Feature by Carolyn Skelton.
Journey to Helensville
Small town New Zealand, has never been totally isolated or disconnected from the wider world. Helensville is at the northern end of the western branches of the Auckland Transport bus lines. Taking a trip there from Auckland city, reveals some of the vast rural-urban differences within greater Auckland. I got the bus at Karangahape Road, near the Family Bar, where early twentieth century buildings meet 21st century leisure and commerce.
The bus goes past the massive work in progress that is the Waterview Connection, along the north western motorway, which these days is continually under construction. New lanes are being built at a higher level beside the existing lanes.
The bus stopped at the Westgate Centre in Massey, also undergoing massive construction – then went on through the semi-rural areas of Kumeu and Waimauku. AT bus drivers tend to be very courteous and helpful to passengers. But as we entered the more rural terrain, a different kind of friendliness is indicated by the way the driver stopped to let off a young guy with a small backpack. I think he was headed to Murawai. There were no bus stops there. The driver told him to just wait on the side road and flag down a bus when it came past.
It got more noticeably into farming country as we get closer to Helensville. Then the bus did a circuit of Parakai, past the camp ground and hot springs (Parakai is the reversal of Kaipara, the 2 elements meaning the para fern as food: see Helensville Museum and Pioneer Village website).
Helensville – a river runs through it… and a railway line
Then, we are taken on into Helensville. It is very much a 21st century small NZ town; but one where the past continues to live a very contemporary context. It has the same kind of products as Auckland City on display in shops, one of the same supermarket chains, and the same kind of bus shelters. There are far less cars on the roads than on east coast small towns like Warkworth, giving a sense of a slower pace.
The town sits beside the Kaipara River, the main means of transport until the first few decades of the 20th century. The canoes brought the first inhabitants up the river into the area around the 15th century. Later came the Pakeha and with them the development of the timber and kauri gum industries.
In 1862, timber miller John McLeod and his wife Helen built their home out of kauri and named it “Helen’s Villa”. This was the basis of the town’s name.
A local resident told me that they like Helensville as it is: non-touristy, and a bit scruffy – a bit hippyish. This 2011 article describes it as “post-hippie”. That article focuses on a lot of the commercial venues: the cafes and craft stores. But there is far more depth of history in the Helensville landscape.
Helensville, history and screen productions: past into the present
Ngati Whatua o Kaipara is a visible presence in the town, as I could see from signage on buildings as I walked up the main street, Commercial Road. Almost opposite the Ngati Whatua o Kaipara community building is the old Post Office Building. This building moonlights as the Brokenwood Police Station in the Brokenwood Mysteries.
Towards the end of the final episode (#8) to season 2 of the TV series, DSS Mike Shepherd drives out of the Brokenwood Police Station and turns right into Commercial Road. In fact, he should have turned left to where he is next seen driving down Garfield Road, past what was once the Regent Picture Theatre. I walked that route. This connects past screen history, with the more recent use of Helensville as a filming location.
The theatre building, now a second hand shop, wears its faded glamour well. There’s posters from movies past on display, such as those for the Titanic. Picture shows came early to Helensville. Mrs Mongomery travelled the Kaipara are with her carbide picture plant (Men Came Voyaging by C.M. Sheffield, 2011: 159). The Montgomeries were touring the Auckland region with the Kinematograph shows as early as 1900, eg showing moving images of bull fighting and the Transvaal War.
Perry’s Pictures showed films in the Helensville Foresters Hall, such as indicated by this 1912 newspaper article, featuring “Billy the Kid”. Later became the Star Picture Theatre, located, I’m told, at 20 Garfield Road, a couple of premises up from the Regent Theatre. Stewarts Hall was built during WWI and later became the Lyric Theatre. It burned down in 1939, and the Regent Theatre was built on the same site in 1941 (Helensville Heritage Study: Volume II The Register: for the Rodney District Council, 1994).
On the opposite side of the road, beyond the wet muddy banks of the Kaipara, the aptly named Grand Hotel can be seen. Beyond that is the Railway Station Museum and the Railway Station, itself a living museum piece. I felt I was in a mid 20th century movie, or a Woody Guthrie song as I watched 2 men walking off down the railway tracks beside the silent railway carriages.
I then walked along the Riverside Walkway, to the Helensville Museum, where I learned that many screen productions had been filmed in the area. Helensville featured as the town of Cobham in the 1980s TV series, Mortimer’s Patch.
Helensville has always been linked to the wider countryside and world, through transport routes and the ever changing technologies of communication. It has a unique character and a rural, small town feel, while being far from isolated. It continues to play a significant role in contemporary media.