Summerhill Farm is one of our most treasured public green spaces – one with a rich history and a promising future, thanks to an exceptional charitable trust and the support of a local business with an environmental conscience. 

WORDS LAURA TUCK / PHOTOS QUINN O’CONNELL + LIAM WRIGHT 

If you’re into walking, running or mountain biking, chances are you’ve been to Summerhill. This beautiful slice of Papamoa land (‘slice’ probably doesn’t do it justice – it’s a whopping 126 hectares!) was once a private farm owned by David and Cloie Blackley. The couple, who are now in their 80s but still live on the farm, gifted it to the community in 2014 under the protective eye of the Summerhill Charitable Trust.

“At a time when health and safety reviews were going on and farmers were closing the gates, my parents were opening the gates,” says Gabrielle Walton, one of David and Cloie’s four daughters and Summerhill Charitable Trust’s chairperson.

“I loved growing up here, running all over farm,” she continues. “People would ring and ask if they could walk across the paddocks to the cultural heritage sites of the Papamoa Hills, and my parents would always say, ‘Sure – just shut the gate behind you!’”

Over the years, the number of visitors kept rising, so David, Cloie and a group of neighbouring families asked the council if they could turn some of the land into a regional park. Summerhill’s neighbouring land was eventually purchased in 2004 and Te Rae o Papamoa Regional Park opened to the public. 

Summerhill has since won the hearts of the wider community as a natural paradise for hiking, biking and family events. You’ll find extensive mountain bike trails through the forests on both sides of Reid Road, and plenty of walking tracks through forest, wetlands and pastureland. One of the more unique things about Summerhill Farm, however, is that it remains exactly that – a working farm.

“The trust’s objective is to establish a greenbelt for public recreation and education in the Papamoa Hills, and to maintain the land as a working forest and farm,” says Gabrielle. “My parents were aware that the city was fast encroaching on rural land, so this was something they felt they could give back to the area that would be preserved for years to come. Being a working farm that’s open to the public can be interesting at times – we’ve had a few instances of people letting animals out of paddocks or trying to play with lambs!”

They’re retired now, but David and Cloie were once quite the adventurers. David, a farmer, and Cloie, a doctor, purchased the humble sheep and cattle farm in the late 1950s and expanded it over the years. They travelled a lot and enjoyed other cultures and architecture, which is where they got the idea for the Mongolian ger (tent) that sits proudly on top of the hill near the carpark. “The ger has become a gathering place for groups, and we use it for events like the Breast Cancer Night Walk fundraiser,” says Gabrielle.

Summerhill’s event calendar also includes the annual Moa Experience trail run, school camps, search and rescue training, the A1 Youth Academy leadership course

TOP RIGHT Summerhill’s Gabrielle Walton with (from left) Thorne Group directors Peter Buck, Aaron Thorne and Gavin Morrow (also pictured opposite). ABOVE LEFT Attendees of the Summerhill A1 Youth Academy course. ABOVE RIGHT It was all hands on deck for Thorne Group employees and their families on planting day. 

and, of course, various mountain biking competitions. “We host the annual North Island secondary schools’ mountain bike champs, and this year we’ll also be home to the inaugural AIMS Games mountain bike event,” says Gabrielle. “When locals first approached us about putting bike tracks in the forest, my father was only too keen. The Mountainbike Tauranga club has since taken over the maintenance, which is great, and we’re really proud of Tristan Haycock, who runs the Mountainbike Tauranga Youth Academy – he grew up riding at Summerhill.” 

Gabrielle, a landscape architect, took the reins as chairperson two years ago and is particularly passionate about the forestry side of the business, Summerhill Timbers, which sells their own farm-grown timber. To protect waterways, she’s working alongside Thorne Group, Tauranga’s largest family-owned building company, to plant native bush. 

“The Thorne Group said they wanted to work with us to improve the environment; their offer came out of the blue and we embraced it,” she says. “They’re a building firm with a conscience.” 

“The construction industry is inherently hard on the environment,” says Thorne Group marketing manager Lisa Buck. “We’ve all got kids, so we can’t ignore the challenges we’re going to face in the future. We started to think about how we could support projects that our community would be proud of. Summerhill was the perfect fit.” 

For Lisa, mitigating their carbon footprint seemed like a great first step. As part of a series of charitable environmental projects rolling out over the next few years, in April Thorne Group spent a day planting native shrubs and trees on a section of land at Summerhill. 

“We’re a local family business, so we wanted this project to be based in our own backyard,” she says. “It was really important to us that our planting efforts were donated to the right place. Gabrielle used to live next door to us at the Mount – her kids babysat our kids. We saw her on Country Calendar, had a light-bulb moment and got in touch. Together we developed a plan that would protect waterways, sequester carbon and increase native bushwalking areas.” 

“With the urban sprawl across Tauranga, we’re really lucky to have a beautiful green space that’s protected by a trust, because Summerhill is an important part of our community,” says Thorne Group director Peter Buck. “We felt the enhancement of green space was important, as our region continues to lose such spaces with the pressure of growth.” 

“We might not see an immediate benefit from the planting,” says Lisa, “but we know our kids and grandkids will be able to enjoy these trees for years to come.” 

Find out more about the groups in this story at: 

SUMMERHILLTRAILS.CO.NZ
SUMMERHILLTIMBERS.CO.NZ
THORNEGROUP.CO.NZ 
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