A Look Inside the Oldest Library in New Zealand

The Oldest Library in New Zealand

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 the native tribesmen. He taught as many Māori as he could how to read and write, and about Western agriculture. (Or, as the European immigrants of the time no doubt saw it, how to be civilised and farm properly.) Our tour guide at the Elms was, however, proud to point out that Reverend Brown supposedly treated his Māori pupils as friends and fellow human beings, rather than as savages to be tamed.

The First Library in New ZealandIt was Reverend Brown who built the library. He needed to keep his extensive book collection safe and dry. William Gisborne, a nineteenth century New Zealand politician and fellow English immigrant, described it in the following words:

“The room was surrounded with shelves, on which large volumes, heavy to carry, and I daresay, heavy to read, gloomily reposed, while, from among, above and below them long rows of tempting, rosy-cheeked apples, brightly reflecting the ruddy fire, shone in delightful contrast with their more sedate brethren.”

Chapel Bell, The Elms, Tauranga(This quote comes from the Elms Mission Station’s website.) As for the rest of the mission station, you can explore the garden by yourself for free, but if you want to enter any of the buildings, including the library, you’ll need to pay $5 for a tour. I found the tour a little awkward, as it was just me and my parents being talked at by an old lady who was obviously used to addressing tourists and children who have no knowledge of either English or New Zealand history.

The other buildings include an almost puritanically bare chapel, an old workshop, a fencible cottage – if you want to know what the hell fencible means, read my blog about Howick Historical Village – and, of course, the main house. I was delighted to discover that it had a games table, though it’s nowhere near as big as mine and Tim’s monstrosity. (Risk is one of our smallest, least complicated board games. We need a big table.)

The Elms Mission House Games Table

Is it worth visiting? Yes, if you’re interested in the history of Tauranga. There aren’t any proper museums in Tauranga, (except Classic Flyers,) which is surprising. I mean my family moved to Tauranga when I was fifteen and it’s only just occurred to me that it doesn’t have a museum like most places… How odd. So, for now, the Elms Mission Station is the best we’ve got. Apparently, they’re planning to build a proper museum, to go with the city centre and harbourfront upgrade, so hopefully, in a few years…

The Elms Mission House, Tauranga

Of course, if you’re a bibliophile you’ll no doubt already be planning a trip to the Elms Mission Station. While you’re there, check out my list of free things to do in Tauranga.

The Elms Mission House, Tauranga, New Zealand

Six Books, a Bach and a Wizard’s Robe

Getting away to “the bach” is a Great Kiwi Tradition. A bach is a holiday home, and it’s pronounced like a batch of cookies, not like the Baroque composer.

bach

Baches range from old shacks to modern mansions, although anything too “flash” isn’t really seen as being in the spirit. It’s supposed to be about getting back to basics; enjoying the beach with your family, free from technological distractions. As such, the traditional Kiwi bach is usually quite rundown. Worn-out couches, rusty kettles and board games with missing pieces are commonly found accessories.

Ruakaka Beach

Once you’ve arrived at your bach, there’s nothing to do except go to the beach. When I was younger, I despised it. I thought: I know we’re supposed to be grateful for the little things, but if you’re grateful for this, you’re an idiot. I mean this is the pinnacle of the Kiwi dream? This? But I think I get it now. “Getting it” could be to do with, you know, growing up, but I’ve also had some more positive bach experiences in the last few years.

Ruakaka Beach

I’ve had some “How’s the serenity?” moments:

Yes, that’s an Australian film, but you know… certain attitudes are similar.

Ruakaka Beach

Sometimes, having nothing to do except go to the beach is a good thing. You get there and suddenly nothing matters except the people you’re with. Earlier this year, my partner and I went to a bach with a large group of friends – a New Year getaway. The bach was in Ruakaka, in scorching Northland. When we arrived, Tim nearly passed out from the heat. Wading into the Pacific Ocean was absolute bliss.

Waipu Cove

As nice as Ruakaka Beach is, a short drive up the road lies an even nicer beach: Waipu Cove. After a couple of days lounging around in Ruakaka, Tim and I decided to visit Waipu. We returned with six books and a wizard’s robe.

waipucove5

Our friends joked that only Tim and Abby could go to the beach and come back with books and a LARPing costume. (And if you’re thinking but there are only five books in the photograph – I got another book after it was taken.) There was a mobile library at the beach, you see, and they had a table full of old books they were giving away.

Waipu Cove

“If every beach was like this,” Tim said to me, “we’d get you outside more.” True as that may be, even I’ll admit that Waipu Cove is worth visiting irrespective of the presence of a mobile library. Even the toilet block has a lovely mural painted on it, chronicling the history of the Waipu settlement.

Waipu Cove Mural

As for the wizard’s robe, that came from a junk shop on Waipu’s main street. (Waipu has a few junk – one might hesitate to call them antique – shops.) The town was settled in the nineteenth century by a group of Scottish immigrants who’d had quite a time of it. They were led by a very dour-looking religious chap who fell out with the Presbyterians in Scotland because they weren’t dour enough. He took some members of his clan off to Canada, but the whole thing was a bloody disaster, so they built themselves a ship and sailed to Australia, but Australia was too full of prozzies and booze, so they got another ship and sailed to New Zealand. There they settled, and when the dour guy finally died they let their hair down and started having all the fun they’d been forbidden from having because, apparently, God hates fun. This particular brand fun included nostalgic celebrations of Celtic culture, and Waipu holds annual highland games to this day.

Waipu Museum

That’s what I gathered from Waipu’s rather excellent museum, anyway. It’s worth a visit if you’re up that way. Here’s the website. Apparently, the highland games are worth a visit too. Here’s that website.

For more of my adventures up north, read What to Do in Kerikeri.

Killing the Thing We Love: The Demise of New Zealand’s Bookshops

I once read somewhere that New Zealand boasts more bookshops per capita than any other country in the world. Maybe that was true years ago, but it seems to me now that every time I turn around another bookshop has closed. My favourite bookshop was turned into a burger joint. This saddens me greatly, but I’m wilfully contributing to the problem.

You see, I love books. I hoard them. It’s my dream to have every spare inch of wall in my bedroom covered in them, and I’m well on the way to that. I have six bookshelves in my room and all are full, as is the floor space between them. I can’t resist – I see a bargain bin full of five-dollar books, I’m diving through it like a hobo through a dumpster.

But I rarely go into a bookshop and buy a new book. This isn’t just because I prefer the smell and feel of old books, (in fact I enjoy the smell and feel of new books just as much,) but simply because new books in New Zealand are so damned expensive! Thirty dollars for a paperback; fifty for a hardback.

So I order all my new books off the internet, and more and more smart people are doing the same. Thus we are killing the thing we love.

Culture 5

Poetry in Wellington Harbour

Until I read that little fact I began this article with, I had never considered New Zealand having a lot of bookshops. In fact I often say the abundance of books is one of the things I miss most about living in England – certainly the cheapness of books is. But now I think about it, I remember years ago when we were on a family campervan trip around New Zealand, we came across a bookshop out of the blue, in the middle of nowhere.

Well okay, it wasn’t quite in the middle of nowhere, but it wasn’t exactly where you’d expect a bookshop to be, well out of town, on a country road off the highway. Being a bookish family (and having me in the campervan rental,) we parked up to investigate.

It was quite a wonderful place, specialising in rare and second-hand books, and I’m really glad we found it. Unfortunately, it wasn’t in a very convenient place to return to, being so far out of the way. Of course, I made a purchase or three. Second-hand bookshops are enchanting places if you can find them, and it’s getting harder every day.

Soon there’ll be only one chain of bookstores left, and only selling expensive best-sellers.

But of course books are expensive here. They have to be imported a long way and, unlike in Britain, there’s a sales tax on them. Still, I’m poor and I love books – much as it pains me, I’ll keep getting mine from the Book Depository.

“Yet each man kills the thing he loves

By each let this be heard,

Some do it with a bitter look,

Some with a flattering word,

The coward does it with a kiss,

The brave man with a sword!”

Oscar Wilde, from The Ballad of Reading Gaol

Guess I’m a coward then.

Update: Six months on from writing this blog post, my family made an effort and returned to the spot where we had found that second-hand bookshop in the middle of nowhere. It had closed down.

A whale vertebrae my dad found while walking on the beach

A whale vertebra my dad found while walking on the beach