From fossicking for treasures to helicopter tours over gorges, Amanda Woods finds the New England region where she grew up still holds traces of the old country and more than a few brewed and distilled pleasures.
As the bagpipes come to life around me, the familiar sound sparks memories of highland classics. But instead of Scotland, I’m in Glen Innes Town Hall, where Celtic flags fly proudly alongside Australian and Aboriginal flags, and the pipers stamp their local twist as they play Advance Australia Fair.
The New England highlands cover the tablelands of northern New South Wales, stretching from the Moonbi Range to the Queensland border, about 300 kilometres north. Up here in Glen Innes, the first European settlers were Scottish and the sound of bagpipes fills the main street every Friday and can be heard around the town’s Standing Stones on special occasions, including this year’s Australian Celtic Fringe Festival, to be held on May 1-2.
Given the Scottish link, it’s surprising that the land is known as New ‘England’ rather than a more Celtic variation. But the story behind the name mirrors that of its most famous owner. The moniker came into being in the United States in 1616, when the infamous English explorer John Smith landed on the shores of the Americas and dubbed it New England.
Australia’s even ‘newer’ England didn’t gain its matching name until the 1800s, but it too was given by another English explorer named John – John Oxley.
Today, the British culture of the first settlers remains strong – growing up around Glen Innes, I was relieved to not feel too homesick when I moved to the United Kingdom a few years ago. But despite the similarities in the leafy greenery between the two destinations, it wasn’t until I left – and eventually returned – that I realised Australia’s New England will always be unique, despite its many name-cousins.
For one, neither England nor any of New England’s states can lay claim to any rainforests. Natural World Heritage treasures include ancient Gondwana Rainforests and the Southern Hemisphere’s largest granite monolith, Bald Rock, where you can climb 200 metres to the top.
Just outside of Armidale, you’ll find the country’s largest gorge system, which is home to more than 500 kilometres of rivers and waterfalls including Wollomombi Falls, which, at more than 220 metres, are the highest in NSW. Standing on a platform on the edge of a cliff looking out at the falls is memorable, but a Fleet Adventures tour over the gorges takes things to another level.
Choosing to fly with the helicopter doors off, I feel the adrenaline pumping before we’ve even left the airport space. When we cross the line over steep cliffs, I feel my heart in my throat as I watch flat farmland give way to deep ravines and untamed wilderness.
As I look down at waterfalls and brumbies galloping along riverbeds, part of my panic about the sudden drop a few centimetres to my left melts away, and I’m held in thrall by the scenery.
New England’s own heart then appears before me. The Whitsundays’ Heart Reef might have appeared in Oprah specials and millions of Instagram pictures, but New England has its own secret, green sister to the famous heart-shaped reef – a huge tree-covered shape carved by converging rivers and framed by rising mountains.
Back on land, the country around the towns and villages of Glen Innes, Inverell, Emmaville and Torrington is filled with other hidden gems. Quite literally, gemstones and crystals dot the land, and in NSW anyone can fossick without a licence. Hire equipment from any tourist information centre in Glen Innes or Inverell and you can get hunting.
If you don’t fancy digging up your own, the Emmaville Mining Museum has more than 4000 gem and mineral specimens to admire.
In Armidale, the Edwardian Saumarez Homestead is named after an estate in Jersey in the Channel Islands. The National Trust mansion hosts the Armidale Farmers’ Market on the second Sunday of every month.
Despite the differences, it’s still easy to find a flavour of England among the wild surrounds. Craft-beer aficionados are well catered for by New England’s microbreweries.
In the village of Uralla, where the bushranger Thunderbolt’s grave is now behind a white picket fence, the old wool-store has been turned into the New England Brewing Company. This year’s seasonal brews include the Pecan Milk Coffee Stout.
At The Welder’s Dog in Armidale the beer-tasting paddle options include IPAs, ginger beer and a pretty pink pea-blossom lemonade, while at Deepwater Brewing cellar door the ‘brewed with altitude’ creations include an Orange is the New Black dark stout infused with chocolate and orange.
Gin, another drink tied to Britain, can be found in the tiny village of Kentucky, halfway between Armidale and Tamworth. It’s been a gin pilgrimage ever since cinematographer Stephen Dobson created a micro distillery, Eastview Estate, and ‘steampunk with a prohibition vibe’ speakeasy among the characterful houses.
An even older piece of Englishness lies an hour’s drive north of Glen Innes in Torrington, which is undergoing a mead revival. Here, 2 Wild Souls turns honey from chemical-free native trees and spring water filtered through granite into five varieties of sparkling mead – a very Australian take on the olde English classic.
Of course, amid the gin and traditional mead, there’s wine, too. It’s only in the past few decades that New England’s cool climate and rough granite country soil has been embraced as part of a re-emerging wine scene. Visit cellar doors at some of Australia’s highest vineyards, or be guided through local drops by the glass at Our Place wine bar in Tenterfield.
Take me there
Drive: Tenterfield at the northern end of the highlands is a 3.5-hour drive from Brisbane, while the Moonbi Range at the southern end is a five-hour drive from Sydney.
Fly: QantasLink flies direct from Sydney to Armidale in the heart of the New England highlands.