Athenree Homestead

Despite living most of my life  in the Bay of Plenty, I had yet to visit the Athenree Homestead. I knew little about it before deciding to go to their annual Vintage Christmas Fair in November, and so was quite amazed to discover not only a restored building but an energised community of people who have links both past and present with this property.

Driving from Tauranga, another surprise was finding that the property is only about 10 minutes on the other side of Katikati. There were stallholders spread across the lawn, people seated at tables enjoying refreshments and the Katikati Concert Band playing. A beautiful sunny day with a view out across the Tauranga harbour.

The railway station which used to be in the Athenree Gorge was moved up to the homestead about seven or eight years ago and has now become the refreshment rooms.

Scones and tea and plenty of people to chat with.

And then there is the homestead itself.  

As I walked up the driveway, the chimneys, roof and finally the full house itself appeared, stunningly set among the pink and purple hydrangeas, hollyhocks, box hedging and established trees.

It’s hard to imagine the house was once just derelict remains, overgrown and falling into decay.  

I’d read that during the early and very tough-going years of the property restoration, members of  the Athenree Homestead Trust had to stay  overnight during Guy Fawkes to prevent the building being burnt down, such was the level of negativity from some that it could ever be returned to its original glory.

The Bay of Plenty is such a scenic area that it’s sadly possible to live all your life enjoying just the present without ever being enriched by knowing what came before.

The Athenree Homestead is one such place. I learned that it plays an important part in reflecting the early history of Ulster settlement in Katikati and Athenree. Built and lived in by Irish settlers Adela and Hugh Stewart from 1878 to 1906, the property had a significant role in the developing community.

Hugh Stewart was the brother of George Vesey Stewart who was the founder of Katikati and Te Puke, and was elected Mayor of Tauranga in 1882.

It is believed that George Vesey Stewart enticed more than 4000 people to settle in New Zealand.

On learning this I could see that this property was not just telling us the story of the Athenree settlement, but also telling us part of the story of Tauranga Moana from Katikati to Te Puke.

The story of this family was entwined with the story of Tauranga.

I could hear a piano, so went in and found Julie Gray standing in an elegant room under a huge painting of Captain Mervyn Stewart. Julie’s maiden name is Stewart.

“Mervyn Stewart is my great-great-great-grandfather,” says Julie. “He came out to New Zealand when he was 88 years old.”

Julie had no idea the painting existed until one of the original members of the trust, who was visiting England, saw it up for auction and procured it for the homestead.

Interestingly, Julie’s husband Peter Gray’s great-grandfather William John Gray was the first county engineer for the area, and Julie’s great-great-grandfather George Vesey Stewart was the first mayor of the Tauranga county. They worked together.

There are many interesting photos, pieces of furniture, clothing and other items through the house. For the past couple of years Hilary Arthur has been documenting, photographing and cataloguing everything, including the donated items.

The next project is the rebuild of the back of the house. I wander through to take a look and find trust member Chris Bedford in the dining room, resplendent in suit, bow tie, cane and a top hat.

“We’re particularly seeking to raise funds to rebuild the rear of the house which will make the house complete,” says Chris.

“Our aim is to present the whole of the property as an authentic picture of what life was like in the 1870s and 1880s when Hugh and Adela Stewart arrived here and established what was 500 acres.

“I say to people ‘what was it like to live here in the 1880s?’ There was no road here at first, and Hugh’s parents lived at Kauri Point. There was no bridge across the Tuapiro River for quite a long time.

“They had to wait for the tide to go down to get across. There were a lot of things like that they had to deal with.”

As a trust member, Chris’s particular responsibility is the management of the house, as distinct from the grounds and  the kitchen.  The trust holds the Christmas Fair each year as a fundraiser to continue with restoration and maintenance of the property. The south wall building project is a rebuild rather than a restore, as the old pieces from that part of the house were smashed, ruined or decayed. It has already taken many hours of voluntary work by the trust, ensuring that regulations and requirements involving architect, archeologist and engineers are met. They were successful in securing a funding grant from TECT but unfortunately were declined by the Lotteries Commission.

The lengthy and highly-detailed applications involved extensive discussions and correspondence with Heritage NZ and  a heritage architect, which made the rejection disappointing.

Later I read of the hurdles the trust has overcome to turn the homestead from a ruin back into one of the Bay’s most notable properties.

The homestead is open for viewing every Sunday through summer from 12-4pm, and the gardens and house provide an enjoyable place to visit.