Is Gold The Fruit Of Our Dreams? Hill End, New South Wales, Australia.
We move through wilderness and small towns to Hill End, high in wooded hills. In the 1870s Hill End's population was over eight thousand. It's now home to just a hundred souls. The reason? The best quarter mile of non-alluvial gold in the world, embedded deep in quartz. Gold Rush. Speculation. The largest gold nugget in the world.
And when the rush was over and the boom bust, they left their cottages and orchards, stores and hospital, pubs and schools as they stood and went where they needed to go.
Before the Gold Rush there was no infrastructure here, it was new land grant, distant from Sydney in high hills. As the gold seam came unstitched so the town faded too, left to decay and fray. Later, after the Second World War, artists came by and found inspiration in the spirit of the place, in the ghost town empty of people yet brimming with emotions and dreams. They captured it and its shades of meaning on canvas; the earth perturbed by mining, the remains of hope in apple-orchard boughs and laden plum trees. And now, where pioneers and fortune-hunters built and abandoned a town, where they sought gold, fame and fortune, there’s tourism. New Australians immersing themselves in the past by imagination.
Its meaning for me? In reflecting on the impact of finding valuable rock, and on the shaping by that of the land and people. My home town, Scunthorpe in North Lincolnshire, England grew in the late eighteen hundreds from five small agricultural villages into one steel town when iron ore was found. The shoulder of the hill was gouged open by open cast mining, manufacturing plants grew like high, metal mazes and workers moved from land to industry. Blast furnaces reared up like prancing horses on the hill crest, smoke feathering their heads in the wind.
In 1936, the new town was recognised by a charter signed by King Edward VIII, the king who never was, abdicating before his coronation. Another failed dream. The town grew and thrived, its steel building the world over. Girders manufactured at one plant, Appleby Frodingham, were used to construct Sydney Harbour Bridge. Look closely and you’ll see its name stamped in the iron.
Gradually, the economics of global production led to a managed decline in production and employment; old plant, cheaper production elsewhere, expensive coal. The landscape altered again; the plants and steel mills were ripped down and replaced with housing, light industry and small-scale commerce. You wouldn’t know it’d existed, unless you’d experienced the impact of the loss on the people who lived there.
Like Hill End, lack of livelihood drove people away yet in Scunthorpe there were reasons to stay; a pre-existing infrastructure and work in community, agriculture, schooling, retail, and service industries, and later, after the bleak, workless pause, in new light industry moving in on the back of grants. And there was still steel, specialist steel manufacture on the other side of town.
Hill End’s pulse was restored by art and culture, then tourism. With the dirt road now tarmaced it’s now only four hours from Sydney and one from Bathurst to life as it used to be. It feeds imagination, enlivens history. Challenges the present-day dream of instant wealth by showing how tenuous and tough the dream of it was then. All or nothing; you brought all and left with nothing. The Hill End stories and the photos of people who once lived there inspire and teach us; they show us now how people overcame adversity and climate. The human spirit has left a deep footprint here, and it’s easy to slip on the shoe worn to make it.
Here, I wake to lyrical birdsong; finches cheeping, sparrows threshing and blackbirds dripping song like honey off broadleaf European trees. Growths of messy hawthorn with red haw buttons. Ash, oak, plane and sycamore. Dappled, green, English lanes. Trees blushing bright with apples, golden plums like jewels on leafy arms indicate where cottages stood and fill the gardens of those still standing. Then the kookaburra in the yellow mottled eucalyptus.
There are English weeds underfoot. Cottage gardens bloom with silky-grey artemesia, bright perennials and spiky cacti. Three juvenile kangaroos box each other on the mown English lawns behind the pub courtyard with its old wooden doors. Maroon copper beeches and the steady warm gentle rain from Queensland. Sweet cut grass scents and a boulevard of European trees. I feel at home here and yet do not. I sense the dissonance.
A handful of village drunks slouch on the porch of The Royal Hotel, the last of over sixty pubs in Hill End. The remnant of a less artistic tradition, drinking hard has made soft, sloppy men of these, their alcoholic eyes as weeping and blurred as the sentimentality with which they speak to anyone who’ll listen of a physically tough life digging roads and laying tarmac in heat and dust for miles around. Always returning. Their faces lack detail; wide eyes smudged by booze, tanned skin sagging into hollows, speech limping round mouths as another shaking glass christens the bar and a wave of nostalgia dampens eyes with pride at having stayed a fair dinkum local. Then hunching on the porch, dusty and faded as the place itself, they join their mates, keeping watch for the good old blokes to return.
As we leave the pub at night, stepping from fluorescent light and TV sport into a film set in darkness, I feel the abandonment, the loss of hope and motivation in the unharvested fruit, the rusting signs, the shabbiness.
And yet there’s a new mine working commercially. Hill End gold is once again listed on the Sydney Stock Exchange, its shares rising. People are coming to look and see. The Royal has new management, from Sydney. They’ve repainted rooms, bought new beds and fresh bedlinen. Shops and galleries are opening and there’s a tea room. It’s done its time and is finding a new way in a new century, slowly and cautiously making sense of its history, creating new visions by blending older industrial and newer artistic patterns.
Maybe it’s time for the fruit to be harvested.
© Christine Cooke