Blue Mountains Railways Celebrate 150 Years

From a vantage point beside the moving throng of commuters, thousands of them on any given day, the bust of John Whitton keeps a watchful eye on all who pass through Sydney’s Central Station.

Whitton was the Engineer-In-Chief from 1857 to 1890 and his extensive tenure coincided with the rapid development of railway lines across much of New South Wales. A mere 37 kilometres of tracks were in use at the time of his commencement in the role. By his retirement this had expanded into over 3,500 kilometres branching north from Sydney through Newcastle, Werris Creek and Tenterfield, south to Cooma, Albury and Hay, and west to Dubbo and Bourke. The key to opening up the gateway to the west was overcoming the challenging terrain of the Blue Mountains.

Initial challenges for the railway construction included building a railway bridge across the Nepean River and negotiating a way through Knapsack Gully in order for the western railway line to cross the mountains. Victoria Bridge, designed by Whitton, still survives today. The viaduct at Knapsack Gully was also designed by Whitton.

The character of many of the mountain villages have been defined by the arrival of the ‘iron horse’ and the railway opened up employment and housing opportunities. Prior to the establishment and extension of the railways with the arrival of Whitton, various other transportation ideas were proposed. Reverend Hulbert suggested the importation of elephants or camels as a solution; Sir William Denison spoke of horse-drawn railways. What a different world it may have been without Whitton’s vision.

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Tribute to John Whitton, Central Station, Sydney

Last weekend marked the 150th anniversary of the Blue Mountains railway line, which reached as far as Weatherboard (now Wentworth Falls). The first passenger train to Weatherboard ran on 22 July 1867. The line was then extended to Blackheath and Mount Victoria before the construction of the famous zig zag descent into Lithgow – another achievement of Whitton’s. The coming of the railway was to alter and redefine life in the area, and all these decades later, the railway remains an integral aspect of mountain life for locals and visitors alike.

Read through the letters most weeks in the Blue Mountains Gazette and you’ll find that train timetable changes continue to create a flurry of interest and weekend trains are so regularly packed with tourists that additional carriages have been commissioned. The noise of freight and coal trains is regularly compared to existing and anticipated aircraft noise. Like many mountain folk I can hear trains trundle by at all hours, but for me the short toot of commuter trains leaving the station and the low rumble of freight trains remind me of the perpetual motion of life, of people and goods moving about, travelling from one place to another.

Celebrations over the weekend included heritage train rides, and you can see some footage of the trips here.

Book Review: The Home Girls by Olga Masters

I listened to this collection of short stories a few years ago, mainly as I wended my way to work along mountain roads in winter. At the end of some the stories I simply had to turn the audio off, needing time and space to absorb the dynamics of a story, or the machinations of various characters. Masters captured the essence of a character, of life in a small town, of the many joys and devastations of every day life with such a deft touch.

Sometimes I would also refer to the written word to recapture the moment, or to check my understanding of a story. I was also struck by the physicality of her writing; her way of depicting a character’s inner world through their physical actions. These stories in particular stayed in mind.

The Home Girls. This was a short, disturbing story of two sisters preparing to leave one foster family for another, sharing a final act of defiance before they head to their new home.

The Rages of Mrs Torrens. I loved this story of a vibrant and passionate woman, who was perhaps a bit extreme in her mood swings. The timber town is enthralled by her antics, during which she seemed to lose focus of her beloved Harold and their five children.

The rage that ended all rages took place when there was an accident at the mill and poor Harold lost the fingers on his right hand. Mrs Torrens goes to the mill and climbs atop a fence with surprising grace and agility to address the men who were ‘standing there … faces tipped up like eggs towards her’. She asks them what they have done with her beautiful mannikin before going wild with a piece of timber, destroying parts of the office.

The incident is strangely not widely discussed by those present, who were deeply affected by her rage. The family left town soon after, and eventually medication was used to stabilise her mood swings.

‘During these times Mrs Torren’s blue eyes dulled and her beautiful red hair straightened and she moved slowly and heavily with no life in her step or on her face. She looked like a lot of the women in Tantello.’

On The Train. This depicts an interaction between a beautiful mother travelling with two young plain daughters and a nosy stranger. The stranger speculates about their relationship, trying to prise information. As the two leave the carriage, the mother tells the stranger something deeply unsettling.

The Done Thing. An interesting twist on the tale of attraction between two married couples. On revisiting this story recently I was struck by the contrast between the two wives: the educated but insecure Annie and the thoroughly practical Louisa. Annie’s husband Peter arrives unannounced at Louisa’s place, bearing a large pumpkin.

She laid a hand on the grey-blue skin of the pumpkin as she might have touched a beautiful fur wrap.

Peter’s delight in the homely order of Louisa’s home is evident and there are gentle hints of the attraction between them.

As she spoke she bent and pulled at some grass, ripping it away to show more rock. He bent and pulled it with her and she straightened, holding the long loop of root against her skirt as if it were a bridal bouquet. 

I was pleased to see that I wasn’t alone in finding much satisfaction in this collection of stories. There is an excellent review by Lisa Hill here.

[Photo: old kitchen at Elizabeth Farm, Rosehill]

Mid-Winter in the Blue Mountains

So far the consensus is that winter has been relatively mild in the Blue Mountains. There have been days starting out with fierce frosts, and there have been periods of bleak rain and uncharitable winds, but these have been interspersed with days of sunshine to take the sting out of the cold nights.

But we are only just past the halfway mark and there could be some cold snaps in store between now and the end of winter. In the upper mountains in particular, seasons tend to pay scant attention to the rigid start and finish dates, and snowfalls have been known to occur in late spring and beyond.

Early morning walks are characterised by frosts on lawns, roofs and car windshields. I keep an eye out for the subtle changes throughout the coldest months, endlessly fascinated at the gradual emergence of buds on bared branches offering the promise of an abundance of blooms when the warmer weather arrives.

There are spots of colour to cheer me on. Bright puffs of wattle blooms, winter bulbs in flower and carpets of spent camellia petals draw the eye. Creamy daphne flowers and early blooming rhododendrons mingle with late-blooming roses and ever reliable geraniums and lavender to provide points of interest. There are still sprays of salvia and delicate fuchsia blooms in the garden, as bright green spikes of freesias and jonquils feel their way into the world.

The cold is a necessary part of the seasonal life cycle and it always surprises and delights me that there is so much activity happening at a time when the natural world appears to be dormant.

What is winter like in your part of the world?

{Photo: red wattle bird spotted against backdrop of winter branches}

 

Deadlines: whooshing or otherwise?

An oft quoted phrase attributed to Douglas Adams is “I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.” I’m not sure if it is emblematic of my tendency to comply, but deadlines tend to translate into results for me.

A simple example would be my blog posts. I made a decision before I started to blog that I would try to write two posts a week. This was based on wanting to write about the Blue Mountains area in particular, effectively from the viewpoint of being a tourist in my adopted home, but I also wanted to explore writing habits and practices. Occasionally I have meandered off the track at times, but in essence this remains the focus for my blogging.

There have been times when I have faced the blank page, bereft of thoughts let alone ideas. But so far – touch wood – I have managed to come up with something before each due date. There are times when there is an abundance of ideas for one theme but not the other, reflective perhaps of where my mind is at that point of time. These ideas are captured and explored when time allows. Having a writing rhythm helps, and I know that it is preferable to have a draft, no matter how insignificant or rough, which can be expanded and edited at least a day or two before I’m due to post. There are times though when it is more of a last minute dash to get the words down.

My blogging schedule is self-imposed, but I try to apply the same discipline to writing competition deadlines. I keep an eye out for upcoming competitions and jot down key details on a whiteboard so I can submit a piece if appropriate. When I first started to mix with other writers, I was fortunate to meet an accomplished and prolific poet and short story writer in the central west. He invited me around for a chat one afternoon and showed me how he kept a stack of polished works ready for upcoming competitions, and explained how he would write new pieces for competition themes when necessary. A piece might not succeed in one competition but could place or win in another. The key was to be ready to meet the deadline and to adhere to the competition entry requirements.

Due to time constraints I am selective about the competitions I enter, but I find that deadlines hold me accountable and encourage me to produce and polish a piece for submission, rather than just scratching in the margins of a writing life.

What do writing deadlines mean to you?

[Photo: old typewriter]

National Photographic Portrait Prize 2017

The Blue Mountains Cultural Centre is the first stop for the touring exhibition of the National Photographic Portrait Prize 2017. The intent of this annual event is to promote the very best in contemporary photographic portraiture, and it is open to aspiring and professional Australian photographers.

This is the tenth year of the prize, and the entries are judged by three people: two from the National Portrait Gallery and one from outside the organisation. There are forty-nine works which make up the finalist collection this year, and three photographers had two works apiece in the final selection: Charlie White, Brett Canet-Gibson and Peter McConchie.

This was the first time that I had seen the prize on tour, and it is a startling reflection of contemporary Australian society. The exhibition features people from many walks of life, with a few familiar faces cast among the portraits. Some portraits are striking for their simplicity; others have telling details in the backdrop and immediate surroundings of the shot.

In the exhibition catalogue, Sarah Engledow notes in her introduction that this year’s submissions (there were thousands of them), featured recurring themes including levitating elements, people photographed underwater, women crying and women wearing hijabs. There were also lots of beards. Engledow encourages reading the artist’s statements which accompany the submitted works as they provide insight and context, sometimes with humour.

There were many arresting portraits in the final selection. ‘A Moment‘ by Millie Brown, capturing a moment of stillness with Peter in a rock pool in East Arnhem Land; ‘Fifteen‘ by Fiona Morris, featuring aerialist Wonona with circus tents in the background; ‘The hermit‘ by Alex Frayne, with Royce Wells dwarfed by bamboo, “one of the most stubborn, brainy, wise, misanthropic and loveable minds I have had the pleasure to know.” I loved the wealth of homely detail in the portrait of Nell in ‘Ninety-nine-and-three-quarters‘ by Nic Duncan, and the framing of Nell’s eyes with the magnifying glass provided a different focus.

One of the finalists, Terry Hartin sums up the essence of portraiture: ‘It is always a collaboration between the photographer and the subject to achieve the best result.’

The exhibition is on display at the Blue Mountains Cultural Centre at Katoomba until 13 August.

{Photo: Blue Mountains Cultural Centre]

 

For Your Listening Pleasure: Why Audiobooks Are Great

There seems to be some contention about audiobooks. By listening to a book being read to you, are you really reading the book?

A stray tweet reminded me recently of the early discovery of the joy of having a book read aloud. Sure, the Disney records and books were also about learning how to read and follow a story, even if there were words on the page that were beyond the reader’s vocabulary at that point. The chime of a bell to mark the turning of a page would probably still produce a response from me today.

Audiobooks on tapes, CD and MP3 are provided by local libraries, and now they can be downloaded online from the comfort of home. There is no fear of forgetting to return them and incurring fines as they simply vanish on the expiry date unless you extend the loan. It really couldn’t be easier to tap into a whole world of literature and non-fiction with the only expense being time and bandwidth.

I have been introduced to many of my favourite books through listening to the audio version. Recent highlights have included:

  • The Belltree Trilogy by Barry Maitland: a detective series featuring Harry Belltree and set around western Sydney and Newcastle. This was memorable for the morally ambiguous main character and the excellent narration of Peter Hosking, who has guided me through many books including several featuring Peter Corris creation PI Cliff Hardy.
  • The Sellout by Paul Beatty. This was a recent read for my book group and whilst I had the book itself, I was struggling to get into it. I listened to a sample of the audio book and suddenly the narrator’s voice was clear and I ended up enjoying the book much more than I would have thought.
  • Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert. Again I had the book and had read segments of it, but listening to it read by the author added an extra element of enjoyment and depth. It was an invigorating experience.
  • Rain and Other Stories by W S Maugham and The Home Girls by Olga Masters. Two short story collections by masters of the craft. Years later I can still recall elements of the stories made even more vivid with the telling.
  • Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies by Hilary Mantel, narrated by Simon Slater and Simon Vance.  I don’t usually listen to audiobooks more than once but these books are an exception to the rule.

There are, of course, downsides to listening to books. If the narration doesn’t resonate I tend not to persevere. Fortunately you can usually download a sample before committing to the entire book. For really long works this is a wise step as some books can go for days, literally. And it isn’t possible to listen all the time: concentration does drift away sometimes and some books have the odd boring passage. As yet, I haven’t skipped to end of the book to see how it ends, which is something I would do with a physical book that was not maintaining my interest.

If I really enjoy the audiobook, I will usually pick up a copy of the book itself to revisit passages or re-read entirely. For me, audiobooks supplement my love of reading, providing a convenient entry into another world, and one that I can enjoy whilst driving, cooking, cleaning and the like.

Do you listen to audiobooks?

[Photo: reading room in one of the buildings at Sovereign Hill, Ballarat]

 

I Wish Life Was More Like A Sunday

I came across this sentiment recently in notes I took a couple of years back whilst working my way through Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way. It was one of several items in a list of wishes that made me smile upon rediscovery. There is something about the sentiment that draws me still, so I thought I’d spend a moment or two on a Sunday and work out some of the elements of Sunday life that make it so special.

  • Sleep-ins. Best chance of a sleep in is on a Sunday. The working week is full of bustle, Saturdays fill up with things to do. Sundays are usually less hectic.
  • Catching up. A slower start to the day encourages a more leisurely pace. Sundays offer space for dawdling and pottering about, even if this means catching up on news missed during the week, or small chores left aside until a pocket of time appears. Sundays are full of such moments.
  • Sunshine. Not always guaranteed, of course, but if the weather is kind the temptation is strong to enjoy it with an outing or even just working in the garden with the sun on your shoulders. It is energising and grounding,  providing an energy store for workdays spent inside.
  • Just relaxing. That might sound obvious but without the usual bustle and to-doing, there is space to daydream or read a chapter in a book without interruption or haste, or listen – really listen – to the song playing in the background or the slower pace of the world outside.

What do Sundays mean to you?

[Photo: sunset in the Hartley valley]

Short Writing Works

Every now and then a challenge comes up to write a piece within a very tight word count. These tend to be part of a writing prompt or contest, and they can provide a good opportunity to flex a different kind of writing muscle. Having a theme to work towards is also a creative challenge, setting parameters that provide a sense of direction for shorter work.

Recently I came across a piece that I wrote last year. The requirements were to write no more than 25 words, and the work had to include ‘winter’, ‘writer’ and ‘silhouette’. This is what I came up with:

A hunched silhouette

Pen gripped tightly

The writer crafts

Her work nightly

Hours are lost

Worlds splinter

As she creates

Stories of winter

I also had a go at a writing challenge put out last year by wonderful mystery writer and blogger Margot Kinberg. This one was limited to 50 words and I used the word count to set a crime scene where something went wrong.

No-one told him about the dog. He’d had a clear run. The so-called secure complex was barely a challenge, the target easily despatched. The dog had been in the lounge room, cowering. He knew he had to get out, timing was everything. But he couldn’t leave the dog.

There is something about writing in a condensed format that is really satisfying. Another 25 word challenge has been issued by the Australian Writers’ Centre, this one with the words ‘victory’ and ‘violin’ to be included. I’m off to have a scribble – it is hard to resist a writing challenge!

Do you enjoy writing very short stories?

[Photo: Avenue of Honour, Ballarat]

A Clutch of Camellias

The early blooming Sasanqua camellias herald the start of months of delightful displays of colourful blossoms. Next to flower are the Japonica camellias, which are able to cope with shade and filtered light, and the Reticulata varieties which have gorgeous large flowers. Camellias flower from autumn through to spring depending on species and variety. They are usually long-living, with some surviving over 100 years. The Sinensis camellia from China is the tea plant, but it is rarely spotted in most gardens.

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I love the density of the petals in this variety

Camellia colours range from white, pink and red to maroon and purple – almost black – flowers. And their names are colourful to match: Bob Hope, Contemplation, Cornish Snow, Happy Holidays and Early Pearly are just a few. The hybridisation of camellias means there are thousands of different plants available, and flowers range in size from small, tightly petalled blooms to the more flamboyant varieties, nearly the size of a bread and butter plate. White camellias were a symbol of New Zealand women’s right to vote.

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Alba plena camellia

This greenhouse favourite of Christmas time, with its beautiful waxy bloom and glossy leaves, is hardier than most amateurs imagine, and does well if kept clear of severe frost and intelligently handled … The red and white selfs are the best and most floriferous, but there are pretty striped and fringed sorts procurable. Pears Cyclopaedia, 1932

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A tinsie camellia

The camellias bloom in winter when the skies are cold and gray,

When the sun shines at its weakest and the spring seems far away …

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A variegated camellia

In shades of pink and creams and reds the colours one might name,

Each is an individual for no two look the same

(from The Beautiful Camellias by Francis Duggan)

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An espalier camellia spotted at Mt Boyce Nursery

the camellia pushes against the warm glass,

it has been looking into this room for 150 years

(from Halfway up the Mountain by Dorothy Hewett)

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Even the bees love camellias!

Do you enjoy the beauty of camellias in your part of the world?

[All camellias are from my Mum’s garden, except for the nursery example]

Neighbourly Thoughts

Recently I came across a Chinese proverb in a magazine: Love your neighbours, but don’t pull down the fence. It made me think about neighbours in general and the act of being a neighbour.

Growing up in a Sydney suburb, we knew our neighbours in part because there were other children in our street. Neighbours on one side kept an eye out for us and there was a doorway in the fence to allow easy movement back and forth. These neighbours were older than our parents, and there were grandchildren of a similar age who visited regularly. There was a golden Labrador called Cleo who never seemed to mind being roped into various games and activities. Other delights included a steering wheel attached to a fence, a mulberry tree in a corner and for some reason that I can’t recall, a poker machine in the kitchen. It was an old-style machine that was played with shillings or ten-cent pieces, and what a thrill it was to pull the handle and ‘win’ the occasional jackpot.

I’ve lived in villas, in student accommodation and on a property with acreage as well as in country towns and now in the mountains, and I’ve had a mix of neighbours along the way. The farming neighbour was usually spotted at a distance, and there were sensory delights at cropping time, especially with a paddock of coriander close to the property boundary. Living with an abundance of space made it a bit challenging to get used to people living close by when I moved into town but I’ve been lucky to have had good neighbours.

Neighbours can be a friendly presence, someone to keep an eye on your place if you are away for a while, to collect mail and newspapers and give you peace of mind. A wave and a smile can be enough to make you feel at ease, and it feeds into a sense of being part of wider community. Neighbours share news and plant cuttings, turn up with extra servings of food and even Christmas gifts for my dog. They know what is going on in the neighbourhood, and a quick catch up can be most enjoyable. Neighbours keep an eye out for each other without infringing on each other’s space.

My neighbours are one of the reasons why I love mountain life. From my arrival here I was made to feel welcome, and there are many small gestures of kindness shared between us without any sense of expectation or reciprocation required. During weather events – such as heavy snowfall or the bushfires in 2013 – we keep an eye out for each other and share news and updates. It is impossible to put a value on the peace of mind that comes with having good neighbours.

There was another quote on the page of proverbs that I read: A stranger nearby is better than a far-away relative. There is truth in this Korean saying.

What are your neighbourly experiences?

Proverbs spotted in Issue 3 of Breathe Magazine Australia.

[Photo: snowfall in July 2015]