The bay bears the family name, and Lyall Woolley is determined to keep it as a slice of 20th century summer.

It took longer than it should have before I noticed the name on the letterbox in the middle of Woolleys Bay.

In my defence, there was plenty of distraction for a holiday-making visitor. Woolleys is not quite as improbably picture-book as its neighbour, Whale Bay, but it's agreeably underpopulated.

Beyond small dunes stitched together by pingao, the long stretch of almost deserted golden beach is pounded by decent surf, but the sand shelves off sharply and beyond the breakers the water is as clear as soda.

The trees at the northern end are busy with tui in territorial disputes and the wings of fat kereru whistle as they lumber through the cool darkness in the branches of the puriri.

Advertisement

So close to a city - it's barely half an hour from Whangarei - such emptiness is hard to find. A dozen houses ("baches" seems the wrong word for such ostentation) huddle at the southern end; a few more perch on the hill to the north. But most of the rest is a farm, and the name on the farm letterbox is Woolley.

Lyall Woolley takes a decent amount of time to agree to meet the bloke in beach shorts who says he's from the Herald. Talks it over first with his twin sons Michael and John - the former works the farm; the latter is "the accountant".

After three or four phone calls, I get the nod, though, and find myself in the farmhouse's cool front room, where the view of the almost-turquoise sea is framed by huge pohutukawa.

Lyall sits with his back to the sea and tells me he used to go swimming "but since I got two new knees I have to be a little bit canny when I go out there".

Now 83, he's the fourth generation of Woolleys in the bay that bears the family name. His great-grandfather, Joseph Fletcher Woolley, settled there in 1882 (a former sea captain, he had been living at Mt Denby where the Whangarei Golf Club now is).

The sweat of Joseph's son William Henry and his son Henry William was spilled taming the land here, where they run breeding cows and steers depending on the season. The 240ha run from the coast to a skyline pegged with a thin line of trees, like those in a child's drawing.

Michael is the fifth generation, but Lyall's not sure about John's kids: "They're only coming up 7 and 4 so anything could happen."

He's lived his whole life here, Lyall has; he's older than the road - he calls it "the all-weather road" - which came through in the 1930s (he and Michael scratch around to remember when it was sealed: "We learned to drive on metal roads," says 47-year-old Michael, so it must have been the 80s).

Advertisement

There's not a trace of the "in-my-day" bore in Lyall's stories of walking over the hill to school in Matapouri each day.

"Sometimes," Michael remembers for him, "the kids coming over from Sandy Bay would give him a lift on their horses - if he didn't fall off".

His story is that Whale Bay was named for the butchering, in the early 20th century, of a whale by local Maori who had seen it dying at sea - they'd asked to borrow the farmer's "bring-me-near" (telescope) to check - and he has a large flat whalebone, painted with a beach scene as a memento.

That may be true, though it doesn't have to be: Maori had a 100-year history of whaling in the north at that stage, and Whale Bay would have been an ideal launching spot for the boats. Its relative calm meant it was where the supply boat beached when Lyall was a child.

The Woolleys' resistance to the blandishments of developers is the sole reason this little slice of 20th-century summer survives in the 21st. They allow camping in the front paddock, but not to all-comers - only to the descendants of those who have always camped there.

"People started camping here just after the First World War," Lyall says. "Some of those there now have been coming over 30 years and their offspring are coming with their offspring. Others who turn up will get told that there's a campground at Tutukaka."

But when school goes back, the campers have gone and Lyall plainly likes it that way. The family will hold out as long as they can against rising rates.

"I just don't want it all in development," he says. "Pig-headed, I suppose."