Field Guide to Falling in Love in Tasmania

Currently showing posts tagged churches

  • A Roman Centurion at the Sidmouth Auld Kirk

    A Roman Centurion at the Sidmouth Auld Kirk

    A couple of summers ago I went to the carols concert at Sidmouth, here on the lawns outside the ‘auld kirk’, a restored building that the locals are rightfully proud of. I’d gone with my housemate at the time, who was playing trombone for the occasion. There I sat solitary amongst the parishioners, murmuring along to a few of the songs. The elderly gentleman in front of me fumbled ahead in his songbook to see what songs were coming up next, like a cheating student; another fellow by my side was in costume. “I don’t know why I’m here, there’s no Roman centurion in the biblical story,” he quipped – then tried the joke again, correcting himself: “...in the nativity story.”

    Stars, silence, sleep, and sheep: what fine themes to sing about. These are lovely old narratives. There are a few better yarns than that of the first
    noel being proclaimed to a cohort of dozing shepherds.

    Funny, though, to sing of David’s royal city whilst the shadows were lengthening the paperbarks’ silhouettes along the Tamar River. The quiet placid waters of the Tamar took in the angular light of this end of the hemisphere, a sharp southern summer sunset. Tamar, of course, is a biblical reference, but if we let that river have a name with an older lineage, kanamaluka, then the stories of the Middle East settle awkwardly on this place.

    Christmas is full of borrowed stories; many are naturalistic, but none of them are rooted in Tasmania. The birth of Christ is a kind of epic that has a broad human appeal, of course, but as the years pass I yearn for motifs that make sense in my surrounds, and connect me to the seasons. I want stories that make me consider country, and how I might care for it. What am I supposed to do with reindeer in the snow, or the King of Bohemia? What has Jerusalem to do with Hobart? What is a Roman centurion doing in Sidmouth?

    So what are the marks of seasonal change at this time of year? An obvious one is the flowering of a certain
    Correa shrub, which has the common name ‘Christmas bells’. It pops out a nice flower – tubular, yellow and red at about this time of year, joining the colourful scattering of summer blooms which brighten up our land.

    But there’s also the cherry ballart, or native cherry,
    Exocarpos cupressiformis, which at this time spurts out its edible, slightly sweet, red oval berries amidst the tree’s shaggy light-green leaves. The appearance of this fruit is a happy time, and must have been well cherished by traditional Tasmanians making their summer travels around the island. It ought to be considered as delicious my grandmother’s cloying creamy desserts, which normally sit poorly on a stomach full with potato and beer, in the thirty-degree heat that is common for our Christmas afternoons (although I’m yet to turn them down).

    The snow, of course, is a usually irrelevant
    Yuletide reference here. But in the mountains it might snow anyway. I recall taking German honeymooners for a hike one December; presuming summer weather, they’d not wanted to bring a beanie or gloves. We had a minor blizzard over the Cradle Mountain plateau. In the evening we made Glühwein in the hut, as if it was a Christmas market. So nowadays I can live with the occasional reference to snow at Christmastime.

    Only once have I spent a Christmas abroad. I was in Maharashtra, India; I passed the day, I think, at a Catholic orphanage. Children danced, and sang on a stage, through loudspeakers that screeched in protest at frequent intervals. Santa Claus strode through the dusty yard, sweating his suit of red felt. The season’s greeting was strung up for the occasion. It read, “Happy Birthday Jesus, We Love You.”

    So ideas flow between all lands now. The symbols are confusing, but most people don’t seem to mind. Perhaps I needn’t overthink it. Living at this latitude offers many gifts, and the long hours of twilight are not the least of these. I suspect I will enjoy a beer with old friends, with the maddest of my family members.
    This, now, is the tradition of these dates. At other times of the year, in the spirit of the age, I’ll make my own festivals that fit my private intentions to live well in the landscape: a pilgrimage to that old pencil pine on the Plateau, an annual expedition looking for a certain liverwort, the first swim of spring, an occasion of departure, a return.

    And if at Christmas I find myself feeling like a centurion in the wrong time and place – in the wrong narrative altogether – I won’t be too put out. I will embrace the germ of the Christmas idea. In the words of Albert Camus (and to borrow from him is of course another incongruity), “All great ideas have ridiculous beginnings.”


    The jarring symbols of cultural clash were even more obvious come Christmas Day, 1831, on the Ouse River.

  • Ross Stop

    Ross Stop

    I used to skateboard with a young man who had been born in San Bernardino, California, and had since relocated with his mother to Ross. It seemed a long way, not only geographically, but notionally. San Bernardino sprawls in a hot, dry valley basin east of Los Angeles; it is the 100th most populous city in the U.S. Ross is a handsome village in the midlands of Tasmania, occupied by sandstone cottages and other convict-built edifices.

    I never really found out how my mate had ended up in Ross, but I did take the bus down there to visit him a couple of times during my teenage years. And since I have returned many times, like plenty of Tasmanians, en route between Launceston and Hobart.

    Sometimes I do this on the Redline bus (although not often, as it is a rather overpriced service, if I may add my two cents). I look up from my book whenever
    turns off the highway, at Tacky Creek or over the famous bridge at Macquarie River, depending on from which direction we’re coming. Chugging gently into the town, I would hear the bus driver say – although ‘say’ is perhaps too strong a word, as it was more as though he was clearing his throat or perhaps struggling with the effects of strong drink – the words, “Ross stop; this is Ross stop.”

    And at this point, all too often, a lone Japanese woman would step out of the vehicle, and wander off, as if dazed, into Church Street. I marvelled that they could interpret the bus driver’s ‘announcement’, and wondered wonder what these poor individuals were doing, staggering off into the tidy main road, and where now they would go. It was often a bit early for a seat at a public table, so I would presume that these lonely wayfarers were going to the bakery, for a famous dish, such as a scallop pie or vanilla slice.

    I later discovered that the Ross Village Bakery attracted tourists, and particularly those from Japan, for other reasons. The bakery is said to have been the model for the setting of Kiki’s Delivery Service, a popular 1989 anime film. As Chris Norris has shown in an enjoyable thesis titled A Japanese media pilgrimage to a Tasmanian bakery, a ‘cult geography’ has formed around the place, one to which most of us as we rumble through the village are oblivious.

    But we each have own personal geographies. The bakery guestbook reads both “I never forget that I watched a movie in Kiki’s room” and “that was the best pie I’ve ever had”. Here in Ross, I got drunk for the first time,
    and Mitch kissed a girl I adored, the day she got her braces taken off. Many years later I rummaged through the antiques store and bought The Australian Ugliness and a percolator.

    Countless times, I have gone to look at the sandstone bridge with its “hallucinatory composition of Celtic carved motifs and gargoyle-like human faces”, including one of a personality from history to whom I’ve devoted far too many hours of study.

    More importantly, John Helder Wedge, a surveyor in Van Diemen’s Land in the days when it took some courage to traverse this island, and who came and went through this town many times over, noted in his diary in the 1830s that on one occasion, on his way here, that he “rode in a jaunting-cart, sitting opposite the lovely Miss Watts”.


    Here is a personal geography of the Midlands Highway.
    And here is the story of the Man O' Ross Hotel.

    This is the bloke on the bridge, to whom I've devoted too much time.

  • The 29th Annual World Ploughing Championships

    The 29th Annual World Ploughing Championships

    Where were you on June 14 and 15, 1982?

    If your answer is not the Christ Church on Illawarra Road, just outside of Longford, Tasmania, then I can assure you were wasting your time.

    For on that winter weekend, the 29th Annual World Ploughing Championship was taking place there.

    A lovely bluestone church surrounded by golden paddocks and poppy fields, the Christ Church is a site of pilgrimage for art aficionados. Australian painting innovator Tom Roberts is buried there next to his second wife, and some of the altar decorations were designed by contemporary artist Arthur Boyd.

    Edward Dumaresq was born in Wales in 1802, and followed a standard upper-crust military educational trajectory, via the Royal Military College in Sandhurst and a cadetship with the East India Company. After serving on several continents, Dumaresq was relocated to the Antipodes, his sister having married the Governor of New South Wales.

    In 1825 he was made the Surveyor-General of Van Diemen’s Land; after that, he worked as a revenue collector, and a police magistrate. He obtained property outside of the settlement of Longford in 1842, named Mt. Ireh, and on it he built the Christ Church, with thick walls and Baltic pine rafters.

    Dumaresq moved to Kew, Victoria; travelled back to England; and had his wife, Frances, pass away. A Mrs. Charlotte Fogg was briefly the partner of what Dumaresq himself described as ‘the fatal act of a second marriage’. He returned to Longford and lived out the rest of his years – a quite substantial amount of time, his obituary declaring him dead ‘at the extraordinary age of 104’. He was claimed to be the oldest justice of the peace in the world.

    Which is quite an achievement.

    But the church remained standing. Architect Alexander North added the tower and the asp in 1910, four years after Dumaresq died. And of course, the farm went on to host farmers from twenty countries and they ‘steered their tractors straight and true up and down Mt. Ireh’s flat-as-a-pancake paddocks’. Longford joined the esteemed company of locales such as Peebles, Ohio and Wexford, Ireland and Kaunas, Lithuania as one of the hosts of the World Ploughing Championships.

    For those keeping score, Ian Miller was the Conventional Champion of that year, the second New Zealander in a row to get up (Alan J. Wallace had triumphed in Wexford). A Kiwi took second place as well.

    They reckon 40,000 people braved the wind and rain to watch the action that weekend. But were you there?

     

    Tom Roberts, the great Australian painter, was buried here at Longford.
    Last week, we wondered about the fate of the Tasmanian tiger.

  • The Chaplain

    The Chaplain

    I don't pretend to know what a chaplain does or is supposed to do. Nevertheless, it is probably surprising that the old bar in the photograph above is named after the first man to perform a religious service in Tasmania, Bobby Knopwood.

    Bobby didn't have an easy start in life (his father died, and left enormous debts) but the spirited young man managed to gain an education and train for the ministry. He was also a well-known hunter and horseman. Rising through the ecclesiastical ranks, Bobby served in the West Indies, and then was employed as the first chaplain to the colonies in Victoria and Van Diemen's Land.

    Luckily for us, Bobby was a keen diarist, and so we know a lot about his life and his passions: my favourite excerpt from his journals is a delightful rant about the beauty of a young nun he met in Brazil, whose dark and secretive looks he couldn't dismiss from his mind. We also know a bit about him from his bills, and from these we can tell that Bobby Knopwood ate, drank and lived a very merry life in Van Diemen's Land. He became good mates with the Lieutenant-Governor of the colony, and became famous for his parties - as well as for the parties he went to, of which he said, 'Where I dine, I sleep.'

    And when he woke up, he was sometimes unfit to perform his duties as chaplain. Not a few Sunday services were skipped due to Bobby's intemperance. Probably the devout of Hobart Town didn't mind.

    Towards the end of his tenure, Bobby Knopwood took in an orphan girl named Betty Mack, whose marine father abandoned her. From all accounts, he committed himself to her, put himself in debt to pay her way, and 

    Maybe a man like Bobby Knopwood believed that there was something spiritual in drunkenness and admiring beautiful women. Or perhaps, in the end, we can believe that it matters little what a person eats or drinks, where their eyes rove or even where their spirits stray, if they are still able to be so moved as to take upon themselves a burden such as love for another - for any other - creature in this world.

    I apologise if that sounds somewhat like a paraphrase of something someone else once said, in the middle of the world, a couple thousand years ago. As I said, I have no idea what a chaplain is supposed to be all about.

  • Love Life of an Irish Rebel

    Love Life of an Irish Rebel

    Thomas O’Meagher (born as simply Thomas Meagher) was an Irish rebel. He was the leader of the Young Irelanders during the infamous Rebellion of 1848. He had been to France as a student of revolutionary movements, and returned with the new flag of Ireland – the tricolour of green, white and orange. At the Battle of Ballingarry, he and his cohorts were captured by the English. Public outcry saved the necks of a few of them. They received clemency, and were sentenced to transportation. Off to Van Diemen’s Land.

    As political prisoners, they had a strange deal. For convicts, the Irish rebels were comparatively free, but were forbidden from meeting. They also had to give their word that they would not attempt to escape without first informing the authorities. O’Meagher was sent to Campbell Town, then Ross, in the Midlands of the island; it was decent farming land, but O’Meagher was not impressed. He did, however, fall in love. On February 22, 1851, the Irish revolutionary married the daughter of a highwayman, Katherine ‘Bennie’ Bennett.

    The other Irishmen disapproved. They had been secretly meeting on occasion, at a special lakeside retreat. Almost immediately after their wedding, Katherine fell ill. Before a year of their marriage was completed, Thomas O’Meagher sent a letter to the authorities, informing them that within twenty-four hours, he would consider himself a free man. Katherine was pregnant. O’Meagher escaped to New York City.

    The infant son was buried here at St. John’s Catholic Church in Richmond. It is the oldest Catholic Church in Australia.

    In the U.S., Thomas O’Meagher became a citizen, studied law and journalism, and joined the U.S. Army during the Civil War. Incredibly, Katherine was able to reunite with them – albeit only briefly. She returned to Ireland pregnant with another child, a son who would bear his father’s name. It was a name that was to become famous, but Thomas jnr. would never meet his father. O’Meagher became the Governor of Montana, and married a Protestant girl. At the age of 43, he died, falling into the Missouri River and being swept away, his body never recovered.