Then and Now
Apples to art in the “go-go” Tasmanian town of Cygnet
NATURALIST AND explorer François Péron had spent more than a year sailing the world when he reached Port des Cygnes (Port of Swans), where Cygnet would later be founded, in 1802.
“Of all the places which I had seen during the whole course of our long voyage, this appeared to me to be the most picturesque and pleasant,” he wrote in A Voyage of Discovery to the Southern Hemisphere, his account of the trip. The Frenchman was taken by “romantic little creeks” and “legions of black swans, which sailed about with great elegance and majesty”.
European settlement would reshape the landscape around Cygnet, located less than an hour south-west of Hobart. Forests that Péron called “almost impossible to penetrate” were cleared for timber and fruit trees were planted in their place.
Barbara Harvey, who moved to the town at 18 months old and is still there 86 years later, remembers the view from St Mark’s Anglican Church when the district was covered in orchards, one of them owned by her family. “You’d look over all of Cygnet and all you’d see in the spring was blossoms. It was absolutely beautiful.”
Cygnet became an important centre for Tasmania’s famed apple industry – Prime Minister Robert Menzies even visited in 1954 to open the town’s Huon Valley Apple Festival – and suffered badly when that industry went into decline.
In 1973, a crucial export market disappeared when England joined the European Union. While the Harveys stayed on the land – with Barbara’s daughter-in-law, Maree, carrying on the six-generations-old family business at Glenburn Orchards – hundreds of orchardists left the industry. “It was sad to see so many families moving to Hobart to look for jobs,” says Barbara. “It was very rough.”
It led to a big change in the fabric of town life. Hippies moved in, attracted by cheap land and a rural lifestyle, and were followed by artists, musicians and tree changers. Instead of the apple festival, the annual Cygnet Folk Festival (cygnet folkfestival.org) now draws thousands of visitors to the town.
Richard Stanley, a former Western Australian who came to Cygnet in search of a town where he could open a studio and gallery, was struck by the natural beauty of the region. “I’m a landscape painter and it’s just magnificent,” he says. “You have all the yachts on the water, the beautiful big hills and the beaches. It’s like a little piece of Europe without the crowds – except in summer, when we get invaded.”
But it was the locals, not the landscape, that made a lasting impression. Eighteen months after arriving, Richard’s wife fell ill while pregnant with their fourth child. “People we never even knew were bringing over cakes and pies, telling us, ‘We’re here for you if you need any help.’ I realised then that this really is a special community.”
It’s something Barbara Harvey, who volunteers for Meals on Wheels, has long known. And today she sees a renewed vitality in Cygnet. “It’s getting back to how it was in the old days. But it’s more vibrant than ever, because all sorts of people live here,” she says. “It’s a real go-go little town now.”
Locals and out-of-towners converge on Cygnet for the annual folk music festival (above)