York is one of those towns that screams high class tourism from every building and street corner. It is a place full of shops and entertainments designed to snare the visitor for a meal or to encourage them to buy some little trinket as a memento of their visit.
The reasons for its appeal are twofold. Firstly it is ideally located only 99 km from Perth and 36 km south of Northam (the perfect and easy day trip) and secondly, as the first township in the Avon Valley, it is full of really beautiful old buildings. There is little doubt that it is one of the best preserved and restored nineteenth century towns in Australia. A true monument to the architecture of the late nineteenth century.
York was first surveyed by Ensign Robert Dale in 1830 and named after the city of York in England. It was settled in the 1830s by farmers who concentrated their efforts on sheep and wheat with the occasional field of barley.
The first settlers in the area arrived in 1831 and included such well known Western Australian identities as Rivett Henry Bland and the Reverend J. B. Wittenoom. A township did not begin to appear until 183536 when an army barracks and store were built and some 50 acres of land were cleared.
York may have continued as an attractive and small settlement had it not been for an unusual conjunction of events. The town had always been an important departure point for the intrepid pastoralists, sandalwood cutters and explorers who tried their luck in the dry flat plains beyond the coast. In 1886 this process was greatly improved by the arrival of the railway. This lucky event occurred within two years of the discovery of gold at Southern Cross and later at Coolgardie and Kalgoorlie. This meant that by the late 1880s the town was teeming with miners, prospectors and fossickers all alighting from the train and preparing to make the long journey across the plains to the goldfields. There is a superb and fascinating Heritage Trail Brochure - York to Goldfields Heritage Trail - which traces the original route from York to the Goldfields and explains the pioneering work done by the remarkable Charles Cooke Hunt who laid out the line of wells and waterholes through the region during his journeys in the 1860s.
It was during the period 18861900 that most of the town¹s impressive, and very solid, buildings were constructed. The modern interest in these old buildings can be dated from 1967 when a misguided person decided to remove some verandah posts in the street and found that he was faced with the wrath of the local community. Since then the town has been deeply committed to the preservation of its heritage. The town is classified by the National Trust as York Historic Town.
There is no question about York. It is one of the premier historical towns in Western Australia and one of the best preserved historical towns in the whole of Australia. It should not be missed.
Things to see
York Heritage Trail
The York Heritage Trail, a must for all serious visitors who wish to spend a day wandering around this fascinating historic town, divides the town into four walks. The administrative and commercial development, old Blandstown, the industry, schools and churches, and the highlights of the local domestic architecture. It is estimated that each walk will take about 23 hours so be prepared if you want to see everything that York has to offer.
There is the wonderful Court House and Police Station, located in Avon Terrace, which was built and extended over a 60 year period from the early 1840s until the end of the century. The present Court House, for example, was built in 1895 and opened by Sir John Forrest. The National Trust have produced an excellent, and reasonably priced, 28 page booklet titled Old Police Station, York which covers the history of the complex in great detail and chronicles the evolution of the buildings up to the construction of the new police station in 1900.
There's the huge Church of St Patrick which, although it was started in 1875, wasn't finished until 1886. Designed in the grand Gothic Revival style of the late nineteenth century it is a dominant feature of the town's landscape.
Then there is the Old Hospital in Brook Street which was opened in 1896 and which still boasts a shingle roof and some unusual handmade bricks. The most interesting feature of the building is the architect's decision to design a building which doesn't look like a grim institution. The unusual roof line, the arches and the mock Tudor gables all give the building a comfortable domestic touch. Even today the visitor is likely to think of it as a grand home or perhaps a guest house. It certainly doesn¹t look like a Victorian hospital building.
Then there is the Railway Station in Railway Street which is still operational and must be one of the very few (are there any others?) two storey railway stations in Australia. The railway reached York from Fremantle in 1885 and the line from Albany was completed in 1889. Additional branch lines were built to Northam in 1886 and Toodyay in 1888 and the major route through to Southern Cross was completed in 1894.
But this is to briefly cover some of the town's interesting buildings. In total the Heritage Trail lists 57 buildings and places of importance and the York Tourist Bureau, being more modest, lists 21. There is a lot to see in a relatively small town.
The Residency Museum in Brook Street is an excellent local folk museum housed in an interesting three room colonial brick building. And few visitors could pass the Town Hall on the corner of Avon Terrace and Joaquina Street without a gasp of disbelief. Constructed in 1911 it is a symbol of the wealth that flowed into York as a result of the gold rushes. Its colonial revival columns and ornate facade announce to the world that this a wealthy town which can afford a public building to match any in the country. It still boasts one of the largest public halls in Australia.
Inevitably the town has attracted overtly tourist attractions such as the York Motor Museum with its large number of vintage cars and horse drawn vehicles (reputedly the largest display in Australia) and there is a display of over 3000 dolls in the Town Hall.
Sadly one of the town's most fascinating attractions is now closed. Billadong Farm was the only working farm museum in Australia. The farm itself was first taken up by William Heal in 1831. It was later acquired by Rivett Henry Bland who, by judicious purchases, made the farm the centre of York. The farm was sold to Stephen Stanley Parker in 1848 and shortly afterwards convicts came to work on the farm. They were responsible for the construction of the Shearing Shed, Granary, Stables and Bridge House. The farm, which at its peak covered 32 000 hectares, remained in the Parker family until it was purchased by the National Trust in 1974. It was opened to the public in 1979. You can still get a glimpse of the old farm if you take one of the Glenmeadows Shire Horse Stud tours (contact 0429 123 948 for details) around town. They often pass through the grounds of Billadong.
For tourist information see York website.