Sunday drive: Devonport

By Danielle Wright

Danielle Wright takes a Sunday drive to Torpedo Bay, where she finds the Navy Museum is less about military might and more a touching insight into life at sea.

Devonport's Navy Museum is filled with personal items and recorded anecdotes to recreate life at sea. Photo / Janna Dixon
Devonport's Navy Museum is filled with personal items and recorded anecdotes to recreate life at sea. Photo / Janna Dixon

Torpedo Bay is the most substantial and intact 19th-century harbour mine defence base to survive in New Zealand and has been continuously occupied by New Zealand military forces since 1880 - everyone from the New Zealand Army to the RNZN Pipes and Drum Band has been based here at some point.

The Navy Museum, which opened here a year ago, is filled with personal items and recorded anecdotes to give you a feel of what it would be like to live your life at sea, something I hadn't previously known much about.

We're all familiar with sites of military significance such as Gallipoli, the Somme and Crete, but few of us share the same knowledge about the Navy's contribution at sea and the intimate details found here are revealing.

We've headed inside the museum after a Sunday drive along Lake Rd, which always seems a chore, and then up to the top of Mt Victoria to see the painted toadstools and North Head for a walk around the summit, where a documentary is shown about Maori and then military history of the area, which our son insists on watching every visit.

As we enter the Navy museum, at the base of North Head, we notice maritime-themed keyrings kept in vintage Navy cups in an almost-too-tidy merchandise display.

A saleswoman tells us that the cups are the only items not for sale, although on Trade Me they sometimes fetch $50 to $70 each.

Items for sale include Torpedo Bay merchandise such as Commodore's Choice Chutney for $9 or Cat's Whiskers Chocolate, plus nautical-themed pencil sharpeners, mugs, T-shirts, hats and baby bibs with sea-inspired slogans.

There is a good selection of books, including one on how to talk Kiwi naval slang.

We learn that merchandising has always been a part of the naval life.

Little sailor dolls from the 1930s, with HMS Leander on the cap ribbon, show the sort of merchandise lower-ranked seamen sold to earn extra income.

A room filled with naval paintings shows some of the talent on board.

We stop at a selection of captivating oil paintings by Florence Mundie, a British nurse who went to Australia with evacuated British children in 1940. On her way back to Britain the Germans intercepted the ship. She was taken prisoner, but survived.

Her two friends - who are featured in one of her paintings, looking down from the ship to Mundie's self-portrait on the wharf - weren't so lucky, which makes the painting all the more poignant.

One room is filled with portraits of modern sailors; in another, the walls are covered in pictures showcasing a Navy life that looks pretty exciting.

Special occasions - a baby's baptism and Navy dances, for example - paint a glamorous aspect of life at sea, although it can't have always been like that.

I wonder how many prospective recruits have first been shown through these rooms.

After listening on headphones to officers discussing comradeship at sea, we're drawn to a room with a mess deck and a wardrobe of uniforms. For fun, my daughter decides to try on all the different sailor hats.

There's a small cafe from which you can watch the boats bob in the waves of the Hauraki Gulf.

There are plenty of smaller items for kids so you don't have to spend a fortune.

On the day we visit, strong winds rule out a walk around the bottom of the Hauraki Gulf Maritime Park, or North Head as we know it, but we have an exhilarating run along the wharf at Torpedo Bay and try not to get blown off by strong gusts.

Next, we head to the playground across the road, and then to a house with a giant sunflower sculpture in the garden.

Maybe because of the weather, the highlight was the museum. Although other museums focus on war, the Navy Museum focuses on details of life at sea and a wall with personal reflections has one thanking the museum for creating, "a tribute to people such as my grandfather".

* The Navy Museum at Torpedo Bay is free to visit and open seven days, 10am to 5pm, with the cafe open daily from 8am to 5pm. It is 7km from Auckland central.

* Torpedo Bay is at the base of North Head at the end of King Edward Parade. There is plenty of parking reserved for museum visitors so even on a summer's day you will find a park right outside.

* The museum produces a heritage journal, called White Ensign, which has stories of adventure on the high seas and is an entertaining insight into what life was like in our Navy. You can read it online, as well as look out for the daily museum tours available.

* Look out for school holiday programmes as well as regular Treasure Hunts and Aye Spy for the kids.

- Herald on Sunday

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