ROAD LESS TRAVELLED
SKIP THE CONCRETE AND CONVENIENCE OF THE FREEWAY TO INSTEAD TAKE A MAGICAL JOURNEY ALONG BELLS LINE OF ROAD, AN EARLY PASSAGE INTO THE NSW BLUE MOUNTAINS.
We take a road trip packed with adventure and pretty scenery along the Bells Line of Road — an early passage through the NSW Blue Mountains.
BELLS LINE OF ROAD stole my heart when I was a kid and still promises adventure, scenery and a bag of fresh apples. It was the road we travelled heading to western Queensland for holidays on my aunt and uncle’s sheep station. On one memorable trip, Bells Line of Road was the first leg of a school excursion to Darwin via Central Australia. Memorable as the coach broke down at Bilpin (and repeatedly for the rest of the three-week journey). Later I drove the road myself to visit friends in the Blue Mountains and beyond, view gardens or go bushwalking. The views of rolling hills around North Richmond and Kurrajong, and the chink of the bellbirds as the car climbs Bellbird Hill before scaling the rugged cliffs of the Blue Mountains proper, never fail to thrill. So, when we were looking for acreage outside Sydney, we headed this way. We arrived 200 years after the first settlement, which dates back to the 1790s. Today the Hawkesbury (the area around the river stretching to Kurrajong Hills) is home to 64,500 people, many of whom make the journey to Sydney to work, returning home to horses, smallholdings or hobby farms. Higher up the businesses mountains mountains are orchards, farm sand boutique businesses. The 59-kilometre route of Bells Line of Road marks an early crossing of the Blue Mountains by Europeans in 1823. The convict-built road opened to traffiffic (mainly horses and bullock-drawn carts) in 1841. Today it is a quieter, secondary road, eclipsed by the multi-lane Great Western Highway that swoops up from Penrith to Mount Victoria and beyond. Start your journey on the eastern side of the Hawkesbury River, at the town of Windsor. Discover Thompson Square overlooked by the Macquarie Arms Hotel (built in 1815 and the oldest pub in mainland Australia) and the Georgian-style Doctor’s House (c. 1830) at 3 Thompson Square. Behind these historic buildings is the Hawkesbury Regional Museum. From the square catch a glimpse of the Hawkesbury River, complete with a paddlewheel steamer moored upstream. In the early days of settlement the Hawkesbury linked the region to Sydney. Wheat, vegetables and fruit grown on the fertile river flats was sent downstream to Broken Bay and Sydney. Explore the old part of Windsor to find another local gem, St Matthew’s Anglican Church in Moses Street, designed in 1817 by colonial architect and ex-convict Francis Greenway. The road from Windsor to Richmond, the region’s major town, runs beside the single-track railway line and past the RAAF base, once touted as a site for Sydney’s second airport. Slow down passing the base. Not only are you coming into Richmond, but the arching canopy of plane trees that forms a leafy tunnel across the road also deserves to be appreciated. Today Richmond is the end of the line as far as Sydney Trains is concerned, but from 1926 until 1952 holidaymakers could take a local train departing from Richmond. Known as the Pansy, it wound its way across sleepy farms through Grose Vale to the village of Kurrajong. If you stop in the centre of Richmond, imagine the steam-powered Pansy running beside March Street along the edge of Richmond Park. The train and its tracks are gone but there’s still a magnificent cricket ground and grandstand. Wander to Windsor Street for clothes, gifts and coffee. If you have kids, there’s a shady play area but they may prefer Pughs Lagoon Reserve, a little park that’s home to ducks and geese. From the lagoon take Kurrajong Road across the plain past the polo club and grazing horses. Next stop is North Richmond and the Hawkesbury. It may look benign now (it was tamed by the Warragamba Dam in 1960) but the river has a long history of devastation, often flooding several times in a single year. For a closer look at the river and Richmond Bridge, circa 1905, stop at Hanna Park. From busy North Richmond the road winds through Kurrajong Hills. There are jacarandas and bauhinias planted along the road, which flower purple and pink in spring. In the 1920s, the Kurrajong area was opened up to returned soldiers who took smallholdings to grow citrus and vegetables. Several cottages remain scattered through the district such as Mackenzie’s Farm at 567 Bells Line of Road. Just past the old farm at the Comleroy Road turn-off is an unexpected signpost for Singleton. From 1819 this road was the main route between Sydney and the Hunter Valley, and once famed for its guesthouses. A short meander along here reveals splendid mountain views across rolling hills. Bells Line of Road has had several upgrades since its convict beginnings and today bypasses Kurrajong village. >
Bells Line of Road stole my heart when I was a kid and still promises adventure, scenery and a bag of fresh apples.
However, it’s worth following Old Bells Line of Road into the heart of the village for cafes, gift shops and a tribute to the district’s agricultural past. At Memorial Park (84–96 Old Bells Line of Road), are two large stone wheels. In the 19th century these millstones were located at a mill on Little Wheeny Creek. Water from the creek turned the stones to grind locally grown wheat. Opposite the millstones was Kurrajong Station, the terminus for the Pansy railway. To return to Bells Line of Road, continue along Old Bells Line of Road over a creek and past Goldfinders Rest, a hotel built in 1851 that serviced those heading to and from the goldfields. Part of this old sandstone building remains as a home beside Little Wheeny Creek but the bushrangers who once held up travellers near here have long gone. Back on Bells Line of Road, it’s uphill all the way starting with Bellbird Hill. Keep the windows down to hear the musical call of bellbirds. These small khaki-green birds are hard to see but easy to hear. They live among the eucalypts and are relatives of a more familiar native bird, the noisy miner. There’s a spot to pull over at Kurrajong Heights for views back across the plain to that distant smudge, Sydney. Not far on is the quaint Lochiel House, an old cottage that is now a restaurant specialising in local seasonal produce, including herbs grown in the sunny restaurant garden. Drop in to say hello to owners Nathan Parker and Tayla Clout, who are making the most of the rich offerings of the region, including local beers, ciders, wines and spirits. “We’re enjoying wonderful black truffles at the moment from a farm up in Oberon,” says chef Nathan Parker, who describes her menu as modern Australian with an Asian twist. As the road climbs — it reaches its highest point at Mount Tomah at 1080 metres above sea level — large orchards are revealed, many sheltered by vast white nets. Apples, pears, peaches and cherries are available in summer and autumn from roadside stalls. The locals also make apple pies, apple juice and award-winning cider. Hillbilly Cider centres around the Julie variety grown at Shields Orchard at Bilpin. Tessa and Shane Mclaughlin launched their brand six years ago. It’s a natural cider brewed from seconds — apples that wouldn’t be sold for eating. “It’s all 100 per cent crushed apple with no artificial flavours or added sugar,” says Tessa. “We hit on the name Hillbilly as it seemed to encapsulate the life we live here in this part of the Blue Mountains, away from the rat race.” They’ve opted to sell only to independent restaurants and bars and to support local businesses, but visitors can find the cider at the Hillbilly Cider Shed at Shields Orchard. In the cool mountain climate of Bilpin there are also pretty gardens to be glimpsed. In spring they are filled with azaleas, wisteria and blossom. Powells Road on the western edge of Bilpin is renowned for its gardens, with several open to the public. Further on is Mount Tomah, home to the Blue Mountains Botanic Gardens, this year celebrating its 30th birthday. The plant collection is as inspiring as the view from the verandah of the visitor centre and restaurant, which looks north across Wollemi National Park. Beyond Mount Tomah, the Bells Line of Road traverses rugged sandstone cliffs. In October, a flash of red glimpsed among the trees will be a waratah, the state floral emblem of NSW. Across the valley to the south are views towards Katoomba and Blackheath. For magnificent views, pull off the main road and hike the Mount Banks Summit walk. Another worthwhile detour further along Bells Line of Road is the quiet village of Mount Wilson, a small farming area that became a summer escape for Sydneysiders. It has few amenities (there’s a café but no store), but is famous for its mature cool-climate gardens and lush vegetation that thrives in the rich basalt soil that caps this mountaintop. Many gardens open during spring and autumn and there are also walks through the native rainforest. Not far beyond the Mount Wilson turn-off lies Bell and the end of the Bells Line of Road. Here turn left along Darling Causeway to Mount Victoria or continue west along Chifley Road to discover the old Zig Zag Railway and on to Lithgow, where the road joins the Great Western Highway. Travel on to discover Rydal (a village famous for its springtime daffodils), Bathurst, Orange and so much more.
CLOCKWISE, FROM TOP LEFT Fresh borage flowers from the café garden garnish a meal at Lochiel House in Kurrajong Heights; the courtyard garden at Lochiel; Lochiel House is a restaurant within a historic timber cottage beside Bells Line of Road. FACING PAGE Kanangra Walls viewed from along Bells Line of Road.