Ross McDonnell, NPA Treasurer and former NPWS Regional Manager
It is hard to imagine a current government purchasing most of an historic town, with live-in residents, and transferring it to the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS). The foresight of doing so in 1967 to protect heritage values and to add a new reserve to the historic site category was courageous and commendable.
A day or overnight trip to the Hill End Historic Site can be a rewarding and comfortable experience these days. The road from Bathurst 72km to the south was recently completely sealed and brings you into the town of 80-100 residents with deciduous treed avenues, barista coffee, pub lunches, a motel with fine dining and good wines, maintained campgrounds, period piece roofed accommodation and recently restored historic buildings harking back to the gold rush days of 1870’s. Tap drinking water aplenty and a town sewage system are all hidden underground. The newly opened visitor centre displays the area’s history using new technologies aimed at captivating the visitor. Added to this the NPWS has recently displayed a draft Plan of Management which is an easy read and gives the impression of a calm and organised reserve managed in-tune with supportive residents and local authorities.
While the above is accurate, it does hide the tremendous difficulties that have prevailed for all concerned over recent decades.
Spare a thought for the first NPWS officer to undertake a live-in role at the historic site. The NSW Government, with Tom Lewis as Minister for Lands, had acquired twenty-four properties (32 hectares) in 1967 but there were no clear land titles or surveys. Historic dwellings were (and still are) used for commercial and residential purposes but lease conditions either did not exist or were vigorously contested. The land purchase also included public buildings. Most acquisitions were in a poor state of repair, only a tiny budget was available, sewage was via septic tanks which threatened the underground water aquifer and rainwater tanks were common. Public amenities were sketchy as Hill End has always been on the outer fringe of local government areas leading to little infrastructure investment. At a community level the land transfers occurred without much local community dialogue and little support. Once a sign in the form of a hangman’s noose hung from a tree leading into town with wording akin to “go away NPWS”.
The time since 1967 has been marked with successes and failings. In the beginning the NPWS did not have clear guidelines or procedures related to managing historic values. Confusion existed over the application and difference between preservation, conservation, and more lately ‘adaptive reuse’. Initial views on managing Hill End as a ‘relic’ were replaced with a more cooperative ‘living landscape’ approach. In addition to stone and brick dwellings, many ‘basic’ dwellings, some with wattle and daub walls, existed while some were completely made from corrugated iron and rough sawn timber. Then there was the extensive array of ‘moveable heritage’ (e.g., household items, furnishings, stagecoaches) much of which is now in storage or on display in Craigmoor House. Cataloguing the items was a major exercise. Draft Plans of Management were exhibited in 1988 and 1994 but were discontinued partly as they showed that the NPWS was not fully aware of, or were not advocating, appropriate heritage practices.
Fortunately, the NPWS has had an ongoing stream of capable specialists and local staff who adapted to the lack of guidelines and planning and sought out best practice arrangements. In 1979 the introduction of the Burra Charter (ICOMOS) and its adoption by the Heritage Council of NSW provided guidance. In the absence of a Plan of Management, the NPWS embarked on a Hill End Conservation Management and Cultural Tourism Master Plan which sought to include all landholders and authorities and clearly set out responsibilities. Extensive community consultations occurred with the final plan gaining NSW Heritage Council endorsement in 2013. In addition, heritage specific contestable funding within the NPWS allowed for much needed heritage works to proceed, with all work occurring based on completed conservation management plans.
In terms of town facilities, while many residents see the NPWS as a de facto local government body, the NPWS has invested in town-wide infrastructure. Septic systems have been replaced with a sewage system with a pumping station and settling ponds, and piped drinking water supplied via bores have replaced rainwater tanks. The individual bores have recently been combined to form a reticulation system. Of concern has been the ongoing gold exploration and mining under Hill End with concerns of a lowering water table. Ongoing water table measurements have occurred as does routine Department of Health standard water quality testing.
Heritage restoration work is an example of needing to take a long-term approach. Conservation plans can take years to complete, tendering for works can often result in limited contractor interest, given the necessary skill set required and travel distances to Hill End. Then once works commence a gentle slow approach is required given that heritage approvals are required when existing items are disturbed and covered areas are exposed. Often just finding experienced contractors is difficult when the task may be to repair a wattle and daub wall using traditional techniques and materials.
Community relations have been challenging. NPWS field and management staff that reside at Hill End have regulatory and facility maintenance roles by day and attempt to fit in with the town by night. It became common practice that difficult negotiations (such as lease renewals or leaseholder evictions) are handled by ‘external’ staff. However, the timeframe for a live-in staff member can be short with some leaving as they became compromised, jaded or both.
In one aspect the NPWS has moved ahead of the times. Conservation works have been completed on some residential dwellings (see NPWS Hill End accommodation website) and commercial sites (eg, Hosies with ground floor commercial kitchen and accommodation rooms upstairs). Residents have held concerns over time that the NPWS was holding back commercial offerings which might attract new business opportunities. Now however, the buildings and opportunities exist and time will tell if business operators take advantage.
Overall, a visitor interested in history and landscape will find well maintained facilities, welcoming yet reserved residents, a modern interpretation centre and recently restored historic dwellings, with a complicated management back story behind the scenes! Given that many of the community relations, facility provision, planning and heritage restoration items have been largely resolved, it is understandable that now is the time to finally see a Plan of Management completed.
Department of Climate Change and Environment NSW 2009 – Challenges in the Landscape: memories of conserving historic heritage in the NSW park system 1967-2000.