The year 2013 marked the 200th anniversary of the Crossing of the Blue Mountains. The year 2014 has marked the completion, hopefully, of the Great Western Highway across the mountains. It may have taken two hundred years to build a highway that the Mountains needs and deserves, but it has proved well worth the wait. The achievement of a modern stylish and well landscaped four lane highway is a triumph. It is an event of Australian significance and importance. The road itself tells a story worth the telling.
Mountain bikes racing down the National Park track make Woodford come to life on Saturday mornings. The riders must feel that the 28 kms to Glenbrook are all downhill. Yet there are as many “ups” as “downs” on this challenging surface.
The new road helps define the life of the villages along its winding length. Linden, Woodford, Hazelbrook, Lawson and Bullaburra have a much quieter lifestyle than the villages or towns of the Upper and Lower mountains. Traffic and lifestyles, here, simply slip by with little fuss. The highway seems to run alongside the railway: they are a companionable duo, snaking along together in intimate closeness to houses and shopping centres. Yet it is also here that one experiences the thrill of the Indian-Pacific Express passing through on weekday mornings, and the busy Inter Urban and Country Link services going about their daily workloads. One can stand on the high overhead bridge at Woodford and count the engines and trucks of the coal trains coming down from Lithgow and Wallerawang – 4 engines and 50 coal trucks each time. Something of relaxation mixed with work is felt in a way that characterises the lifestyle of mid mountains villages.
The Great Western Highway along “this tortuous ridge” offers at this central point remarkable vistas to the north, to the west, to the south and to the east. Views of Mt Banks, Mt Hay and Mt Tomah across the Grose Divide open up as if in cinemascope, while the sense of the Cumberland Plain lying there at one’s feet is always enjoyable – with a fairytale Sydney just discernible on the horizon. The scope of the mountains is felt in a peaceful way. Miles and miles of eucalypt forest, the pattern of gullies and gulfs falling away off the ridge, and the benign haze – the famous blue haze – hovering over everything: these are compensations for the lack of dramatic cliff faces and sandstone escarpments that the Upper Mountains have. Gentle rolling hills that one can walk in and where one can be part of the Australian flora and fauna (not too much fauna these days!) are a pleasure that local people know for its value. Magnificent sunsets and sunrises are neighbourly events.
To drive from the east to the west is a lesson in history. Tollgate Drive as the point of entry into Linden is a reminder of the 1890s when traffic would need to pay to go further. Now it winds over the highway and leads on through Linden to the Observatory popular with star gazers. Historians recall how Cox and his band of convicts took three weeks to build a simple bridge over one of the Linden ravines, so tight and precipitous was the ridge at this point. The novelist Eleanor Dark and her husband in 1940 followed the route of Lieutenant William Dawes in 1789 from Emu Plains across the Nepean and up into the ridges and gullies as far as the Linden region. Now a park bears his name here. The botanist George Caley some ten years before the celebrated Crossing in 1813 reached Mt Banks north of the Grose, but is today remembered south of the Grose at Linden where a cairn of stones is known as Caley’s Repulse. Further west along the highway is Bull’s Camp where the convicts were located as they worked to make the 1815 track fit for Governor Macquarie and his wife on their trip to Bathurst. Passing through Woodford a neat War Memorial in fine sandstone is sandwiched between the railway and the highway. History is climaxed a little further on with the Woodford Academy, the oldest colonial building remaining on the Mountains. It is a link between modern cultural interests and past lifestyles. By the end of 2014 the highway will finally reach Bullaburra, the one village with an Aboriginal derived name, where completion of the road building project may mark an unspoken tribute to the original inhabitants.
Hazelbrook and Lawson, the two main centres of the mid mountains, offer a study of contrasts. In recent decades shops along the highway were turned at Hazelbrook some 90 degrees into a side street while Lawson resisted such a change. Hazelbrook flourished. Lawson is now striving to catch up, hoping to recapture its historic role as a focus for Mountains affairs and culture with new shops appearing along the highway. Lawson, admittedly, boasts public meeting rooms and a municipal library facility. The local pub has been repainted. Hazelbrook, however, is seeing the last vestiges of street scaping and earth works completed on the highway. This will soon leave the Uniting Church at peace, and let it again join in the market place ethos of a thriving village.
But there is something about the new Eastern approach to Lawson along the Highway that bears comment. A considerable challenge was met by the road makers in handling the highway at Sydney Rock, a historic point where travellers coming from the west might catch sight of Sydney. Their solution is praiseworthy. Traffic now flows smoothly up the hill towards Lawson and curves around the Rock. It then surprises travellers with a religious epiphany. The Presbytery and Catholic Church of Our Lady of the Nativity suddenly appear, together with a School and the Santa Maria Centre. It is a remarkable opening-up of a vista. Architectural styles from sandstone to dark red brick to the deep verandas of the residence-cum-conference centre stand out. Cars line up on Sundays as if themselves at prayer. It points to the way much of the Mid Mountains might here be rediscovered. The quiet presences of the several churches here – Anglican, Baptist, Presbyterian – are an understatement of their strength in the community.
Bushwalks to the north and south of Lawson and Hazelbrook tell a similar story of a mix of old and new. To the south are the Adelina Falls, Terrace Falls, Junction Falls, Federal Falls and Bedford Pool Circuit while to the north there are the Empress Pass, Frederica Falls, Dante’s Glen and Echo Bluff. After good rains they offer the pleasures of waterfalls and running creeks and fern laden gullies. Often, however, their faded glories suggest uncertainties as to who should be caring for them, municipal and higher authorities or private citizens living in the neighbourhood. Local people nevertheless will tell you where to see purple boronia at its best, or the special rewards, say, from walking around the swamp that lies at the foot of Blue Mountain, hidden away north of Lawson. In Woodford there is the Gypsy in Wilson’s Glen where angophoras in seasonal change make for a bold picture.
Three noteworthy new walks have emerged, as if by accident. When the Lawson Golf Club closed the fairways became open spaces for walkers and their dogs; and when the Water Authority ceased restricting entry to the Woodford Dam, it left a good bitumen road down (and up!) with peaceful panoramas of a Lake in the Mountains where there is fine bird life and bullrushes. Murphy’s Glen, for all its great trees, is no longer what it was, but the nearby firetrail going west to Bedford Creek is a wonderful walk among turpentines and grass trees.
It is in the gardens of the Mid Mountains that the balance between the old and the new is best found. Some gardens began in the 1880s, some follow the ideas of Edna Walling, others reflect 60 years of different owners and styles while some prefer contemporary architecture in both the home and the lines and curves of the garden. Applied permaculture in one garden turns minimal use of water into striking productivity with vegetables, fruit and nut trees. Another makes great use of its eastern slopes to create sweeping lawns with expansive views of Sydney. Waratahs grow profusely here. The aboriginal word for lyre bird, “balangara,” becomes the title of one property, inspired by those shy but regal songsters and foragers who do not understand the human interest in gardens but remind us (all too callously) that it is in the soil itself that life occurs, that it is microscopic life that matters.
The walls built by the stonemason Lindsay McLeod, a true artist and artisan of the Mid Mountains, have left sandstone memorials surrounding these gardens in a score of places. His role, also, with the Hazelbrook Public School in celebrating Mid Mountains gardens is noteworthy. Felicity Anderson has ably carried on this tradition of school and gardens. Then, finally, the cultural life of the Mid Mountains has found distinctive expression in the superb local histories of Ken Goodlet and in the amazingly wide interests of Father Eugene Stockton who, born and bred in Lawson and after a lifetime of service to the Church and to Education, has retired in his hometown to everyone’s benefit and pleasure.
Magpie markets come every third Sunday to Lawson, highlighting the closeness of the Primary School to the Great Western Highway. It is festivity in the best neighbourhood tradition, especially in the selling of native Australian plants grown locally on the Lawson Industrial Estate.
Perhaps best of all is negotiating a parking space on a late Friday afternoon at Hazelbrook Shopping Centre. Getting in and out is living dangerously, an art form mastered by good-natured locals. Their sense of community comes from long conversations on the footpaths, being known by name by shopkeepers, watching the new pre-school building go up and proud that the GPs and Nurses in the Hazelbrook Medical Centre have been recognised as the best on the Mountains.
Images like these come to mind in introducing the human feel of the Mid Mountains. Living here has many quiet values. Even the Great Western Highway, which we have to live with day by day watching the cars flash by, is becoming a matter of pride and joy. Its completion is always pending. But you know you are in the Mid Mountains when you get into the Woodford Bends on your way home and welcome the eucalypt forests hanging over the towering cuttings (never taking your eyes off the road, of course).