Tasmania’s Midlands Highway is the island’s main north-south route, linking the two major cities of Hobart and Launceston. It runs for about 200km through a broad grassland valley that contains farmland, sheep properties and historic towns and villages that were once major coaching stops for a journey that could take several days.
I recall as a child, we had a copy of a popular book containing illustrations of historic buildings along the route of the highway, which we would tick off as each was passed. These days, many of the towns and historic buildings have been bypassed as the route of the highway has moved for reasons of speed and convenience and drivers tend to zip up or down in just a couple of hours. This Tasmanian Film Unit production from 1973 shows Oatlands as a pretty delapidated, run-down backwater with many of its historic buildings in ruins.
Many of those ruins have been lovingly conserved and now help to attract visitors to the towns. In order to encourage locals and tourists to stop and spend, the highway has been rechristened The Heritage Highway for tourism purposes, with towns along the way offering attractions and activities designed to encourage travellers to slow down and enjoy the journey. And it seems to be working. Former backwaters such as Oatlands and Kempton, which were bypassed in the 1980s, have found new purpose, accommodating niche, high-end food and beverage producers and uncovering and sharing their history and heritage, as well as offering the usual mix of bakeries, cafes and antique shops.
A recent tour of the Southern Midlands as part of a Hobart and Beyond Instameet, had an implicit theme of conservation of both the cultural and natural heritage variety, along with the chance to sample some of the produce of the region. The tour started with the refurbished and now fully operational Callington Mill, which has been returned from a ruinous state and now produces a variety of artisanal flours milled from grain from nearby growers.
Drystone walls and post and beam fences surround grounds and gardens that are faithful to those that would have been familiar to early settlers, and the Visitor Information Centre offers a range of quality interpretive brochures on the town and its buildings. Walking trails of the town are beginning to appear, and there is a variety of both guided and self guided tours available.
Council heritage officer Allan Townsend guided us on a walking tour to the old Oatlands Gaol and Supreme Courthouse, which have lately been subject of significant conservation works. Inside the Gaoler’s House, the striking wallpaper is a reproduction of what was found to have been originally in place, and was apparently a very popular pattern in the mid nineenth century.
There are also displays of artefacts from the extensive archaeological surveys undertaken in the area.
Allan explained that much of the old gaol was demolished in the 1930s. The archway over the gaol gate was relocated to the main street outside the local school (see the film above), and had only been returned to its original site in recent years.
Oatlands was the only place outside of the major cities of Hobart and Launceston where the Supreme Court held sittings, and also the only place where capital punishments were carried out. Prior to the abolition of the practice, executions were carried out in public outside the gates of the gaol. Apparently large crowds assembled to watch, perhaps hoping for a last minute confession from the condemned.
Later executions were carried out on a gallows inside the gaol yard. Those ascending the scaffold would today have a fine view of the municipal swimming pool, which was built over the old exercise yard (admittedly almost a century after the last execution was carried out here).
Plans are afoot to relocate the now aging pool and hopes are high that rich archaeological pickings will be had below it, as it was built on top of the exercise yard and not excavated into it.
Our guide then led us around the corner and into the Supreme Courthouse building. Originally a pretty basic structure, it was enhanced by Colonial Architect John Lee Archer, who installed a rare (in Tasmania) ‘wagon wheel’ ceiling, giving it a vaulted roof to reflect the majesty of the court’s status.
The standard of conservation work being undertaken, largely under the auspices of the local council, is impressive, although slow, given available resources. I know from my experience with the Port Arthur Historic Sites how much planning and effort goes into conserving and planning for public interpretation of historic and cultural heritage sites and I also know that most of the effort and investment occurs before any tangible results are visible to the casual viewer.
Extensive plans are in place (my conservation-nerd readers can see these on the Southern Midlands Council’s website), and public access and interpretation is starting to become available. As they do, I look forward to return visits to observe progress and see Oatlands transform into an historic site comparable to Port Arthur or the Cascades Female Factory. It certainly has potential to give Richmond a run for its money.
While the work at Oatlands is classic public works conservation, our next two stops show that heritage conservation can be tied to very commercial activities to conserve sites through adaptive re-use.
Dysart House at Kempton was both home and a long-term restoration passion-project for Australian arts festival director and media identity Leo Schofield for about four years of the decade or so he resided in Tasmania. Periodic updates on progress (and occasionally lack thereof) were included in his weekly columns in a local newspaper.
Dysart House is now the home of Redlands Estate and Distillery, a boutique whisky distillery that commenced operations some years ago at another heritage property in the Derwent Valley a few dozen kilometers to the west of Kempton.
The former stables are now home to the distillery and bond store, stacked to the rafters with sweet-smelling barrells of single malt.
The ground floor of the home itself offers sales and tastings along with food and refreshment in sumptuous reception rooms.
Jack Lark, son of Tasmanian whisky legend Bill Lark, was on hand to show us through the whisky distilling process and then offer tastings.
I’ve written previously about Shene Estate and the energetic Kernke family who have invested not just money, but time, passion and entreprenurial flair into bringing the estate back from the brink of collapse over the past decade or so.
Since my last visit around 18 months ago in true Kernke fashion, they have not been idle. A new entrance leads to an entirely new suite of buildings, built to echo the form of estate outbuidings of the period of Shene’s construction, to accommodate a distillery, this time for artisanal gin, brewed in a partnership with distiller Damian Mackey.
Tours of the estate, which include the incredible Gothic Revival style Stables and the Great Barn, in which the award winning Poltergeist Gin was showcased during our visit, are available at certain times by arrangement.
If you are out and about on a Sunday drive, Poltergeist Gin can be purchased on-site from the cutest roadside stall you’re ever likely to find.
The final stop for the tour was at Bonorong Wildlife Sanctuary, which plays a key role in conservation of Tasmania’s endemic fauna through operation of Tasmania’s only 24 hour wildife rescue service, as well as its popular encounters with animals housed in its sanctuary.
Tasmania has always been known for its history and heritage, and the Southern Midlands is showing that it has ways for people to encounter and engage with that heritage in compelling and entertaining ways.