View of Te Waimate Mission house and garden through the trees

An introduction to Te Waimate Mission

Charles Darwin was bowled over when he visited Te Waimate Mission Station in 1835. Here, he wrote in his diary, “Was an English farm and its well-dressed fields, placed there as if by an enchanter’s wand”.

For Darwin, Te Waimate was a welcome surprise. For a  visitor today following in the great man’s footsteps, the Church Missionary Society’s (CMS) fourth mission station is a different kind of eyeopener. Established as a model farming village, complete with a flour mill, blacksmiths, printery, carpenter’s shop, school and church, this was the fullest realisation of Samuel Marsden’s belief that spiritual and practical instruction should be combined as a one-two punch. At Te Waimate, Māori would be educated in European farming techniques and brought to the Lord.

When you visit, you won’t find the full English pastoral scene that so struck Darwin. As the mission declined, the CMS leased or sold off all but a few acres. Of the three mission houses, only lay missionary George Clarke’s 1832 residence remains. But what a graceful survivor. Aotearoa New Zealand’s second oldest surviving building is an elegant two-storeyed affair, with wide verandahs and a low-pitched hipped roof, complemented by Georgian-style dormer windows.

It also houses an impressive collection. You’ll see period furniture and a range of original agricultural and carpentry tools, what’s left of the country’s first water-powered flour mill and relics from Bedggood’s Blacksmiths Shop, domestic items and cooking implements. There are also two of the country’s earliest surviving European-made garments – a christening gown for Thomas Holloway King, the first European child born in Aotearoa New Zealand, and a smock shirt of Irish linen that belonged to his father John.

But the jewel in the crown is the book collection, which contains some of the nation’s oldest books. They include more than 400 that predate 1850, and 174 works in Māori from the CMS press at Paihia, some with inscriptions from Te Waimate missionaries William Yate, James Hamlin and Clarke, and one inscribed by Charlotte Kemp from the Kerikeri mission. There’s also an intriguing 17th Century Bible in which all pages before 210 and after 382 are missing, and the remaining pages are curled and scorched.

Afterwards, wander over to the Church of St John the Baptist. Erected in 1871 and owned by the Anglican Diocese, this was the third church built on the site, following earlier iterations in 1831 and 1839. It’s a lovely example of timber Gothic Revival architecture – most likely designed by George Clarke’s son Marsden – still with most of its original fixtures and fittings. The surrounding burial ground, one of Aotearoa New Zealand’s earliest churchyards, includes the graves of Clarke family members, as well as British soldiers killed in the Northern War.

On that subject, it’s only a 40-minute drive from Te Waimate to the site of Ngāpuhi chief Te Ruki Kawiti’s famously innovative and intricate Ruapekapeka pā, or ‘the bat’s nest’. Constructed to withstand British cannon fire using a mix of tunnels, rifle pits and trenches surrounded by a strong palisade, this was where the last great battle of the 1845-46 Northern War played out. Also worth a look is St Michael’s church at Ōhaeawai, which occupies part of the namesake pā site where Kawiti fought an earlier battle, and Holy Trinity at Pakaraka, built by Henry Williams’ wife Marianne and sons as a memorial to the missionary. The church sits on the margins of Pouērua, a 270-metre high scoria cone and a rich archaeological site that spans 500 years of Māori settlement.