Generally when people do this walk they do it in either spring or autumn. This lets them enjoy either the display of daffodils still growing on the site of the long abandoned Sherwood Homestead or the sight of a range of exotic deciduous trees as their leaves transform from green to an assortment of browns, yellows and reds before finally drifting to the ground in the former homestead gardens.
Not being one to follow the crowd I visited in the winter.
It actually had been my intent to visit a month or so earlier, during the autumn, though I just didn’t got round to it and I had, and still do have, plans to return in September, our spring-time. Then I plan to try out my new tent (bought with that very generous gift voucher received from my former work colleagues when I retired, should any of them be reading this), in warmer climes and within a safe distance of Canberra, lest I need to abandon the exercise, not having camped for over 20 years now and having become more accustomed to more salubrious abodes in the interim.
Getting to the start of this walk at Blue Range Hut (a campground/ picnic area) from Canberra involved a drive of around 45 minutes (42 kms) via a rather circuitous route to get across the Murrumbidgee River. As I wasn’t camping I couldn’t drive the whole way to the campsite area. From where I had to park it was only a couple of hundred metres to the campground/ picnic area along a well compacted and easy to walk on fire-trail, similar to that encountered on 99% of the full 7.5 kms walk (return distance).
I have alluded to Sherwood being the site of an historic former homestead. So to is the Blue Range Hut area an important historic site in its own right. This area was an internment camp for unnaturalised Italians during World War II. During both WWI and WWII it was Government policy to hold, in isolation, any citizen/former citizen of enemy countries whose loyalty was suspect while Australia was at war with their home country.
While here, the 27 or so internees were employed in forestry work. Many of then continued working here after the war, with other Italians from within Australia and later with immigrants directly from Italy joining them. By this time they had planted fruit and walnut trees together with a vegetable garden to make camp life more livable.
Early camp arrivals lived in tents until 20 two-man huts were erected. Also built were a camp kitchen, washrooms, a laundry and various other facilities.
In 1954 the camp was closed due to a dwindling number of residents and a number of the huts were transferred to Camp Cottersmouth, a scout camp not far from the Cotter Dam. Here they were lost to the 2003 bushfires which raged through the western part of the Australian Capital Territory, including a couple of Canberra’s western suburbs.
To-day anyone, who pays the relevant camping fee, can camp here. The camp kitchen was rebuilt in 1988 and is available for seperate hire. Modern toilet facilities, fire-pits, barbeques and picnic tables are available for use by to-day’s camper or day visitor. In addition to the reconstructed camp kitchen, a few fruit trees, a couple of concrete slabs and assorted other internment camp remnants remain. The camp’s washroom and laundry are thought to have been located on the concrete slabs.
Having had a look around the campground I chatted with a travelling chap who had been camping here, in his rather antiquated caravan, for a week (I don’t think caravans are permitted in here). Amongst other things, he explained how he was working in the public (civil) service in Canberra and at a point in time decided to take a short break. Ten years later and he is still on that ‘short break’ and had just returned to Canberra to chase up some money owed to him prior to heading north in search of sunnier climes.
Easing myself away, I left the campground in the direction of the former Sherwood Homestead – there being only one way out other than the one I had used to get in I could not get lost.
The first 500 metres or so of the walk is uphill, at a relatively steep gradient, so while not puffing when I arrived at a ridge top it was nice to stop and enjoy a very agreeable view out towards Canberra – always easy to identify on bush walks with its tell-tale Black Mountain Tower. Between me and the city I could see the last of the morning’s fog lifting off the Murrumbidgee River. I had driven through a fairly heavy fog by the river less than an hour earlier to get here.
From the ridge-top the well signposted track continued on, all downwards now, through more relatively new pine forest which was not so dense as to preclude some lovely views of the surrounding landscape. I say relatively new as the pines were planted at some time after 2003 when the bush fire referred to earlier ripped through this area destroying everything in its path. In addition to being a source of timber the pines help combat erosion and thus improve the quality of water flowing into the Cotter Dam, one of Canberra’s main water sources. This area being part of the Cotter’s catchment area – no peeing in any streams you might encounter, please!
About 500 metres from the homestead the path opened out into a small valley like area affording me sweeping views and a gentle, level walk to the site of the former Sherwood Homestead, first settled by immigrants from England, Henry and Eliza Phillips in 1863. In the distance a group of kangaroo’s scampered into the bush, clearly shyer than the ones in the nearby Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve where they are quite happy to join you – especially if lunch is on offer. Equally shy was a rather overweight wombat which waddled across the path, on my return trip, disappearing into the bush before I could get my camera readied for a shot.
Today nothing of the homestead remains, above ground,
apart from a few stones from a chimney which have been assembled into a pile at the former chimney location.
The Phillips raised four children here in a seven room house and on a small farm which allowed the family to be self sufficient in terms of meat, eggs, dairy produce, fruit and vegetables. Henry was a sawyer, bookkeeper, teacher and the postmaster at the nearby Uriarra village until 1903.
Reading his obituary in the Queanbeyan Observer (13 January, 1913) I have learned that:-
“Mr Phillips was a gentleman of superior intellect and of wide and varied information…He was one of nature’s gentlemen of a decidedly religious turn of mind and lived in profound respect of all who had the pleasure of his acquaintance….”
What does remain to this day is part of the former garden which runs down to what is now a completely dry creek – then the source of water for the family.
The centre piece of the now over-grown garden is a massive and really gorgeous looking oak tree. Like me, you will have to imagine it in its autumn foliage.
Eliza Phillips named the property ‘Sherwood’ after the forest made famous by Robin Hood which was close to her birthplace. The story goes that Eliza planted an acorn from Sherwood Forest at her new home though it is unlikely that the large oak here today is from that acorn. A descendent perhaps?
In addition to the oak there remains a selection elms, cedars, cherry trees, apples, walnuts and raspberry bushes. Given the lack of foliage I was unable to tell one from the other.
The other feature of this garden are its swathes of daffodils which attract many visitors during the spring. Daffodils have been growing here since the 1860s. Walking in I was hoping that a few might have come out early, as they have in my garden at home. Alas, that wasn’t to be and I had to make do with a few early clumps of leaves and one flower head on the verge of opening.
Anyway, I got the gist and sat down at the picnic table thoughtfully provided, in addition to few other benches, and enjoyed my lunch and a cup of hot tea, from my thermos flask. All the time I contemplated what life might have been like here at the end of the nineteenth century. While I imagine it was hard without the comforts of home we enjoy today it would certainly have been as peaceful as it was on my walk. While peaceful I didn’t have the place totally to myself as an inquisitive wallaby came to within about ten metres of me for a look, prior darting off across the dry creek to whatever business it had there.
Suitably refreshed I crossed the fire-trail and headed in the direction of Roper’s Hill – up a slight incline at a distance of about 150 metres from the fire-trail. Here I easily located, surrounded by a wooden rail, the small graveyard where Henry, Eliza and their infant son, Henry are buried. Their other offspring left the property which was sold to Uriarra Station in 1926 which, in turn, owned it until 1977 when the ACT Forests Department resumed the lease.
A large oak tree, now cut down with only its stump remaining, formerly marked the graves’ location. Since then a small brass plaque has been added and more recently a new oak tree has been planted.
The positioning of the graves at the top of this small hill would have been a deliberate attempt to ensure they were not damaged in the event that the creek by the homestead flooded.
Burying people on their properties was a fairly common occurrence in the 1800s and the early 1900s, until the enactment of legislation requiring the use of public or church graveyards for burials. I have come across quite a few of these private burial sites in the Canberra area. Ones I have written about in this blog include the burial site of Elizabeth Westerman and her unnamed infant brother at Westerman’s Homestead in Namadgi National Park and the much grander De Salis (or Cuppacumbalong) Family Cemetery at Thawa Village, to the south of Canberra.
While returning to the Blue Range Hut required a bit more exertion than coming in to the homestead I actually managed to do it a few minutes faster – less photo stops, I guess. All in all this was a three hour walk – an hour in, an hour to rummage around the site and eat and an hour back out. Notwithstanding that I choose to visit in the winter and that little of the either the Blue Range Hut internment camp or the Sherwood Homestead remains I thoroughly enjoyed what was a relatively easy and very peaceful walk.
Location: Entrance to the campground and start of the walk – Blue Range Road, 2.6km from the intersection with Brindabella Road, 45 minutes drive to the west of Canberra.
Website for campground bookings: https://www.environment.act.gov.au/parks-conservation/parks-and-reserves/find-a-park/murrumbidgee-river-corridor/blue-range-hut