Old Forest School

The Most Loved Place


Over 15 years ago the McMahon family decided to buy a run down old school in the Pongakawa Valley, never thinking that it would go on to shape their lives in the most joyful and extraordinary ways. Come with us as we chart that journey, incorporating stories from the past and illuminating how the school has been reinvigorated in line with their commitment to nature, history, integrity and family. Welcome to this evocative and inspiring story of one of the most unique businesses in New Zealand today.


Back in the summer of 2007 our small family decided to chase a dream true to their hearts…a country escape.  A place for our children to grow up in nature, to connect with Mother Earth herself, to run wild in flower filled fields and surround themselves with loved animals great and small.  A slower pace, a space to breathe and create.

Trying to find such a place, one of rustic beauty, steeped in history, a bit run down and something nestled in old world grounds was quite the task. How fortunate that tucked away, forgotten, unloved and unwanted by many, lay an old school in waiting….waiting for a brave family to rescue her, and rescue her quick, time was no longer on her side.  

We will never forget the day we drove up….nor the fact we purchased her the following day.  Amongst its clearly forgotten past was the bones of something beautiful, charming and a profound warmth, a feeling of being embraced, probably from all the happy children who played for more than half a century in these very grounds.

This little country school was built to serve a small rural community post World War One. People from all walks of life had come to the Pongakawa Valley for a new beginning, the world had changed, quite dramatically and they needed to also, but somewhere quiet, unpretentious and most of all peaceful.

Past pupils, teachers, headmasters and all their families and visitors over the years have spoken of Old Forest School as being their happy place, their safe place. Children and adults alike felt a massive connection and love for this school, from the very beginning right through to today.  We hold immense pride in taking care of these histories and enabling the creation of new ones.  We hold the entire property in the highest respect and honour, these connections depend on us.

Built in 1933 for farmers and tobacco plantation workers during The Great Depression, then for the families of the Forestry Village this little school quickly grew and became a place of gathering, learning, peace and togetherness, a place that would create and hold memories for the thousands that came through her little gates.  

This was not the first time this valley had been utilised, its recorded history dates back to around about 1823 when the famous Maori warrior/chief Hongi Hiki and the Nga Puhi tribe used the Pongakawa stream to plan a surprise attack on rivals in Rotorua. The rare and protected wall paintings left by his warriors can still be found deep in the Rotoehu Forest, we have been fortunate to be taken to their secret location and view them with our own eyes. Along the valley are numerous Pa sites, their history forgotten but the mana of the valley can be felt by all who welcome it.

Starting a restoration of this magnitude was not for the lighthearted, it certainly exceeded our expectations and let’s be honest, our budget.  But week in and week out we were greeted by someone who had heard that we had purchased ‘the old school’ and they stopped by…every time we questioned our sanity in taking on such a task we would be meet by a teary eyed stranger who would thank us from the very bottom of their hearts for preserving their history. Many days a small team of locals would turn up, tool belts on, seeing what they could do to help. The school’s history started to be returned, her ribbons and trophies, her books, her jungle gym and even her bell…she was coming alive again, undeniably this place had a heart, a soul, which was again beating.

We started on the most ‘urgently in need’, and that was the Schoolhouse.  With holes in the roof, rotten weatherboards, peeling paint and broken windows it was only a matter of years and she would have been forever lost.  We would work till the wee hours scraping and sanding, painting and polishing. Occasionally we would quietly pause after uncovering buried treasure, books hidden in attic corners, letters tucked in obscure places, time capsules behind wall linings, old doors and fittings underneath floorboards.  Slowly but surely our friends and family started to see what we saw that April day. It wasn’t some epic design achievement on our parts, just the uncovering of a beauty held deeply under years of grime, dust and neglect. There was never any question that all buildings would be returned to their former glory inside and out, doing a conversion to a house was never even discussed. We had absolutely no idea what we were going to do with these buildings once restored, we didn’t even stop to discuss it, renovation, restoration, even salvation was the task at hand.  

After 5 solid years work, alongside raising our family we were ready to open Old Forest School up to the world.  We certainly never anticipated what we brought as a simple family home would grow to this point, but life sometimes has a mind of its own and all you can do is buckle in for its journey not sure what lies in its future. It all started with an open day for all who had a connection with the properties past. The gathering was an enormous success, gosh that is quite an understatement!  We all, I think, quietly hope to do one thing in our lives that really means something…this was the day our family realised we had done that. Playground friendships re-ignited after 50 years, new and old connections being reforged, the pride and respect for this school, love and laughter…and stories, oh the stories. Never have we smiled so much as that day, and to look up and see a small country school beaming with pride made it all worth while.

It was here, quite unexpectedly, in amongst this day we found our ‘why’. Guests brought with them so, so many photos of weddings, parties, gatherings and celebrations, this school was the community’s learning space but also its heart. Suddenly it all made sense, we would welcome gatherings, celebrations and learning back in to the schools life.

We spent a few more years completing the remainder of the renovations. The Headmaster’s Cottage, our home, needed significant work, as did the various outbuildings which had been added during its period of being a farm.  We officially opened in 2013 and immediately booked out solid, continuing to do so to this very day.  

In 2013 we were approached by TV3 asking to use us as a location for Season 1 of The Batchelor NZ.  We all expected a small, tiny part of an episode, but they were so enthralled with Old Forest School they filmed a large part of a whole episode here.  

Word was travelling throughout the country about this gorgeous wee school and its story, enthusiastic past pupils by the hundreds were sharing its journey. Their school was back and they wanted to tell the world. To say our community was proud is an understatement. This started Old Forest Schools love affair with the camera, now being a location in films, television and print, she’s quite proud of this.  The valley elders still gush saying ‘and to think that’s our little school, who would have thought’.

With such popularity, so much press and attention was very unexpected. This profile brought and continues to bring with it some problems of their own, those who wish to disrespect and put the heritage entrusted in to our hands at risk. We stand firm in demanding all who pass through these gates honour those who have gone before, respect those whose history here is yet to be written. Everyone knows, or ought to know, love Old Forest School and she will forever love you back. Not on our watch will she return to the ashes from which she has risen.

We are proud to have created a successful and sustainable unmistakably family business which echos our ethics. We love that it employs many staff and supports many businesses and charities. We are proud that we have remained true to our roots. We are proud of how the business has developed, in whatever way we can we try to make a difference. We enjoy supporting the businesses of our customers, believing in the ‘it takes a village’ ethos.  To this day we have a direct descendant of the first settler in the valley frequently come in to our kitchen, pull up a chair, at home, as they should always be but boy there better be some home baking to hand.  

As we have added on to the property we have done so with the utmost love and kindness to the generations before.  When a past pupil struggles to remember what a new building was used for we know we got it right. We use locally sourced recycled materials to ensure everything feels honest to the property and its past. Rather than having a fixed plan we let the property evolve, feeling our way as to how best to balance its past with its future. Everywhere is an extension of us, our now grown children’s handprints add to the history, our contributions creatively adding to its story, where there is no need for airs and graces; a place where people can simply be themselves.

Old Forest School is an extension of our home and ourselves, everyone is welcome.  It is truely wonderful to be surrounded by so much beauty every day and we hope to share a little bit of that with you.

The original Tennis Court is still here and you are welcome to join in a game of tennis, you will be handed an old wooden racquet because tradition is everything.

The School Baths have also been restored to their 1943 glory. During the restoration we unearthed, deeply buried, the original changing room hooks. Remembering the baths along with the tennis court cost Ninety pounds to build, funds raised by the local community, what a great privilege. The whole valley community were welcomed to use these outside of school hours.  

The School Library was also a community resource, everyone welcome. We found boxes of books hidden in the attic and many more were returned.

An old delivery trailer from the Valley’s General Store, long ago closed, is parked welcoming you to take a seat and watch a game of tennis. The only General Store in the valley was located 3 km away from the school and owned by John Te Wharetotara Graham. John shut its door in 1939 and went to war as part of the 28th Maori Battalion, he sadly never returned and it never reopened.

For the even more curious is The Store, nestled alongside the wildlife pond, is a spot to really connect with NZ past, filled with dusty treasures. On occasion, with a little arm twist, this is opened to purchase from.

The old world gardens are built around near 100 year old trees which were planted by children in the schools arbour days.  In summer, the trees meet overhead forming a green cloister, the air is still and quiet, the sunlight plays beckoning us on to discover what lies ahead. Garden beds are filled with flowers from surrounding farmers gardens, donated to us so their history will continue.  Past valley residents memoirs make mention of certain flowers and fruits so these have all been replanted. 

The Headmaster’s Orchard has been replanted and the Headmasters Distillery is also being rebuilt (true story, the schools history is also filled with much colour and we hope to soon be brewing just as they once did). Old farm machinery donated by nearby farmers dot the grounds along with many other pieces from the schools time.  

We have fully restored the heritage four New Zealand Forestry Singlemen’s Cabins that we fortunately have on site. These will open for Slow Stays in 2024/25…stay tuned.

Old Forest School continues to grow, just as she did all those years ago.  Ideas and creativity, community and connections thrive here.  Many new and exciting plans are afoot.

For those who like to go a bit deeper in to the history read on…let us share a snippet more of this little lady’s past….All of this and more is waiting patiently to be collated in to a book alongside the stories of its glorious new chapter, it even has a working title so it’s underway… Once Upon a Forest – The Tale of Old Forest School.   

We don’t hold the original plans as many of our schools records are safely tucked away at NZ Archives, which is a blessing knowing everything is kept safe and sound.  We have been able to look through what they have, including holding in our hands the original and very fragile blue prints.

Designed and built as a single room school and having the motto of Service Before Self the school opened on 13th November 1933 with a role of 12 children. Here is a photo of the first day, we are truely honoured to have been visited by a couple of those first day pupils.

The windows were moved from the side in the photo to the front one summer simply because of the distraction to the children. The valley had a long and winding pumice road, cars, or horseless carriages, were quite a thing to spot, much to the excitement of the children and a dust plume some 10km away could be seen from that very window causing a whole class to stop everything in the hope of seeing….A motor vehicle!! Simple and quick solution was to paint the windows, that did not deter these eager children who promptly scrapped it off.  We still have that set of windows it’s the one on the right as you look at the front of the school.

We are blessed to hold the original school roles, awaiting a full restoration so hello The Repair Shop!. A detailed record of all children who passed through the school.  Using this precious archive we have been able to look up visiting past pupils enrolment dates, who their guardians were, even for one their birth date which had been lost in family records.  

We also have one of the schools teachers log book for a period from 1958 to 1984, here we can read a day to day account of the goings on in the school.

In our archives is a photo album of the Tobacco Plantation. It’s quite something to see gentlemen, dressed in suits working the fields. The ladies working in the plant nursery.  All this happened alongside the school. Records show wages were 37 shillings and sixpence a week ($3.75) and rent set at 5 shillings (50 cents). There was no electricity, no public transport.

Also gifted to us is one of the Forestry Journals dated 1943.  This is beautifully detailed and handwritten, covering goings on in the surrounding forest and the forestry Singlemen’s camp and workshops.  

We are aware of a mill which operated 5 kilometres up the valley from us, Tunnicliffe Mill.  It’s from here all the schools timber was milled…Friday special it was said, whatever they had left on a Friday was sent down for work the following week.  As a result the school is beautifully built with a random variety of native timbers. Stories of the valley residents are brought to life in a series of memoirs we hold.  We love reading about their adventures.  We have some from first day pupils, some from teachers but all tell of a time filled with hard work, great friendships and many wild and hilarious tales, one including an under garment stealing rat.

As we set about the enormous task of putting things back we received a beautiful hand drawing of where things were, a memory from the 1960-70’s.  So where possible these have been incorporated back again, the location of the hopscotch and four square, the planting of rose bush and peach tree.

We were able to confirm the location of the original school blackboard from this drawing. It was found dirty and dusty underneath a building.  It’s now proudly back in place with a time capsule behind it.

We hold a great number of photos from the schools history. Can’t even begin to tell you how it feels to find one when its needed…like the day we found a photo of a visiting past pupils brother, the family had not one, photography was a luxury not afforded to many, to send them off with copy held close to their heart was a truely tear-filled moment.

While we try and have many items on display there are a few too precious to be out, but are available to see, hold and share.  One such item is the schools original hand held bell. Only a short time ago we were visited by an elderly man whose father was headmaster here quite some time ago, he had spent his early pre school years living in the Headmaster Cottage. He held the very bell his father held, and rang it out, just as his father did many, many years ago.  

Some of the school trophies have been kindly returned and sit proudly in the Schoolhouse. We even hold one of the teachers old bicycles, the one she used daily to travel up the valley.  Her son had kept it tucked away for over 60 years and humbly asked us if we would take over guardianship of it. Not yet ready for display, but will be one day.

The glory days of the school were winding down, nearing an end, and in 1985 she closed her doors for the last time and was sold in to private ownership in 1986.  The Government Forestry organisation was privatised resulting in forestry villages and workshops being abandoned throughout the country, the Rotoehu village was disbanded and houses sold off and moved away, the roads closed and farms amalgamated.  

The Pongakawa Valleys population numbers dwindled. 

This part of the schools chapter had closed and we don’t know much about what happened next. We have heard many times of people worried that the next time they were back in the Valley its last remaining monument, the school, would be gone, many afraid to make the trip just in case…but they weren’t expecting us, a small Auckland family with a touch of crazy, oozing creativity, a thirst for hard work and an unbridled passion for history.

When we brought this school all those years ago we had no idea where it would lead us.  We plunged in at the deep end and taught ourselves to swim as we went along.  Now, after all this time, we count ourselves immensely luck we have reached the other side of the pool but are also able to pause and see how far we have come.  Its a joyous view, we watch with interest and excitement to see where the next parts of the story will lead and what adventures it will bring.

Lastly, a blessing, written anonymously by a past pupil for our family, our home, for you, for New Zealand and for a very precious little school….


To the schools Maori friends, please approach your ancestral Spirits and ask them to protect this place that no man or act of God would ever bring it to its knees again. That it has risen from near death is a miracle and all those who cherish this place must be forever thankful. Please protect it from rain or fire, wind or earthquakes and may it always be cherished with memories of those who played in its grounds.

Thoughts on those who have passed this way, a tribute. To the farming community who have supported this place, we remember you, children, grand and great grand children who have turned this valley into the place we honour today. We can no longer see your face, grip your hand or hug your shoulders but we smile when we remember you.

To the people of the Pines, hard working, strong and poor, some uneducated, the Depression and World War II was grim for all and work with very little pay or play was the order of the day, yet above it all was courage, friendship, harmony and honour, unlike today.

To the people of the mill, thank you for being there, our lives were so dependant on your waste product slabs, slabs for the stove for cooking and warmth, for a little hot water, slabs for the open fire, slabs to make with, chook houses, dog kennels, garden edges, trolleys, sledges, milking yard rails and bail shelters while milking, an endless supply of slabs, you were very much part of our existence, thank you for your support, this was your school also, we enjoyed our social time together, like dances. Your friendship and support were very much part of our lives.

To the pupils of the pines, 40,000 acres or so we were told, our playground, where the tree in front of you was the same as the one you had just passed, the same to the left and the same to the right, the line to eternal darkness as it went or just a small ray of light in the distance to guide you to the end. What a playground. To those of you who enjoyed this place, the lessons, the sport, the play, the mates and friendship, give your thanks, those educators of the day, they taught you learning, lifted you above the pines, made you who you are today, gave you the skills to rub shoulders with all, be a citizen of this country, fight its fights, celebrate its glories by the standards set by our parents and by our schooling, Hard, but good times.

To those who have been back you should be very thankful for the peace and tranquillity this place holds, good memories, friends. Settle down, remember the smell of the pines, walk across the playing fields, rub your hands in the needles and relive those moments as a child you lived through here. This place stands as a tribute to all who passed this way and to the parents who supported it.

To those who haven’t been back, we plead with you to do so, your memories may be sad but you will find a peace you have never known, drink in the atmosphere, recharge your batteries, go back into the world feeling at peace and so pleased you have returned.

This place deserves our support, we cannot enjoy and not contribute to its restoration and maintenance, we can be thankful with its present ownership and the sharing they have with us, if we want our grand and great grand children, our Whanau to visit this place we must support it so one day young children may visit and say with pride ‘my Great/Grand parents strode these paths and fields’.

To Alistair and Su-an and your two Princesses may we say thank you for your foresight and hard work, for your inspiration and downright doggedness, this restoration must have nearly broken your hearts and will. We hope your endeavours will be duly rewarded and our thanks must also go to the princesses for helping Mum and Dad, a forestry tradition.

Bless you all, Thank you.

Author Anonymous