UPPER LACHLAN TRIANGLELESS than an hour’s drive from Canberra, this triangle of fertile rural land, bounded by Yass, Gunning and Crookwell, is steeped in history and physical beauty. And it’s also a gastronome’s paradise! JOY DODDS reports.
Just as explorer Hamilton Hume was struck, in 1821, by the beauty and potential for pastoral land usage in the Upper Lachlan region, so too are visitors equally captivated today. This region also makes the perfect base for exploring Canberra without the urban fuss, a rich hinterland full of fine restaurants, hotels and B‘n Bs, amid stunning scenery. It is little wonder that the town of Yass was put forward as a strong candidate for the location of our planned national capital. One of the great wool centres of Australia, nearby Gunning’s particular climate, soil and topography make it the epicentre of the fine wool industry.
Starting with Yass, the derivation of “Yarrh”, the Aboriginal term for “running water”, this picturesque historic town sits on the Yass River, a tributary of the Murrumbidgee. Media mogul Rupert Murdoch was so taken by the area that he bought an extensive pastoral property, “Cavan”, just south of Yass and there are many other highly successful pastoral properties in the area. Poet “Banjo” (A.B.) Paterson spent his childhood in the area and later bought a property around Wee Jasper while Sir Walter Merriman established his famous sheep stud, “Merryville”, in 1903in the area. Cooma Cottage, managed by the NSW National Trust, was the home of explorer and grazier Hamilton Hume, who lived there with his wife until his death in 1873.
Prior to white settlement, the region was the territory of the Ngunnawal, Wiradjuri, Yarrowlulla and Gundungurra people. After 1824, when Hamilton Hume and William Hovell returned to the region and continued south to Port Phillip Bay on their famous expedition, white settlement followed.
After a rough track was built conecting Yass and Goulburn in the late 1820s, settlers followed with sheep, marking the start of the local wool industry. By 1835 a small settlement began to take shape on the south bank of the Yass River in an area known by the local indigenous community as “Warrambalulah” (“beside flowing water”).
While the area is better-known for the production of fine merino fleece, a number of flour mills operated, with much of the requisite charcoal coming from the Jerrawa area when small farmers added to their income and trucked it to Yass.
The town people fought hard to become part of the Sydney-Melbourne railway, and from 1892 a light railway or tram was built to connect Yass Junction on the main line to the town. Today the Yass Railway Heritage Centre uses the Yass Town station precinct as a museum.
The Yass-Gunning region has since earned a reputation as the "Fine Wool Capital of the World" as well as a strong agricultural base. Yass lies on the junction of the Hume and Barton Highways and serves as an important interchange, connecting Sydney, Melbourne and the Australian Capital Territory. The close proximity of Canberra to the area has had a positive tourist impact on the region, yet its essentially rural ambience remains. Cooma Cottage, Burrinjuck Dam and the increasing number of cool climate wineries in the district are all popular visitor destinations. Alpaca and deer studs, olives and berries are also produced locally, adding to the area’s farming diversity.
Yass’ buildings are architecturally striking, including the Court House (1837), St Augustine's Roman Catholic church (1843), St Clement's Anglican church (1850), to name just a few . The construction of a bridge over the river, Hume Bridge, opened in September 1854, further boosted the town’s prosperity until it was replaced in the 1970s. Since Yass was bypassed in 1994, the main street has been given a major face-lift - old buildings have been restored and painted, wrought iron verandahs replaced and the streetscape looks stunning.
Further north, the Gunning area is where Hamilton Hume established his sheep property in 1821, after he and James Meehan had become the first -known Europeans to step foot on the Goulburn Plains. Three years later, he set off with Hovell on his famous expedition south, and today, a roadside obelisk at Fish River marks their point of departure on his property. Until 1820 Gunning was at the "Limit of Settlement", the colonial government banning settlers acquiring property outside the so-called “19 Counties” centred on Sydney. The Lachlan River near Gunning represented the local boundary and the town grew up on the crossing over the swamp that ran into the Lachlan for all land transport, horses, sheep and bullock carts leaving "Civilisation".
The area became infamous for bushrangers after Hume’s brother, John Kennedy Hume, a local grazier with a wife and nine children, was shot dead by the Whitton Gang when he attempted to come to the assistance of people bailed up at a local store.
The railway arrived in Gunning in 1875, further developing the town, which at that time had a hotel and Cooper’s Store. Located on the main Sydney-Melbourne route for both road and rail, by 1901, Gunning had grown into a prosperous town, complete with a court house, banks, stock and station agents, five hotels, blacksmiths and saddlers, produce store, a department store, bakers, butchers, a pharmacy, three churches, flour mill, soft drink manufacturers, printing works, rabbit freezing works and a large wool store. Since then, and particularly post-bypass in 1993, Gunning has settled into a more sedate existence, with an accent on the finer things in life – good food, collectables, etc, attracting many day-trippers and travelers to this character-filled town.
The Cullerin Range, 10 kilometres to the east, crosses the Great Dividing Range and the former highway over the range includes the Cullerin Loop, the highest point on the road and railway between Sydney and Melbourne, so-shaped to accommodate the gradient.
From 1838, the government made the first land sales in Gunning. The wide main street, Yass Street, still shows many examples of 19th Century architecture, including the ground floor of the Telegraph Hotel (so-named to celebrate the “new” telegraph cable line link); the post office, the old bank, the courthouse and the commercial precinct centred on Caxton House. Bailey's Garage and the Coronation Theatre complex, (now a private residence), add to the ambience, as do its churches and the neo-Gothic Catholic schoolhouse. Pye Cottage is a slab hut that was moved to Gunning from nearby Dalton village in 1979 and serves as a museum dedicated to the pioneers and settlers of the region. Other significant 19th Century buildings in Gunning include the Aratula Inn (now the Do Duck Inn), at the western end, and “Frankfield”, on Warrataw Street near the railway crossing, both guesthouses offering an opportunity to stay in history-laden comfort.
Bushranging raged in the Southern Tableland region until 1865 with Gunning infamous for two murders: In 1840, the Whitten Gang attacked Gunning and JK Hume was shot dead. His family erected a gravesite in Gunning's general cemetery, with the story engraved on its top.
A couple of years later, in 1842, Lucretia Dunkley and servant, Martin Beech, murdered her husband Henry with an axe at Dunkley's farm at Gunning. The trial with grisly details took place at Berrima, and the couple was executed.
Gunning’s traditional atmosphere and peaceful setting are disrupted during its annual firework display, one of the largest in Australia, although its classical music events are slightly more sedate!
Outside Gunning are a host of pretty villages, including Dalton, Breadalbane, Gundaroo, Murrumbateman and Collector. All feature historic buildings, with plenty of old wares, good food and country hospitality to be sampled.
In the case of Dalton, settlers purchased land around Gunning from 1838, and it flourished as a coach stop, the Cobb and Co. route continuing towards Boorowa. In the mid-1840s, reports of local gold further attracted settlers and a local school was built in response to the population boom. The area also developed as a wine-producing area, and one of the original wineries is still visible.
As well as its reputation as the “Earthquake Epicentre”, Dalton became infamous for its bushrangers. In 1865, bushranger Ben Hall and his gang held up Kimberley’s Inn, where a police constable was fatally wounded. The terrain made a perfect hide-out for bushrangers who preyed upon coach travellers, stealing their possessions and a lock-up was built in the late 1800s to help control the banditry. Things have certainly quietened down these days, and the closest thing to “predators” are the prehistoric rock carvings in Dalton’s peaceful park, beside Oolong Creek.
To the north, through beautiful pastoral countryside, is Crookwell and nearby Grabben Gullen. The area had been discovered by Meehan and Throsby (1828), looking for an alternative inland route to the new settlement of Bathurst. By this time some of the early landholding families, including the Scottish Macarthurs, MacAlisters and Howes, had already established themselves on large grants at nearby Taralga and Binda, giving the area a definite Scottish character and tradition which continues to this day
While settlers had visited the district before 1828, when the Crookwell River was named, the town was not named until the 1860's. The original town site of Brooklands (on the western end of town) was originally known as “Kiama”.
Between 1840 and 1860, the early settlers began to clear the area and establish their squatting runs. Roberts Inn and Wade's buildings were erected near tracks linking Grabben Gullen, Binda, Laggan, Pejar and Goulburn. The village of Laggan developed and by 1860 had a post office and a steam flour mill grinding wheat into flour.
In Crookwell the first school was opened in 1864. Crookwell’s population then was 130; by 1872 the population exceeded 1000. Goulburn Street developed with the Commercial Hotel (now the Horse and Hound Hotel) built in 1874, the Bank of NSW in 1875 (now the Crookwell Visitor Information Centre), the court house and police station in 1878. Bullock wagons trundled through the town, carrying wool, wheat and flour to Goulburn and the railway. From 1890, butter factories were built in Crookwell, Laggan, Kialla and Grabben Gullen. Rail first came to Crookwell in 1901.
Crookwell is proudly the home of the Country Womens' Association - the first CWA being formed there in 1922. As well as traditional agriculture and grazing, the region now has olive growing, alpaca fibre and horse studs. Industries include a weaving mill and a sock factory, as well as local retail and service industries and burgeoning tourism, with national parks and caves, the high-tech wind farm and many fishing spots nearby.
One last pointer - for Upper Lachlan history buffs, there is no better way to acquire local knowledge than by visiting the many small cemeteries in the area, including Dalton, Greendale and others - the inscriptions on the gravestones certainly tell some great stories!
WHERE TO STAY:
Frankfield – historic accommodation;
Do Duck Inn – accommodation and dining.
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Holidays Away is published by Fairfax Media
Telephone: 02 9478 1200
Holidays Away is published by Fairfax Media