind or had limited vision. Now the handsome brick building houses a community centre, with a library, community activities and a Justice of the Peace service, as well as restaurants, cafés and shops – and the Saturday market.
A stone’s throw away is the Auckland Domain and the Auckland War Memorial Museum with its permanent collections on New Zealand history as well as local and international exhibitions. Wander around the grounds on the weekend and you might catch a cricket match or a game of rugby, or strike it lucky and you’ll hear a band playing in the Rotunda. Over the summer the Domain is on the Auckland Council’s schedule as a venue for free movie evenings and afternoon musical events.
The historic Victorian-style Wintergardens – with their rare and spectacular plants – are also worth a visit, and you can enjoy a cup of tea at the Wintergarden Café, in the museum itself, or in one of the cafés to be found in the nearby Jubilee Building, such as Domain & Ayr on Parnell Road or along Carlton Gore Road, Newmarket, a few minutes’ walk away.
At the opposite end of Parnell are the Parnell Rose Gardens, renamed Dove Myer Robinson Park after Auckland’s longest-serving mayor, St Dove Myer Robinson. The park was created from the gardens of several large estates that occupied the land in the late 19th century, and locals and tourists alike can be found enjoying a gentle stroll around beautifully maintained rose beds or the whimsical Nancy Stein Memorial Garden. Don’t be surprised if a happy bride and gaggle of bridesmaids pop out from behind one of the huge, spreading pohutukawas – the gardens are popular for weddings and wedding photos.
Follow one of the walkways that lead down to Judges Bay and the Parnell Baths, New Zealand’s largest salt water pool. The first bathers took the plunge in 1913, and the pools have been a very popular summer destination for keen swimmers and family groups ever since. The present pool was designed in 1950 to create a lido-style atmosphere – a glamorous seafront bathing resort – and won an NZIA award in 1958.
Look across Hobson Bay towards Remuera, and you’ll see the Orakei Basin, one of Auckland’s craters, and now a tidal lagoon popular with kayakers and waterskiers. A pleasant walk meanders around the basin, through bush, and across a walkway over the water by the railway line. Dogs are welcome, so long as they are well behaved.
Prior to European settlement, Parnell was occupied by the Ngati Whatua, and in 1940 the government of the time acquired the area as part of a large land deal. One enterprising citizen, Scottish adventurer and merchant Robert Tod, quickly purchased three acres, subdivided it into 36 sections, and advertised it as the village of Parnell – and caused speculation for many years as to where the name came from. The most likely explanation, however, seems to be that Tod named the suburb after John Vesey Parnell, a missionary to Baghdad whom he had earlier supplied with translations of the Bible, rather than after several other historic figures of the time, also with the surname of Parnell. Whatever the truth, the name stuck and now includes an area that extends from the Auckland Domain, Newmarket, around Hobson Bay and towards the city.
As Tod was speculating and accumulating, Bishop Selwyn decided to make Parnell the focus for the Church of England in Auckland. He chose a site for the future Anglican cathedral, St Mary’s Cathedral Church (now pushed to one side by the larger Holy Trinity Cathedral), established a deanery, churches, schools, the bishop’s house and cathedral library and bell tower, most of which are still standing today.
Many of the suburb’s early settlers were mechanics and tradesmen, working in Mechanics Bay in sawmills, brickworks, flour mill and boat building industries and living nearby in doll’s house-sized workers’ cottages. However, the suburb was also home to various notable residents, including William Martin, the first Chief Justice, in Judges Bay, and other judges, politicians, government ministers, lawyers and clergymen.
Several heritage homes belonging to original settlers have survived – like Kinder House (1857) and Ewelme Cottage (1863), near the top of Ayr Street – and are open to visitors; it’s easy to idle away an hour or two in them, reflecting on how different life is in the 21st century.
A bridge was built from the city over the inlet to Mechanics Bay at the bottom of Parnell Rise, but by the 1870s both Mechanics Bay and St Georges Bay had been reclaimed for railway and port development. The Parnell rail bridge and tunnel through Parnell hill, both still in use, were built in the 1870s and tramcars ran from the city and up Parnell Road.
Where there are workers, there are likely to be pubs, and Parnell can lay claim to a couple of the oldest licensed premises in Auckland and, indeed, in New Zealand. The Windsor Castle on Parnell Road served its first beer in 1847 and continues to be an entertainment and social hub for the neighbourhood, while The Swan Hotel, (now the Strand Tavern), on the corner of Stanley Street and Parnell Rise, was built sometime before 1856 and pints are still being poured for thirsty passersby today.
Parnell, which had been a waterfront suburb, was cut off from the harbour in 1919, when the large homes on the foreshore over Judges Bay were demolished and the land was used to build Tamaki Drive.
Times changed – the new suburbs with modern houses must have looked very appealing to Parnell residents stuck in draughty, wooden cottages – and industry, offices, hostels and boarding houses gradually swallowed up the older buildings in Parnell, until the 1970s, when a local property developer, Les Harvey, saw the potential, bought up many of the old shops and houses along Parnell Road, and restored them using recycled materials.
He encouraged craftspeople and open-air vendors to move in, regenerating the suburb as a tourist centre and bohemian shopping area, and it didn’t take too long for Parnell to put itself back on the map as a prime shopping and residential area. To recognise Harvey’s work in preserving Parnell, a statue portrays him kneeling in one of the brick-paved courtyards he created.
Today one of Auckland’s more affluent suburbs, Parnell ranks in the top three wealthiest areas of the city. The tree-lined, mostly narrow, streets feature a mix of large, modern homes; pretty, little, early colonial cottages; Edwardian town houses, and 1920s bay-fronted villas, many enjoying glorious views over the Waitemata Harbour, Rangitoto, Hobson Bay or the leafier aspect of the Auckland Domain.
These older homes rub shoulder with interesting contemporary architecture, for example, award-winning architect David Mitchell’s Gibbs House, a dramatic and light-filled pavilion designed in 1984, and which won him the New Zealand Institute of Architects (NZIA) top prize in 1986.
Another hidden jewel is the new Bishop Selwyn Chapel, designed by Auckland architects Fearon Hay and opened in 2016. The chapel is glazed on three sides and topped with a glorious, gold leaf ceiling – pop behind the cathedral proper, and prepare to be amazed.
More commonly known as Parnell Rose Gardens, this beautiful park contains over 5000 roses. Each November the park is host to the Parnell Festival of Roses which is a must-see event for rose lovers.
The Auckland War Memorial Museum contains collections concentrating on New Zealand history, natural history, and military history. This was New Zealand's first Museum and tells the story of New Zealand and our people.
A lovely swimming spot located in the centre of the city is almost unheard of but Judges Bay is just that. Facilities at this beach include toilets, changing stations, showers, seating area and boardwalk, and parking is available at Teal Park.
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