Mother and daughter using touch screen at Kerikeri Mission Station

An introduction to Kerikeri Mission Station

It’s an enchanting scene: a sleepy Northland river basin, where two of Aotearoa New Zealand’s oldest colonial buildings, one made of stone one of timber, sit nestled on the riverbank, amongst a heritage orchard and cottage garden flowerbeds. Peel back 200 years of history, however, and the site of the Kerikeri Mission Station turns out to be anything but tranquil. Established in 1819 by the Church Missionary Society (CMS) in the shadow of Kororipo Pā, this was a junction of early Māori-Pakeha contact, a hotbed of CMS intrigue and politics, and a key site during two decades of rapid-fire societal change leading up to the signing of the Te Tiriti o Waitangi.

Kerikeri was the CMS’s second settlement, founded under the protection of Ngāpuhi chief Hongi Hika, whose interest was in trade and muskets rather than eternal salvation. The missionaries came to save souls and change lives, but had to bide their time. Agendas alternately conflicted and converged; the ground kept shifting.

Defying that sense of impermanence, the Stone Store was very much built for the long haul, using local basalt plus Sydney sandstone for the arches and corners. Open for business since 1836 this Georgian warehouse has been variously used as a trading post, library, barracks, boys’ school, general store, post office and Four Square dairy before it was bought by the New Zealand Historic Places Trust (now Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga) in 1975 and extensively conserved. 

Start your visit in the Stone Store’s ground floor shop, which is still trading today. The space is divided between the ‘bulk store’, where the goods are reminiscent of original storekeeper James Kemp’s inventory – wooden pegs, garden tools, horsehair brushware, and the like, and the ‘trade room’, which stocks kiwiana-style items that evoke the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s. Here you can also buy tickets for the guided tour. Explore the museum upstairs for fantastic interactive storytelling that puts faces to names and gives some context for the site.

Aotearoa New Zealand’s oldest surviving building, Kemp House (1822), is a timber foil to its stone neighbour. Built from native timbers for the Reverend John Butler by missionary carpenters and Māori sawyers, it eventually became the Kemp family digs after Butler was put on a boat home. The tours explore the domestic and human side of the site’s history. You’ll hear stories about some of the mission’s servants and workers as well as Kemp family members, and learn about the influence of the missionaries on local iwi and how Māori utilised their presence.

In the kitchen, you’ll find the home fire that Charlotte Kemp and her helpers kept burning, along with possibly Aotearoa New Zealand’s oldest agitator washing machine (a wooden tub with a handle inside). When you visit the parlour, look for the chairs that founding schoolmaster Francis Hall brought with him in kitset form from England in 1819.

Also on display in Kemp House are a pair of school slates that were discovered 20 years ago under the floorboards of the lean-to. One was used by Hongi Hika’s daughter, Rongo, who stayed with the Kemps as a young girl and again after her father’s death in 1828, when she attended the mission’s school for Māori girls. Dating to around 1831, it reads ‘Na Rongo Hongi’ and ‘16’, her age at the time.

Established by the Rev Butler with the help of Māori labour, the mission’s garden has been continuously cultivated for two centuries, which makes it Aotearoa New Zealand’s oldest european garden. These days, it is lovingly maintained by a hardworking gardener and volunteers and includes around 40 different types of heritage roses (you can buy seeds from some of the heritage flowers at the Stone Store), cottage garden-type flowerbeds and magnificent specimen trees. The orchard, meanwhile, sports what may well be Aotearoa New Zealand’s oldest plum tree and second oldest pear tree (its senior, which dates back to 1819, is located on the neighbouring property), as well as a century-old mulberry tree and other venerable exotics. All of the heritage highlights are marked with copper tags, and you can purchase a guide booklet at the Stone Store.

Later, grab a bite at the Honey House Café, located in a cottage behind Kemp House. The menu subtly reflects the heritage of the site – think watercress soup with kawakawa-infused oil served with homemade damper, and perhaps old-fashioned date scones to follow. From here, stroll uphill to Kororipo Pā to get a bird’s eye view of the basin and a sense of where power really lay in the mission’s earliest years. Then head across the river to Te Ahurea (previously Rewa’s Village). A living village and cultural centre, it was created by Ngāti Rēhia and includes new structures, serene bush walks and a whare waka and jetty that is the launch point for waka.