Continuing the story from Journey to the Hunter – Saturday 19 April 2014: St Patrick’s Singleton, we drove out of Singleton in the late morning on our way to Morpeth for a late lunch. I hadn’t been to Morpeth before, and had been wanting to go for years.
The first part of our journey took us along the newly opened Hunter Expressway towards Maitland. I am sure that it’s convenient, certainly it’s quicker, but it imposes its own blankness on the landscape. In fact, this was a problem for the whole trip. I knew the Hunter very well and had done so for many years. However, the new roads and the spread of the urban landscape in the Lower Hunter created a very special spatial dislocation as my mind warred between the scenes I saw now and my previous memories.
For those who don’t know the Hunter Valley, it’s 29,145 sq km (11,252.9 sq mi) in size. The population is over 620,000, of which the great bulk lives in the Lower Hunter. We left the Expressway to drive into Maitland. Founded in 1820, Maitland (more precisely West Maitland) was the second largest town in Australia until the gold rushes, acting as the main entrepot point for Northern New South Wales. Established in 1843, the Maitland Mercury is the second oldest surviving newspaper in Australia after the Sydney Morning Herald.
Maitland has many historic buildings, but this time we couldn’t stop. I wanted to get to Morpeth. Had we stayed on the main road, the signs would have taken us there. Me being me, I decided to try to follow the river, promptly getting lost. We ended up in a place called Bulwarra with some fascinating old buildings in the midst of the more modern houses. I had never heard of it,
Sadly my photos didn’t come out properly, but this will give you a feel. By now it was quite late, my companion wasn’t feeling well, and we needed to get to Morpeth to eat. I walked across the road and asked a woman for directions. She was very friendly. “I went to school here,” she said. “ I wanted to come back, but it took us a very long time to find a house. There just aren’t any for sale.”
She explained that the house we were looking at was indeed one of the original big houses built during the convict period. With directions, we drove on, coming into Morpeth across the river bridge.
I should now introduce Morpeth. It was founded around 1831 by Edward Close at the head of navigation on the Hunter River. Smaller craft could go on to Maitland, but Morpeth was the effective head of navigation. At the time Morpeth was established, the main connection between Sydney and the Hunter Valley lay over the difficult inland route. In 1825, convicts began building the Great North Road to provide a better connection. Finished in 1836, the road was a major engineering feat, However, by then technology had changed.
In May 1831, the Sophia Jane arrived in Sydney Harbour from England. the first working steamer to be seen in Sydney Harbour. Built by Barnes and Millar in 1826, she was 153 tons and had one engine of 50 horse power. Three years earlier in 1828, two experienced shipbuilders, William Lowe and James Marshall, had arrived in the Colony. Under the guidance of entrepreneur Sydney merchant John Hickey Grose they selected land on the bank of the Williams River at Clarence Town and by 1830 had set up a shipyard complete with a wet dock cawed from a convenient creek. After building a few small boats to get the feel of the local wood they laid the keel of the first Australian steamship, the 'William the Fourth, in early Feb. 1831.
These ships were small, but they transformed trade. Sailing ships has struggled to travel the sometimes narrow and winding Hunter. Now goods and people could be carried with a degree of certainty al the way up the river to Morpeth and the main population centres, Morpeth grew rapidly.
Today, it is actually hard to imagine the bustling town and its busy river port. We unpacked the picnic basket on a spot overlooking where the main wharves had been. There is still river traffic, more than I expected, but it is all leisure craft now, We were both tired, so we sat there quietly eating bread and pate, cheese, olives with a glass of wine in hand watching the other picnickers.
Packing the picnic basket, we drove back up the hill to find a place to park. The town stretches in a longish strip along the river bank, The buildings vary in age, with the usual mix of domestic and the monumental you might expect from the town’s previous importance. This is the old court house.
And this will give you a feeling for the screetscape in the town centre. Cupz and Crepes is, we were told, currently the most fashionable locale in Morpeth!
Morpeth was packed with tourists there for the Easter Weekend. Feeling tired, we joined the queue to find a spot for coffee looking down towards the river. It was time to return back to Pokolbin and dinner.
The drive back gave me something of the same feeling of disconnect that I had had in the morning. I wanted to go a different way home, but found myself driving through miles of suburban sprawl.
Then came dinner at the resort. Because it was a holiday period, they added a 15 per cent price premium. Later, I saw a sign at reception advising of this, but it wasn’t on the menu nor signed in any way at the restaurant. We wouldn’t have minded so much if the food was good, but it was the worst cooked steak I have ever eaten. It was horrid!
I was annoyed. It cast a damper over what had, in fact, been a very good day.
For those who want to follow along with the story, you will find the entry point for all the posts here.