This thriving north-eastern NSW regional city is best known for the Tamworth Country Music Festival, but even some of the locals are over the yodelling and pedal steel guitars.
Tamworth was founded in 1850 on the traditional land of the Kamilaroi people. Its rich pastures quickly yielded excellent results for sheep and cattle graziers and the town soon prospered. The railway arrived in 1878, further accelerating development and in 1888 – drum roll please – Tamworth became the first town in Australia to have electric street lights.
Despite being more than 400 kilometres from Sydney and nearly 600 kilometres from Brisbane, getting to Tamworth is relatively easy and the journey can be a highlight of your overall experience. By road is, for my money, the best way to get a taste of the glorious countryside and a chance to explore the backroads and byways that wind through the hills and dales that nestle Tamworth within the surrounding district.
Choose a car, an SUV, a caravan or, as in our case, a big touring motorcycle like a Harley-Davidson Street Glide Special.
We kicked off in Sydney, but the journey really began when we turned off the well-trodden Pacific Highway just after Raymond Terrace and headed north along The Bucketts Way, a relaxed byway that takes you through Stroud and Gloucester, either being perfect stops to break the trip with a coffee and hot snack.
Beyond Gloucester and through little Barrington, we continue north on Thunderbolts Way, named after the notorious bushranger, Fred Ward, who roamed all through the region for several years before his death in a shootout near Uralla in 1870. Like Ned Kelly in Victoria, Captain Thunderbolt enlivened the romantic notions of the genteel highwayman despite his blatantly criminal activities. Several of his hide-outs along the road are signposted, particularly Thunderbolts Rock near Uralla.
We could continue on to Walcha where the eccentric Antipodean Tynker creates steampunk nirvana with his immaculate scrap metal creations, particularly motorcycles like the outrageous, supercharged “1916”, constructed from the remnants of Victa lawnmowers, brass firefighting equipment and surplus bathroom fittings.
But, with autumn light fading, we headed due west to Tamworth along Topdale Road to our digs at the refurbished Powerhouse Hotel Tamworth by Rydges.
Built on the site of the original Tamworth power station – hence the name – the family-owned Powerhouse Hotel brings a distinct cosmopolitan flair to this regional destination. Fresh from a multimillion-dollar makeover and rebrand, this landmark property now offers 81 refurbished rooms and suites as well as brand-new serviced apartments complete with high-speed wi-fi, 24-hour reception and room service, gym, outdoor pool, spa, sauna and guest laundry.
Meals are served all day in The Workshop Kitchen where a culinary carnival unashamedly celebrates the export quality beef and lamb from all around the district including the owner’s stations.
In addition to all that, there is one very badly kept secret to this property. Owner Greg Maguire is a self-confessed motorcycle nut and the entire ground floor of his office is devoted to displaying his collection of rare and desirable two-wheeled machines. Well, perhaps 25 per cent of his collection. Mr Maguire and his knowledgeable curator, Frank, rotate the display frequently to exhibit the balance of his 200-plus bike collection which includes such marques as MV Agusta, Velocette, Ducati, Norton and Harley-Davidson (of course).
His latest acquisition is a rare pre-war Harley-Davidson twin that once delivered mail in the district. Plucked from a shed near Walcha, Maguire blushes on the question of how much he paid at auction for this historic, rusty machine.
Maguire is also one of the big movers behind the forthcoming National Thunder Motorcycle Rally, an event starting on October 1 that the organisers claim will be: “four days of action and camaraderie … built around the theme of bikes, music and food. The rally will include all motorcycle manufacturers’ brands, catering for individual riders, club members and organised groups.”
After a generous breakfast, we set out to explore the township. If you’re a country music fan, you’ll already know about the giant Golden Guitar and the attached museum as well as the Australian Country Music Hall of Fame, so we’ll take those as read. Instead, let’s follow our ‘powerhouse’ theme and stop by the Powerstation Museum downtown. It’s here I learn some interesting facts about Tamworth.
Did you know that Tamworth was the first location in all of Australia to switch on electric street lights? True. In 1888, a forward-thinking faction within the council constructed the first municipal electric street lighting system in the country. Tamworth became known as the City of Light. Fifteen years later, Sydney switched on its power supply.
The Powerstation Museum is housed downtown in the city’s former Municipal Electric Showroom, a building that once showcased all the latest electrical wizardry that could make life easier in your home. Typically, it was the frill-skirted, wasp-waisted housewife who would rejoice in her new Hoover or Kelvinator with a choreographed routine to rival Fonteyn. Today, the rooms are chock-a-block with the antique machinery of domestic bliss, from vintage electric stoves and ovens to fridges, kettles, radios and even plug-in lawn mowers – just like Nanna had. Outside in the shed are two giant steam generators almost identical to the ones first used more than 130 years ago.
To continue the theme of nostalgic machinery, a visit to nearby Nundle will reveal the last wool-spinning mill of its kind still operating in Australia with some of the big noisy machines more than 100 years old. While you’re there, visit the Mount Misery Gold Mine Museum, nearby Sheba Dam or any of the other attractions in this delightful historic village.
To complete the heritage expedition, we head home via Werris Creek and Quirindi. The former is a railway town and time capsule where the impressive, heritage-listed Victorian station complex, built in the 1880s, is now a museum.
Quirindi, a further 20 kilometres from Werris Creek, also boasts a heritage-listed railway station and history museum. But it’s Bob’s Shed that puts Quirindi on my road map. The retired mechanic’s enormous private collection of retail, bar, transport and automotive memorabilia was assembled over more than 30 years from swap meets and scrapyards. The self-built shed near the Who’d A Thought It Lookout houses thousands of items including rare Holdens and motorcycles. Peter Brock fans take note.
Take your pick of return routes, but Mudgee, Orange and Bathurst makes perfect sense for a rewarding round trip.
Take me there
Drive: Tamworth is four to five hours by road from Sydney
Train: The Armidale Explorer runs daily from Sydney.
Fly: Four airlines service Tamworth from both Sydney and Brisbane
Stay: Powerhouse Hotel Tamworth by Rydges has King Rooms for about $249 per night.
Explore more: destinationtamworth.com.au