About the author:
She is the bestselling author of several novels, including The Horse Thief, The Cedar Cutter, The Currency Lass and The Naturalist’s Daughter. Her latest book, The Woman in the Green Dress, releases at the end of 2018, followed by The Girl in the Painting in 2019.
WORDS // Tea Cooper
Many people ask me about the setting for my novels—Why Australia? Why the Hawkesbury and Hunter? Why not travel further afield?
All very good questions and the answer is hardly complicated. I came to fiction writing quite late in life, I’d done a vast amount of travelling, lived and taught in India and left the country of my birth, England, looking for something, I wasn’t sure what until I stumbled upon it. The place I felt was home.
If I had to put geographic boundaries on the area it would be what was once the County of Northumberland, the southern boundary is the Hawkesbury River, the Macdonald River to the south-west, and the Hunter River to the north. A mere 68 miles long and 53 miles wide, created in 1826 by Governor Darling as one of the nineteen regions where European settlement would be permitted because beyond those boundaries lay uninhabitable wilderness.
I settled on a 100 acre property just outside the township of Wollombi, in the shadow of Mount Corrabare, scattered with ancient rocks and caves hollowed by years of wind and rain. 95 of those acres are under a conservation order as a wild life corridor and it never fails to fascinate me that the land has been occupied for thousands of years yet there is no evidence.
Wollombi was intended as the administrative centre of the Northumberland district but the arrival of steamships and trains and the development of Newcastle brought those plans to a halt, consequently the area exists in a strange bubble, very much unchanged from colonial times. There’s a simple beauty in the nineteenth century sandstone buildings and the weathered slab dwellings.
However, it’s not only the colonial history of the area that inspires me. There is a much older Indigenous history dating back over 60,000 years. Mount Yengo, one of the most significant places for the local Indigenous population, lies in the centre. An ancient ceremonial site of the Awabakal, Gamilaroi, Dharug and Darkinjung people and throughout the surrounding countryside are cave paintings and rock carvings testimony to the proud and fearless race who originally inhabited the area, a wealth of evidence dating back since time began, since Baiame over saw the land’s creation.
Like the layers of an onion you can peel back the stories. Every lump, bump or diversion in one of the old tracks tells of the past, the trees, rocks and grasses just another layer of history revealing the lives of the people who have gone before. I’m not a great believer in reincarnation or time travel but the study of epigenetics has sparked my interest and when I first explored the area I knew I’d been here before, that is was ‘my country’.
I was lured, like so many before me, to the sandstone country carved by two mighty rivers, the verdant valley floors and wooded hillsides, the richness and diversity of the flora and fauna and the rugged ridges and ranges all watched over by Mount Yengo.
I didn’t consciously set out to feature the Hunter and Hawkesbury area in my writing but the stories I heard from the locals and events I read about in archived copies of the Maitland Mercury fired my imagination. The first historical I wrote was inspired by the account of a man named Ramsey, a convict who leapt from his horse down an embankment (now known as Ramsey’s Leap) while under escort. He disappeared into the bush and was never seen again. Another story was sparked by an urban myth recounted in the local pub on Melbourne Cup day, and so it went on, a wealth of inspiration on my doorstep. This gives me the opportunity to ‘write what I know’, perhaps ‘write what I hear and feel’ is a better description.
Several of the local families are long-time residents and have family stories to tell. I’m in the privileged position, as a member of the Volunteer Bush Fire Brigade, in helping to map and maintain the fire tracks that surround the village of Wollombi. It allows me access to many places that have remained unchanged for hundreds, if not thousands of years. Tracks wend their way over ridges and through long-forgotten gullies, affording breath taking views and vistas. There is nothing more inspiring than standing at Finchley Trig and watching the sun set over Mount Yengo or see the sandstone of Lizard Rock welcome the rising sun.
Both the Hunter and the Hawkesbury Rivers are an inspiration in themselves, mighty rivers that have served the community both well, and harshly in times of drought and flood. In researching my latest book The Woman in the Green Dress I took the Postman’s cruise up the Hawkesbury river and visited settlements that are little changed, their history protected by the silting of the MacDonald River, ate chicken pies at The Settlers Arms and travelled home along The Great North Road built by convicts between 1827-31.
Tolkien’s words describe the area better than I will ever be able to. It is, and always will be, ‘a timeless land … that does … not fade or change or fall into forgetfulness.’
How could I not be inspired?