In the early 1800s, a keen explorer beat a track north of Newcastle to open up the rich wool-growing area of New England. NSW Surveyor-General John Oxley used a bullock dray to navigate the track, which became known as the Great Northern Road.
A generation later Fred Ward, the infamous bushranger known as Captain Thunderbolt, roamed the road and its surroundings, robbing coaches and ambushing mailmen.
These days the road, better known as The New England Highway, or the “Newie”, is used by about 13,000 vehicles daily as a route between NSW and Queensland.
It’s also a great road to explore much of the inner country and can be comfortably traversed in a weekend.
Along the way are historic hamlets nestled in fertile plains and ranges, with cafes, antique shops, hotels and pretty parklands.
The “Newie” extends nearly 880 kilometres, to the Queensland garden city of Toowoomba.
Head north of Newcastle and after about a three-hour drive, you will touch upon the Liverpool Plains.
Willow Tree is often referred to as the gateway to the plains, a rich agricultural area that covers about 1.2 million hectares.
It’s a good place to take a break. The Willow Tree Inn, built in 1913, has a prize-winning restaurant, Graze, which has just re-opened after the COVID-19 lockdown.
Unfold a blanket and take a picnic at the King George V Park, on the corner of the New England Highway and Cadell Street, which is close to the Liverpool Plains Visitor Information Centre.
About 14 kilometres north along the highway is Quirindi.
This is Kamilaroi country, with the township’s name derived from the Gamilaraay language meaning “nest in the hills”.
Take a slight detour to the Who’d-A-Thought-It Lookout on Ray Carter Drive, 508 metres above sea level where you can view the Liverpool Plains which inspired Dorothy Mackellar to write My Country.
About an hour’s drive north of Quirindi is Tamworth, home of country music.
Tamworth is often referred to as the “First City of Lights” because it was the first place in Australia to use electric street lamps in 1888. These days, it’s known as our country music capital, hosting the annual Country Music Festival.
A place of interest to fans of country music is the Australian Country Music Hall of Fame, next to Hungry Jacks in Peel Street.
Other places of interest in and around Tamworth are the Barraba Shearing Display, which holds a large collection of antique machinery, Calala Cottage, built in 1875 for Tamworth’s first mayor, pastoralist Philip Gidley King (not to be confused with the NSW’s third governor of the same name) and the Collectors Museum at the Big Golden Guitar Tourist Centre, which holds a large collection of Sir Donald Bradman memorabilia.
Driving north from Tamworth and you will ascend the ranges, travelling passed the hamlets of Bendemeer and Kentucky to historic Uralla.
New England Highway bisects this small town, which takes its name from the Anaiwan people and means “meeting place”.
With its quaint bakeries, antique shops, wool shop, cafes and two hotels, Uralla is a good stopover for travellers.
Take time to visit McCrossin’s Mill, an award-winning museum which houses several artefacts from Captain Thunderbolt.
Take a short detour to Gostwyck Chapel, built in 1921 in memory of Major Clive Collingwood, who died in World War I.
Returning to the New England Highway and after a 20-minute drive you will arrive at Armidale, Australia’s highest city.
You’re now in gorge country, with waterfalls cascading hundreds of metres in world-heritage national parks.
Places of interest here include NERAM, an art museum that is home to 5000 works of art and includes the Howard Hinton Collection, covering Australian art from the 1880s to the 1940s.
Also worth a visit is the Old Teachers’ College, built in 1928 on what was once Armidale Gaol.
There are hundreds of other towns and places of interest as you head north along the Newie, including Glen Innes and Tenterfield.
But if you only have time for a weekend escape, return south from Armidale along Thunderbolt’s Pass and Buckett’s Way.
This road will take you through towns such as Walcha, Gloucester and Stroud, before exiting just north of Newcastle at the intersection with the Pacific Highway.