Wollombi is a very small but picturesque and historic rural village. Where many country towns appear slight and ephemeral Wollombi's modest size is offset by its substantial 19th-century sandstone buildings. Its considerable charm arises in part from the quality of its architecture but also from its leisurely feel and its idyllic location within a small and pretty valley which is rife with the sound of birds and ringed around with imposing tree-lined mountains.
Wollombi is 29 km south-west of Cessnock and 142 km north of Sydney (take the Peats Ridge exit off the Newcastle Freeway).
The original inhabitants of the locality were either the Darkinjang, Awabakal or Wanaruah Aboriginal peoples, depending on the source. The town's name is an Aboriginal term said to mean 'meeting place of the rivers'. Whereas they apparently pronounced it 'Wu-lum-bee', it is today pronounced Wo (as in wok) - lum (as in thumb) - bi (as in buy). There are a number of historic Aboriginal sites in the surrounding countryside which is thought to have been used as a ceremonial meeting place. There are rock engravings, hand stencils, tribal markings and other images in caves, shelters and outcrops.
The village of Wollombi developed at a major junction in the Great North Road from Sydney which forked here, heading north-east to Maitland and north through Broke to Singleton. The first road into the Hunter Valley it was built by 3000 convicts under conditions of considerable severity and hardship between 1826 and 1834. Remnants such as stone culverts, bridges and retaining walls remain, particularly in the area between Wollombi and Wisemans Ferry.
Veterans of the Napoleonic Wars were granted 40-hectare lots here from about 1830 as they were discharged from NSW regiments. Some of them are buried in the cemetery.
A village site was reserved in 1833-34 and allotments became available from 1838. The settlement developed as a service centre for the farming community and for travellers on the Great North Road although the development of the steam trade along the Hunter River saw road traffic decline.
John McDougall, former convict overseer during the construction of the Great North Road, settled here as postmaster in 1838. He left that post in 1840 when he built the Governor Gipps Inn. McDougall also owned two 40-acre farms hereabouts and donated land in 1840 for the first Catholic Church which was washed away by floods in 1892.
He bought more land in the early 1840s but his inn closed in 1845 during a bout of temperance and he moved on to the Rising Sun Inn at Millfield where he had previously been lashed by bushranger Edward Davis (see entry on Cessnock).
By 1851 the population was recorded as 105. The first school opened in 1860 and the courthouse and police station in 1866. Rust destroyed the wheat industry in the 1860s and local farmers turned to grazing. By 1911 the population had reached a high of 406 but it had declined to 151 in 1961.
In recent years Wollombi has experienced something of a resurgence. The 1991 census indicated that there were 823 persons in the Yango-Coolamon Planning District which includes Laguna and Bucketty. A good number of these would live in and around Wollombi. This small regrowth is based on several factors. The village has been reoriented in recent years to the tourist trade with several shops selling gifts, clothing, bric-a-brac and second-hand goods. Furthermore it has become a desirable place to live for commuters and weekenders. There are still some small subsistence farms and some grazing in the district.
Things to see
Approaching from Cessnock
The Wollombi Rd from Cessnock is a very pleasant drive through some peaceful, picturesque and sparsely populated countryside with just the occasional timber cottage adjacent the road or on the hillside. Some are guesthouses (ring 02 4990 4477 for more information on local accommodation or other matters relating to Wollombi). As you approach Wollombi the Anzac Reserve, a pleasant picnic spot, is to the right.
As the road bends to the right Wollombi Public School is on the left-hand side. Built in 1881 it is a small building of dressed sandstone with a tall gabled roof. The headmaster's residence is also of dressed sandstone with a hipped roof, timber annexe and front verandah.
Strangely situated directly opposite the school is the cemetery which has been used since the establishment of the village in 1838.
Old Post Office
You soon come to the main cluster of buildings which stand adjacent Wollombi Rd just before it terminates at a T-intersection. There are newer buildings amidst the old but they have clearly been approved as designs sympathetic to the overall feel of the streetscape. To the left, as you approach from Cessnock, are a couple of gift shops and a coffee shop on the hillside. On lower ground is the beautiful old two-storey post office (1839) with a hipped roof, pediment, front verandah and rear lean-to. The ground floor started its life as an inn that served as a changing station for coach horses travelling along the Great North Road. The first postmaster was John McDougall, a convict overseer during the construction of the Great North Road. The first telephone link from Sydney to Newcastle passed through this exchange.
Next door is St Michael's Catholic Church (1893), built of dressed sandstone which was retrieved from an earlier church erected between 1840 and 1843 on land donated by John McDougall 1 km north of the present site (on the road to Paynes Crossing and Broke). It was destroyed by floods in 1892.
The last building on the left is The Forge Gallery, a replica-style slab hut with frequently-changing displays which is open weekends or by appointment, tel: (02) 4998 3318.
Opposite these buildings, on the right-hand side of the road, is another fine collection of buildings. The first is a rusticated and antiquated slab barn built in the 1840s, which is to open as a pottery and art gallery. Next door is Gray's Inn, a restaurant with accommodation. The general store dates back to the 19th century and, judging by historic photographs, is little changed. It is still thriving and serves as a de facto village meeting place.
The last building on the right is the Endeavour Museum, located in the old, single-storey sandstone courthouse which was designed by Mortimer Lewis and erected in 1866 to replace a slab lock-up which apparently leaked prisoners like a sieve. A modest building, it has a hipped roof with gables and a front verandah. The museum is open most days (see the sign outside).
Wollombi Rd terminates at a T-junction. Directly opposite is Wollombi Tavern. A previous owner, Mel Jurd, was the inventor of Dr Jurd's Jungle Juice. This alcoholic beverage was apparently created in 1960 after his pub was damaged by an explosion. Its lack of charm as a drink was compensated for by the considerable degree of mythology surrounding its supposed potency.
St John's Anglican Church
If you turn right, along the road to Broke and Singleton, you will come to St John's Anglican Church. Built between 1846 and 1849 it represents an early effort by noted colonial architect Edmund Blacket. This small simple Gothic sandstone church has been little altered apart from a small extension of the nave in the 1860s. It features lancet windows, gables, a small bellcote and projecting porch. There is some notable wrought ironwork and the pews and woodwork are of fine local cedar. An old sconce, indicating the church's antiquity, is on the wall by the pulpit where it lighted the cleric's text. The picket fence and gate with wrought-iron lantern are original. tel: 0481 269 653
The road which branches off to the left, opposite the church, leads to Undercliff Boutique Winery and Etching Gallery, open weekends and holidays or by appointment, tel: (02) 4998 3322.
A left turn at the end of Wollombi Rd will take you south along The Old Northern Road to Bucketty, Central Mangrove and the Newcastle-Sydney Freeway. 1 km from the tavern you cross the south arm of Wollombi Brook and another 800 m brings you to Mulla Villa. On the right-hand side of the road, this two-storey Georgian cottage was convict-built in 1840-41 for David Dunlop, the first magistrate for the police district of Wollombi and the MacDonald River (1839-1847).
David Dunlop and his wife Eliza were both interested in Aboriginal culture and welfare. David understood their obligations to tribal matters and advocated allowing them to return to their tribes when a particular job was finished. Eliza also offended some contemporaries with her displays of sympathy for indigenous ways though the Reverend Threlkeld was a supporter. Both David and Eliza are buried in the Church of England section of the Wollombi cemetery. A book called Two Early Colonials was written by their descendant Margaret de Salis. Today it is an award-winning guesthouse with restaurant/coffee shop, tel: (02) 4998 3254.
It is 7 km along The Old Northern Road from Wollomi Tavern to the little village of Laguna. Assistant surveyor Heneage Finch was granted 1000 acres here in the late 1820s and he started a farm whilst he was surveying land in the Wollombi area and in charge of the construction of the Great North Road. He later sold his property to Richard Wiseman. Like his father Solomon Wiseman (see entry on Wisemans Ferry) Richard capitalised on the through-traffic created by the construction of the Great North Road. He established an inn adjacent the new track at Laguna in 1829. Around 1835 he built Laguna House opposite the inn. You can still see it on the roadside south of Laguna. It is situated at a bend in the road, to the right, 9.9 km south of Wollombi Tavern.
This gracious single-storey sandstone Georgian house features a hipped roof and a stone-flagged verandah with columns. There is a kitchen to the rear, a brick structure with a shingle roof from the same era and some vernacular outbuildings which date from a little later.
Horseriding is available at Stapleton Station on Watagan Creek Road, Laguna, tel: (02) 4998 8408.
Yengo National Park
Just north of Laguna House (1.6 km south of Laguna School) Yango Creek Rd heads west off the main road into Yengo National Park. One of the state's most recently declared parks it is the largest remaining area of natural wilderness in the state. There are dramatic differences of climate, landform and altitude which have encouraged a great diversity of plant and animal life, including some rare species.
Aboriginal occupation of the area dates back at least 12 000 years. It was situated on a major trade route and has close associations with the dreamtime. Mt Yengo is believed to be the site where the spirit Baiaime departed into the sky after he finished his creation tasks. There are numerous Aboriginal sites in the park, particularly in the most elevated sections, which were used for orientation. There are stone arrangements, campsites, middens and rock art which frequently refers to the Baiaime story.
Although white contact dates back to the early 19th century the rugged terrain and infertile sandstone beds have discouraged long-term incursions and the ecology of most of the area has been left largely undisturbed. However, there are sections of volcanic basalt, especially on the mountain tops, which are more fertile and which have been farmed and logged over the years.
A remote and rugged area of sandstone gorges it has few facilities and hence offers solitude and self-reliant recreation. However, the drive outlined below is manageable, if the weather is dry, in a 2WD and it takes in the excellent views at Finchley Trig. Be warned however, it's easy to get lost so stick strictly to the directions provided.
Yango Creek Rd, which soon becomes gravel, immediately begins to climb into the mountains. It reaches a T-intersection after 2.2 km. Turn left into Upper Yango Creek Rd. Do not take the left which appears to the right after 200 m but proceed ahead for 2.3 km across a timber bridge, then turn right across the cattle grid. The road is steep, winding and narrow so drive slowly and cautiously. 1.8 km beyond the cattle grid take Finchley Track to the left.
It is 8.7 km from the grid to Finchley Viewing Platform on the left-hand side of the road. The views are truly panoramic and quite beautiful. The flat-topped mountain to the west is Mt Yengo.
Return to your car. 400 m beyond the lookout is a branch. Turn left into the Yango Track. After 900 m there is a road on the right that leads to Finchley Camping Area. Continue south along the main road for around 10 km taking the left turn at the first major intersection into the Boree Track which leads down the mountains to Boree and back to a T-intersection. Turn right and you will find yourself back where you started on Upper Yango Creek Rd. Turn right again into Yango Creek Rd which will lead back to the Old Northern Road at Laguna.
4.4 km south of Laguna House, along the Old Northern Road, there is a signpost to the right that reads: 'Convict Trail, Great North Road, Murray's Run Culvert, 1830'. Park your car on the roadside if you wish to inspect the drainage arch in question which is clearly visible. It was made of carefully assembled dressed stone without mortar by convicts working under severe circumstances on difficult terrain as part of the construction of the Great North Road. There is an explanatory signpost.
The turnoff to Koolang Observatory in Bucketty (population 180) is 13.1 km south of Laguna House and 23 km south of Wollombi.
The options are a walk-through, a 45-minute short day program and a longer two-hour session which is run both in the day and at night. Prices are reasonable and programs for school groups are a specialty.
Though by no means the size of a publicly-funded observatory Koolang does contain the largest privately owned public-viewing telescope in Australia. The sun can be studied in the day time though there is, of course, far more to see at night, if the weather is good. There are models, video displays and explanatory talks accompanying the two longer sessions concerning the solar system and astronomic technology.
The observatory is thoroughly enjoyable and can be opened at any time for groups if bookings are prearranged. Standard visiting hours are from 12 to 5 daily and most nights, contact (02) 4998 8216.
Jump Up Creek Vineyard Tours in Belford provide daily mini coach tours of the Lower Hunter vineyards. They will pick you up and return you to your accommodation in Singleton, Maitland, Morpeth, Cessnock, Pokolbin and Wollombi, tel: (02) 6574 7252 or 019 453 674.