Every child should have a Brigadoon – a wonderful, magical world lost in the mists of time and only accessible by undertaking some sort of quest, some sort of adventure. For most children this world only exists in the recesses of their imaginations. I was lucky. For me, back in the early 1950’s, this world existed in reality and although I last visited this world when I was only five years old, the fact that so much is retained in my memory, bears testament to the permanent impact that world had on me.
That world existed in the Blue Mountains, only about 60 miles West of Sydney but for an awe-inspired toddler, it could have been on another planet.
The adventure would start in the dark pre-dawn hours, when mum and dad would wake us up, dress us and give us a quick breakfast. Then a taxi would arrive. It was only on rare occasions such as this that we would catch taxis, so that would be the first exciting experience. The next would await us at Central Station. There, standing at the platform would be a beautiful old-world passenger train, its carriages a deep browny-red colour, each with an insignia on its side saying “NSWGR”. Some carriages would just have seats facing each other, running horizontally from the aisle; others would have a series of tiny compartments, with entry from a narrow passage-way. At the front of the train was the engine, steam bellowing from its under-belly. If we were early Dad would take us up to this engine where a fireman would be shovelling coal into the blazing red furnace as the driver watched on nonchalantly.
If we were lucky we would have a compartment to ourselves – our own little cocoon in which we would set out on our family adventure. Dad would place our bags, my stroller and anything else we may have brought with us, up on the filigreed metal luggage rack above us, mum would cover us with a rug and my sister Lynette and I would snuggle next to the window, watching the legs of other passengers as they passed by at our eye level, hoping none would come into our compartment.
At each end of the carriage, above the doorways, there were always large black and white print photos of places in New South Wales such as Mt Warning, the Three Sisters or the Hawkesbury River. A water bottle sat in a rack next to the door and at one end was the narrow little cubicle that held the toilet and a tiny wash basin. I loved the sign above the door, ‘Do not use toilet whilst train is at station’. I only had to pull the flush lever to find out why because when I did there below were the tracks sitting under the train. I often thought how awful it would be to be a member of the one of the railway gangs that we always saw leaning on their picks and shovels by the line and to have someone flush the toilet in the spot where they were working.
It would seem to take an eternity but eventually we would hear the train whistle several times and the guard walking along the platform calling, “All Aboard”. Then there would be a clanking which started at one end of the train and rapidly moved through to the other. We would hear the strain of the engine chugging and the train would gradually move forward.
Soon we were passing through the inner suburbs, seeing the backside of Sydney’s ugliness: factories belching acrid smoke into the early morning air, row after row of identical brown brick tenement buildings with the main feature of their tiny back-yards being the small outside ‘dunny’. If we were lucky, you might even see a house-wife, in pink chenille dressing gown, hanging her washing on the single wire clothes line stretching between wooden poles on either side of the yard.
Shortly afterwards the train would stop at Strathfield to pick up more passengers and then it would move on again before its final set stop, Parramatta. It was around Parramatta that the scenery would gradually change. The close-cropped inner-suburban tenement houses gave way to suburbs where the fibro and tin-roofed houses would have their own quarter-acre blocks, then these would soon give way to farmland, with herds of cows grazing on the lush grass and with rows of crops growing in the rich, fertile soil. This was Sydney’s bread-basket and had been since the days of the first settlement. It was on the plains west of Parramatta where the train would build to its maximum speed and the stations would flash by: Blacktown, Rooty Hill, St Mary’s, Kingswood and finally Penrith. As soon as the train passed through Penrith it would slowly cross the bridge over the Nepean River. This was an exciting stage as to me it meant that we were leaving the world of the city behind and moving on to the excitement of our secret special ‘other’ world.
Soon we were in the foothills of the mountains. The train would slow to a crawl and we could both feel and hear the engine straining to negotiate the steep climb up the escarpment and through Lapstone Gorge. As we rounded the bends, our window would be enveloped with white coal generated steam and sometimes the lightly pungent, yet somehow alluring smell of train smoke would permeate through the tiny gaps between the windows and their frames.
We came to know the stations by heart: Lapstone, Glenbrook, Blaxland, Warrimoo and then Valley Heights. Here we would stop because the track further into the mountains was too steep for one engine to handle. There would be the sound of shunting and we would feel the clanking as a second engine would join the front of the train. In the meantime our original engine would replenish its supply of water from a wide hose leading from a large water tower beside the track. Finally we would be off again, both engines straining in unison to haul their heavy load up the steep grades which would finally lead to the highest point in the mountains, Mt Victoria.
However, for us the excitement would build as we came closer to our destination. More tiny stations: Springwood, Faulconbridge, Linden, Woodford, Hazelbrook and Lawson. At Lawson Dad would get off the train and briefly talk to the station-master. He had to do this because we were to get off at the next station, which was unattended and the train would only stop if someone requested it. It was after the train passed through Lawson that Dad would get all our luggage from the rack and we would make our way to the door at the end of the carriage. Soon the train would pull up and we would alight onto the platform. We had reached our destination, Bullaburra. Mum was always concerned that the train may not stop and once her fears came true. On this occasion we were carried on to Wentworth Falls and had to get a taxi cab to take us back to Bullaburra.
Once I also defied mum’s warnings not to open the window of the compartment. The train was going around a tight bend through a cutting somewhere near Bullaburra when I stuck my head out to see if I could see the engine. At that moment some soot-laden smoke drifted past and a small particle lodged in my eye. Despite mum’s best efforts, she couldn’t get it out and Dad ended up taking me to Katoomba Hospital on the bus to have it removed. After the doctor had removed the small particle Dad left me for a few minutes to pay the bill and I must have panicked, thinking he was leaving me there alone. I ran out of the room and out of the hospital in a frantic search for ‘Daddy’. Fortunately it only took a minute or so for a nurse to realise that I was gone. They soon found me, heading down the highway towards Bullaburra.
Bullaburra could hardly have been called a town. It was a tiny settlement consisting of a few streets on the Southern side of the railway line and abruptly ending at the edge of the Blue Mountains National Park, just a few hundred yards away. It was the sort of place where if you blinked you missed it and where, if you didn’t have to stop, you didn’t.
Whenever we got off the train, we would cross the line with all our goods and chattels and make our way to the beginnings of a barely discernible dirt track which seemed to disappear into the bush. This track was a short-cut to our house. It went behind and through a couple of properties but the owners never minded, so it was used by the occasional local on their way to the railway station, bus stop or corner shop. Depending on how much we had with us we may have had to make two or three trips to get everything to the house but eventually we would make it.
This house belonged to my mother and her brother, Neil. They had bought it in 1936, before they were both married and had used it frequently since then as a holiday home. It was a tiny weatherboard house with a corrugated iron roof, near the end of de Quency Road. Today it has the number 36 on its letterbox but I am fairly sure that back in those days it had no number at all, just a name – “Sherwood”. Directly opposite us was native bushland, the edge of the Blue Mountains National Park. Next to us was a small house and farm but beyond that again stretched the National Park.
I always looked forward to our arrival because one of the first things mum would do after she went around the house pushing out the casement windows and putting the arms on their stays so that the house would ‘air’, was to get out the Primus stove and we would have boiled frankfurts for breakfast. Ever since then frankfurts have reminded me of Bullaburra as has blue and white Willow Pattern crockery, as all the plates, cups and saucers in the house were of this pattern.
In the kitchen were a small black Waratah fuel stove and a ‘Dripsafe’. This had a tray at the top which mum filled with water. The water dripped and soaked the fabric at the sides, keeping the contents of the safe cool. A tray underneath gradually filled with the water, after which it had to be emptied and the top tray then re-filled.
In the bathroom there was a chip-heater over the bath and a copper for washing clothes. It was my sister Lynette’s (who was five years older than me) and my job to collect twigs and any other small pieces of wood from our property and place them in the wood box. These were then used for either the chip-heater, the copper or the fuel stove.
Because the place only received rare visits, no grass had ever been planted in the back yard and so it was just bare earth, with tall gum trees growing randomly around it. Dad made us a swing at one stage and hung it from one of the trees. Apart from the propped up wire clothes line that was all there was to the back of the property. There were also a few well-established bull ants’ nests outside the back door and we quickly learned to stay away from these. Sometimes mum would pour boiling water down the holes in the top of the nests but the ants would soon be back.
The first thing you would notice about Bullaburra was the silence. After leaving the noise of the city and the constant rattling of the train behind us there were no human noises at all. Occasionally we could hear the mournful warbling of currawongs down in the valley, the raucous screeching of ‘cockies’ (sulphur crested cockatoos) wheeling through the trees or the rapid chattering of pretty deep blue and red parrots (crimson rosellas). On a windy day you could sense an approaching gust by the increasing loudness of the whooshing sound through the tall canopy of the forest gum trees but that was all. There was nothing else except silence.
However, for a child of four the really special, magical times occurred when we awoke and we were enveloped in a thick white mist which had rolled up from the valley in the early morning. Sometimes this mist was so thick we could barely see the dirt road from our front step. After breakfast mum clothed us in our thick woollen coats and covered our hands and heads with the tiny gloves and beanies she had painstakingly knitted. Then we were allowed outside, fascinated by the fact that our breath looked like smoke in the crisp morning air.
Those were the times when the silence was almost absolute. Perhaps, if we listened hard enough we might be able to hear the soft tinkling of bell-birds coming up from the glen beneath us or the scratching of some small native creature in the undergrowth across the road. If we were really lucky there may even have been the tell-tale gentle ‘pad, pad, pad’ sound of a wallaby making his way up the slope of the valley. It really felt like there was no one in the world except us. Some years later when we saw the movie Brigadoon, it reminded me of those wondrous moments in the mists of Bullaburra.
On mornings like those we would stay indoors. Dad would have had a log fire burning in the open fire place in the lounge room and we would sit around the card table playing our much-travelled games of Snakes & Ladders, Ludo, Chinese Chequers and Old Maid. I was too little to play, so I would sit on either mum or dad’s lap and ‘help’ them roll the dice or decide on their next move.
The main thing I remember about that card table was that whenever we arrived it would be in the centre of the lounge room, with canisters of sugar, biscuits or other sweets sitting on its top. The legs would be standing in saucers of lime. These were there to keep the ants away.
Also on misty or rainy days or of an evening we would play records on the old wind-up gramophone which stood in the corner. Inside the cupboard beneath the gramophone were a collection of heavy old 78 rpm records in their flimsy paper jackets, while there were even some larger classical records, about the size of today’s 33 rpm albums. However, whereas the 78’s were double-sided, these large records were only single-sided. The other side was completely blank and trackless.
I always loved winding up the gramophone, although I was too little to place the heavy head, with its sharp needle, on the records. Then I would stand, listening because inevitably, half way through the record it would slow down, so I would have to wind the handle again to get it up to its proper speed. Most of the records were old romantic songs of the 1930’s sung by people such as Mario Lanza, Nelson Eddy and Jeanette Macdonald. I only remember a few: Red Sails in the Sunset, Moonlight & Roses, The Donkey’s Serenade, Indian Love Call and Rose Marie.
There were also a couple of more humorous records. One was called When Father Papered the Parlour and the chorus went something like this:
When Father papered the parlour,
You couldn’t see pa for paint,
Dabbing it here, dabbing it there,
Paper, paper everywhere.
Mother was stuck to the ceiling
And the kids were stuck to the floor.
You never saw such a bloomin’ family
So stuck-up before
In spring the world outside the house was a lot different. The native trees would burst into bloom and the undergrowth of shrubs and ferns in the National Park would become lush and thick, with the forest floor thick with the moist rotting leaves, branches and tree trunks. There were many tiny streams leading down into the valley and these were the ideal breeding grounds for frogs of all shapes, sizes and colours. At times in the night the cacophony caused by the combined noises of hundreds of these croaking frogs was nearly deafening.
The property next-door to us was owned by the Wrights, who kept some goats in a fenced yard. I used to think these goats were really cute and I couldn’t wait to go and ‘visit’ them. However, one day, when I was five I came too close to the old billy-goat. He reached out, grabbed my hat from my head and ate it. After that I didn’t think the goats were all that cute any more.
When the mist cleared or of a fine day we went for long walks ‘exploring’ the district. The shortest of these took us down past the Wrights’ onto a little used track, which led to a pool in the valley. The tiny Minnetonka Falls were nearby but we didn’t go there often as the track was partly overgrown and covered with leeches.
Another walk took us on a circuit up de Quency Road and down Genevieve Road to the highway and back again. Except for the highway, all the roads were dirt, so after rain we always had to be careful of pot-holes and puddles and of the numerous tiny rivulets which formed in the cracks in the road and led to the open gutters at the side. It was in Genevieve Road where one of our favourite characters lived. Her name was Miss Booth and apparently, as my mother told me many years later, she had a Degree in Botany from Sydney University. She used to wander the valleys around Bullaburra gathering specimens, then she would sit at a table at the back of her property making arrangements of dried wild flowers and nuts. She would then paint them, set them in modelling clay in small containers and sell them to passers-by.
Another adventure took us up our secret track to the highway and across the overhead bridge at Bullaburra Station. We would follow the dirt road alongside the railway line, down through Lanassa to the Lawson Swimming Pool. Sometimes we went further, down a track to the Fairy Falls and even further down steep steps to a waterfall and deep pool where there were yabbies. From there another track which followed the creek, led through Dante’s Glen before turning back to Lawson. I loved it down there. Everything was so green and quiet and isolated, I thought that this must certainly be a place where the fairies and gnomes lived.
Sometimes we would take jars with us and mum and dad would let us catch tadpoles. If we were careful we even got to take them home to Sydney with us but they seldom lived past the ‘developing legs and losing their tails’ stage. Tadpoles and Sydney tap water were not a good combination.
My favourite walk was the shortest one of all, up to the shop on the highway, on the corner opposite the station. As it was the only shop in Bullaburra it served all purposes, being the Post Office, grocers, newsagency, green-grocer and general goods shop all rolled into one. On the counter were rows of glass jars containing lollies of various descriptions. If we had been good mum might let us spend up to 3d on a small packet of lollies, which would buy quite a variety. My favourites were always aniseed balls, bulls’ eyes, musk sticks and liquorice sticks.
Apparently, at the tender age of six months, I nearly caused Mum to be arrested at Bullaburra. As there were no pathways, she was walking along the fringe of the Great Western Highway on her way to the shop, with Lynette in hand and me in the pram, when a policeman on a motor bike stopped and warned her because she was walking on the wrong side of the road, instead of being on the side where she should have been, facing the oncoming traffic.
A little further down the highway, towards Lawson was a convent, enclosed by high walls. Between it and the highway were tall pine trees, which made the whole place look dark and foreboding. I can’t remember ever seeing anyone in the convent grounds but sometimes we would hear the bells tolling for prayers. Mum told us that the nuns worked in vegetable gardens around the back, away from the prying eyes of strangers.
On really fine days, as a special treat, mum would pack a picnic lunch and we would catch a bus to Wentworth Falls, Leura or Katoomba. Here we would make our way down to the escarpment over-looking the spectacular Jamieson Valley and explore the walking tracks which led to such places as the Wentworth Falls, the Leura Cascades, the Three Sisters or Katoomba Falls. Once we even went down the steeply inclined Scenic Railway to the base of the valley near Katoomba but I didn’t like that. I was terrified that the cable would break and we would all hurtle to our deaths. I much preferred the see-saws, the merry-go-round and the swing-boats in the park where we picnicked at the top of Katoomba Falls.
Finally our holiday would come to an end. Mum and dad would ensure that all the casement windows were firmly locked, the card table would be set in place in its saucers of lime in the centre of the lounge room and anything which might attract ants would be placed on it. Then we would shuttle all our gear up to the station and wait for the steam train to arrive. If it was daytime dad would flag the train down. At night he would light the station lamp provided and wave it to signal the driver to stop. This was all part of the romance of the whole Bullaburra experience.
Mum and Dad didn’t have much luck with the cars we owned. Our first car was an old Standard, which Mum and Dad purchased when I was five years old. Soon after we bought it, we set out on a Sunday afternoon drive to Coogee, a beach suburb not far from where we lived in Eastlakes but surrounded by some fairly steep hills. We had just about reached the top of the Rainbow Street hill when the car stalled and would go no further. We were all terrified because the only thing that Dad could do was to roll backwards all the way down to the bottom of the hill. We all thought we were going to die but thankfully there was no traffic coming the other way and we made it.
That left us with a big problem. One of the main reasons why Dad had bought the car was so that it would be easier for us to drive up to Bullaburra. However, seeing as the Standard could not even make it to the top of the Rainbow Street Hill, Mum and Dad figured that there was no way it would be able to climb the steep, winding section of the Great Western Highway known as Lapstone Hill. However, later that year somehow we did manage to make it up that hill for what was to become our final holiday at Bullaburra. Having a car meant that we were able to get around and see more of the Blue Mountains but it also meant that much of the romanticism had gone. Bullaburra no longer seemed a whole other world away. Brigadoon was only a myth.
My mother and my Uncle Neil sold the house at Bullaburra at the end of 1952. I don’t know why they sold. Perhaps the upkeep was becoming too much; perhaps they needed the money to help with their own home renovations or perhaps they just wanted to give is the opportunity to experience other places on our holidays.