As you travel around the New England highlands on the NSW Northern Tablelands it quickly becomes clear that England isnt the only country that reminded early settlers of home. Celtic culture runs through these hills and can be seen in town names and heard in the sound of bagpipes in the streets.
Thousands of years before Europeans arrived, the worlds oldest living culture knew every corner of this land, which includes World Heritage wildernesses, dramatic gorges and majestic waterfalls.
Start your journey in Australias country music capital of Tamworth before heading 90 kilometres east to Walcha where you can admire the historic buildings in the oldest settlement in the New England region. Take a tour of the more than 40 outdoor sculptures in the Walcha Open Air Gallery. The free Soundtrails app Walcha Sculptures audio tour, narrated by local author John Heffernan, shares some of the tales behind them.
After a spot of lunch at Cafe Graze, make your way to Apsley Falls in the Oxley Wild Rivers National Park. Just fifteen minutes drive out of Walcha, you can take in the falls from a viewing platform or as part of the 1.2-kilometre Apsley Gorge Rim walking track.
From the falls travel back through Walcha on your way to Dobsons Distillery in the tiny village of Kentucky. Pull up a seat in the speakeasy-style bar to find out why their New England Dry Gin took out a double gold medal at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition in 2018, and discover their other award-winning spirits, including the Le Caf coffee and maple syrup liqueur and Belle Epoque single malt whiskey.
Thank your designated driver as you continue on to Uralla where youll find some lovely stores to explore. As well as visiting the boutiques along the New England Highway, be sure to find Little Birdy on Hill Street where more than 30 small businesses selling antiques, collectibles, local handmade products and more are gathered in an old aircraft hangar.
Learn about Urallas history in McCrossins Mill, the three-storey 1870s flour mill that is now a museum, gallery and function centre, then step into another piece of history at the Old Woolstore. In recent years the New England region has become a haven for craft-beer lovers, and the Old Woolstore is now home to the New England Brewing Co where you can work your way along a tasting paddle of year-round favourites and seasonal beers.
When its time to drive from Uralla to Armidale you can head up the highway and be there in 20 minutes or add a half-hour detour to see the Mount Yarrowyck Nature Reserve where a three-kilometre return walking track will lead you to an Aboriginal cave painting site thats believed to be between 150 and 500 years old.
In Armidale youll also be able to get a taste for Great Hops beer as you tuck into tacos or burgers in their brewery hangar on the Old Inverell Road, while in town you can try craft beers and pretty purple pea-blossom lemonades at The Welders Dog.
You can also learn more about local Aboriginal history and life today at the Armidale and Region Aboriginal Cultural Centre and Keeping Place. Join a tour or simply take a look around their permanent collection of artefacts and latest art exhibition. Next door at the New England Regional Art Museum, a new major exhibition of Aboriginal art will open on November 5, while the Hinton: Treasures of Australian Art exhibition featuring original works by Arthur Streeton, Margaret Preston and other Australian greats can be seen year-round.
Follow the Waterfall Way east of Armidale for about half an hour to one of the highest waterfalls in Australia, the Wollomombi Falls. Between 220 and 260 metres, depending on how theyre measured, the falls cascade into the dramatic gorge below, and even when its dry and the water isnt flowing, its still worth the drive to step out onto the viewing platform and see this World Heritage wilderness.
Continue another half hour to the Ebor Falls where the Guy Fawkes River turns to white water as it goes over the edge of the two-tiered falls. Then start driving back inland to the New England Highway and in 90 minutes youll be in Glen Innes, the Celtic Capital of Australia.
Walk around the Australian Standing Stones, see the Celtic flags flying on the Glen Innes Town Hall and at midday on Fridays hear bagpipes echoing around Grey Street.
Art-lovers can meet Aboriginal artist Lloyd Gawura Hornsby, whose work has been displayed in the Louvre and other European galleries, at Gawura Gallery, as well as viewing paintings, jewellery, homewares and more by local artisans at The Makers Shed. On December 11, The Makers Shed will also host the third High Country Writers Festival and reveal the winner of the 2021 High Country Indie Book Award.
In Glen Innes you can try Australias first beer liqueur at the Glen Gowrie Distillery cellar door, while at The Local After Dark you can enjoy other local drops, including 2 Wild Souls sparkling mead.
Travel 50 minutes down the Gwydir Highway to go forest bathing at Washpool National Park. Part of the World Heritage-listed Gondwana Rainforests, Washpool is home to the worlds largest stand of coachwood trees and if you keep your eyes peeled you might spot superb lyrebirds, satin bowerbirds and possibly even a spotted-tailed quoll.
Come back through Glen Innes on your way to the historic village of Emmaville. Visit the Emmaville Mining Museum for a glimpse of life during the tin mining boom as well as more than 4000 sparkling minerals, crystals and gems.
Just outside of Emmaville, Bens Falls Retreat has some of the best loos-with-
a-view in Australia, with tree-trunk frames looking out onto a beautiful waterfall. While the retreats restaurant can usually only be booked for groups of 20 or more, keep an eye out for special events where they accept smaller bookings. They also have two rustic, 4WD-only fishing cabins on the Severn River where you can catch and release golden perch and Murray cod.
From Emmaville its an 80-minute drive to Inverell where you can try your luck fossicking for sapphires on Frazers Creek or with the ready-to-go sapphire wash at the Billabong Blue Sapphire Fossicking Park.
Travel down Thunderbolts Way to the tiny village of Bundarra, where if youre very lucky you may spot one of the critically endangered regent honeyeaters in the trees or a platypus or two in the Gwydir River. Then continue down the road to the National Guitar Museum behind the Big Golden Guitar in Tamworth.
Here you can see a different kind of new England history: one of Brian May from Queens guitars is on display, alongside signed guitars from Dolly Parton and The Eagles. Then come face to (incredibly realistic wax) face with Slim Dusty, Lee Kernaghan, Melinda Schneider and other Australian country music stars, before picking up some Tamworth Country Music Awards CDs in the gift shop the perfect soundtrack for your road trip home.
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Take me there
Fly: It takes just over one hour to fly Sydney to Tamworth on Qantas or Virgin Australia.
Drive: Tamworth is less than five hours drive from Sydney or Bathurst, and about 3.5 hours from Newcastle.
Stay: In Armidale, the Tattersalls Hotel (tattersallsarmidale.com.au) offers a boutique stay in Art Deco opulence in the heart of town. Between Glen Innes and Inverell, stay in the historic homestead or beautifully renovated Shearers Lodgings, Stockmans Cottage or Schoolhouse at Waterloo Station (waterloostationnsw.com.au). The Powerhouse Hotel Tamworth by Rydges (rydges.com) has king rooms, family suites and serviced apartments, and you can dine on award-winning steaks in the Workshop Kitchen restaurant.
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