Exploring the historic town of Thames

“Thames is littered with wonderful old buildings,” Trish Malanaphy said. We were tucking into lemon tarts in the Melbourne Cafe at The Depot on Thames’ Pollen Street. A few years ago, she and husband Dave had transformed this industrial looking building into a small food and shopping complex.

“As a kid, this was where we used to catch the bus to Auckland,” she said. “We thought the 1927 building worth rescuing but it took a heck of a lot of time to renovate and find a modern use for it,” she grinned and sipped her coffee. “It also took a lot of baking soda. We used three-and-a-half tonnes of the stuff to strip the layers of paint off those lovely bricks that originally came from an old pump house.”

Trish has lived much of her life in Thames and keeps an eye on its architectural heritage. “There’s a lot of passion here for keeping old buildings, just not enough money. I tell people that if they drive around Thames with their eyes open, they’ll see history everywhere—in the pubs, churches, miners’ cottages, shops, and restored colonial bungalows.” 

Trish and Dave have recently bought a Burstner Elegance so they may not always be around to share such stories.

Shortland -wharf -(1868),-the -only -survivor

But in one of the restored heritage homes, liberally hung with local artworks, Paula and George Austin had plenty to tell. They spent a lot of time living overseas and when they finally came back to live in Auckland it felt, Paula said, like tinsel town. They moved to Thames five years ago.

“We’re really happy here,” Paula told me. “It’s a town with great heart. I feel at home with its established, old New Zealand-town feel and the mix of interesting people. There’s so much going on. The punk rock cult and various heritage celebrations have large followings and so do the arts—pottery, painting, sculpture—and I’m not talking amateur stuff. There are some big-name artists all over the Coromandel. George is on the committee of the Thames Society of Arts. Have a look if you’re passing.”

Taking a walk downtown

Carson 's ,-the -book -store -is -112-years -old -IMG_4226

I took her advice and spent half an hour at the gallery in the historical school building north of Grahamstown. Paula is right; the variety and quality of the exhibits were impressive.

Later, I prowled Pollen Street. I found a classy boutique called Bounty, owned by the lively Fiona Cameron, who sells carefully selected art, pottery, and artefacts from around New Zealand. I killed some time in an appealing second-hand bookshop, an antique shop, and Carson’s—the store that has served the bookish population of Thames for 112 years. I also checked out Read Bros. Hardware, which has been owned continuously by five generations of Reads, and, last September, celebrated its 150th anniversary. The store still sells gold pans. 

A store called Lotus Realm has a trove of tempting novelties and the proceeds support the Sudarshanaloka Buddhist Retreat on Victoria Street. It’s also a music shop stocking a range of high-end guitars and ukuleles. If you are lucky, you might catch a few musicians jamming out the back.

Instrument -line -up -in -Lotus -Realm-

A good time to lurk around the main street of Thames is on Saturday morning when a market is held on the sidewalk. It’s not huge but it’s whacky and interesting and there are great local food products on sale.

In the company of two new imports to the town, Miriam Smith and Chris Pryor, I bought (slimming) cream donuts from the market’s pizza stall and we drove north to the swimming beach at Thornton Bay to enjoy them under the watchful eye of local artist, Fatu Feu’u’s large red garden statues.

Acclaimed -film -makers ,-Miriam -Smith -and -Chris --Pryor

Miriam and Chris are film-makers recently returned after six months in New York on a Harriet Friedlander NYC Residency grant resulting from their two highly acclaimed films: How Far is Heaven, and The Ground We Won. Their enthusiasm for Thames is catching.

“We have no regrets about moving here,” Miriam said. “There’s plenty of action, yet the slower pace makes living easier. It’s really friendly—lots of fabulous people to talk to and great characters who would fit right in on the streets of New York.”

She pointed to three intriguing looking rocks on the shelf behind her. “The ‘rock lady’ is a good example. Jo Woods has this amazing rock shop next to the School of Mines Museum. If you ever want a good yak about rocks, gems, local events, and history, she’s a wealth of information and a joy to talk to. She had been a guide at the museum until one of her legs was amputated. Then she started collecting rocks instead.”

Jo -Woods ---the -rock -lady

When they’re not working, Miriam and Chris are big on exercise. “Plenty of choices here,” Miriam said. “We’ve yet to conquer the mighty Pinnacles, but we’ve done several shorter walks, like the stunning Kauri Grove Walk near Waiomu. The Hauraki cycleway is fantastic – through the Karangahake Gorge to Waihi in one direction, or Miranda Hotpools in the other. There’s the whole of the Kauaeranga Valley, of course.”

That evening, they took me to Shortland Wharf—the only surviving one of several that serviced the town back in the gold mining days. We devoured fish and chips (served by a small cafe housed in a container) at outdoor tables on the wharf and watched the Kauaeranga River, thick with mangroves, winding past the marina and sliding towards the Firth of Thames. “We always bring people here,” Chris said. “It’s a very Thames thing to do.”

Early next morning, we toned up in a deep natural water hole in the Kauaeranga River. It was just five kilometres out of town. On one side is a high rock wall and generations of children have leaped from its height to plunge into the water below. The only leaping I did was into the air when I felt a watery something (nothing) brush against my leg.

A-deep -natural -water -hole -in -the -Kauaeranga -River -Credit -Chris -Pryor

Back in town, we had a choice to make about where to go for breakfast. Where once 100 hotels served the liquid needs of the gold miners and timbermen, there are now cafes and restaurants offering sustenance to a more genteel clientele, among them, no doubt, many of our readers. We ate corn fritters in a funky little vegetarian cafe on the main street called Sola. My last day in Thames was starting well.

Thames events

  • The Thames street market is held every Saturday morning from November to April on the footpaths at the Grahamstown end of Pollen Street. Bring your own shopping bags.
  • This year’s Thames Heritage Festival will take place from 16 to 18 March 2018. Among the festivities will be a monster car parade and a beard and moustache competition.
  • The annual popular four-day steampunk festival involving parades, banquets, and shows set around this cultic theme take place from 11 to 18 November 2018. The event has become so popular with RV racers that a large car park in town is made available for CSC overnight parking.

Explore more destinations in the Waikato region.

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