Gulgong to Grenfell

From Lawson to Paterson: Walking in the footsteps of literary giants

Along the road south to Hill End, NSWPhoto Erle Levey / Sunshine Coast Daily
Along the road south to Hill End, NSW

“I had written him a letter which I had, for want of better knowledge, sent to where I met him down the Lachlan, years ago …’’ – Clancy of the Overflow, AB (Banjo) Paterson

The beauty of a road trip is that you are constantly surprised. While you have an idea of where you want to get to it remains to be seen how you end up getting there.

Plenty of twists and turns along the way. Instead of following a set plan, you can be open to change and fresh ideas.

It was with a sense of wonder that I realised a recent road trip through the heartland of New South Wales was taking me in the footsteps of some of Australia’s literary giants.

“They lie, the men who tell us in a loud decisive tone. That want is here a stranger, and that misery’s unknown …’’ – Faces in the Street, Henry Lawson

It was just by chance that I picked up the trail. For many years I had been trying to get to the early goldfields of this country yet in many ways it mirrored the frustration of the early explorers as they sought ways to cross the Blue Mountains. An impenetrable barrier to the first European settlers of New South Wales.

A few years back I got to Sofala, it was on a trip up from Melbourne and through Bathurst, wanting to bypass Sydney and come in the top end of the Hunter Valley to Newcastle.

Here was a piece of Australian history that I only had a glimmer of understanding. Much like the gold the fossikers sought in the mid 1800s.

Hill End held a strong allure for me. Just like Mudgee. Known today for its wine and fine produce such as honey. It’s enticing B&B accommodation, a weekend escape for Sydney-siders.

That is the beauty of a road trip. You are not bound by distance and timetables. You can stop, explore, continue at your whim.

This time I was heading south from Tamworth, following the B-grade roads to Mudgee and I came to an intersection. Mudgee to the right. Gulgong to the left: “7km to historic town,’’ the sign read.

Gulgong? Where did that fit into Australia’s rich tapestry?

The day was sunny, the breeze was light. There was a bend in the creek so I pulled off the main road, down a sand track. Parked beside the clear water I washed away the night of sleeping in the car.

It was good to stretch out in the sun for 20 minutes before the peaceful drive into town. Gum trees and grazing country, old stone farmhouses and decaying sheds.

Gulgong, home of Australia’s $10 note. The original one. With writer Henry Lawson’s image on it, some of his work and sketches of an old gold mining town. Gulgong.

The weathered Peter’s ice-cream sign on a shop, long closed .. remember the choc wedge, two-in-one, eskimo pie or the kreme-b-tween?

Henry Archibald Hertzberg Lawson was born at Grenfell in central NSW yet Gulgong claims to have been his home even though he grew up closer to Mudgee about 30 km south along the Castlereagh Highway.

Along with his contemporary Andrew Barton “Banjo’’ Paterson, Lawson is among the best-known Australian poets and fiction writers of the colonial period.

Here I was, about to walk through the pages of Australia’s history, the literary legacy of these two. Similar yet different. One writing about the dusty, dirty city, the endless tramp of feet, the union burying its dead, the hardships of rural life.

The other taking a more romantic look at the country: “Clancy’s gone to Queensland drovin’ and we know not where he are.’’

It’s a matter of soaking up the magnificent geographical highlights of this great brown land, the one they wrote so much about.

The sunrises and sunsets, the sky at night. The storms that wander through the outback, the smell of rain on parched soil.

Blue Mountains, NSWPhoto Erle Levey / Sunshine Coast Daily
Blue Mountains, NSW

The country can look the same but it is constantly changing and you become aware of those changes, no matter how minute.

The attitude of country people ranges from warm and welcoming, very helpful to quite conservative. Good manners but almost moulded by the land in which they live. Not wanting to get their hopes up too much knowing that flood, drought or fire may be around the corner.

The Mudgee Guardian and Gulgong Advertiser wrote on Friday 13 January 1978: Days When Gulgong Was Hub of the World.

One hundred or so years ago, the streets of Gulgong were the busiest, rowdiest and most crowded in Australia.

At its peak, in the spring of 1872 Gulgong had a population of 20,000. Contrast that today with the town’s 1600 inhabitants. In the wake of the discovery of gold; people of all nationalities flocked to the new field.

Close on the heels of the miners came men seeking the gold of another kind, the storekeepers, butchers, bakers, hotel-keepers, chemists, doctors, newspapermen and dance hall proprietors. And brothels, that oldest of businesses.

Today much of the character of the town remains, contributing to its appeal as a tourist destination. Except that Paterson now graces the back of the new $10 note and a sketch of The Man From Snowy River.

The son of Peter Larson, a Norwegian seaman who left his ship in Melbourne and later changed his name to Lawson, and Louisa Albury, daughter of Harry Albury, Henry was a rural worker in the Gulgong district.

Born in a tent on the goldfields at the Grenfell gold fields in 1866. His father had no luck on the diggings. When gold was discovered in Gulgong he tried his luck there. That was a period encompassing the “roaring days” of which Lawson writes so vividly.

The heritage listed town buildings, many complete with original verandas and iron-lace balconies, include such gems as The Prince of Wales Opera House, in which Dame Nellie Melba once performed. It is the oldest performing arts venue still being used for its original intention in Australia.

Lawson went to school in Eurunderee, between Gulgong and Mudgee. The old Eurunderee School still stands today and is being preserved by a group of volunteers for visitors to explore.

Gulgong is believed to be one of the primary locations in Thomas Alexander Browne’s Robbery under Arms.

The original Jimmy Governor, on who Thomas Kenneally based his character for The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith, grew up in the Gulgong district and married there in 1898.

While Gulgong was a surprise find for me, Hill End had long been at the back of my mind but always seemed like that little bit too far out of the way to get there

I’m glad I made the decision this time to wander along the winding road, not near as daunting as the maps make out.

Step back in time as you drive along the tree-lined streets of this heritage town. Nothing quite prepares you for the sense of history and charm.

Go on a self-guided walk to the many historic sites. The great thing is that you can start and stop wherever you like.

Pop into some of the historic buildings as you stroll along, such as Northeys and Hosies stores, the post office and Royal Hotel.

Stop to read the signage along the way, or just close your eyes and imagine what this thriving village would have been like.

Artists have long gravitated to the scarred landscape, among them Russell Drysdale, Donald Friend, John Olsen and Brett Whiteley.

The old buildings are familiar through works such as The Cricketers, perhaps Drysdale’s best-known.

Hill End owes its existence to the NSW gold rush of the 1850s. A 630lb rock containing more than 75% gold was unearthed in 1872. That was at the town’s peak when it had a population estimated at 8000 served by two newspapers, five banks, eight churches, and 28 pubs.

The towns decline when the gold gave out was dramatic. By 1945 the population was 700 and at the 2006 census it was down to 166.

Heading towards Bathurst you pass by Spring Flat, Sallys Flat, Turondalem, Wattle Flat, Tambaroora and Hargraves. These places need time to stop at, walk around, investigate … feel the air, feel what it must have been like for those who lived here years ago.

Sofala is similar to Hill End, sitting beside the Turon River and just off the Bathurst-Ilford Rd.

Sofala came about as a direct result of the gold rush which had been spurred on when Edward Hargraves discovered gold at Lewis Ponds Creek on 12 February 1851.

With John Lister as a guide, he washed out six pans of gravel obtaining a grain of gold in five of them at the site later re-named Ophir.

Hargraves wasn’t actually the first to discover gold but the first expedition to “find” the precious metal.

Later Hargraves and Lister, joined by James Tom, prospected the Macquarie River where they won a little more colour.

Travelling down old roads brings answers, a bridge to the future, an understanding of the fabric of this country.

The people, the hopes, the dreams, the endeavour, the heartbreak. Then there are the songs, the stories … handed down by spoken word, handed down by the written word.

Along the road near Manildra, NSWPhoto Erle Levey / Sunshine Coast Daily
Along the road near Manildra, NSW

The art work, the architecture, the implements used to farm this land, to mine its wealth. The buildings to celebrate achievement, enhance the spirit, conduct the trappings of civil society.

While Lawson’s works were largely a legacy born on struggle and desperation, Paterson tended to glorify the bush.

He was born at Narrambla, now an outer suburb of the expanding regional city of Orange.

There is a signpost to Ophir from Narrambla, about 30km I think. It’s one of those little known names by today’s standards but an important signpost of a rich and glorious past.

Born 17 February 1864, Paterson was related to the future first Prime Minister of Australia, Edmund Barton. He spent his early childhood on a local property then the family moved to the Yass district until 1874 when he went to Sydney Grammar School.

From his law student days he began publishing verse in the Bulletin under the pseudonym “The Banjo”.

In 1895, Paterson headed north to Dagworth station near Winton, Queensland. Inspired by his fiancee, Sarah Riley and her old school friend, Christina Macpherson, he wrote Waltzing Matilda.

A poet, writer and journalist, he was also a lawyer, a war correspondent and farmer, who fought in the First World War.

The Banjo Paterson memorial park has been established along the Ophir Road. The old Narrambla homestead stood about 200m (8 chains) north east of the original obelisk memorial that was unveiled in 1947.

Another tribute to Paterson is the Emmaville Cottage, near the Orange Botanic Gardens and a tangible link to the area where he was born.

The prefabricated cottage is believed to date from the 1850s and to be one of the last farm buildings from the Narrambla property.

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Along the railway line near Manildra, NSW

Just to the west of Orange is Manildra, a small village of just 500 people. Established here in 1904 the Manildra Flour Mill is the largest flour mill in the southern hemisphere and still growing yet the town is in decline. It reflects the struggle that is going on today in the Australian bush as regional centres grow at the expense of so many small communities.

Stopping at these towns remind you of the attitude of country people, the way it can range from warm and welcoming, very helpful to quite conservative. They display good manners but are almost moulded by the land in which they live, not wanting to get their hopes up too much knowing that flood, drought or fire may be around the corner.

Rolling through the farmland the country can look the same but is constantly changing and you become aware of those changes, no matter how minute.

Natural textures and then you have the tin roofs and bricks. There is a certain character there … faded hopes and dreams yet others have seen such life. Old railway bridges and buildings echo the past, telescopes and technology signal the future.

You can only guess at what life was like. And then look at life today.

Grenfell is a town at the end of day. An historic streetscape bathed in that beautiful glow of afternoon.

Yet is seems the legacy of Lawson and the exploits of bushrangers such as Ben Hall are most of what there is to talk about. That and the price of wheat or the results of the football matches.

A goldmining town first known as Emu Creek, it was renamed in honour of John Grenfell, gold commissioner at Forbes, who had been killed in 1866 when bushrangers attacked a stagecoach on which he was travelling.

By 1870-71 Grenfell was producing more gold than any other town in NSW but the decline was swift.

In late October 1901, the railway from Koorawatha to Grenfell was officially opened to serve the rich grain farming area yet today the elaborate railway station serves as a free camping centre for travellers and a men’s shed … as well as a reminder of the past.

At Grenfell you cannot help but be attracted by the old and abandoned buildings. It’s the feeling of stopping time, of taking away the traits of modern life and seeing it for what it was meant.

For something to be a ruin it is a moment in time, no longer what it was meant for yet not gone either.

Wondering about what might have been, a feeling of what it was like to live in that time.

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The Henry Lawson memorial, Grenfell, NSW

Henry Lawson had known life as a bush worker, house painter, telegraph linesman, journalist and rouseabout. Much of what he saw and experienced went into his short stories but his deepest feelings are revealed in his verse.

He is said to have been haunted by the impermanence of life and was able to depict in story and verse the life of the common man and woman of the time.

Lawson died aged 55 and was given a state funeral, the first writer to be given one. The site of his birth is marked with an obelisk which stands under a gum tree planted by his daughter.

I start the car and head south, towards Cootamundra, Jerilderie and then to Glenrowan in Victoria’s north-eastern highlands. Kelly country.

Grenfell garden, NSWPhoto Erle Levey / Sunshine Coast Daily
Grenfell garden, NSW
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