Friday, February 29, 2008

Hunter Valley - Minimbah House

Photo: Minimbah House

I am indebted to ABC Newcastle for drawing my attention to the re-opening of Minimbah House.

Minimbah House was built between 1875 and 1877 in the late Victorian era. This exquisite mansion was designed by Benjamin Backhouse for wealthy pastoralist Duncan Forbes Mackay on land issued in 1823 to John Cobb.

The mansion is so large that it takes up over an acre, and boasts some amazing inclusions, which have stood the test of time.The grand staircase staircase is made from Australian cedar and rosewood carved in Germany that leads to a landing characterised by columns and arches. It is magnificent with the detail in the carvings and is very ornate.

The stained glass windows are all in original condition and the tiles are from Italy, beautiful antique furniture pieces specifically designed for this home surround you throughout, and the massive marble baths and fireplaces are an absolute feature of the home.

Now the grand house has been revived as Minimbah Country House & Spa.

Alison Edwards as General Manager is an enthusiast.

"You can lose yourself in this home for hours and hours just trying to discover every secret compartment and feature," Ms Edwards says.

"The first time I came out here I went back to being five years old; you have visions of princesses and ponies and all the most beautiful afternoon teas and things like that."

Ms Edwards went on.

"At this stage, we're opening a boutique hotel which will have eight bedrooms on the top floor," she says.

"On the ground floor we're going to have a bar, a games room and conference facilities, and we will specialise in weddings and functions as the grounds really do lend themselves to a beautiful wedding setting."

Contact Details

Minimbah Country House & Spa119 Minimbah Drive, Whittingham NSW 2330
Phone: 02 6571 4002
Fax: 02 6572 4002

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Peter Allen, Armidale and Claire and Eileen Napier - an attack of nostalgia

Photo: This is Your Life. Peter Woolnough Allen, Peter's Aunt Nancy - black glasses, Claire Napier-McCann, Roger Climpson Channel 9. 1977.

I was browsing the ABC New England North West web site when I found a story that really bought my past back in waves of nostalgia.

All those years ago I was friendly with a girl called Eileen Napier, now Kelly. Sometimes I used to visit her house across Dumaresq Street to listen to surfing music.

Through the mists of time I remember Eileen as a very pretty girl. But I was shy and I always felt that her mother did not approve of me as a Protestant. So it was a passing friendship. Yet I clearly remember the house and the lounge room.

Eileen's mum Clare was active in the local musical scene. I remember this, However, I did not remember (perhaps I did not know) the role she played in the early stages of Peter Allen's career.

So far I have written one story on Peter Allen, but I have not written much on his Armidale connection.

According to the ABC story, Eileen Kelly remembers Peter Allen turning up to tap dancing classes in what is now the Folk Museum in Armidale on roller skates. He was full of the energy, which became his trademark on stage.

"Mum would often just take off her tap shoe and throw it at Peter to pull him into line," Eileen recalls laughing.

Photo: Claire Napier-McCanns Childrens Dancing Troupe on Stage in The Cathedral Hall, Rusden Street, 1956.

For 30 years Claire Napier fostered the careers of many young entertainers, but none so famous as Peter Allen, who, she taught tap dancing for more than 8 years.

"In the finish she said in many of her interviews, she couldn't teach him anymore. He'd learnt everything she had to teach him," recalls Eileen.

According to Eileen, Peter Allen was six weeks old when his mother Marion brought him to Armidale where he stayed for almost 15 years, schooling at the local demonstration school, then Armidale High School.

Under the guidance of Claire Napier Peter, along with her other students performed around the region, and he formed a band called "The Skiffle Group" which used to play in a local hotel. The story does not record the name of the hotel, but this would have been the Mann's New England Hotel, the Newie to locals.

The story notes that some of those original band members were coming to Armidale to celebrate Peter's birthday. He would have been 68 years old.

Photo: Peter Allen on guitar at the spotlight parade in Armidale 1956.

Peter's Armidale connection is not well known. Tenterfield has always been in the spotlight because of the song "Tenterfield Saddler" which Peter wrote about his family.

"Peter was very proud of his Woolnough connections, and his father would take him back to see his grandfather and I think during Peter's hard times he looked at his early life and the Tenterfield connection to get a grip on his own identity," Eileen records.

Eileen has seen the musical about Peter twice, loving the performances of Huw Jackman and Todd McKenney, but she regrets there was no part for the character of Clair Napier in either script. Her mother however was among the special guests when Peter featured on channel Nine's "This is your life," in 1977.

Eileen recalls only one trip Peter made back to Armidale, just a few years after he left. He'd been given national exposure on bandstand with Chris Bell, and was soon to embark on an international career, which would see him working with and loving the likes of Judy Garland, Liza Minelli.

Eileen recalls he called in to see her where she was working at a local supermarket. Later she recalls going backstage at a concert on the Gold coast, one of his last in 1992, and he left her with words she will never forget.

"He said to me, and 'don't ever forget Eileen, make every moment count, "she says.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

New England Australia blog - looking back

Creation of this blog has been a slow, slow, process.

I put up the first post on 8 April 2006, so the blog is coming up on its second anniversary. I must remember to celebrate when I get to that date!

Since 8 April 2006 I have put up 252 posts. That's a fair bit.

After all this time, I take a degree of satisfaction that the blog is slowly taking form. Traffic is still not high, but I do get a steady stream of visitors.

Where will I go from here? No idea at the moment beyond plugging away.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Joint University of Newcastle, University of New England medical program starts

Photo: the first intake of medical students at UNE in the joint program with the University of Newcastle.

The first students ever to embark on a medical degree program at the University of New England have begun their studies, Monday 18 February 2008.

The 62 students, including three from New Zealand, nine from inter-State, and many from rural areas, comprise the "pioneer" cohort in UNE's School of Rural Medicine. The new School is the UNE component of the Joint Medical Program, run in collaboration with the University of Newcastle (UN) and Hunter New England Health (HNEH). This is the program's first year of teaching, with 100 students enrolled at Newcastle as well as the 62 at UNE.

Early on the first day before teaching began, the students were welcomed to the program by Professor John Fraser (Head of the School of Rural Medicine at UNE), Professor Alan Pettigrew (Vice-Chancellor of UNE), Professor Victor Minichiello (Pro Vice-Chancellor and Dean of the Faculty of the Professions at UNE), Professor Michael Hensley from the University of Newcastle (Dean of Medicine – Joint Medical Program), and Dr Nigel Lyons (Chief Executive of HNEH).

All the speakers emphasised the importance of the Joint Medical Program for the future recruitment and retention of medical practitioners in northern NSW (as well as other non-metropolitan regions), and its significance as the first collaborative venture of its kind in Australia.

"It's been very much a team effort," Professor Fraser said.

They also emphasised the scale of the achievement in turning what was a mere concept only two years ago into a reality, and thanked everyone involved. Professor Pettigrew remarked on the prevailing "sense of achievement" among the staff and "sense of excitement" among the students.

Professor Hensley thanked the students for "embarking on this career from which the community expects such a lot", and encouraged them to go on and "graduate at the end of 2012 as outstanding doctors".

He pointed out that, under the system of "problem-based learning" that UN had developed for its medical degree course more than three decades ago and now shared with UNE, students were required "to be doctors from day one". This teaching method requires students, working in teams of eight, to analyse and solve problems presented to them by a tutor. Dr Lyons, who was among the fourth intake of medical students at UN, told the students that "problem-based learning" would give them "skills that will last for life".

The students themselves were unanimous in their enthusiasm for the program. Daniel Tilley from Foster in Victoria and Emily Lewis from Adelaide were typical of many in welcoming this opportunity to train for medical practice in a rural area. They were also excited about what lay before them over the next five years. "We've got this brand new, amazing anatomy lab," Emily said, "and I'm excited about going there later today."


Friday, February 15, 2008

Greenhood orchid

This photo is by Gordon Smith. He comments:

I hadn't seen a greenhood orchid for years until we came across several patches of them in Cathedral Rock National Park. We had them on our property about 8 years ago, but, even after keeping a close eye out for them, have yet to see them again.

The photo reminds me of how little I know of New England's vegetation. I had never heard of a greenhood orchid!

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Storms gather over UNE colleges

Photo: Lightning above Drummond Smith College

Sometimes I despair about my old University, I really do!

I heard from ABC news that proposals by the University of New England to lease its residential college system to private enterprise were to be discussed at a public meeting in Armidale.

The university stated that it would take about $22 million to fix longstanding maintenance problems, something it could not afford to undertake itself.

Then on 7 February ABC news reported that the university had promised widespread consultation over several months before making a decision following a public meeting attended by more than 300 people to hear details of the proposal.

Before going on, oh ABC, since when was Armidale in north western NSW? As a colleague commented, he has heard Tamworth referred to as far north west!

The university repeated that it could not afford the $22 million it would take to refurbish its colleges at a time when occupancy rates are declining.

Vice-chancellor Professor Allan Pettigrew defended what critics say is the failure of the UNE to consult more widely with the college community.

"We're in a position where we're preparing draft documents at the present time. They have to be considered by the appropriate committees and the university council itself. We haven't reached that stage yet," he said.

The meeting organiser, Rosemary Leitch, who is a senior common room member of Earle Page College, was critical of the university.

She believes (correctly) that it had not consulted the wider community before beginning the development of plans.

What those at the meeting were probably not aware of is that UNE's move comes at a time when both the Universities of Sydney and NSW are in the process of finalising plans for major expansions in college facilities to enhance the on-campus experience.

Now it may be that UNE has let cyclical maintenance slip to the point that it is now between a rock and a hard place. It would not be the first organisation to do so. Indeed, it has done so before! However, the thing that stands out to me is the continuing failure of the university to capitalise on what should be one of its greatest assets, its residential system.

The reasons for this lie deep in UNE's past and centre on the nature of the relationship between the University and its colleges.

UNE developed its colleges to provide residential on-campus accommodation. This was necessary, but the colleges were also seen as central to the University experience. Even those living in town such as myself were required to be affiliated with a college, in my case Wright College.

The formal trappings of the colleges - senior common rooms, junior common rooms, tutorial systems, masters - were drawn from Oxbridge. However, they were not given independent governance, but instead were treated as residential arms of the university.

As I argued even back the sixties and seventies, this was a fundamental error because it prevented the colleges developing a real independent presence including access to external funding sources, leaving them dependent on changing attitudes in a central university administration often pre-occupied with short term problems.

Wright and Drummond Colleges can be taken as examples.

Wright was threatened with closure in the eighties because residence numbers had dropped, maintenance costs were up. This was fought off for a period, but only for a period. Finally, the costs of full refurbishment were seen as too great, and the college was closed to the great distress of its alumni.

In Drummond's case, the college was closed because of a decline in student numbers, then re-opened, then merged with S H Smith House to form Dummond and Smith College.

I am well aware that part of the colleges' problems lay in changing student attitudes to accommodation, including a desire to live of campus, as well as needs for new types of accommodation. I am equally well aware of the nature of college costs, including the fact that they can bleed money should student numbers drop below break-even. My point is that poor governance arrangements contributed to the problems.

My wife is chair of council at Sydney University's International House. I go to many of its functions as handbag.

International House faces many of the same problems as UNE's colleges. It, too, is formally part of SU in a legal sense. It, too, faces challenges in attracting students, in deciding what to outsource (catering has in fact just been bought back in house because complaints about standards had begun to affect student numbers), in achieving viability with a relatively small number of residents. But what a difference a council makes!

IH's council is no cipher. It approves budgets, oversights finances, plans IH's future, negotiates with the University, helps sell the IH story. It provides both continuity and a structure that maintains involvement by others - alumni for example. The IH Director reports first to council.

Now compare this to UNE. There, as I suggested, the colleges are no more than subservient units of the central administration. They do have their own character and systems, don't get me wrong on this, but they have never had a chance to carve out a real independent role for themselves.

Back in July and August 2006 when I was trying to make some suggestions on UNE's strategic plan, I made two points relevant to the current discussion.

Point one was UNE's unique residential character. I have returned to this point a number of times. UNE is still a university, not a big degree shop. This is reflected in the way the place consistently scores high on student satisfaction ratings. I suggested that this was a key marketing strength that UNE must maintain.

Point two was the potential role of the college system in marketing UNE if the place could but take advantage of it. UNE has held on one, but gone back on two.

In all this, UNE's consistent mismanagement of its colleges over decades may now have reached the point that the college asset has been lost. If so, I hope that the administration has at least done its financial modelling properly.

There is no such thing as a free lunch.

Outsourcing, public-private partnerships, come at a cost. Private participants must earn at least a market return on their money. This comes from improvements in efficiency because of the private sector control, from payments by the agency to the private partners, or some combination of the two.

It may be that UNE has got to the point that it has to take the money now, paying the price later. If so, it might take a lesson from social housing in NSW.

Ten or so years ago, cut-backs in housing funding led to a decision to spend available funding on leasehold instead of capital properties. This did allow many more properties in the short term, meeting immediate needs. Today with funding still tight and rents through the ceiling, NSW is struggling to maintain the number of leasehold properties.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Southern Cross University, Richmond Valley Council combine to support economic development

Southern Cross University has formed new links with the Richmond Valley Council to support and promote the economic development of the region.

The University and the Council signed a Memorandum of Understanding on February 8 that will pave the way for joint projects in the areas of economic development, tourism and the environment. A ground breaking student internship scholarship is one of the proposals being discussed. Professor Paul Clark, Southern Cross University Vice-Chancellor, said he looked forward to working closely with the Council.

"We have a strong commitment to the communities in our region and are delighted to formalise this arrangement with the Council,” Professor Clark said.

“We will now be looking at opportunities for research, and social, environment and economic development in the Richmond Valley.”

Southern Cross University has formalised arrangements with a number of councils throughout the Northern Rivers region and is working closely with councils in the Mid North Coast area.

Richmond Valley Council Mayor Cr Charlie Cox said the Council welcomed the opportunity to engage with and develop the relationship with Southern Cross University.

“The Memorandum of Understanding provides for Council and the University to work on a various initiatives that can assist with outcomes for the community,” Cr Cox said.

Saturday, February 09, 2008

New England's history - Anaiwan or Nganyaywana Aboriginal peoples entry page

Short post to say that over at the New England's history blog I have established a page to provide an entry point to posts about the Anaiwan or Nganyaywana Aboriginal peoples who occupied the southern and central areas of the New England Tablelands.

As with other entry pages, I hope that with time this will grow as a resource to help those interested find material about the Anaiwan.

Friday, February 08, 2008

Blogging Woes

I have written too many stories on the New England Tablelands recently and wanted to run some stories from elsewhere in New England. So I thought, let's go on a blog tour.

It did not work. With the exception of a few blogs like North Coast Voices, my New England blog list was simply not posting. So I am going to have to do a complete prune, finding new blogs and moving others to an archive category.

In the meantime, I am back to my conventional newspaper scan! New England bloggers, where are you?

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

New England's Washpool National Park

This photo by Gordon Smith captures some of the beauty of New England's Washpool National Park.

I love New England's wild country. I get a thrill just from looking at it.

Monday, February 04, 2008

New England Australia's Aborigines - Dainggati Entry Page

The Dainggatti are are a Macleay Valley language group with close Tablelands' connections. As part of my historical reseach, I have created a page to provide an entry point to all my posts on the Dainggatti

Saturday, February 02, 2008

University of New England - entry page to blog posts

Photo: Booloominbah, University of New England

Founded in 1938 as a College of the University of Sydney, the University of New England has played a major role in New England life.

Because of my connection with UNE, I have now written a very large number of posts with some reference to the University. This page provides an entry point to some of those posts.

I am breaking the page into two parts.

The first part provides a list of posts in date order. The second part will group posts by subject. The sheer number of posts means that it will take time to get the whole series up.

Chronological listing of posts