Hamilton’s Historic Estate

POMS AWAY!

Need help finding things to do in Hamilton, New Zealand? Probably. At first glance, it can seem like the only place worth visiting in Hamilton is the Gardens. At second glance, you have to concede that the zoo is a great place to go in Hamilton as well. Then you’ve got the museum, Taitua Arboretum, Memorial Park and the lake. Admittedly, after that you’re beginning to scrape the bottom of the barrel. We’ve lived in Hamilton for two years and we’re rapidly running out of new things to see. We have to keep visiting relatives entertained somehow!

Last weekend, however, we visited somewhere we’d never been before, Woodlands Historic Homestead and Gardens. It’s about fifteen minutes by car from the centre of Hamilton, in a village called Gordonton. (By the looks of things, it won’t be a village much longer. In a few years, it’ll be…

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An Intriguing Find

I found it in a secondhand bookshop in Scotland. It was called Old New Zealand: A Tale of the Good Old Days, by A Pākehā Māori. I immediately looked for the publication date. It was a 1948 edition of a book first published in 1863.

There was also a bookseller’s stamp. This copy had been purchased in a stationer’s in Pukekohe, close to where I lived when I moved to New Zealand! Here was a book that had travelled the world, from a small town in New Zealand to a small town in Scotland. Just like me.

It was quite a ragged tome. I wondered what adventures it had been on. I was intrigued by its anonymous author: A Pākehā Māori. Was this a Māori who had adopted the European settlers’ way of life, or vice versa? Or were they half-European and half-Māori by blood? Whatever the case was, it seemed they were a bridge between the two cultures, and not at all in favour of the British mission to “civilise” New Zealand.

Later, I indulged in a bit of research. The Pākehā Māori in question was an Irishman by the name of Frederick Edward Maning. He arrived in New Zealand as a young man in 1833 and lived among the Ngāpuhi, a Northland tribe. He married a Māori woman and warned people not to sign the Treaty of Waitangi, (though how much he was motivated by a desire to preserve the native culture, and how much by more selfish trading interests, I can’t say. No doubt people who’ve actually studied the subject can.)

In another connection to me, Frederick Maning was buried in Symmonds Street Cemetery, right by where I lived when I attended the University of Auckland. I’ve walked past his grave and not known it!

New Zealand’s Most Enchanting Museum

POMS AWAY!

You know sometimes you go somewhere not expecting much, but end up utterly enchanted? That’s what happened when I went to Nigel Ogle’s Tawhiti Museum in Taranaki. I can’t recommend it highly enough! Just go there, and make sure you give yourself plenty of time to see everything – a few hours at least. And visit the café. It’s just… well… let me explain…

Tawhiti Museum 01Tawhiti is the largest private museum in New Zealand. Housed in a former cheese factory, it was developed by an artist called Nigel Ogle, who spends his time creating life-sized models of people, using moulds cast from co-opted locals. These models, along with many scale dioramas, tell the story of Taranaki, from the early interactions of the European sailors and Maori tribesmen, to the tragic life of mid-twentieth century local author, Ronald Hugh Morrieson.

The entrance of Tawhiti has the look of one of those historic…

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The Great Tower of Matamata

It’s not often you see a tower like this in New Zealand. It’s called Firth Tower and it’s in Matamata, not far from Hobbiton. What’s a stone tower doing in a Waikato farming community, you ask? A couple of weeks ago, I went to find out. I ended up finding a lot more than I expected…

Firth Tower

It’s not just a tower, you see. There’s a whole complex of historic buildings containing museum exhibits, from a Victorian post office to machinery sheds and railway carriages. Not only that, the grounds around them are extensive and quite lovely, with beautiful flowers and trees.

flower butterfly

You’re allowed to explore the grounds for free, but a small fee is required if you want to go inside the buildings. You’re also allowed to stay the night there in your campervan. If you’re on a New Zealand campervan rental holiday, I highly recommend taking advantage of this. There are decent toilets and picnic spots on top of everything else.

firth tower museum

I was delighted to discover that the Victorian post office contained a miniature secondhand bookshop. The selection left a lot to be desired, but still… nice idea. The best exhibition, I thought, was the main house, which had a scene-setting audio track. Why was there a tower in the garden? Because the Victorian estate owner simply felt like having one.

I entered the tower and climbed the precarious, wooden stairs around and around, all the way up to the lookout. I climbed the final ladder and marvelled at the expanse of fields… for a second or two. It was stifling up there! I hurriedly retreated, squeezing my way around the latest generation of children excited to be inside a “castle”.

firth tower

I had a lovely time at Firth Tower Museum. The day had started off cold and gloomy, but became wonderfully hot and sunny. I spent a lot of time simply wandering the grounds, taking photographs of the flowers. Unsurprisingly, you can hire the place out for weddings, as one of the historic buildings is a church.

firth tower museum

train carriages firth tower museum

old farm machinery firth tower museum

red flower

A Look Inside the Oldest Library in New Zealand

POMS AWAY!

You wouldn’t expect to find New Zealand’s first library down an unassuming street in Tauranga. Nor would you expect it to contain a secret trapdoor, under which treasures (and people) could be hidden in the event of attack. Imagine yourself crammed into the 1.8-metre-deep oubliette, trying not to make a sound as invading enemies stomp across the floorboards inches above your head, tearing your precious books from their shelves.

A Beautiful Book at the Elms Mission Station

Thankfully, the library was never actually attacked. It’s a tiny, wooden building on the edge of the Elms Mission Station, completed in 1839. The Elms, then known as Te Papa Mission Station, was established by the Reverend Alfred Brown, who was sent from England to educate the children of other New Zealand missionaries. Living at Te Papa was risky: the spot chosen for the mission station was prone to bouts of intertribal warfare.

Reverend Brown was keen to spread Christianity to…

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An Afternoon in Russell

Christchurch, Russell

I’d wanted to visit Russell ever since I’d read it was once known as ‘the hellhole of the Pacific’. New Zealand’s first European settlement, the port seethed with boozing, gambling and native girls offering their services in exchange for nails, muskets and syphilis. Traders and whalers mingled with Māori tribesmen and missionaries. Sails creaked. Barrels rolled up and down gangplanks.

You’d never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy.

Russell

Today, Russell is a bit different. It’s a charming, little tourist town in the Bay of Islands, which you can reach by ferry. (There’s a passenger ferry from Paihia, or a vehicle ferry from Ōpua. There’s also a road that wends its way around from Kawakawa, but having driven it with my partner, I don’t recommend it. Just get the ferry.)

Aside from water-based activities such as swimming with dolphins, Russell’s three main attractions are the museum, the old church and the Victorian printery. Personally, I’d say the number one thing you can do in Russell is have an evening meal on the Strand, overlooking the sea. The Strand is an idyllic street of old, wooden buildings containing a row of very nice restaurants, with an abundance of beachside seating. But more on that later.

The Strand, Russell

When my partner Tim and I arrived in Russell, it was absolutely chucking it down with rain, so we sought refuge in the museum. It was actually quite disappointing for the price. There were only two rooms, but I’ve visited some excellent small-town museums and this… wasn’t one. (If you want to visit an excellent small-town museum in Northland, go to Waipu.) I’d still recommend checking it out if you know nothing about Russell’s history, but if you don’t have much time in Russell, definitely visit the Victorian printery instead, otherwise known as the Pompallier Mission House.

Both my partner and I really enjoyed our tour of the printery. By this time, the rain had stopped and the sun was blazing. (New Zealand summer!) Consequently, the gardens around the house – and the fishing-boat-bobbing sea beyond – looked glorious. There was a tannery behind the house; the gift shop sold leather-bound notebooks made on the premises. Next to the house was a lovely-seeming café, but unfortunately, we were too late to patronise it, having caught the last tour of the day.

Pompallier Mission House Printery

As for Russell’s old church, Christ Church, it won’t take you long to look around. Do, though. It’s rather pretty and if you look closely, you can find a few musket ball holes in its side. The graves are quite interesting as well. We saw one that had what looked like a chessboard on top of it, and we both though it might be nice to be buried with a chessboard on top of us, so our descendants can come and play chess on our graves. Then Tim thought why stop at chess? You could have a hexagonal layout for playing Settlers of Catan, or a world map for playing Risk… But anyway.

The Strand, Russell

We’d made a booking for dinner at New Zealand’s oldest restaurant, The Gables, on the Strand. It was built in 1847. We had a window table, which opened right out onto the beachfront. The water reflected the golden light of the evening as we dined. And the food was wonderful, of course.

Russell

The ferries to get you out of Russell keep going until quite late. They’re also really cheap, which was good for us after we’d splashed out at the restaurant. We drove away from Russell feeling all warm and fuzzy. We’d just had a marvellous day.

Vikings, Trolls and a Magical Gateway

Streets in Norsewood

There’s something strange going on in Norsewood. A small, sad town on the way up to Napier, its main tourist attraction is a shop selling woollen socks. Most people don’t bother looking further than that, but I’m glad I did. Like I wasn’t going to explore a town whose street names include Odin, Thor, Hengist and Horsa!

Campervan in Tongariro National Park

My partner Tim and I were on a New Zealand campervan hire tour of the central North Island. (That’s why I didn’t post anything last week.) After a couple of days around Tongariro National Park, we were driving towards Napier and decided to spend the night at Dannevirke Holiday Park, because it had received excellent reviews on the Rankers Camping NZ app.

Dannevirke Playground Viking Longship

The first thing you notice upon entering Dannevirke is a giant Viking. That’s because Dannevirke, like the nearby town of Norsewood, was settled by Scandinavians. Dannevirke literally means Danes’ work. The roadside barriers in the town centre are decorated with shields, there’s a miniature windmill in the town square, and the children’s playground features a Viking longship!

Fantasy Cave, Dannevirke

Unfortunately, there wasn’t all that much for us to do there, and the Fantasy Cave, which looks delightful, albeit tacky, was closed. We decided to continue on to Norsewood. It was a little eerie when we arrived. No one was about, although, to be fair, it was raining. We popped into the information centre: a tiny room devoid of human life.

At least there were people in the café, which was actually quite nice. Outside, three ugly trolls were waiting for us. They led us into the Pioneer Cottage Museum. I’ve explored many such cottages throughout New Zealand and this was definitely one of the best, although the cardboard cut-outs of the early settlers were very creepy – especially when the lights suddenly went off!

Norsewood Trolls

You turn on the lights yourself when you go in, and they only stay on for a few minutes at a time, you see. I was in the barn at the back of the cottage when it went dark, surrounded by scary farming implements and sour-faced settlers, including an old woman who looked like a cross between Peter Cushing and blue vein cheese. It was like I’d suddenly entered a horror movie. I was half-convinced the figures would come to life and converge on me!

Stavkirke in New Zealand

Across the street from the Pioneer Village is a place called Johanna’s World. It’s advertised as having a traditional Norwegian log cabin, a troll cave and the southern hemisphere’s only stavkirke, or stave church. (If you don’t know what they are, google it – they look really cool!) When we stood at the wooden gate, looking in, there was no one there. It kind of seemed like someone’s garden, but there was no sign telling us not to go in, so we opened the gate.

CatImmediately, a cat came running up to us. It was super friendly, but still managed to be regal and authoritative, demanding much attention. When we started to explore the attractions, it followed us.

“Are you our tour guide?” I asked it.

It meowed affirmatively.

The cat accompanied us around the log cabin and the stavkirke. There was still no sign of human life. I began to suspect that our feline tour guide was Johanna’s World’s actual tour guide, turned into a cat by some malign magic.

“It must be the trolls’ doing,” Tim agreed.

Norsewood Troll CaveThe troll cave was actually quite disappointing. It’s not a real cave, but a children’s playroom inside a storehouse. Of course, there were no children there.

“Are we even allowed to be here?” Tim asked.

I had no idea, but the cat was delighted with our presence, and that was good enough for me. I was sorry to leave it.

We had a last look around the village before heading off, checking out an old, wooden gaol and meeting a pair of affectionate horses that stared mournfully after us as we walked away. Had all the humans in Norsewood been turned into animals? No, of course not – what about the people in the café? It was then that we discovered the Gateway.

Gateway Garden, Norsewood

We almost missed it: a tiny garden tucked away in a corner. At the back, partially obscured by foliage, was a gateway – but a gateway to what? Feeling rather like Lucy stepping through the wardrobe, I stepped through the gate and found… nothing. Just the back of the garden, a narrow strip of earth and a high fence.

“Maybe the portal only appears if you believe hard enough,” said Tim.

So I took a deep breath, pictured Bifrost, the rainbow bridge that connects our world to Asgard, and jumped through the Gateway.

Norsewood Crest

I landed on the earth in front of the fence.

I must not have believed hard enough.

Norsewood PostSo that was Dannevirke and Norsewood. If you’re into history, fantasy or Norse mythology, I recommend having a look around both, if you happen to be in the vicinity of Napier. Otherwise don’t bother. The one person we did meet seemed thoroughly confused as to why we’d want to be there. It was an old, scruffy-bearded guy in a battered pickup truck.

“Are you lost?” he asked.

“No, we’re just looking around,” Tim replied.

He gave a sceptical shrug and drove off, leaving us to wonder whether we’d just escaped the local serial killer. Either way, it was time for us to be moving on.

Norwegian Log Cabin