It was during a little side excursion looking for a caffeine hit one public holiday that l ended up stumbling on an amazing piece of Australia’s past. Along the north coast of Tassie, about two hours west of Devonport is Stanley, an absolutely beautiful and stunning cottage town snuggled right on the coast. It’s like a scene straight out of the UK – and in fact the town does date right back to a time of chequered English history.
This is the original Van Diemen’s Land. Back in 1824 King George IV allowed a company called Woolnorth to select 250,000 acres of Tasmanian land to begin a pastoral lease, as there was a shortage of fine wool back in the UK. The new colony selected the land in the remote northwest area of the state, with the new settlement where Stanley is today. Over the next few years the new settlers explored the outer areas and soon began importing their fine Merino sheep across from their homeland. Unfortunately they underestimated the wild conditions and ended up losing thousands of livestock to cold winters and Tasmanian tigers (before they sadly became extinct).
At the time, convicts were being sent to Tasmania as punishment and among them were many good tradesmen and farmers who were put to use building this new colony. (This was pretty much slave labour, working for nothing and with escape attempts severely punished. They even built their own barracks, with capacity for 70 convicts, and remarkably some of that structure still stands today.) One of the first projects, however, was to build a base; a place to oversee the expansion of this new colony and govern Van Diemen’s Land.
Today Highland House and its wonderful array of outer buildings have been beautifully restored both inside and out with period features and some original fittings. For a small fee you can spend time exploring the grounds and the main grand house where there is a story in every room. The outer buildings include a chapel with school room upstairs, pig slaughter house, the remarkable stables and the main barn which was one of the first buildings in Stanley. There’s plenty of detailed information to give you a little insight on personal life at the time.
It’s incredible to imagine these stone and timber buildings dating back to the 1830s being started from scratch – every nail was handmade, every piece of timber hand cut and the land cleared by hand. To combat the winds and the chill the walls needed to be thicker than a man’s leg, and 12 rooms with ceilings nearly 4 metres high were required. It was a huge ask when you are starting with nothing. But these were tough times. Highland House overlooks the town on the western edge just 6km away.
Another piece of amazing Stanley history occurred in 1919. Arthur Long was the first person to fly across Bass Strait from Stanley to Torquay in Victoria. His bi-plane was a little 90 hp RAF with a V8 engine and had a cruising speed of 137 kph, making the trip just over 10 hours. When he landed he jokingly remarked that ‘he could never see a daily air service between Hobart and Melbourne’.
Today the town is lined with stunningly beautiful restored cottages dating back to the mid 1800s. These were once bond stores, a bacon factory, general stores, captains’ cottages and of course churches. Visiting is like taking a step back in time and the town embraces the tourist trade. Think organic food galleries and cafes serving the most heart warming dishes, boutique handmade gift shops displaying amazing crafts and restaurants serving up freshly caught local seafood.
To soak up the atmosphere, follow the heritage walk that runs from the bay along the town strip and down to the historical cemetery where early Tasmanian explorers have been laid to rest. Stanley’s charm has even caught the eye of Hollywood and features in parts of the 2014 film The Light Between Oceans.
Stanley was established at the base of a huge round lump of basalt known as the Nut, which was formed eons earlier when volcanoes were common around the island. The nut provided protection from the trade winds to ensure safer passage into the deep harbour. This is the most prominent feature in town, and where people come from far and wide to experience the exhilarating views from the top.
Don’t be fooled by its gentle appearance – the first 500 metres is a heart busting and slow walk up the top level. If you’re not super keen to walk the slope there’s now a chair lift to help out. Around the top an amazing 2km circular walk gives jaw-dropping views in every direction. Lookout points and chairs allow you to take time out and soak up the area, or catch your breath, while taking on the walk. The Nut was once covered in a forest of trees but these were cut down for grazing land. Today the top is being regenerated with native trees and is home to migratory mutton bird.
This area should be on everyone’s list when they come to Tassie. It’s the perfect little town. Everything has a place, the locals are beautiful and friendly, the streets are tidy and rubbish free, and the backdrop is equally impressive too. On the good days you’d swear this was on the north coast of NSW with forever views, turquoise water in the bay and green pastures that go to the hinterland. But on the bad days the wind rips through you like a knife, and this is when you really spare a thought for the convicts and early settlers that called this place home 200 years ago.