by Peter Valder
Along with Mount Tomah, Mount Banks and various others, Mount Wilson is one of the basalt-capped eminences in the northern part of the Blue Mountains. Although these could be seen from Sydney by the first settlers, many years were to pass before they were reached by Europeans.
Although only eight kilometres from Bell's Line of Road, the alternative route across the mountains discovered in 1823, it is isolated by the deep gorges of Bowen's Creek and Wollangambe Creek. As far as is known it was visited only twice before 1868, in which year a surveyor, Edward Wyndham, found an easy access from Bell's Line along the ridge separating the two creeks.
Wyndham produced a survey plan in which Mount Wilson was divided into sixty-two portions which were put up for auction at Windsor in 1870, but there were no bids. However, with the provision in 1875 of a platform where Bell's Line of Road crosses the newly-constructed railway, Mount Wilson became easily accessible and, by January 1876, all the portions were sold.
By 1880 eight houses had been built for use by their owners as summer retreats. Amongst the first settlers were three of the grandsons of William Cox, who had built the road over the mountains, and a number of prominent citizens of Sydney and Newcastle.
Early visitors report that the various homesteads were surrounded by orchards and gardens where English fruit trees, shrubs, plants and flowers grew in great abundance. They also reported that the residents had planted long avenues of chestnuts, walnuts, elms and other trees, all of which were growing with the greatest luxuriance.
Quite remarkably almost everything they described is still there today in a much more mature form. The houses and gardens have, for the most part, been lived in continuously and their gardens cared for and developed for more than a century. It is this that sets them apart from most of Australia's so-called historical gardens. They have never been abandoned or allowed to go into a decline and then 'restored' to a design and plant composition which existed, in infant form, at some time early in their history. They have simply kept on going, their present appearance being a record of the tastes, aspirations and abilities of their successive owners.
Nearly all the houses at Mount Wilson were built facing south, presumably to avoid the summer heat, a disposition which those who now live in them the year round would not have chosen. Also reflecting the tastes and attitudes of the time is the fact that none of them was placed to take advantage of the magnificent views which are to be had in most directions. In fact the gardens were planted to enclose the houses and provide secluded retreats.
These gardens appeared to have been designed, if that is the word, without outside help. A drive up to the house, lawns, banks of trees and shrubs, a vegetable garden and orchard, and adjoining paddocks for cows and horses seems to have been the general scheme. Little or no earth movement or stonework was attempted and the general lie of the land was exploited just as it was. The circumstances in which they were created however allowed them to escape the elaborate excesses of their urban counterparts of the same period. Unpretentious, with little or no ornament, and on a relatively large scale, these gardens now exhibit an atmosphere of maturity, simplicity, peace and calm which is unusual in this country.
The plant material used was, none the less, most interesting. Where it came from is unknown, but perhaps much of it was from the Royal Botanic Gardens Sydney, which at that time ran a large nursery and may have been prepared to give a home to some of the cool-climate species in its collection. This seems the more likely as some of the early residents collected specimens of the native flora of the area and collaborated with J.H. Maiden, at the time the Director of the Botanic Gardens, who also collected there. Perhaps a search of the records of the Botanic Gardens would provide a few clues.
The bulk of the early garden plants were, not surprisingly, European, Himalayan and North American. As well as the chestnuts, walnuts and elms mentioned earlier, there are several species of oak, limes, beeches, sycamores, cedars, cypresses, thujas, sequoias, sequoiadendrons, araucarias, spruces, firs, pines, yews, lilacs, laurustinus, rhododendrons and azaleas, as well as other favourites of the period such as hollies, Magnolia grandiflora, Cordyline, Trachycarpus, and New Zealand Flax. Roses were planted too, but were not much of a success as the frequent mists encouraged fungal diseases.
Plants of special interest from this period of planting are Magnolia campbellii, Rhododendron arboreum, Clethra arborea and Acer saccharum. These must now be amongst the oldest plants in the country of these rarely-planted species.
All these were planted amongst the remnant eucalypts and tree ferns to create a scene which, in spite of the origin of the garden plants, has a character of its own, particularly when populated with flocks of king parrots, crimson rosellas, gang gangs, and bower birds, for which the acorns, nuts and berries of the gardens have provided an unexpected bonanza.
In the period between the wars the gardens were enriched with the Japanese and Chinese plants that became available at the time. Mollis and kurume azaleas, tree and herbaceous peonies, forsythias, Japanese cherries and maples, Japanese cultivars of Prunus mume, wisterias and camellias began to enliven the framework provided by the original plantings. Cornus florida arrived during this period too, as did a much wider range of lilac cultivars than had been present earlier.
The nurseries which provided the bulk of these plants were Hazlewood's at Epping, Sydney, C.A. Nobelius's at Emerald, Victoria, and Goodhew's, at Goulburn, NSW. And in those far-off, pre-quarantine days, enthusiastic gardeners in the district imported bulbs and plants direct from Holland and Japan as well.
Since the Second World War the increase in the range of plant material available has been dramatic. In the period an enormous number of the introductions of British plant collectors who worked in Asia and. southern South America in the first part of this century became available to the rest of the world. As far as Australia is concerned, the ease with which living plants can now be transported across the world by air has simplified the process.
All this has been most exciting but at the same time it has, as is widely recognised, caused gardeners to become plant collectors and to neglect garden design. Fortunately at Mount Wilson the sheer size and number of the original plants has continued to dominate the appearance of the gardens and to ensure that they retain their sense of scale. However, they are reaching the age when trees die or blow over and they will require the most sensitive, and expensive, management if their character is to endure. In addition to this the dual threats of gentrification and ornamentation are already making their presence felt.
The presence of these old gardens, together with the climate and the soil, has continued to attract gardeners to Mount Wilson. In the last fifty years several more significant gardens have been created there, and it appears that the district is on the threshold of a new burst of garden development.
While it is natural that the gardens made at Mount Wilson last century should show obeisance to their English antecedents, we must now take care to avoid the cultural cringe which has bedevilled so much creative enterprise in Australia. It is time we made gardens which reflect our climate, our bright light, our lifestyle, our outgoing character and our avoidance of over-refinement.
As I see it, gardening in Australia is now entering a new phase in which we can look about at our present circumstances and concentrate on that rather neglected field, design. More and more people are being trained in landscape architecture and garden design, so it is to be hoped that public bodies and private individuals will choose to take advantage of their skills. Then, perhaps, really great Australian gardens will appear.