The coral pink buildings and tower of Birkenhead's Chelsea Sugar Refinery give it a Tuscan look.
The coral pink buildings and tower of Birkenhead's Chelsea Sugar Refinery give it a Tuscan look. Supplied

Birkenhead: sweet as

THE air smells sweet, like warm golden syrup or spun candyfloss. The scene in front of me is sweet too. Auckland City, with its audacious vertically and iconic Sky Tower, poses prettily behind the Harbour Bridge.

In the foreground the coral-coloured Chelsea Sugar Refinery is as attractive as a factory can be. I enjoy a well-turned industrial chimney, and it has two, as well as numerous quaint Victorian buildings, one with a tall Tuscan-looking tower topped with a wind vane.

Chelsea Heritage Park, 38ha of lakes, harbour foreshore, native forest, wetlands and open space surrounds the Chelsea Sugar Refinery and was once land belonging to it.

I walk from the Birkenhead shopping centre, down Colonial Rd into the park and pass four brick houses dating from 1909 in a neat downhill row. These were built for high-ranking sugar workers and are privately owned now, as is the manager's house, a grand 100-year-old mansion on a nearby hilltop.

Tui sing and rosellas squawk in the age-old oaks and pines on either side of a wide flat grassy space.

The sculpture in the middle, overlooking Chelsea Bay, is a massive pair of grabbers up-ended on a plinth so the jaws point to the sky. It holds a giant white sugar cube between serrated-edge teeth. These grabbers started work unloading sugar in 1948 and unloaded eight million tonnes of it before recently retiring to become art.

The New Zealand Sugar Company was formed in 1882 with well-known Auckland business names such as Horton, Nathan and Wilson in the partnership.

This site was chosen because it had a large area of flat land for the refinery, the Waitemata Harbour is deep here, Duck Creek provided plenty of water, and there were building materials nearby including a forest for timber and clay to make bricks. The creek was dammed to provide water for the refining process and the first batch of pure white sugar left the factory in 1884.

Duck Creek now has four dams, the biggest forming a lake in what was half of Chelsea Bay. These lakes and wetlands have created unique ecology for large colonies of little black shags.

The path passes alongside a multi-layered shag-hotel and the whiff of sulphur from their droppings adds an eggy edge to the smell of sugar.

The refinery is just as pretty close-up as it is from a distance with many sheds having matching rooflines and grey corrugated iron roofs complementing the coral pink walls.

There is a sugar ship at the wharf. One arrives every four to six weeks carrying 31,000 tonnes of bulk raw sugar, which slides up a conveyor into a vast warehouse that covers a sugar mountain.

The factory carpark edges the largest of the lakes and here black swans float elegantly and ducks make a show of begging from passing walkers and visiting children. There was a gaggle of geese, too, but they become too bold and terrified toddlers so were discreetly removed.

A harbour-side walk continues on to Chelsea Bay, looking lovely at high tide. I ogle at a couple of monstrous mansions whose sections seamlessly join the reserve and whose play boats are pulled up on the beach.

I backtrack past the lakes and around the refinery then take a path through bush of regenerating kauri to Porritt Ave and my car in Birkenhead.

It's a terrific walk that brings me up close to a rare industrial treasure, mere minutes from the city, as sweet and refined as the products it makes.

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