Follow the music

Bruce Elder explores historic Tenterfield, the town made famous by singer Peter Allen.

You can almost hear them singing in their cars as soon as they see the sign marking the edge of Tenterfield on the New England Highway.

Time is a traveller,
Tenterfield saddler turn your head.
Ride again jackaroo,
think I see kangaroo up ahead.

If there is one thing every Australian knows about Tenterfield, it's that Peter Allen, the Boy from Oz, was born in this attractive New England town.

Travellers can still visit the highlights of his song. So the opening lines are not fiction, they are observable reality.

The late George Woolnough

worked on High Street

and lived on Manners.

Fifty-two years he sat on his

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verandah and made his saddles.

George Woolnough's house, while now a private residence and not open to the public, is at 30 Manners Street. It's the one with the gum tree in the front yard.

The Tenterfield Saddler, a small building dating from 1870, is at 123 High Street (just east of Rouse Street, the New England Highway). It has been classified by the National Trust since 1972 (before the song became a hit) and still sells leather goods, as it did when its most famous customer, Banjo Paterson, walked through the red cedar doors in 1903.

In his live shows, Allen used to joke about how his grandfather would be working inside and he, already a nascent cabaret performer at the age of 10, would be outside tap dancing along the tiny verandah. The verandah is still there - the image of young Allen tap dancing while surrounded by dour bushies waiting to collect their new saddles is easily conjured - and it's unforgettable.

But Tenterfield is much more than just a song and a saddler. On Friday, October 25, 1889, The Sydney Morning Herald reported a speech that had been delivered by Sir Henry Parkes at a "Banquet to the Premier" in Tenterfield. Parkes, it wrote, had raised the question of "authorising the troops of the colonies to unite in one federal army" and had gone on to address the question of the control the imperial government in London had over the colonies.

"The great question they had to consider", the article said, paraphrasing Parkes, "was whether the time had not now come for the creation on this Australian continent of an Australian government, as distinct from the local governments now in existence." This was greeted with wild applause, according to the report.

This hugely significant event is the centrepiece of any visit to Tenterfield. Today, the town claims, with justification, to be "the Birthplace of Our Nation".

For most of the 20th century, the building where the banquet was held was known as the Tenterfield School of Arts. Now known as the Sir Henry Parkes Memorial School of Arts, the building was completed in 1876 and was used as a working man's institute. In 1889, Parkes (who was the local member of parliament) delivered his famous speech about the future federation of Australia. He called for a nation that would be cohesive and united. Historians now regard that speech as the official beginning of the movement that produced the Australian Commonwealth in 1901.

By the 1980s, the School of Arts was a library and museum housing some Parkes memorabilia. In 2001, with a grant of $2.7 million from the federal government, it became much more. Today, it is a celebration of Federation. The glass-topped banquet table in the museum, which is similar in style to the original, holds an exhibition of artefacts collected from those Tenterfield residents who were at the famous 1889 speech.

Among the relics is Parkes's copy of The Book of Common Prayer. The back wall bears a mural-like photograph of a formal banquet held in the hall in the 1880s (no photograph of the 1889 banquet has been found).

The walls bear an excellent collection of historic cartoons exploring such Federation issues as national defence, racial tensions (a man with a whip trying to keep Papua New Guineans from overrunning Queensland) and the unification of various railway gauges. There is also a fine collection of local Aboriginal artefacts.

Those interested in the dark history of Aboriginal-European relations can drive to Bluff Rock, 10 kilometres south of Tenterfield via the New England Highway. An unusual granite outcrop rising steeply from the highway, it is on private property but is clearly visible from the roadside. It is said that in 1844 a shepherd named Robinson was murdered by Aborigines. They fled to the rock when pursued by a posse of white men, who then killed the Aboriginal men by throwing them off the top of the rock.

Edward Irby, who named the rock St Swithin's Bluff in 1842, wrote of the incident: "The blacks heard us coming and hid themselves among the rocks. One, in his hurry, dropped poor Robinson's coat, so we knew we were on to the right tribe ... so we punished them severely and proved our superiority to them."

To the north-east of the town, there is a fascinating drive on Mount Lindesay Road (an extension of Logan Street), which starts 12 kilometres from town at Thunderbolt's Hideout. The path to the hideout is clearly marked, about 150 metres from the parking area. Large granite boulders form two caves, thought to be used by the bushranger Frederick "Thunderbolt" Ward because they were an ideal vantage point from which to plan and launch attacks on the north-south road.

Only a few kilometres further up the road are the World War II Tank Traps, the remains of which are three rows of wooden posts, some impassable granite boulders and a concrete retaining wall. They are remnants of the Brisbane Line fortifications, a second line of defence in case of an invasion from the north. During the war, up to 10,000 troops were stationed in the Tenterfield area.

Another 24 kilometres further on is the entrance to Bald Rock National Park. One of the continent's unrecognised wonders, Bald Rock is the largest exposed granite monolith in Australia at 750 metres long, 500 metres wide and 260 metres high. It can be climbed and the summit has excellent views of the surrounding countryside.

A clearly marked road off Mount Lindesay Road leads to the Bald Rock picnic and camping area. From here, it is 800 metres to the Bungoona Walk, which is an easy 2.5-kilometre trek to the summit. Signs and markings lead to a more direct but steeper Summit Walk (slopes of up to 30 degrees), marked up the north-east face. Be warned: descending the steep route can be hazardous.

It is easy to spend a week exploring the Tenterfield area. As well as the town's museums and historical buildings, there are significant Aboriginal sites in the area - among them Woollool Woollool, an impressive stone outcrop and a sacred site of the Bundjalung people.

There are also beautiful natural sites, including Boonoo Boonoo Falls, where the Boonoo Boonoo River gathers in beautiful pools before dropping 210 metres into the gorge below.

Fast Facts

Getting there

Tenterfield is 685 kilometres north of Sydney via Tamworth and Glen Innes on the New England Highway.

Staying there

A unique accommodation option is the Spanish-Mexican Bald Rock Bush Retreat, 36 kilometres from Tenterfield and only a few kilometres from Bald Rock National Park. See Traveller's weekend-away review, http://bit.ly/ixj16D

Things to see

Tenterfield Saddler, at 123 High Street, is still a saddlery specialising in quality hand-made saddles and Australian clothing. Open Wednesday-Sunday 8am-2pm.

Sir Henry Parkes Memorial School of Arts, Rouse Street, houses the original banqueting hall, a reading room and games room, displays of memorabilia, a library, cinema and theatre. The museum is open daily, 10am-5pm. Entry is $5 for adults, $4 concession, $12 for families and $2 for children.

Tenterfield and District Visitors Association is open Monday-Saturday 9am-5pm, Sunday 9.30am-4pm, phone 6736 1082. It has an excellent collection of free sheets on the town's major attractions, including Thunderbolt's Hideout, a walk through historic Tenterfield, Bluff Rock, Tenterfield Saddler and Mt Mackenzie Drive. On the New England Highway at 157 Rouse Street.

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