Saturday, December 21, 2019

Armidale Diaries 4 - fires, food and funerals: a mega edition

Extinction Rebellion Protesters,  Armidale Climate Strike

The noise caught my attention. I had popped into town to have a coffee in the Mall outside BooBooks, something of a ritual, only to find that they had closed to join the climate strike. Preoccupied with my writing, I had forgotten that it was on.

As I stood there working out what to do next, loud noises drew my eyes to the west. It was the climate change protesters marching in procession up Beardy Street. Led by the colourfully dressed ladies from Extinction Rebellion, they were on their way to protest outside the offices of Adam Marshall, the local State member and also NSW Minister for Agriculture.

I don’t think that the protest was specifically directed against Adam. His concerns about the impact of climate change are well known. Rather, it was a statement intended to make a general point, to attract media coverage, which it did.

Climate change, drought and fires continue as major topics of discussion in this small city. It’s hard to go past them at the moment.

The fire focus may have shifted away from New England, but social media continues to be full of some of the most spectacular fire photos I have ever seen from here and elsewhere in Australia.

Armidale airport has been a major centre for firefighting activities. Since August, the Rural Fire Service (RFS) has had to truck in 1.3 million litres of water for fire purposes, placing pressure on domestic supplies. Now the Council’s bore digging program has established a water source near the airport that can draw 288,000 litres per day and provide it direct to the RFS’s tank at the airport.

At Armidale Airport, State Government Ministers have joined together with personnel from New England RFS to officially open Armidale's new remote area fire fighting team training helicopter  winch simulator.

That's a mouthful, but hanging off a helicopter in wind turbulence is no easy feat. The simulator will be also used by other local emergency service operations.    

Down south as drought continues to bite, the Tamworth Regional Council has put a temporary weir on the Peel River, along with a pipeline to the water treatment plant to supplement the water supply. The sudden stop in flow not only affected downstream users, but also led to a major fish kill. 

It’s not been all climate change, drought and fires.

Driving visitors around Armidale, people comment on the number or preschools or child care centres, schools, churches and retirement villages. Those from metropolitan centres with younger children are especially struck by the number of preschools and child care centres, an area where many struggle to find places. I haven’t done a rigorous count, but Armidale has some fifteen for a population of around 23,000.

This pattern reflects the city’s history. It was a church and school place from its early days to which were then added a Teachers’ College and University. From the 1950s through to the mid eighties the city grew rapidly drive by education. Then came structural changes in education including a continued decline in boarding and the Dawkins Education Reforms. In the space of a few years Armidale lost close to a thousand jobs, a decline that created a vicious cycle.

Those who left tended to be the younger ones, while the older ones with permanent tenure stayed. They have been progressively retiring. Older retirees attracted to Armidale by cheaper costs, services and life style added to their numbers. Retirement villages became a growth industry. At a rough count, the city now has some nine, again for a population of 23,000.

The elderly with their walking sticks, walkers and mobility chairs are a very visible presence in Armidale. But so, too, are the young.

Sitting in Central Park I watched the mums, they are nearly all mums, gathering in groups with their prams and young children. Sitting on rugs they talked while the children played.

As older people retired, opportunities opened up for younger people, aided by the development of some new businesses. As they came with their kids or had kids, school numbers increased, requiring more teachers. The city began to rebuild. While the population has been growing again, there is still a degree of fragility, not aided by the drought. In 2018-19, the town's income dropped by 3%.

It's hard to get away from the drought. Central Park is still green, but when Council introduced Level 5 water restrictions they stopped watering the trees. Then when the trees started to die, they called upon the community to contribute waste or bore water to save them. 

The  drought and associated fires affect not just income coming in from farmers and graziers, but also income from travellers. I walked into the Armidale Visitor Information Centre through the smokey air. The free heritage tour bus was just about to leave. It was almost empty. It's usually full.

"How's business", I asked? "Terrible", was the answer. "People just aren't travelling because of the road closures."   Armidale's size provides a degree of insulation.

Some businesses along major traffic routes such as the Oxley Highway have already lost two months income because of actual or feared road closures associated with the fires. Apart from the fires themselves, people won't travel if they fear road closures, if they are warned not to travel because of risk of fires,  The National Parks, major New England attraction, are all closed or open only on an irregular basis. Across Northern NSW, we have lost an entire tourism season.

It's not all bad news. From the Visitor Information Centre, I walked down through the smoke to Granny Fi's Toy Cupboard (and here).

I wanted to buy presents for youngest and her husband. They have very particular tastes and I wanted something different that would mesh with their tastes. I can't tell you more, however, for fear of totally giving away what I bought.

Granny Fi's is becoming an Armidale institution, one of a number of nodules that form the core of Armidale's remarkable and varied cultural scene.

It's a difficult place to describe beyond saying that it has a focus on handmade crafts and other products designed to appeal to the nerds among us.

Setting the store up has been a bit of a battle. Obligatory attendance at  Comic-Con and various fan festivals  provides money and presence but also distracts from the shop itself. They were sold out of one key thing I wanted, but promised to make it over the weekend. Herein lies a little story.

"How's business?", I asked in the normal way. "It's been very quiet, but something marvellous happened" was the response.

One side-effect of the drought has been the establishment of websites asking people to buy bush in compensation for the drought. These have been remarkably successful, especially in niche areas. Down at Uralla, for example, sales of some New England food products boomed to the point that they had to call in volunteers and set up a temporary packing plant to meet the Christmas orders.

In Granny Fi's case, the post they put up went viral. In something like 24 hours they sold out entire stock ranges, In fact, they over sold. The next 48 hours were spent without sleep packing to meet the Christmas postal deadlines, while making the additional stock to meet the extra orders .People really are nice, I thought.

The large group of older people in Armidale means funerals.

While churches and especially the evangelical or Pentecostal churches that have been Christianity's recent growth area are spread across Armidale, Central Park is the traditional religious centre of Armidale. Surrounding the Park you will find the Roman Catholic and Anglican cathedrals, the Presbyterian church with the Methodists, now Uniting, a little way away down Rusden Street.
On the Monday I went to Ros Townsend’s, on the Friday Pam Harvey’s, funerals.

Ros's funeral was held in the Anglican cathedral. Designed by the famous Australian architect Horbury Hunt whose work played such a role in the Armidale built landscape, the cathedral is truly beautiful.

Pam's funeral was held at the Presbyterian church, a plainer building but still very attractive. 

Both women played a major role in the Armidale community and this was reflected in the attendance. I arrived five minutes before the start of Ros's funeral. By then, the cathedral was already full, and I had to listen to the service via speakers in a little meeting room nearby.

I was a little earlier for Pam's funeral. The church was again full, I was able to find a a spot in the choir stalls, but a few minutes later they started bringing in chairs from the Hall and putting them in the aisles. I am not good at estimating numbers. but there must have been close to a 1,000 people in total at the two funerals.

Some people find funerals distressing. I don't, although I did tear up at Pam's funeral. Funerals are generally celebrations of a life and, in a way, lessons for the future.. I am always amazed at the things I learn about the person.

I can't help being an historian. Obituaries are one victim of the decline in the print media. We will all be the poorer for that.

Bakers Creek Gold mine c1906, tram line in the background. At their peak, the Hillgrove mines were the largest gold producers in NSW producing over 15 tons of gold. Fortunes were made at Hillgrove, more were lost through speculation.  

The Saturday following the funerals saw the annual Historical Society excursion, lead by local historian Graham Wilson. We were to visit the old gold mining centres of Hillgrove and Metz.

To the east of Armidale, the coastal flowing rivers have cut deep spectacular gorges.This includes Bakers Creek. There deep lead gold was found, leading to the establishment of many mines especially at the bottom of the gorge, Hillgrove grew up on one side of the gorge, Metz on the other, both linked by steep tramways to the bottom. This was a big field that is still in recurrent operation today, if at a lower level.   

Some fifty of us gathered at the Visitor Information Centre to join the big, modern air conditioned coach for the trip. Some of the roads we would travel are narrow and dirt, creating problems for the bus. But with some backing and turning, the bus was able to get through.

Our first destination was Hillgrove. Here we followed the modern road. I much prefer the old road that skirts hge gorge and passes Bakers River falls, but I can see the logic of the route we took.

At Hillgrove, we stopped in spots to look at explanatory signs and listen to Graham telling the story. There was a fair bit of wind making it difficult for me to hear, but I picked up the gist. I know Hillgrove quite well, but it had been so many years since I was there that I had difficult in properly orienting myself. It had changed.

With a population of over 3,000, Hillgrove residents thought that their town would be permanent and built accordingly. Hillgrove became a major centre. A remarkable amount survives, more than I realised, now signposted for visitors because of work done by the Historical Society.

After our initial excursion, we adjoined to the community hall for a morning tea supplied by some of our members. This was a truly sumptuous repast that would have done credit to any CWA branch. This started a discussion on food that continued for much of the day.

The community hall lies in Brackin Street, Hillgrove's main street. I wandered outside. looking down the street, refreshing my memory, trying to fit things in.

Brackin Steet runs along a ridge. Water was constantly short in Hillgrove. Rubbish including sewerage accumulate along the street. When rain came, this was washed down towards the houses on each side. One result was typhoid, killing many.

Maypole dancing, Hillgrove Public School, Principle Tonkin looks on. The old school is now a rather spectacular museum.   

From the hall we drove to the old Hillgrove Public School, now a rather wonderful museum. It really is a gem, although it would benefit from better signage and more explanatory material on the machinery and horse drawn vehicles out the back,

Today, we forget our much physical labour was present in the past. I looked at some of the drays and wondered just how you would lift them up to back horses in between the shafts.

From the museum we visited the cemetery and then headed out to Metz along narrow dirt roads requiring our driver to have several goes at some point. I knew that lunch was included in the price,  assumed something like sandwiches, but not so!

After several goes, we ended up at Echidna Gully, one of the new accommodation and venue facilities established outside Armidale.  Because I have been away,  I don't know these places.

Sandwiches my hat. Nice roast pork with baked vegetables plus a rather luscious desert. And a bar with local wines, although we had to pay for that.

It rained while were eating lunch, That was good and good timing too.

Now rather full, I didn't need to eat much dinner, we rejoined our bus for the last stage of our journey, Metz, talking about food.

Things got a little bit this stage. Metz was founded later than Hillgrove, was never as big, and vanished earlier. Today, nothing remains. The town site itself is on private property. We had two locals as guides who had grown up in the area when more remained plus two maps. We also had members of the family that owned Tattersall's Hotel in Metz, the last hotel closing in 1928 (photo 1924). Our problem lay in our maps.

We had two maps prepared for different purposes that seemed to conflict. We stood there in the sun on the dusty road while our guides talked, turning the maps one way or another trying to work out where we were and the buildings had been. The end result was confusion, a total lack of orientation.

Later, I was able to work things out, but I really need to go back and just walk around. You actually have to walk the ground to understand.

From that stop we drove the short distance to the Metz lookout, looking back over the gorge to Hillgrove, It was interesting in part because so much of the landscape had changed from the last time I saw it. I stood there and tried to imagine the people from Hillgrove going down the gorge side in a cable car and then up via cable car the other side to go to Metz dances. The mines would allow this so long as it did not conflict with work.

From there, we came home. I thought that it had been a rather special exccusion.

This will be my last dairy entry for the year. I wish you and yours a happy Christmas and a peaceful new year.



Anonymous said...

'hanging off a helicopter in wind turbulence is no easy feat'. You can say that again, and no amount of 'training' makes up for the real thing. The phenomenon is actually called wind shear and it's totally bloody terrifying. Try it in the Indian Ocean, trying to get on to, and more to the point off again, a Russian 'fishing boat', named the Fiolent, in atrocious weather, after being called in from RAAF Pearce to medevac a sick seafarer with suspected peritonitis after an on board appencicectomy (it is NOT, and never has been an 'appendectomy'). Girl taken to shore and hospital, chopper came back to offload the attending MO. The wind had picked up, and made contact difficult. MO was quite severely beaten around by bouncing off eg mast supports as he was finally lifted. Chopper was by then so low on fuel, that the pilot threatened to cut the cable, drop him in the drink and hope for the best. Hopefully a crash boat would get there before the sharks. Luckily, they made it back to Pearce with no further mishaps. The MO's pregnant wife knew nothing about it until returning from Perth after a dr's appt. The weather was so atrocious, that he would not let her drive, but insisted that she make the journey down and back on the medical run. And that is why, dear JDB, that Timothy Jude Peter Wilkins was not a posthumous child, and why PSW has an MBE.

Helen Smith said...

Thank you Jim. As always a great read. Merry Christmas!

Ruth Cotton said...

Jim, thank you for sharing your reflections over what must have been a challenging and disrupted year for you, as it was for many of us. Always interesting and enjoyable - thank you and enjoy your holiday break.

Jim Belshaw said...

That's a gripping tale, Judi. It sounds like the MBE was well deserved And it's good that the MO's wife didn't know about it at the time. have a happy Xmas my dear.

Thank you Helen! Appreciated. And Christmas greetings to you and yours.

Jim Belshaw said...

Nice to hear from you, Ruth. Thank you. I will!