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Bellingen from the Rotary Lookout looking towards the Dorrigo Plateau
 

Bellingen
Attractive inland town on the Bellinger River
Bellingen is an attractive township in the heart of the Bellinger Valley surrounded by rich pasturelands. It is located 547 km north of Sydney and 23 metres above sea level and lies between the coast and the beautiful Dorrigo plateau.

Bellingen is a town in transition. Traditionally a rather substantial town on the Bellinger River servicing the surrounding dairy farmers and timber cutters in recent times it has seen an influx of people fleeing from the city. The changes are obvious. The menus in the cafes has a distinctly citified feel about them, the shops have lots of home made novelties, and on Saturdays people with a certain urbanity mooch into town to do the shopping. While the transition has not been as radical as that which occurred at Nimbin the change still reflects the movement to the country which occurred in the 1960s and 1970s. It happened to coincide with a transitional period in dairy farming which saw the local farmers only too happy to sell off the odd 3040 hectares for a price far better than its rural value.

The valley had a community of Gumbaynggir Aborigines living along the banks of the river before the arrival of Europeans. These Aborigines called the river the 'billengen'. In the early days of European exploration and settlement of the valley the local Aborigines fought for the protection of their land.

The first European into the Bellinger Valley was the stockman William Myles who arrived in 1840 looking for new valleys north of Kempsey and the Macleay River. The following year Myles, accompanied by Surveyor Clement Hodgkinson explored the valley and by 1842 there were cedar cutters at the mouth of the Bellinger River and sheep grazing in the valley. This was hardly surprising because Hodgkinson reported back 'The brush contained the finest cedar and rosewood I have ever seen.' So determined were the local Aborigines to keep the cedar cutters and explorers off their land that they regularly attacked the cedar cutters camps and when Hodgkinson returned to the valley he was accompanied by members of the Yarrahappinni group who he hoped would explain his 'innocent' intentions to the locals. In 1845 it was estimated that there were 300 Aborigines living in the Bellinger Valley.

The growth of cedar cutting throughout the 1840s was dramatic with 20 pit sawers operating along the river by 1843 and, by 1849, the first timber vessel, the 'Minerva', being built by a shipwright named William Darbyshire. So rich was the area in cedar that it was estimated that over 2 million feet of cedar were being extracted each year.

The valley was progressively settled throughout the 1850s. By 1857 the North Coast Steam Navigation Coy. had been established and by 1865 there was a pilot station to guide ships through the Bellinger Heads. In 1869 both the Police Station and the Court House were built in Bellingen and this largely determined the town's preeminence over the rival claims of smaller settlements at Fernleigh and Raleigh. The 1870s saw the building of the Bellinger Public School (1870) and the establishment of a Post Office at Boat Harbour (1871) although the name 'Boat Harbour' was officially changed to Bellingen in 1870. By 1876 a road through the valley and up to Dorrigo was being surveyed and by 1880 there were accessible roads throughout the valley and the road to Dorrigo was being cut up the mountain.

 

The Bellingen River at Bellingen
 

In 1876 the Sydney Morning Herald reported 'There are two townships, Fernmount and Boat Harbour; at the former there are two stores, a church, public school, two public houses and boot store. The principal storekeeper is Mr Pulsford who is also the postmaster and a J.P.

'The police court, a neat and commodious building, is situated at Boat Harbour, and is presided over by Capt. Fisher, P.M., who, I am informed, has managed since his appointment to reduce the work of the office very considerably simply by advising litigants to settle their differences, if possible, without making public spectacles of themselves in a police court.'

By the late 1880s Bellingen had reached a point where the local School of Arts was built (1887) and by the 1890s the first Church of England (1896) had been completed and in 1900 the town's most admired commercial building, Hammond & Wheatley's Store was established.

The town continued to grow through the twentieth century. The Bank of NSW arrived in 1903. By 1905 the Upper Bellingen Co-op Dairying Coy. was established and the shire was formally proclaimed in 1906. In 1909 a new Post Office had been built and that same year Hammond & Wheatley built the first concrete building in Australia.

The progress in the valley continued throughout this century and was characterised by the town reflecting the success of the local dairy industry. The rich soils of the valley and the extensive sunshine and good rainfall ensured that it would always be prosperous. Today the town is a pleasant retreat away from the Pacific Highway and its traffic heading for the sunshine of Queensland it has the charm of a rural centre with an urbanity created by the new arrivals.

In recent times the Bellinger Valley has been described as "The Bellinger was not like it is now, with wide electric-green fields pushing down on to the river. The banks were like green cliffs of camouflage pierced with giant knitting needles and spun and tangled all about with ferns and creepers" by the novelist Peter Carey who had the Reverend Oscar Hopkins float his glass church down the Bellinger River in 'Oscar and Lucinda'.

Things to see:   

Bellingen Heritage Walks
There is a brochure available around the town (published by the Rotary Club and Heritage Council) which offers three walks around the town.

Walk 1
This takes half an hour and basically goes from Church Street down the main street to Prince Street and back up again. It includes:

Court House and Police Station
These buildings were all constructed by George Moore in 1910. They were constructed from concrete bricks which were made in a brick-making machine imported from the USA.

Shire of Bellingen Administration Centre
In the centre of the town is the Shire of Bellingen Administration Centre, a series of buildings surrounding a rather gracious park, which includes the library (1882), the local folk museum and the old Headmasters Residence, a handsome timber building on the main street, which has been turned into a Neighbourhood Centre.

Bellinger Valley Historical Museum
The museum has a photo collection which covers the local pioneers, early forms of transportation in the valley and town life. There are unusual artefacts connected with schools in the district, farming and pioneer families. There is also a small collection of Gumbaynggirr Aboriginal artefacts.

The Yellow Shed
An excellent and interesting Craftworks and Garden Centre located in an old Workers Recreation Hall which was built by Fredrick Doepel at his timber mill in the early 1900s and moved to the present site in 1928. It became the Yellow Shed in 1981.

The Sara Quads - 14 Hyde Street
Those old enough to remember will recall the enormous publicity which was associated with the birth of the Sara Quads. Their lives were duly followed by the Australian Women's Weekly. Their home at the time was the residence at number 14.

 

 

The Hammond & Wheatley Emporium
 

Walk 2
Hammond & Wheatley Emporium
This walk also starts at Centennial Place in the centre of town. However where Walk 1 heads east, Walk 2 heads west past the superb Hammond & Wheatley Emporium which was built in 1909 by George Moore. The brochure describes the building as 'An innovative enterprise with locally manufactured concrete blocks and techniques and materials ahead of contemporary country practice. Restored in 1989. Cast iron columns support the awnings with iron lacework featuring department names. Original brass shop front framings with engraved brass sills remain. Internally a mezzanine floor is reached via a grand staircase.

Federation Hotel
Further along is the Federal Hotel which was completed, appropriately given the name, in 1901. The hotel is part of a streetscape of one and two storey buildings all of which were completed around the turn of the century. They form an interesting and important part of the town's streetscape.

The walk continues on to a lookout over the town and passes the St Margaret's Church which dates from 1935.

 

Old Butter Factory
Down the eastern end of the main street is the Old Butter Factory which includes a number of interesting art and crafts shops specialising in leather, pottery, woodcraft, glass and country crafts. The first building was completed in 1906 as the home of the Upper Bellingen Dairy Co-Operative. In 1919 it expanded with the inclusion of a bacon factory. In 1924 however, due to strict regulations placed on butter production, it was pulled down and replaced. It eventually closed down in 1963 and some years later was revived as a craft centre.

 

 

The countryside between Bellingen and Bowraville
 

Driving in the Local Area
The Bellinger Valley is well worth exploring. Go to any one of the major tourist attractions in town - the Yellow Shed or the Old Butter Factory - and ask for suitable directions to explore the valley. The drives are well worth taking.

Famous People
Out in the area to the north of the town - Hydes Creek, Gleniffer and Promised Land - live a number of well-known personalities who have sought the Bellinger Valley as a retreat. The most famous would be George Negus, the '60 Minutes' reporter, and David Helfgott who was the subject of the movie 'Shine'. They are suitably private although locals tell stories of people driving by and seeing Helfgott walking naked along the road after going for a swim in the nearby creek.

 

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