The city’s famous Nobby’s Head and lighthouse.
The city’s famous Nobby’s Head and lighthouse. Sandra Burn White

Chasing up Newcastle's colonial past

HAD it not been for one of the more bizarre maritime chases in Australia's colonial history, it could have been years before the now-Hunter Valley's rich agricultural lands and coal seams were to be opened up to early settlement, including to go on to become one of Australia's premier winemaking regions.

In the early 1790s a group of convicts stole one of the only two sailing sloops in the-then fledgling Sydney Town and fled north to what is now known as Port Stephens. They lived there for several years with the local aboriginal people, before being found by accident by the sloop HMS Providence that had been swept north in a fierce storm while on an exploratory trip out of Sydney.

The four surviving "miserable and half-starved" convicts happily returned to Sydney Town aboard the Providence to face the music for their escape. But after just a couple of years two of them organised another escape this time taking the colony's only other sailing boat, the "Cumberland" and once again heading north.

Colonial Governor John Hunter ordered a search for them, and bizarrely Lieutenant John Shortland took off in pursuit of the sloop in just a row-boat manned by a handful of sailors.

That was 1797 and he never did find the escapees, but he did come across the broad entrance to a river that some lost fishermen had earlier dubbed Coal River after discovering coal along its floodplains.

On his return, Lieutenant Shortland told Governor Hunter of the rich potential of the river (which Shortland officially named after the Governor,) and free settlers and pardoned convicts were encouraged to go forth and settle there.

They quickly discovered just how rich those lands were, and soon a port town called Newcastle grew up, supplying the new settlers with their needs and shipping their produce to Sydney Town, Hunter Valley coal to India and by the early 1820s, wine to Sydney from the first Hunter Valley vineyards.

And while by the mid-1970s the Hunter Valley's wine and allied industries were booming with a new kind of tourism sassiness, industrial Newcastle seemed trapped in a time warp, its image reflected by stand-up comic Bob Hudson's The Newcastle Song reminiscing long and clear on the mating habits of the night-time occupants of the city's Hunter Street Mall.

But today Newcastle has found itself internationally-recognised, listed this year in the Lonely Planet travel guide as one of the World's Top 10 Cities to Visit, alongside such legends as New York, Valencia and Delhi.

So, how did the ugly duckling turn into such a strikingly beautiful swan?

In reality many facets of that swan have been obvious but unappreciated since the city's founding - grand colonial public buildings, imposing commercial and residential streetscapes, and a magnificent coastline of stark rocky outcrops contrasted by temptingly sandy beaches.

But most importantly has been a more-recent appreciation of Newcastle's history, together with a seemingly new-found devotion to landscaping, the arts, tourism and cuisine, and an interesting scheme called Illumination Newcastle that nightly bathes some of its most historic buildings under soft floodlights.

The transformation is most obvious in the city's eastern end, where the old Royal Newcastle Hospital site has given way to tourist accommodation, cafés and apartments, paving the way for a 24-hour life rather than a drab nine-to-five existence.

Amongst new accommodations is the Sebel Harbourside, a near-beachside hotel whose 88 guest rooms feature chic, contemporary furnishings, and all the mod cons of a 4.5-star property.

Many of its rooms also offer spectacular ocean views.

Amongst historical nearby attractions is Fort Scratchley that formed an integral link in our defences against potential invasion - real and imagined - and during World War II, whose canons were Australia's only-ever to fire in anger against an invading naval force.

The Fort's resurrection allows visitors to spend a couple of hours touring its tunnels, and to enjoy the most spectacular views of the port and its most significant landmark, Nobby's Head.

Nearby, the grand Customs House attests to Newcastle's maritime and trading stature, and if visiting Newcastle don't miss the East Newcastle Heritage Walk that embraces eighteen historic sites from the old Customs House, to the original gaol site, the beach promenade and an historic convict-era lumber yard.

For more information see Visit Newcastle.

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