Firth Tower Museum

On the way to Matamata we spent some time exploring Firth Tower Museum. Resembling a small village, the colonial buildings are set in manicured grounds on land that was once the centre of the 56,000 acre Matamata Estate established by Josiah Clifton Firth. Not knowing where we would be at lunchtime, we had purchased sandwiches earlier in the day and the lovely ladies at reception suggested we enjoy them on the verandah of the homestead. As a light drizzle set in, we did just that.

In 1904, the estate was divided into 117 farms and the then manager, John McCaw, attained the Tower Farm. The old station homestead, built in 1879, was razed by fire and the present one replaced it in 1902. The house is beautifully preserved and presented to reflect life at that time.

Englishman Josiah Firth moved to New Zealand in the early 1850s and settled in Auckland. Coming from a family background of farming and industrial development, his entrepreneurial skills soon saw him pouring money into land clearing, introducing new agricultural machinery and opening the Waihou River for navigation to send farm produce to Auckland markets. One of the earliest reinforced concrete buildings in New Zealand, the tower was built in 1882 and was used as the estate office and sleeping quarters for single men.

At 16 metres tall, it also provided a lookout across the estate and countryside beyond.

The village buildings have been brought to the present location and are maintained by the Matamata Historical Society.

The old Matamata Methodist Church was built in 1914, closed in 1972 and was moved here in 1978.

Okoroire post office began in 1891 when the postmaster was also the hotel keeper. The original building burnt down in 1912 and was replaced by this one in 1928. A century of communications development is on display, including old letters and Morse code transmitters.

The school building has a varied history. Built in 1893 as part of a planned Armadale Township, it was used as a community hall as well as a school. The village of Armadale never eventuated and so it was renamed Gordon School after the Gordon District in 1896. A new school building was erected in 1938 and the old one sat abandoned until it was moved to Selwyn School as a second room to accommodate more students in 1946. Seventeen years later, once again redundant, it was bought by a local farming family and used as a hay shed. The old Gordon School was brought to Firth Tower Museum in 1983 and is set up as a pre and early 1900s classroom.

There is a memorial cairn close by dedicated to Wiremu Tamihana Tarapipipi Te Waharoa, a Māori statesman, also known as ‘The Kingmaker’. Josiah Firth was on good terms with the Māori and supported Wiremu Tamihana’s efforts to establish a Māori king and later, in 1870, attempted to broker peace between Te Kooti and the government. Firth erected a monument following Tamihana’s death in 1866 which was later destroyed. This one was erected in the same spot in 1966 but was moved to the museum in 1978 to protect it from vandalism.

A settler’s cottage was moved from ‘behind the butcher’s shop’ in Waharoa and is furnished as a workman’s home of the 1900s.

The jail was built in 1892 in Karangahake and was moved to Matamata in 1920 where it served for the next thirty years.

Many activities are offered for groups at the museum including interactive days for school children. Unfortunately, the gallery-workshop wasn’t open this day.

There are a number of outbuildings housing interesting displays of life in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The history of movie going and Matamata’s doctors, dentists and hospitals are among those featured in The Barn.

‘From Horse to Tractor’ was the theme in the Mark Madill Shed. I love the old farm machinery, they are real works of art.

The Joan & David Stanley Shed is all about dairy farming and 100 years of milking methods are on display.

Sheep farming was next in the John McCaw Woolshed with shearing equipment, fleece sorting table and wool bales.

Next to the original stables, a typical 19th century vegetable garden, complete with a scarecrow, is brimming with produce and flowers.

As we returned to our starting point, a pair of old railway goods wagons contain the story of the Kaimai Tunnel construction but they are in such a state of dilapidation, the exhibit is no longer accessible due to health & safety concerns. Plans are underway to move the display to a new environment in the near future.

Casita Miro

Set on a hill with spectacular views overlooking Onetangi Beach, Spanish influenced Casita Miro was the second winery of our Waiheke Island tour.

A magnificent mosaic wall follows the entrance driveway, an intricate work of art created by the Bond family who have been growing grapes and making wine here for twenty years.

We were greeted by a lovely lady with the unusual name Meander, a legacy of Dutch hippy parents apparently, who led us through the award winning tapas restaurant.

The steps to the Bond Bar,

our venue to indulge in tastings of the Miro Vineyard wines, were edged with more astounding mosaics.

The view from the top, across vineyards to the ocean, was breathtaking.

In a sublime atmosphere, Meander navigated us through four wines, each one matched with a tasty morsel.

The Madame Rouge Walnuts were delicious. Roasted in Madame Rouge aperitif, a fortified blend of Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon grape juice, along with butter, cayenne, salt and brown sugar. With a glass of wine in hand we farewelled the Bond Bar and retreated to the restaurant to purchase a bucketful for future consumption.

Hobbiton

The reason we chose to stay at Matamata was its proximity to Hobbiton, the film location for The Lord of the Rings trilogy and The Hobbit trilogy. You don’t have to be a fan of these literary works to appreciate the beauty of The Shire but it adds to the fascination if able to picture the movie scenes as you wander around. Sir Peter Jackson spotted the 1,250 acre sheep farm while aerial scouting for film locations in September 1998. He, apparently, knocked on the door of the Alexander home, explained what he wanted, and was asked to come back later as they were watching the rugby! The original set was never intended to be a permanent fixture and was dismantled at the end of filming The Lord of the Rings. Two years later, The Shire was rebuilt for The Hobbit, this time from wood, concrete and bricks instead of polystyrene and plywood. We learned a lot of interesting facts on the bus ride through the farmland, arriving in Hobbiton eager to see more.

A short walk from the car park along Gandalf’s Cutting, we halted to take in the scene before us. Hobbit holes, 44 in all, dotted the green rolling hills, their chimney stacks and enchanting windows emerge sporadically from the landscape.

I can’t think of a job I would rather have than tending the gardens in Hobbiton. There are between 30 and 200 plants around each hobbit hole and all the fruit and vegetables are seasonal.

During filming, a person was employed to walk to the clothes lines and back to make a well-worn track.

Not all hobbit holes are equal. The poorer inhabitants live lower down the hill and the further up the hill you go, the homes are bigger with more manicured gardens.

Bilbo, at Bag End, is one of the wealthiest. The magnificent oak at the top of the hill is actually made from fibreglass and the silk leaves, imported from Taiwan, were individually painted and wired on to the branches.

The occupations of the residents are depicted in great detail by some of the exterior props including beekeepers, loggers, bakers and cheesemakers.

Local frogs soon moved into the man made pond and they were so loud during filming, someone was paid to collect all the frogs and relocate them to another pond on the farm.

Most of the hobbit holes are just facades, the interior shots were filmed in a studio in Wellington, although the half open door at Bag End gives a hint of a cosy abode.

There was no need to manufacture leaves for the Party Tree, the perfect specimen as described in the books was found on the property.

The morning sunlight shone beatifically on some of the hobbit doors, Bag End is one that faces east. To create the scene where Bilbo and Gandalf are sitting facing a sunset, the crew had to get up early to film sunrises and play them backwards. It took seven attempts to capture the one we see in the movie.

The hobbit holes were built to two different scales. The smaller ones at 60% scale were used for scenes with Gandalf to make him look larger. To be cast as a hobbit you had to be 5’2” and they were filmed around the 90% scale doors.

There is a scene in The Lord of the Rings book where children are playing under plum trees but Peter Jackson thought plum trees would look too big. Instead, he had apple and pear trees planted and just before filming, all the fruit was stripped from the trees and replaced with fake ones. After all that effort, the scene never made it to the movie.

Samwise Gamgee lived at number 3 Bagshot Row, a lovely terrace of hobbit holes

with convenient access to the Party Field.

With the Green Dragon Inn in our sights,

we meandered our way to the double arch stone bridge and the Old Mill where the large water wheel still turns.

The Green Dragon Inn was added to Hobbiton in 2012

and the interior has been reconstructed to appear as it did in the films.

Our tour included a complimentary beverage from the Southfarthing range; Girdley Fine Grain Amber Ale, Sackville Apple Cider, Oatbarton Traditional English Ale or Frogmorton Ginger Beer. All are brewed at the Good George Brewery in Hamilton and available only at the Green Dragon Inn.

Our circuitous route returned us to the car park past flourishing vegetable gardens

and an everlasting impression of The Shire.

Matamata

Much as we enjoyed our time in Auckland, after three nights we were ready to leave the confines of the city and breathe the country air. A scenic two hour drive south of Auckland, we arrived at Matamata. Established as a Māori pā in 1830, the name means ‘headland’ and the position on a ridge of high ground was perfect for the defensive settlement. The town is now recognised as the home of The Shire, anyone who is familiar with The Lord of the Rings will know what I mean. There was no doubt we were in Hobbit country when we located the information centre.

1.information centre2.information centre

We were very fortunate to have booked accommodation only 4km from Hobbiton, it wasn’t difficult to see why Peter Jackson chose this area for the filming of his movie.

3.countryside4.countryside5.countryside

The setting of Buckland B&B couldn’t have been more peaceful,

8.Buckland B&B

the spacious living area was a welcome contrast to our cramped city apartment. It is amazing how a section of this American barn has been so tastefully transformed.

9.interior10.interior11.bathroom

The outdoor area was perfect for a late afternoon aperitivo,

12.outdoor setting

undisturbed by the amiable neighbours.

15.sheep16.neighbours

Scrumptious homemade bread was delivered to our door daily, what didn’t get eaten for breakfast was enjoyed with our Rangihoua olive oil at dinner.

We stayed four nights at Buckland, not only is it close to Hobbiton it is a great base for day trips west to Hamilton and east to Rotorua. Thank you Tracy & Kevin for a wonderful experience.

Waiheke Island

One of the first things I booked when planning our New Zealand trip was a Taste of Waiheke Tour. With the promise of wine tasting at three wineries, lunch at one of them and olive oil tasting, how could I resist? Waiheke Island is the second largest island in the Hauraki Gulf, a very comfortable 40 minute ferry ride from Auckland. Known as the ‘island of wine’, there are twenty-six vineyards to choose from, most offering gourmet delights as well as a diverse range of wines for tasting. The weather couldn’t have been better if we had ordered it. Both the sea and sky were a clear blue as we arrived at Matiatia Bay.

1.Matiatia Bay

Sailing boats dotted the water

2.Matiatia Bay3.Matiatia Bay4.Matiatia Bay

and beautiful homes nestled on the hillside overlooking the bay.

5.Matiatia Bay6.homes, Matiatia Bay7.house, Matiatia Bay

I couldn’t help feeling a little envious of the island lifestyle.

8.Matiatia Bay

Our bus driver and guide for the day was a vivacious local lady who has lived on the island for 25 years and regaled us with stories laced with a good dose of humour. The roads are narrow and winding and, although the island is only 92 square kilometres, it would be easy to get lost. After lunch and wine tasting at Stonyridge Vineyard, we called into Rangihoua Estate to sample their award winning Extra Virgin Olive Oils. As well as four olive oil blends, they have a range of spreads and skin care products.

A floor chess board with magnificent carved pieces occupied a space in the tasting room.

11.Rangihoua chess set

We could have lingered in the immaculate gardens all afternoon

26.garden28.garden

29.garden

but we had another two vineyards to visit and more wine to taste before returning to Matiatia Bay for the ferry journey back to Auckland.

31.Matiatia Bay

With calm waters ahead

32.Matiatia Bay33.toward Auckland

we found a comfortable perch at the back of the boat, soothed by the thrum of the engines and the dancing droplets of the white wake.

34.farewell Waiheke

As we neared the city

35.Waiheke to Auckland36.tall ship37.Auckland

our attention was diverted by the appearance of an enormous sea monster, dwarfing what we thought was our rather substantial ferry.

41.Ovation of the Seas

The impressive Edwardian façade of the ferry terminal awaited, the tour had ended but there was more wine to be tasted that day.

42.ferry terminal