Monday, 5 September 2011

Going to Town in the Country

It is surprising how little is known in Auckland of the country to the northward of the Waitemata. It is truly almost... a terra incognita. It is time it ceased to be such. 
“Kaiparian”, Letters to the Editor, Daily Southern Cross, 1875.  

“The first real country town you will come across”
(though this sign is as you enter from the north).
Aucklanders began streaming northward long ago for weekends, holidays and ‘lifestyle’ but unless you count the road, which brings supplies as well as tourists, Wellsford bears few lasting signs of this invasion. It’s “the first real country town that you will come across”, according to the Welcome to Wellsford brochure I picked up, and to me it’s the place that has always made it patently clear that I’m not in Auckland any more.

The hour-long drive doesn’t achieve this; what does is Wellsford’s difference from the settlements already passed and from some further north. Most of its shops and services are quite rightly directed at its own permanent population
(1671 in 2006*) and that of surrounding rural areas, though passing traffic must be responsible for the bulk of petrol sales and public loo visits.

Apart from being “the town you can’t miss” (the brochure again) because it adjoins State Highways 1 and 16, it has no particular claim to fame. Whoever wrote the Wellsford Town Centre Development Plan (2009) has put their finger on it: unlike Warkworth, another local centre slightly closer to Auckland, this is no destination town. People pass through.

Rodney Has Boundary Issues

Historically Wellsford was part of Rodney County (later District), which never rubbed shoulders with Auckland City: Waitakere, North Shore and Kaipara were its immediate neighbours. With Wellsford’s place in the world and its distance from Auckland thus clear in my mind, I found its new public library sign unsettling when Carol and I drove into the town from State Highway 16. The sign is familiar; it’s confident in glossy dark green and bright blue, with the typography (a Helvetica hybrid?) and stylised pohutukawa blossom of the sprawling new Auckland supercity.

The entry foyer and roll of honour at Wellsford
War Memorial Library.
Nearly a year after amalgamation, Wellsford’s membership of the Auckland Club still seems like an anomaly to me, but there are several territorial oddities this far north of the seething metropolis. I guess these occur frequently when people dream up placenames and boundaries.

Even before the creation of that Frankenstein’s monster we call the supercity, Rodney had a foot in greater Auckland. Environmentally it came under the eye of the Auckland Regional Council, which in 2008 opened one of its largest public parks there. The Atiu Creek Regional Park
, a gift from Pierre and Jackie Chatelanat, is just 10 minutes’ drive west of Wellsford, on the Okahukura Peninsula.

Our drive north along the back route missed the toll road but included beautiful, and largely deserted, coastal land around the Kaipara Harbour. That would be within Kaipara District boundaries, right? Wrong: Kaipara has half the Kaipara coast, and Rodney (now Auckland) the rest. At 500 square kilometres the harbour, one of five on the mainland of the new Auckland, is the largest enclosed harbour in the Southern Hemisphere.

Slightly inland, but still beside our route, is Mount Auckland. It’s set in the Kaipara Hills but its 305 metre summit is the highest point of the former Rodney District. Come amalgamation, the Queen City of Auckland clasped Mount Auckland to her bosom. However, the latter’s traditional name of Atuanui is back in favour now and this week its ownership is restored to local Maori.

I have no beef with that (and it’s not my business). Ngati Whatua o Kaipara people took refuge there during times of crisis; this is a settlement negotiated under the Treaty of Waitangi; and the land will remain a scenic reserve, complete with public walkway through native bush and pre-European defensive ditches. 

Lord Auckland statue outside Auckland City Council
building earlier this year, his traffic-cone (or dunce?)
hat at a rakish angle.
What’s more, Lord Auckland, the inspiration for more than one New Zealand placename, is no great role model. While serving the Empire as Governor General of India he was responsible for the first Afghan War, which saw the British force destroyed. The British must really have annoyed the locals, because according to the Oxford Dictionary of British History, “only one member of the original army of 16,000 lived to cross the Khyber pass back into India”. 

That all seems far from Wellsford, but mulling over past times and placenames can take you a very long way. Someone well aware of that must have been H. (Harold) Mabbett, whose histories of the area are often quoted. Having borrowed one from the library, I attempted several forays but each time admitted defeat: the thickets of anecdote and information just wouldn’t part sufficiently for me to find a way through.

In his preface to Wellsford: Tidal Creek to Gum Ridge (1968), he quoted a friend’s advice. “‘You may think you are bogged down in a mass of petty detail... but how are you to decide what information may become valuable in the next hundred years. Put it in, or lose it!’” So Mr Mabbett put it in.

I did find out that “Wellsford is not very old” (the author said this twice on page 6, under the headings “Still in its Infancy” and “The Benefits of Youth”), and that the town has had two locations. Old Wellsford was on the Whakapirau tidal creek, accessible (though not very) by water from Port Albert or Albertland, in the upper reaches of the Kaipara Harbour. From 1909 the arrival of the railway further inland “drew settlement away... and concentrated it about the gum ridge”: New Wellsford.

“Wellsford is not very old”, and neither is
this library child.
Albertland, settled in the 1860s by religious non-conformists (Protestant but not Anglican), was named after the recently deceased prince consort — though what the German hubby of an English queen had to do with it is anyone’s guess. According to local legend, “Wellsford” combined the initial letters of several early settlers’ surnames. It’s a more pleasant placename than Whakapirau whose meaning, “to cause to decay”, is not a good association for what an 1874 Daily Southern Cross correspondent described as “a thriving little place... one of the snuggest, prettiest, and most prosperous districts up North”. 

A Marriage of Convenience
New Wellsford celebrates “the pioneers” in one of the public loos that Aucklanders so frequently visit. In days gone by, local bodies burdened such facilities with the additional role of commemorating the past (Papakura, for instance, has its Centennial Rest Room). Presumably this was a marriage of convenience: councils, not flush with funds, couldn’t fault the logic of a two-for-one deal, even if those using the memorial might have their minds on lower things.

It’s certainly convenient that Wellsford’s public loo on Rodney Street is next door to its public library, firstly because it would be difficult to squeeze a loo between the bookshelves and secondly because the library has a memorial role of its own. Like New Lynn’s library, Wellsford’s is a war memorial.

Plans are afoot to build a new Wellsford Public Library across the road in — appropriately enough — the Memorial Park. It will be part of “a community hub”, says the Auckland Council (local bodies like to talk about hubs, as I learned in Massey), with a new plaza for Anzac Day commemorations, a connection to the existing Albertland and Districts Museum plus the playground, and a new “town centre”. I understand that a new public toilet is part of that plan.

This small library is chock-a-block with books.
The present Wellsford library is, on the outside, a small, don’t-look-twice house of 1950s brick and tile. Inside it is chock-a-block with books, public-use computers, the easily identifiable catalogue that must be a feature of Rodney libraries (Kumeu library’s catalogue set-up is similar), and a children’s section that’s as spacious as can be, given the building’s limitations. One of the two small non-computer tables was occupied by a laptop user when I visited, and I happily commandeered half the other as my workplace for a couple of hours. 

The Barefoot Librarian 
Despite the memorial status, this small-town library seems not to stand on ceremony. During my surveillance a staff member went about her business barefoot for a few minutes (please don’t tell her off, powers that be); a toddler toddled; its mother internetted; patrons either side of a bookshelf unit discussed a bargain price for a piano, perhaps from Wellsford Traders up the road.

My favourite parts of Wellsford’s library are not directly related to “service delivery”, and I suspect that when the new library is built they’ll be quietly retired to be replaced with smart new stuff. Below the war-related roll of honour in the entrance foyer is a sun-baked wooden table with a comfy old-fashioned office chair, and elsewhere the library has more old chairs and patchwork cushions that add a personal touch, as if this really is a house where you can make yourself at home.

The cushion and chair at my table in Wellsford library. How is it
that the old stuff is sometimes the friendliest and most comfortable?
Maybe Wellsford’s not home or a destination town for most of us. Does that matter? If travelling is more important than arriving — even if Wellsford is but a stop along the way — then I value that small town more than I knew. It’s about more than spending a penny.

* That figure is according to Te Ara Encyclopedia of New Zealand but Rodney District Council set Wellsford’s population at 4200, perhaps including a larger area.


  1. You will be pleased to know that Mabbett's 'From Tidal Creek to Gum Ridge' is being reissued for the 2012 Albertlanders Centennial celebrations next year!

  2. Er... jolly good! Perhaps I'll have another go with the new edition.