Driving down the main street of Oberon, one can't help feel the town founders missed the mark somewhat when choosing its name. A forestry and farming community, this NSW Central Tablelands outpost is sturdy and inoffensive, with a couple of pubs and a cool Art Deco community hall; but apart from a whimsical Big Trout outside a roadside motel and the occasional winter snowfall, there's little to reference the mythical King of the Fairies from Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream.
Just beyond the town, however, lies a magical wonderland where Puck and Titania would be right at home, an enchanted garden of dappled autumnal canopies, fragrant blooms, formal rose beds and cascades tumbling into secret grottoes.
This delightful surprise, literally in the middle of nowhere, is Mayfield Garden – one of the largest privately owned cool climate gardens in the world. Formally designed to resemble the great estates of Europe, this 64-hectare garden – set on a 2023-hectare working farm – is the folly of property developer Garrick Hawkins, who started planning a small personal garden in 1984 in conjunction with local nurseryman and landscaper Peter D'Arcy.
Thirty-three years and millions of dollars later, Mayfield Garden has evolved into an epic showpiece, employing more than 60 locals and open to the public 363 days a year. The scale of this ambitious undertaking must be seen to be believed: there's a lake worthy of a capital city, complete with obelisk and an avenue of plane trees, as well as several amphitheatres, a gallery modelled on the historic Hartley Courthouse, a croquet lawn surrounded by an English rose garden and a maze. For visitors inspired to activate their own green thumbs, there's a nursery selling plants propagated onsite; while a cafe serves produce plucked fresh from the vegie patch, the 35 metres of "food miles travelled" putting an even fresher spin on the concept of "paddock to plate".
But it's the intricacies of Mayfield that entice – hidden nooks, woodland meadows and floral artistry that's still clearly a work-in-progress. Wide paths lined with walls crafted from locally-hewn bluestone wind through flower beds bursting with seasonal colour: delicate crocuses and massed hydrangeas will soon make way for winter irises, daffodils and tulips, while budding rhododendrons, camellias and curtains of wisteria promise a dazzling spring kaleidoscope.
In the Monet-like Water Garden, I catch a glimpse of an oversized white rabbit scurrying around a corner, chased by a blue-dressed Alice; while two hot-pink flamingos on stilts cast graceful reflections from a stone bridge into a tranquil lily pond. These visions are courtesy of Cirkus Surreal, a performing troupe from the local Kelso High School who collaborate with Mayfield during special events.
And that is where Mayfield's future lies, with the garden poised to become the artistic and entertainment hub of the Central West.
"Mayfield is now much more than a garden," Mayfield's CEO Hamish Keith tells me as we watch Alice, the haughty Red Queen and the Mad Hatter knock croquet balls around a perfectly-manicured lawn. "We are now looking at hosting events, with a full calendar of seasonal festivals, workshops, yoga retreats and weddings, transforming it into a destination in its own right."
Kicking off proceedings is the two-week Autumn Festival, during which the whole garden – even the area surrounding the Hawkins' private home that includes an astonishing 80-metre cascade bubbling from a temple – will be open to the public.
This event concludes on April 30 with an afternoon concert featuring Australian rock legends James Reyne and Boom Crash Opera, who will play on a stage overlooking the obelisk. Local food and wine vendors will set up stalls under golden-hued deciduous trees, while visitors are encouraged to bring picnic blankets to cosy up in the autumn chill in a truly inspired setting.
Mayfield Garden is 15 kilometres from Oberon and 35 kilometres from Bathurst in the NSW's Central Tablelands. Tours are available from Bathurst with Bathurst Tours (bathurstonedaytours.com.au) or from Katoomba with Fantastic Aussie Tours, which transports passengers in an old Clipper bus originally owned by Reg Ansett (fantastic-aussie-tours.com.au)
Bishops Court Estate is a beautifully restored heritage manor in Bathurst, offering six guest rooms on a bed and breakfast basis from $350 per double. See bishopscourtestate.com.au
Admission to Mayfield Garden costs $20 per adult ($18 concession, $10 children) throughout the year, and $30 ($27, $15) during the Autumn Festival (April 15-30) and Spring Festival (October 14-29). Concert tickets for AutumnFest cost $85 for adults. See mayfieldgarden.com.au
Julie Miller was a guest of Mayfield Garden, Destination NSW, Bathurst Regional Council, Bishops Court Estate and Bathurst Tours.