It once made men their fortunes. Then the artists came, inspired by a magical place, writes Sue Williams.
Knocking on the door of one of Australia’s best-preserved historic houses, I see the curtains of an upstairs room twitch apart then close again. I wave but seconds later Sandra Thompson swings open the door. “That was quick!” I say.
Sandra looks perplexed. “I was just polishing the hallway,” she explains. “I was right here.”
It’s my turn to look baffled. “But I saw the curtains upstairs move...”
Suddenly her face clears. “Ah,” she says. “So you’ve met one of our ghosts already.”
The old goldmining town of Hill End, 280 kilometres north-west of Sydney between Bathurst and Mudgee in the NSW Central Tablelands, is known as a bit of a ghost town but I wasn’t expecting that to be quite so literal. In the early 1870s, some 20 years after gold was struck, it was the nation’s largest inland settlement with more than 10,000 people, 28 hotels, eight churches, five banks and even an opium den. Today, with only about 120 residents and a single pub, I expect the atmosphere to be a touch eerie – but not this spooky and so soon.
Fifth-generation Hill Ender Sandra is unruffled; nothing surprises her any more. Her forebears arrived in the 1840s before the gold rush and earned a living transporting goods and people to and from the town by bullock cart, taking six months to complete their 1170-kilometre circuit of country towns and villages.
“It’s an unusual place but I’ve been in love with it all my life,” says Sandra, a NSW National Parks & Wildlife Service discovery ranger who runs tours of Hill End’s Craigmoor House, a Historic Site with an 1869 wattle-and-daub parlour behind a two-level timber Gothic manor. “I grew up with 6000 acres to wander around in and my grandparents knew the Marshall family who lived at Craigmoor. We’d deliver their milk in billy cans. The old people still there from the boom days used to sit and tell stories and I’d be mesmerised.”
Now Sandra passes on their stories, relishing the tales of Scottish mining engineer James Wiseman Marshall, his wife, Sarah, and their 12 children. Their house hasn’t changed a jot in the interim. It still has the original clay paint on the walls, straw mattresses on the beds, the homemade quilts from pattern-book samples ordered from Sydney and silk cards from cigarette packets sewn into cushions.
But the family changed Australia. Sarah’s goldminer father, James Adams, discovered the area’s rich gold reef where the world’s largest gold-and-quartz nugget at the time – a 286-kilogram hunk of rock that contained 57 kilograms of the yellow stuff – was found in 1872. It recharged the gold rush.
Remnants of that time were what drew New Zealand teacher Christopher Grossett, a keen hobby prospector and fossicker, to the town for regular visits. Then, four years ago, he became principal of the tiny Hill End Public School. When a new policeman moved in with six children, suddenly his school population nearly doubled... to 11 students aged from four to 12. It’s a far cry from 1872 when the same old school building housed more than 400 pupils – but he doesn’t mind.
“This is the most amazing place to live,” says Chris. “A small school setting is a beautiful learning environment, too. The students are almost like a family, with the older students encouraging the younger ones. I love being surrounded by so much history, too, and the landscape is astonishing.”
In his spare time, Chris runs Explore Hill End tours to the old goldmining areas, once crowded with canvas tents and bark huts where thousands of fortune-hunters lived in the harshest conditions, sustained by the hope of a glint of gold. He points out old rusty mining machinery in hedgerows and bare fields, abandoned when the boom went bust, and shows stunning UNESCO-listed black-and-white images of the town commissioned for posterity in 1872 by German entrepreneur Bernhardt Holtermann, one of the co-owners of the mine in which that enormous nugget was found.
More than 100 mineshafts are still dotted around, often next to mullock hills, but the scarred raw-red earth of that period, with the trees sawn down for makeshift mineshafts, has since given way to lush greenery. Now there are forests of red and yellow box gums, stringybarks and wattles, mobs of kangaroos on every hillside, deer, wild pigs, sheep, alpacas and a rich variety of birdlife.
That takes nearly every visitor by surprise. The old eroded landscapes of the remote valley surrounded by mountains and gorges inspired many great Australian painters who came to live and work here for periods, including Donald Friend and Russell Drysdale, and later John Olsen, Margaret Olley, Jeffrey Smart and Brett Whiteley. These days a host of modern-day artists call Hill End home.
Painter Rosemary Valadon came out on an artist-in-residence program run by the nearby Bathurst Regional Art Gallery for a few months, fell in love with the place and sold up in Sydney to return in 2005 for good. “It left an indelible impression on me – the old goldmining, the strength of the community, the visitors from all over the world – and I loved the landscape,” says Rosemary, winner of the Blake Prize for religious art and the Portia Geach Memorial Award for portraiture, among others, and a finalist in this year’s Archibald Prize for her portrait of Luke Sciberras, another Hill End artist.
“It’s a magical place,” she says. “The scenery is so dramatic and the sky is remarkable as you watch thunderstorms roll in and yet it’s so quiet and still. You can hear the wings of birds flapping in the sky. You can just drift in time here and feel how the place is imbued with artistic fervour.”
Actor, performer and artist Kim Deacon and her partner, Mexican ceramicist Lino Alvarez, came to Hill End 20 years ago to renovate an original wattle-and-daub cottage and build their studios on land next to it. “This place casts a spell on you,” says Kim. “Every time you go away you come back and fall in love with it again. The town is extraordinary – the mood, the history. I can’t really put my finger on it. Where else could you go to find somewhere like this?”
The way of life has changed little in the past 100 years and the town itself looks like it has been preserved in aspic. There are no modern buildings; just the renovated historic homes, a few shops, some lodges, the old Royal Hotel and a single café – owned by former Sydneysider David Darker – inside the 1872 Hill End General Store.
Little wonder the entire town was declared a Historic Site by the state government in 1967, with NSW National Parks & Wildlife administering all its buildings. “It’s living history,” says retired Sydney librarian Lorraine Purcell, who owns a block of land in Hill End and produces a regular newsletter about the town, with a mailing list of 1450 people from all over Australia.
“I used to come up for camping holidays and then later, when I was doing my family history, I discovered that my great-great-grandfather was one of the first miners here. It was a complete coincidence. But a lot of people find they have a connection to the place. Ghosts? They’re everywhere!”
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