The north-east is awash with pretty and charming small towns and interesting villages, but Beechworth is a special place. It sits in the centre of an historical golden triangle of interest to visitors and tourists alike. The beauty of the scenery through the seasons has to be seen to be believed and won’t be easily forgotten (particularly the gorgeous foliage on display in the autumn), and immaculately preserved honey-granite-constructed buildings of historical significance occur all through the town.
Beechworth traces its roots to the late 1850’s, when it rapidly became one of the richest goldfields in Victoria, and was recognised as a centre of some influence in colonial Victoria. In total, some 212,500 ounces of gold were produced.
Relating directly to the gold rush period, you might like to look out for a few of the significant buildings, such as the original prison and telegraph office on Ford Street (where you can send an old-fashioned telegram), the post office located on the main intersection in town, and the old Gunpowder Magazine located in the bounds of the Gorge that looks across at the town and was the source of the granite hewn to make these buildings. Guided walking tours of Beechworth cover many of the points of interest mentioned so far.
A consequence of the early success of the town was the advent of bushrangers in the district, the most famous being the notorious Kelly Gang (Ned Kelly, Dan Kelly, Steve Hart and Joe Byrne) who pillaged in and around the district during the late 1800s. Kelly himself was held in a cell in Beechworth, while his mother, Ellen Kelly (née Quinn), was imprisoned at one time in the local gaol, and former friend turned police informer Aaron Sherritt was murdered by the gang member Byrne at the locality of Woolshed, just outside Beechworth.
I and all of my childhood mates were of course, at one time or another, the one and only ‘real’ Ned Kelly – marauders through the wild bush around the township, growers of voluminous amounts of imaginary facial hair, holders-up of tourist vehicle traffic trying to circumnavigate the Gorge on the tourist road … (oops, I shouldn’t have said that- Pumpkin Rock Terrorists poem).
More contemporary points of interest would have to include the Beechworth Bakery, which is now well-known in many parts of Australia, the Beechworth Brewery, a multi-award-winning local microbrewery, and the Beechworth Sweet Shop Company. These are particular favorites for me in my life around the town – the bakery for early morning coffee before I start work, the brewery for gourmet pizza lunch when my wife and I want an informal lunch out, and the sweet shop… well, whenever the yearning for hand-crafted dark chocolate calls.
The town holds more festivals and gatherings than I can recount in full, but a few of them come to mind. The Golden Horseshoes Festival is perhaps the main draw card for visitors and takes place every Easter. The story goes that a horse was shod with golden horseshoes by an election candidate in 1855 and ridden through the town. Goodness knows what that would have done to the horseshoes, but it suggests there was a lot of wealth about the place. This festival culminates on Easter Saturday morning with a massed parade of exhibits on floats that often seems to go on forever.
Other festivals include the Harvest Festival, the Celtic Festival, the Kelly Country Pick and of course the Ned Kelly Festival. There are definitely plenty to choose from, and the town fairly bursts at the seams with tourists whenever a festival weekend arrives on the calendar.
But why am I living here? What does this town mean to me?
I grew up in Beechworth, the son of an immigrant family that settled here in the migration wave that took place in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s. I have memories that curl around my mind rising from every street corner, particularly from the schools, the state and catholic primary schools as well as the local high school. But the wilderness calls me too, recalling my youthful solitary adventures whenever I glimpse the forested Gorge that surrounds the town.
And the old Mayday Hills Psychiatric Hospital reminds that it gave me my career as a psychiatric nurse, each time I step onto the grounds to wander the wooded parkland surrounding the old buildings. It amazes me to see the ‘For Sale’ signs on dilapidated wards where I and my family before me used to work. Privatisation is an amazing thing when places like an old lunatic asylum, as it once was, can be repurposed into hotels, accommodation and private housing. Who would have thought?
This is my home town, I wrote my first poems here, and I bid you….
…welcome to Beechworth. I can hardly wait to show you …
© Frank Prem, 2016
Photos © Leanne Murphy, 2016