Village with an art of gold

Richard Jinman charts the renaissance of a 'cultural crucible' that has inspired generations of artists.

Hill End has inspired many paintings but none so famous as The Cricketers. Painted in 1948 by Russell Drysdale, the image of three weirdly elongated boys playing in a lonely street under a bilious sky is one of the icons of Australian art.

I have The Cricketers firmly in mind during the 80-kilometre drive from Bathurst to Hill End. I stopped only once, at Sofala, a village on the banks of the Turon River where Peter Weir shot his 1974 chiller The Cars That Ate Paris. After that, the hills close in, the road begins to wind and the tarmac comes and goes. It takes longer than expected to reach the isolated gold-rush town that has fuelled the imaginations of several generations of Australian artists.

Approaching Hill End, I'm still half-expecting to see the desiccated landscape immortalised in Drysdale's painting. The reality is closer to Arcadia. On a warm afternoon last month, the avenue of elms, oaks and cedars separating the bush from the village forms a green, sun-dappled tunnel. Emerging at the other end, the visitor finds a general store, a hotel and an idyllic village that might have been constructed by a tourist agency using the Cotswolds as a blueprint.

Drysdale's scorched vision is dashed by Hill End's bucolic reality: lush paddocks, leafy trees and English gardens in full bloom. Even the scattered buildings - so blank and menacing in The Cricketers - appear as if ripped from the cover of a chocolate box. A mob of kangaroos gazes benignly from open land near the school and swallows dive-bomb the overgrown gullies in pursuit of drowsy insects.

Hill End is 300 kilometres north-west of Sydney but remains an offbeat destination. Many people have not been here and those who have often recall panning for gold on a school trip.

The town has had several lives. In 1851 it was the epicentre of a goldrush. By 1872, when a massive nugget weighing 286 kilograms was hauled from nearby Hawkins Hill, the town boasted 10,000 citizens, 28 pubs, several brothels and an oyster bar. Miners from America, Europe and China jostled for space in the crowded main street.

A few years later, the money fuelling the mines dried up abruptly and the town died. Cattle and blackberry bushes took up residence in the buildings once occupied by miners and merchants. By the 1940s, only one hotel - the Royal - remained. Artist Donald Friend, who made his first visit in 1947, found a tiny community of "rather sordid, jovial, mad peasants who live by fossicking and rabbiting".

But Friend was entranced. The ruined houses, the scars left by the mines and the encroaching bush inspired one of his finest works, The Apocalypse Of St John The Divine. He bought a wattle and daub cottage and began living in the village with his companion, Donald Murray. It was the start of an artistic colonisation that would turn Hill End into a sacred site for painters and profoundly alter the course of post-war Australian art.

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Friend, a gregarious libertine, drew other artists to the village. Jean Bellette and Paul Haefliger bought a cottage, befriending a young Brett Whiteley who was exploring the area from his boarding school in Bathurst. Margaret Olley and Jeffrey Smart were regular visitors. Today, more than 20 artists live here, including luminaries such as John Firth-Smith, ceramicist Lino Alvarez and Luke Sciberras and his wife, Gria Shead.

Gavin Wilson who curated The Artists Of Hill End, an influential 1995 exhibition at the Art Gallery of NSW, is another resident. He sees Hill End as "a little cultural crucible - a raft sitting in the middle of the bush".

"You just get the sense that something special is happening or has happened or will happen again," he says. "The collection of paintings [made in the town] was a fork in the road in the history of our landscape painting. It was the flowering of a vernacular modernism."

Today, the town is undergoing something of a renaissance. Many of the cottages have been restored and gold is again being mined at Hawkins Hill. More than 100 people live in and around the village and the front bar of the Royal entertains an eclectic crowd of miners, geologists, old-timers, artists and small groups of tourists, some of whom travel from Bathurst on a four-wheel-drive route called the Bridle Track.

They are all served by publican Eddie Long, who says the town still has more than its fair share of characters. There was old Norm Cross, who couldn't pronounce his "Rs" and wore bread bags as socks to protect his feet from "the wocks on the woad".

"He had a dog called 'Wover' and a car called the 'Gween Wocket'," says Long.

Another local celebrity is Ray Auld, who was once spotted sitting in the charred remains of his kitchen eating potatoes cooked by the blaze that had destroyed his house.

"Peyton Place has got nothing on Hill End," says Long. "Everyone knows more about other people's business than they do about their own."

Brown snakes have been spotted in the front bar of the Royal in summer and a photograph on the wall commemorates the day in 1979 when two horses wandered in through the front door. Relishing the amazed look on the face of a tourist, publican Ron Waterford glanced at the clock and said: "Ah, it must be four o'clock."

Given the number of artists living and working in Hill End - and the town's influence on art history - there is disappointingly little work on public display. Alvarez welcomes visitors to his pottery studio and there is a small gallery at the visitors' centre. A group called the Hill End Arts Council has plans to open a larger gallery space in one of the old churches but until then visitors in search of art have to knock on doors or try to befriend a local artist such as Glenn Woodley over a beer at the Royal.

Woodley painted the hotel's new sign, an elegant black-and-white design showing Queen Victoria in profile. The original was painted by Donald Friend in the 1950s.

"He [Friend] did it drunk in five minutes, is what I reckon," says Woodley, lighting a hand-rolled cigarette. "But recreating it was the greatest art adventure of my life. Making a replica of Donald's work and deciphering it."

There are easier ways to walk in the footsteps of famous artists in Hill End. Some visitors search out the Presbyterian Church where, in 1948, Friend struck an arch pose for Drysdale's Picture Of Donald Friend. Not far away you can stand in the spot where Jeffrey Smart painted Nuns' Picnic, or go in search of the gully in David Strachan's Hill End Landscape With High Horizon.

Sadly, it is much harder to re-enact The Cricketers. Drysdale was not interested in recording the reality of Hill End. He was inspired by the place but regarded its features as chess pieces that could be moved to suit his aesthetic whim.

Still, on a quiet afternoon it is easy to conjure up the past; to imagine boys wielding a bat and ball and a great painter conceiving what Gavin Wilson calls "an apocalyptic afternoon".

FAST FACTS

Getting there

Hill End is 275 kilometres, about four hours' drive, from Sydney travelling on the Bells Line of Road, then through Lithgow.

Staying and eating there

*Hill End Bed & Breakfast, or Hosies Store as it is also known, is in a general store built about 1873. It's quiet, comfortable, has plenty of character and the host is friendly and helpful. The communal sitting room and the four bedrooms are upstairs. The only downside is the trip downstairs to the loo in the middle of the night.

Rooms from $132 a night. Phone 6337 8290 or see users.bigpond.com/hillendbandb.

* The dining options at Hill End are limited. Visitors staying for a week may get a little too familiar with the Royal Hotel Restaurant's pub fare. Still, the portions are generous and the prices are reasonable. On warm nights, the best place is its garden for a beer and fish and chips or a burger.

While you're there

* Visit the Jean Bellette Gallery at the Hill End Visitor Information Centre, High Street, Hill End. Phone 6337 8206.

* Take a self-guided tour of the gold-rush streetscape. A map of the area is available at the visitor centre.

* Go underground at the Bald Hill Mine and learn about the life of a miner in the 1870s. Regular tours depart from the Great Western Store in Tambaroora Street. Phone 6337 8377.

* Although no metal detectors or gold-panning are allowed within the historic site, there is a fossicking area just past the cemetery off Hill End Road. You can hire fossicking equipment in town or you can join a fossicking tour.

* You'll discover headstones dating back to the 1870s in the Hill End and Tambaroora cemeteries.

* Look back at the boom times at the Hill End Museum at the visitor centre.

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