Working With Words: Amanda Hampson, Author

When visiting a friend up north a couple of years back, she pressed a book into my hands and urged me to read it. The book was The Olive Sisters by Amanda Hampson and it was a most enjoyable read. Hampson has published several books, and the most recent is The Yellow Villa, set in France. She recently gave an author talk at Katoomba library and I was able to go along and listen as she spoke about her writing life.

One of the highlights of her childhood in a small town in New Zealand was library day on Fridays, and it was here where Hampson developed her love of books, working her way through myths and legends and adding Agatha Christie novels and true crime stories over the years. The desire to be a writer was clear to her from an early age, and she thought that a career in journalism would be the starting point.

Hampson moved to the UK and lived there and later moved to Australia. Whilst in the UK, she travelled extensively and visited France regularly, having developed a passion for all things French from her mother. It was during this time that Hampson began to write. This included short stories and articles, and two non-fiction books were published.

Her first published novel, The Olive Sisters, was written over a period of about five years and is a story told across two generations. It deals with the sense of isolation and loss of prestige that can be experienced when giving up city life for the country as part of a tree change. This had been inspired by her partner’s struggle with the change in status and loss of identity following a similar relocation.

Two for the Road was her second novel, set in the macho tow truck industry, and it is entertaining to read of some of the challenges she encountered in researching the industry as background for the novel. Uplifting, escapist reading was one of the motivations behind Hampson’s third novel, The French Perfumer; this provided a contrast to the focus on dark news which was also reflected in the literature at the time. This novel is set in the 1950s during a period of optimism and gracious fashion.

Hampson opened the floor to questions, which included one about how to resist the temptation to move from what you are currently working on to the Next Great Idea. She responded by speaking about the creative destructiveness of moving between projects and consequently not finishing anything. Jot down ideas, by all means, but don’t let it distract you from what you are currently working on. Another popular question for authors is around the writing process – what does this look like? Hampson said that when she begins a novel, she commits to writing 500 words a day at a minimum. Some days that is much easier than others, and once the creative flow takes over the word count increases, but having this minimum amount as a starting point helps to get words on the page.

Amanda Hampson’s website can be found here – it has extracts from her novels along with insights into her writing process. There is also an interesting article on her writing life on her publisher’s website.

[Photo: painted laneway at Hornsby, next to a bookshop]

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Challenging the Boundaries between Art and Nature

There is something wonderful about having a sculpture exhibition in the area, and recently I went along to explore Sculpture at Scenic World at Katoomba. From mid-April to mid-May, 38 sculptures were on display along the winding boardwalk through the Jurassic forest. The location provides an amazing backdrop to some incredible sculptures, and the exhibition prides itself on having a 0% ecological footprint. There is much collaboration between the selected artists and Scenic World to manage the creation and installation of the works.

Access to the boardwalk is via the scenic railway, which was originally used for coal and shale exports. I had forgotten how steep the incline is (52 degrees – claimed to be the steepest passenger railway in the world) and it is a short but invigorating ride down into the valley. The layout of the exhibition along the boardwalk invites reflection and it was a delight to meander along and take in the wide variety of art installations.

One of the first pieces, Blind by Andrew Townsend and Suzie Bleach, is part of series using the figure of a horse to explore themes of the human condition. Forest Emoji by Aldo Bilotta explores the evolution of language. A number of the pieces resonate with the immensity of time and space. A recurring theme is sustainability and waste: several sculptures feature repurposed materials.

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One of the black cockatoos created by Barbara Hamilton as Casuarina Dreaming II

An example of this is Casuarina Dreaming II by Barbara Hamilton which features discarded umbrellas and recycled bottles fashioned into black cockatoos. Hamilton wanted to raise awareness of these endemic birds, who are relatively quiet when compared to the rowdy sulphur-crested cockatoos. The habitat for the glossy black cockatoos is under threat. I am fortunate to see them flying through the upper mountain skies with their distinctive, creaky calls.

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Close-up of some of the beautiful glass balloons featured in Up! by Kayo Yokoyama

One of the works which delighted me was Up! by Kayo Yokoyama. This was inspired by a desire to transform a temporary object into a semi-permanent one to capture a moment. And there is something joyous about balloons, associated with celebrations and happy times. For Yokoyama, sagging or deflated balloons remind her of sadness. There is a universality to the memories and emotions linked by balloons, and I loved this piece.

Humour is evident in some of the blurbs which accompany the sculptures. For example, the description of Mega Pixel Power Plant by Tom de Munk-Kerkmeer advises that the creation is a close relative of Instaneous Gratificaticus and that perhaps it originated from the Silicon Valley area. The fruit resembles the sweet and rather addictive Licorice Allsorts.

Environmental awareness and climate change are recurring themes. Overconsumption is displayed clearly in Freya Jobbins’ #OTT. The link between memory and sculpture is touched on through several of the works, including memories of lost forests in a ghost tree exhibit. There is a stunning nod to both nature and a community’s ability to recover and regenerate following bushfire in Anastasis by Caitlin Hughes.

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Choking Hazard by Rochelle Quantock: bright toy bricks bringing an element of playfulness to the serious issues of sustainability

A wide range of materials are used, including wood, plastic, light bulbs, ceramics, umbrellas, bumper bars, crocheted and woven plastic bags, stone, steel, bottle caps, glass, porcelain, sticks, souvenir koala bears and salvaged hard rubbish. Some of the sculptures used sounds or mirrors to offer different sensory viewpoints.

Sculpture at Scenic World is an amazing annual event, with several of the works staying in my mind for quite some time afterwards.

When was the last time sculpture snagged your imagination?

[Photo: a glimpse of the stuffed toy roof in #OTT by Freya Jobbins]

A Blue Mountain Christmas

Recently I came across an article about what Christmas was like in the Blue Mountains over a hundred years ago. The lure of a mountains Christmas has tempted many families and travellers over the decades with the promise of a break from Sydney, which is usually heaving with heat in the middle of summer.

Whilst the majority of holiday makers arrive by coach and car these days, the railways provided the main mode of transport at the end of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Boarding houses, guest houses and hotels provided accommodation options for travellers, and some people let out rooms in their houses as well.

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Christmas decorations in the trees with Carrington Hotel in the background (Katoomba)

The article by Robyne Ridge shares a family Christmas spent in a Lawson boarding house in 1885. After a huge traditional dinner on a wet Christmas Day, the family took the train to Bowenfels (Lithgow) on Boxing Day to experience the Zigzag railway. The mountains were such a popular Christmas destination that on Christmas Eve in 1918, there were twenty trains sent from Central Station to the mountains, all packed with holiday makers. The article includes some great photos from the Blue Mountains Local Studies collection including a very serious looking Father Christmas at Blackheath in 1924.

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An example of the random acts of knitting and love – including ladybirds and buttons

These days there are signs of Christmas throughout the villages of the mountains. A particular delight is the dressing up of Katoomba Street, Katoomba in festive apparel. The combined efforts of students from the local primary schools, the Katoomba Garden Brigade (who do a wonderful job year round to keep the gardens along this busy tourist strip in fine form), the Chamber of Commerce and Random Acts of Knitting and Love have transformed the street.

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One of the many stars along Katoomba Street

Stars adorn the trees, decorated by the children with Christmas messages. They also pop up from garden beds, carefully prepared with bright flowers. And the light and street poles have also had a makeover, covered in swathes of fabric and specially knitted creations. The idea is to encourage people to engage with their environment by seeing the everyday with a different lens. It’s quirky and fun.

Along the highway there are signs for community lunches on Christmas Day so people can gather to share a meal on what can otherwise be a lonely time. Hamper parties are held by local churches and groups to share donated goods with those less fortunate in a casual social environment. These gestures embody much of the spirit of goodwill which seems more evident at this time of year.

How is Christmas celebrated in your town?

To wish you a Christmas contented and glad, and the brightest New Year ever you’ve had – from this old postcard featuring Echo Point.

[Photo: Santa heading down a chimney at the Carrington Hotel, Katoomba]

Wild Windy Weather

There seems to have been a resurgence of windy weather atop the Blue Mountains lately.

After one particularly windy spell, I was in a cafe when I heard one of the staff explain the wind phenomenon in the mountains. Well, her theory of it at least. The location of villages along the ridge of the mountain top – roughly along the original road and trails crossing the mountains – meant that the impact of gusty winds are stronger and more localised.

The past week has been peppered with days of high winds, which are trying enough, but then there are the wind gusts which literally knock you sideways. Walking around the main and side streets of Katoomba, there are funnels of wind that spin about, making it a challenge to walk down a steep incline due to the force of the gusts.

This weekend there has been a couple of days of reprieve – gorgeous spring weather full of sunshine, the scent of blossoms and the promise of warmer times ahead. I am trying not to dwell on the forecasted return of the winds later this week.

One of my memories of primary school involved the notorious winds of August and September in Sydney. There had been a huge wind storm and we were all gathered into the assembly hall to keep us safe from flying objects. This was exciting enough, then part of the roof blew off. For days afterwards there were stray bits of roofing, fences and other miscellany scattered around the suburb. I don’t recall anyone being injured, thankfully, but it was a big deal at the time.

High winds were pummeling the mountains on the day I moved in to my new home. I was moving incrementally, and had a fold-up bed, chairs and card table in my car, along with blankets and a kettle and enough bits to keep me going for a few days. My uncle had given me a box of firewood so I had the wood heater going which was lucky as the electricity went out overnight with trees falling across lines during the wind storm, and it was the warmth of the stove that kept my spirits up the next morning when I was without power in a strange place with wind buffeting the windows and doors, wondering just what I’d got myself in for this time.

As with other instances of wild weather, it makes me appreciate the relative calmness of the every day when it returns.

[Photo: plush toy spotted in the main street of Katoomba – not a wind related incident!]

Writing, Nature and Presence

Recently I attended the inaugural Eleanor Dark lecture which formally closed the Blue Mountains program of the 2017 Sydney Writers’ Festival. The lecture, held at the grand old Carrington Hotel, was given by Delia Falconer.

Falconer is known for her novels including The Service of Clouds which I’ve referred to previously as one of the books that is intricately linked to the fictional world of the Blue Mountains. Falconer’s book on Sydney as part of the series of books on the Australian capital cities was also wonderfully evocative of place, history and atmosphere. And so it was with interest that I attended this lecture which had as its focus the themes of writing, nature and presence.

It was fitting that Falconer was chosen to deliver the inaugural lecture as she had written part of The Service of Clouds whilst in residence at Varuna, the National Writers House bequeathed by the Dark family. Falconer spoke of her time there with fondness, of coming across Eleanor Dark’s gardening journal which illustrated her exacting practical mind, and the joy that Dark took in the local eccentricity of Katoomba life along with the magnificent landscape.

Falconer noted that part of the motivation behind Dark’s landmark trilogy The Timeless Land was distaste at the mindless celebrations around the sesquicentenary of European settlement. Dark’s response was to carefully research and write a fictional account of the early years of the colony from the viewpoint of the colonisers and the Aboriginals; this may be seen as clunky from our current perspective but it was revolutionary at the time. The natural world featured strongly in these books, and Falconer quoted someone as saying that Dark’s work gave the reader a sense of sunlight and the scent of boronia. It can be seen as a precursor to Australian nature writing.

From this foundation, the lecture moved to the challenges of writing in a world marked by the loss of abundance in nature. A simple example was given of driving at night through the countryside – or anywhere outside the suburban sprawl – when the windscreen would soon be choked up with moths and the like. Or the movement en masse of Sydney fruit bats over the city skyline at night. Both examples, which were commonplace, are now relatively rare. Some writers in this field maintain that we are going through the sixth great extinction, a time of rapid loss of species that is unprecedented.

I was interested by the idea that we are indirectly impacted by the kind of animals and plants that surround us, yet it is hard to know what you haven’t seen. This in turn could lead to environmental generational amnesia, where elements of the natural world are entirely lost or become so rare as to no longer be on the human peripheral. There is now a term for the psychological distress caused by such significant environmental shifts – solastalgia.

But what can writers do in such a period of change and uncertainty? Falconer urged writers to tell the story. Use autobiography to look back and understand what has changed. Make it uncomfortable. And think ahead to the future.

[Photo: view from Govett’s Leap lookout, Blackheath]

 

Writers’ Journey, Sydney Writers’ Festival Event @ Katoomba

Like many readers and writers I find it interesting to hear how other writers approach their craft, how their interest in writing came about and what their process looks like, not least of all because it is unique to each writer.

And so I jumped at the chance to attend an event about the writing journey as part of the Sydney Writers’ Festival, held in conjunction with Varuna and the Blue Mountains Library. The four people who shared their stories and insights into the writing life are accomplished Australian writers across fiction and non-fiction and their oeuvre crosses many genres. David White, who facilitated the event, acknowledged the endless fascination that readers and writers alike have in the writing process.

The session began with each writer providing a 15 minute overview of their writing life. Malcolm Knox shared the story of his first day on trial with the Sydney Morning Herald in 1994; Catherine Cole spoke of the influences of childhood, of how the joy and pleasure of reading led to a desire to create. Craig Cormick demonstrated his passion for writing the story that demands to be told by passing around a sample of his many published books, ranging across non-fiction, children’s fiction and short stories. Lisa Chaplin, a self-described housewife with an imagination, outlined her transition from romance writer to historical novelist, and shared her approach to writing which includes a hand drawn visual map incorporating the three act structure, soundtrack and scented candles specific to the current work in progress.

The reality and challenges of a writing life were acknowledged by all of the writers. Self-doubt, how your best work isn’t always your published work and how success does not always correlate to talent were some of the points agreed upon. Cormick said that writing exposes your heart and that publishing takes a bite (out of it), but write anyway. A couple of good examples of learning from the masters was provided by Chaplin, who learned the art of editing through the Romance Writers of Australia, and Fiona McIntosh Masterclass. All agreed on keeping drafts of your work, and to remove your darlings to a separate document rather than to kill them off completely – a character or situation which might not fit one piece of work may suit another.

But there are many upsides to a writing life as well. The importance of small things, of celebrating the success of other writers and of keeping in mind the need to engage in the world around you. How the best you can expect is a life in which there is space and scope to write.

Write anyway – this was the overarching message. Embrace the power of creation, and believe in yourself as a writer.

[Photo: Lisa Chaplin, Malcolm Knox, Catherine Cole & Craig Cormick, left to right]

Book Review: The Last Days of Ava Langdon by Mark O’Flynn

When I spotted the front page of the Blue Mountains Gazette last week, I was delighted to see that The Last Days of Ava Langdon by Mark O’Flynn had been longlisted for the Miles Franklin Award. There is a link to the interview with the author here.

Shortly after I moved to the mountains, I attended a poetry reading by Mark at the newly opened Blue Mountains Cultural Centre. A poet’s eye and love of language is evident throughout this novel, with a sense of place and mood evident from the opening line of the section titled Morning: ‘Dawn cracks like an egg against the fibro walls of the derelict shack.’ Word choice matters to Ava Langdon, who is described below:

Catching sight of herself in a little wedge of mirror perched on an exposed joist, she stops. Who is that hideous creature? What form dost thou take? Her hair like the thatch from a mattress used for nesting material, with lavender bags under her eyes.

Words are chosen carefully to capture the essence of an eccentric personality living in extremely basic conditions in a shack on the outskirts of a mountain village. There is a blurring between the character’s sense of reality and her very active imagination, interwoven with recollections which at times seem unlikely yet not impossible. The vivid evocations of a familiar landscape appealed to me, and I enjoyed pondering what Katoomba would have looked like decades ago. Ava’s interactions, especially at the post office and tea shop, have stayed with me months after reading the book. I am reminded of her whenever I spot the old post office in Katoomba Street:

The red bricks of the post office are darkening now where a downpipe has leaked over the facade. May as well go in, she thinks, and mounts the steps. The door. The dimness. All that detail.

‘Never fear, I have arrived.’

The door swings shut behind her, light, dark, light, dark. Several people at the counter turn to stare, she who is dressed so extraordinarily, the cravat like a golden goiter spilling down her shirt front, the pinstripes, the braces.

The book is loosely based on the life of Australian writer Eve Langley, who is best known for her novel The Pea Pickers. Like Langley, Langdon is an unorthodox writer who wrote a successful novel but didn’t reach the same heights of success again in her career. The hope, anticipation and despair of a writing life is poignantly portrayed:

And here are her four fibro walls which guard her boxes of rejected manuscripts, each one four hundred pages long and typed on rose-colored paper. Each encapsulating an aspect of her life, the romance of it, the creative force of it.

This is one of those books which once read I want to hang on to, to be able to dip back into and savour again. There is an excellent review of it here.

[Photo: Old Katoomba Post Office]

 

Sculpture at Scenic World, Katoomba

Over the weekend I had the opportunity to join a guided tour of the Sculpture at Scenic World exhibition. This is the sixth year of the exhibition and there are 35 artworks on display, located along 2.4 kilometres of walkway. There is significant interest in the exhibition with artists from all over the world submitting concepts for sculptures and installation. The successful submissions are on show from 7 April to 7 May at Scenic World.

Illusion by Kayo Yokoyama

Illusion by Kayo Yokoyama

The exhibition is complimented by other pieces of sculpture on show at various locations across the mountains including the Carrington Hotel at Katoomba and the Hydro Majestic Hotel in Medlow Bath. There is also an exhibit of indoor sculpture by many of the contributing artists on show at the Blue Mountains Cultural Centre, Sculpture Otherwise.

Kangaroo with a Selfie Stick and Home is Where the Heart Is by Jimmy Rix

Each year the sculptures follow a theme with a chosen medium. This year it was timber and the wide range of sculptures offers a broad interpretation with materials including fabric, recycled tents, copper, pottery and glass, to name a few. There is colour and vibrancy, along with thought-provoking pieces as well as a healthy sense of fun.

Consumption by Louis Pratt

Consumption by Louis Pratt

Some pieces have direct references to the industrial activity on the site: Scenic World is located on an old coal mining site and the railway itself follows the track used to haul coal out of the valley.

3D Webs by Louisa Magrics with La Subida Rhizome (The Rise Rhizome) by Miguel Valenzuela & Francois Limondin in background

3D Webs by Louisa Magrics with La Subida Rhizome (The Rise Rhizome) by Miguel Valenzuela & Francois Limondin in background

As the boardwalk meanders round, there is the opportunity to view some of the works from a different viewpoint, offering another perspective. It was invigorating, delightful and surprising.

Kolorhaus by Selena Seifert & Chris Wellwood

Kolorhaus by Selena Seifert & Chris Wellwood

And all of this sculpture is on show against the backdrop of a Jurassic rainforest with steep cliffs surrounding the valley. The trip down into the valley on the scenic railway was stunning, and it is understandable why this has been a major tourist drawcard for over 70 years. We returned via the scenic cableway with stunning views out to Mount Solitary as well as vistas of the Three Sisters and Orphan Rock.

It is an amazing location and an extraordinary place to enjoy some wonderful sculptures.

Have you enjoyed an artistic outing lately?

[Photo: Corridor.of.tents by Georgina Humphries; created using discarded festival tents]

 

Into the Blue: Blue Mountains World Heritage Centre

Located in the Blue Mountains Cultural Centre is the immersive exhibition space called Into the Blue. Entry is included with the ticketed entry to the art gallery, and although I have been trotting along to the gallery to check out exhibitions for a while now, it has taken me longer to discover this space.

The welcoming entrance includes a snapshot of the World Heritage area, capturing the essence of the wilderness contained within. This includes 90 varieties of eucalyptus at the time of classification across 26 villages and a population of about 70,000 people. The sheer scope of the area is significant: it includes seven national parks and intersects six Aboriginal language groups.

A taste of the stunning scenery is depicted with gradual changes on four wide screens displayed across two walls with accompanying sounds. This included the vivid portrayal of bushfire, the lick and surge of flames. The screens show aspects of similar views offering different perspectives. A curved large screen overhead draws the eye upwards. It offers a glimpse of the panoramic splendour of the area, from sunsets to starry skies, mountain streams to birdsong and the soft descent of water dripping in caves. The splendour of the scenery is contrasted by the satellite image of the mountains and surrounding areas underfoot.

There are interactive displays on various themes. This includes the role of the mountains as a place for healing and inspiration as well as its popularity as a place for exploration and relaxation. Fauna and flora are also featured along with indigenous heritage.

The sensual experience of living here is captured in a voice-recorded interview with Elisabeth Bastian: the scent of the bush, the beauty of life here, the view offering a bird’s-eye view of the world along with a sense of escape. She spoke of the timelessness of the environment, the sense of space and of looking back into history. This is one of several interviews providing insight into what the area means to people from various backgrounds.

A selection of quotes about the area capture different aspects of what the mountains mean to people, including Charles Darwin, Eleanor Dark, Deb Westbury, Delia Falconer and Mark Tredinnick. One of my favourites is from Myles Dunphy as quoted in the Katoomba Daily on 24 August, 1934:

All the glory of the canyons, caves and rolling plateau of our great blue mountains is not nearly so much a commercial asset as it is nature’s heritage for legitimate enjoyment, and our own gift to posterity. 

There is a link showing the design behind the exhibition here.

[Photo: Blue Mountains Cultural Centre, Katoomba]

Mount St Mary’s College and Convent, Katoomba

This grand old building catches my eye whenever I glimpse it from the Great Western Highway. The sheer physicality of the building remains striking despite the air of dilapidation and dereliction that surrounds it. There are blazes of graffiti along with eyeless windows, covered with plastic following the ravages of fires. It requires quite a bit of imagination to think what it might have been like in its earlier days.

The Sisters of Charity arrived in Katoomba in 1900 seeking a place of respite for exhausted nuns “where they might find fresh vigour for God’s work”. Initially they moved into a former guesthouse, converting it into a convent and then opening a school for girls. It had a mix of day students and boarders and soon reached the capacity of the initial premises despite the purchase of a neighbouring property. A larger site was needed.

The new site, located within easy walking distance of the train station, fronted the Great Western Highway. Building commenced in 1909 and by 1910, boarding pupils were being accepted into the new college. The vision of the college included its role as a monument to higher education and its place in creating a progressive society. Students attended from interstate as well as from the Pacific Islands as the reputation of the college grew. Over the decades there were additions to the original buildings and continued development of the grounds, with land being purchased and sold as required. The college included a kindergarten, infants school, and middle school as well as university classes to prepare students for entry to Arts, Teacher Training, Medicine, Science and Law.

The impact and presence of the college on the hill was acknowledged by the local community. This was symbolised by the illumination of an eight foot cross on the roof of the tower in 1938 at the suggestion of a non-Catholic community member. The costs were covered by the local community, and it became a visible point of reference for travellers and locals alike. The site played an important role in offering refuge during World War II for Orders living close to Sydney Harbour during the Japanese submarine attacks. It also offered shelter for locals affected by the devastating bushfires in 1957.

Inevitably there were various changes to the educational offerings over time. In 1965, Mount St Mary’s became a regional school for girls, then became co-educational following the closure of St Bernard’s College at Katoomba. But by 1973, the school’s operation was regarded as non-viable and the Sisters withdrew from the education ministry. This was taken over by the Archdiocese of Sydney but with enrolments down to 180 students, the school was closed at the end of 1974.

The property was subsequently gifted to the Archdiocese of Sydney, and the premises were used for a decade for educational and religious retreats until a fire order was placed on the building and it was closed down. The costs associated with bringing the site up to standard was considered prohibitive, and the property was sold in 1985.

A new lease of life for the site commenced in 1987 when it was opened as the Renaissance Centre, a mix of speciality shops, performance and teaching areas. Ownership changed hands again in the early 1990s, but as tenants continued to leave, the site became vacant. Vandalism and fires have taken their toll in the intervening years, and it remains in its current state of disrepair.

A detailed history of the site is available here. There is a wonderful early photo of the convent along with a concise history by Blue Mountains Local Studies here.

There is a blog post here from the time the building was put up for sale in 2012.

There are some wonderful recollections of past students here including tales of tunnels and stories passed between siblings and students about a One-Eyed Nun.

Is there a place that you pass by that makes you wonder what it was like in its glory days?

St Mary's Convent and College, Katoomba

St Mary’s Convent and College, Katoomba

Sources: Mount St Mary’s College and Convent, NSW Office of Environment & Heritage; The Convent, Katoomba, Blue Mountains City Library; Mt St Mary’s: The St Bernards Katoomba Old Boys Association Website; Old Estates for Sale (WordPress).

[Photo: detail from above an entrance to the main tower]