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Middlemarch in the Strath Taieri

The Strath Taieri District is located an hour's drive inland from Dunedin on State Highway 87, three hours from Queenstown and Wanaka and five and a half hours drive from Christchurch.

The district covers 6,805 hectares of land. It stretches 65km from north to south and 55km from east to west. It encompasses the Rock and Pillar range, part of the Te Papanui Conservation Park and the magnificent Taieri River.

The spectacular landscapes offers visitors wilderness, splendid vistas, striking rock tors as well as enjoyment of a busy farming district.

The agricultural opportunities that attracted our first settlers remain today with fresh opportunities developing in tourism stimulated by the Otago Central Rail Trail. This has spurred a vibrant community of entrepreneurs and is increasingly viewed as a great place to visit.

The Recreational opportunities abound, the lifestyle is laid back and the locals friendly and ready to make your stay memorable from start to finish.

A brief history of Middlemarch – terminus for rail and trail

Arden was the planned township for the Strath Taieri district shown on Surveyor Edie’s survey map of 1883. Even so, it was the private township of the Humphreys of Garthmyl, an early run in the middle of the Strath Taieri Plain, which gave name to the township of Middlemarch that we know today.
Several stories vie for the naming of Middlemarch. One version suggests that George Eliot’s novel Middlemarch was the inspiration. Another, that Middlemarch is in the middle of what was then marshland. However, a local contributor to Otago Witness in 1882 explains: “Middlemarch...was so named by Mr Humphreys...because it is situated near the middle of the old boundary or march between the Gladbrook and Taieri Lake Runs.” There is also the naming of nearby March Creek, and while Mr Humphreys came from Wales and Mrs Humphreys from Australia, many of the early settlers were from Scotland, where the riding of the marches remains an annual event in Scottish border towns today.
The Otago Central Railway began up the difficult but spectacular Taieri Gorge in 1879 from Wingatui near Dunedin and finally reached Middlemarch in 1891. Here a fine railway station had been completed comprising “a goods shed, an engine shed, a coal house, a tank stand, a station, a station master's house, and three cottages for the other employees. There are also cattle yards, loading bank etc…. The whole block of buildings forms quite a little township, and alters the appearance of Middlemarch greatly, converting it from a one-horse or coster’s donkey township to a little inland metropolis” (Otago Witness, 18 December 1890).
Just four years later, the line handled almost 2.500 passengers, 17.500 sheep and pigs, and 17.000 tons of goods showing the importance of this transportation link. Right up to the 1970s, the station was the hub of the community with the daily arrival of passenger and goods trains. Many people along the Otago Central Railway will remember the Vulcan Railcar which was not only a link to the outside world but meant the arrival of the mail and parcels.
Services and shops were located in Snow Avenue in the early days: The railway station, the Railway Hotel, Mitchell’s famous store, stock agents Stronach, Morris & Co, the post office, Strath Taieri Hotel, the butcher’s, Pacey’s shop (fruit, confectionary, billiard, hair dressing, tobacco and later TAB), Horn’s grocery store and Buchanan’s Garage to mention but a few.
When the Otago Central Line closed, small communities suffered quite badly. Fortunately, Otago Excursion Train Trust enthusiasts ensured the track between Dunedin and Middlemarch was left in place when the rest of the line was lifted and that the stationmaster’s house remained. The railway station, goods shed and grounds were saved by a whisker by the Strath Taieri Lions club.
Eventually, the disused rail corridor between Middlemarch and Clyde was developed into the Otago Central Rail Trail, the pioneering cycleway which has become the template for all other cycleways. Middlemarch now serves an important role as railhead connecting the Taieri Gorge Train with the Otago Central Rail Trail. A thriving tourism industry has developed in and around Middlemarch with bike hire, accommodation, cafes and restaurants, shuttles, package tours and tour operators.
Middlemarch began as a service centre for the surrounding farming community and it remains so today. However, to many Middlemarch is better known for its biennial Singles Dance. A huge hit with young and old(er) alike, the event has featured as a TV documentary in several European countries.
Today you can experience life in the early days at the Middlemarch Museum. A replica Mitchell’s store greets you with all its quirkiness. An impressive time line illustrates the Otago Central Railway in its contemporary historical context, and outside you will find New Zealand’s only submarine: the Platypus. This iron artefact is the remains of a novel idea for mining gold at the bottom of rivers. Unfortunately, it never worked as intended.


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