A potted history

Bruce Elder explores Mount Wilson's glorious spring gardens, which evoke distant places and times.

Those who live near the coast remain largely unaware that at this time of the year the inland experiences a metamorphosis. As the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote: "Nothing is so beautiful as spring - When weeds in wheels, shoot long and lovely and lush."

Our European ancestors saw the Australian bush as monotonously grey-blue. They dreamt of home and planted limes, liquidambars, elms, oaks, pink cherries, plane trees and every imaginable deciduous northern European tree. The wealthy cleared their land of eucalypts and acacias and planted pristine lawns with neat flower beds and dramatic displays of rhododendrons, camellias and azaleas. It was a remarkable display of homesickness.

There is no better place to experience the magic of a verdant European spring in the Australian bush than Mount Wilson, an oasis of northern European and North American trees and shrubs surrounded by the eucalypt forests of the Blue Mountains. It is a delightfully underdeveloped village that wears, as a badge of honour, the fact it has only one place to eat: the Chimney Cottage Heritage Cafe, which reopens today (Waterfall Road, open weekends 10am-4pm, 4756 2022).

It wasn't until 1823 that Archibald Bell jnr, who at the time was only 19, traversed the lower slopes of the Blue Mountains and crossed into the area along what was to become Bells Line of Road. Nine years later, in 1832, William Romaine Govett (of Govett's Leap fame) climbed Mount Wilson and described it as a "high mass of range of the richest soil covered with almost impenetrable scrub".

It was surveyed in 1868, subdivided into 62 portions and named after the minister for lands, John Bowie Wilson. The railway arrived at Bell (known at the time as Mount Victoria) in 1875 and by 1880 there were eight houses in the village. Mount Wilson never grew because of the difficulty of transportation.

The village is a charming retreat and a true time capsule where visitors, many on gardening tours, can experience the elegance of the 1920s and 1930s. Between 1912 and 1937, for example, Patrick White's parents used their elegant home, Withycombe, as a retreat from the city. In his book, Flaws in the Glass, White recalled his time at Mount Wilson in terms of "gullies crackling with smoky silence, rocks threatening to explode, pools so cold that the breath was cut off inside your ribs as you hung suspended like the corpse of a pale frog".

It is also on record that one of the family's servants would travel to Withycombe to pick flowers when the family was entertaining special guests. This flower-picking exercise involved catching the train from Sydney to Mount Victoria, then taking a horse and carriage to Mount Wilson, arriving at the house and picking the flowers, and staying overnight to catch the next day's train back to Sydney.

A Swiss migrant, Freddy Huber, completed the last of the village's main gardens in the 1940s. Huber reputedly established the first Swiss cake shop in Australia. He made his fortune in World War II when he won an American government contract to produce apple pies for US servicemen on R&R in Australia. With this money he fulfilled a lifelong dream by buying land at Mount Wilson, building a Swiss chalet and completing the magnificent gardens at Windyridge.

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Audrey O'Ferrall notes in her cooking-history book on the town, Mount Wilson: A Potted History: "Around the original houses built by 1880 were planted gardens which contained oaks, elms, beeches and pines from Britain rhododendrons, magnolias, cedars and spruces from the Himalayas and red oaks, tulip trees and conifers from North America." It is this diversity that makes Mount Wilson such a floral wonderland during its all-too-brief spring.

FAST FACTS

Getting there

Mount Wilson village is 126 kilometres from Sydney city centre. Drive through Windsor and Richmond and along Bells Line of Road until the Mount Wilson turn-off. The village is eight kilometres on, via a sealed, winding road.

Garden visits

Windyridge Garden, at Queens Avenue, Mount Wilson, is open daily 9am-4.30pm. Entry is $9, children $3, and includes tea, coffee and biscuits. Phone 4756 2019, see windyridge.com.au.

Merry Garth, at Davies Lane, Mount Wilson, is open daily 9am-6pm. Entry $5, children free. Phone 4756 2121.

No two people will agree on the best garden in the area but there seems to be a wide acceptance that no visit to Mount Wilson is complete without seeing Nooroo, at Church Lane, with its famous wisteria collection. Open Fri-Sun 10am-4pm until November 13. Entry $8, children $2. Phone 4756 2018.

Yengo Sculpture Gardens, at Queens Avenue, Mount Wilson, is open weekends 10am-6pm. Entry $7. Phone 4756 2002; yengo-sculpture-garden-welcome.com.

Breenhold Gardens, at The Avenue, Mount Wilson, is open weekends 10am-5pm. Entry $7.50, children $2. Phone 9968 1232, see breenhold.com.au.

Bebeah, at The Avenue, Mount Wilson, is open daily 10am-5pm. Entry $8, children $2. Phone 4756 2014.

FAST FACTS

Getting there

Mount Wilson village is 126 kilometres from Sydney city centre. Drive through Windsor and Richmond and along Bells Line of Road until the Mount Wilson turn-off. The village is eight kilometres on, via a sealed, winding road.

Garden visits

Windyridge Garden, at Queens Avenue, Mount Wilson, is open daily 9am-4.30pm. Entry is $9, children $3, and includes tea, coffee and biscuits. Phone 4756 2019, see windyridge.com.au.

Merry Garth, at Davies Lane, Mount Wilson, is open daily 9am-6pm. Entry $5, children free. Phone 4756 2121.

No two people will agree on the best garden in the area but there seems to be a wide acceptance that no visit to Mount Wilson is complete without seeing Nooroo, at Church Lane, with its famous wisteria collection. Open Fri-Sun 10am-4pm until November 13. Entry $8, children $2. Phone 4756 2018.

Yengo Sculpture Gardens, at Queens Avenue, Mount Wilson, is open weekends 10am-6pm. Entry $7. Phone 4756 2002; yengo-sculpture-garden-welcome.com.

Breenhold Gardens, at The Avenue, Mount Wilson, is open weekends 10am-5pm. Entry $7.50, children $2. Phone 9968 1232, see breenhold.com.au.

Bebeah, at The Avenue, Mount Wilson, is open daily 10am-5pm. Entry $8, children $2. Phone 4756 2014.

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