Historic Windsor – Two Centuries on
Words and photography by Mike Smith
Windsor is situated on the picturesque Hawkesbury River
It is 210 years since Governor Lachlan Macquarie selected Windsor as the base for pioneering farmers to live and store their produce.
Before settling on the site, farmers had to endure tough conditions growing their crops under the constant threat of floods along the fertile Hawkesbury River catchment. Higher ground was needed for a safer environment and thus a town was born. Situated just 46 kilomotres north-west of Sydney, NSW, surveyors wanted to create a town of stately grandeur – on a small scale though – with no more than nine cross streets and three parallel main thoroughfares.
Today’s Windsor is not much larger, although the once dusty trails, cobblestone paths and horse-drawn carriages have been replaced by bitumen, concrete pathways and family all-wheel drives. The story of its rise as a vital food bowl for the colony of NSW is evident wherever you wander, from the vast fields to grace the catchment area to the commanding sight of St Matthews Anglican Church and the stately homes and small merchant stores that have survived the ravages of time.
The Hawkesbury River settlement does not have a castle, like its namesake in England but samples of its colonial heritage remain intact, some buildings returned to their glorious past through loving refurbishment and renovation. And, don’t expect to visit without enjoying a meal or making a local purchase.
Many interesting and quaint shops to visit like 'Hidden Treasures'
As expected from a town the compact size of Windsor, the pace is noticeably relaxed and family friendly on the weekend stroll along the pedestrian mall.
While couples take their dogs on a walk, others make it known that they are on a mission for bargains from the corridor of small shops and the outdoor Sunday market stalls, their sights set on buying one of the many interesting locally made items.
Shopping is as mixed as the names of the stores. And many are housed in restored buildings that have stood there 100 years or more. By car, Windsor may well be only 56km from the bustling Sydney CBD, but for day trippers like us it is far more removed. Much of Windsor’s historic appeal is reflected in the buildings which have survived floods, fire and the general ravages of time. Among them, the Macquarie Arms Hotel, which overlooks leafy Thompson Square, the birthplace of Windsor and a good spot for an ale and a chat.
According the records from the pub, convicts found a way to entertain themselves by smuggling barrels of illegal rum from the Hawkesbury River into the quarters below through the “Rum Smugglers Tunnels”. Two convict brothers – Richard and Fitzpatrick – were not so lucky in their pursuit of liquid gold when they blew themselves up from chemicals mixed wrongly, consequently dying in the cellar below street level. Some locals say you can still find their spirits occupying the same cellar area today, as the pair lived there. Little wonder the cellar has been the finishing point for some ghost tours through Windsor.
You'll find many locally made products at the Sunday Markets
Like us, today’s guests can tuck into a schnitzel or steak and chips while enjoying a schooner from the second-floor balcony of the 1815 Georgian building. In winter, the indoor open fires are particularly welcome.
The pub is considered mainland Australia’s oldest hotel building, although this has been contested due to the fact the hotel has not had a continuous licence. For those with a sweet tooth, queues form outside the colourfully decorated Lollies ‘n’ Stuff with an array of delicacies from around the globe, some of the UK brands not seen or consumed since our childhood. Expect a cheery welcome from Minnie Mouse, as you decide on which sweets to take home. The shelves are crammed with over 1000 different variety of lollies, more than enough to put a smile on the face of chocolate loving Willy Wonka. Along the laneway wall of the store is an equally colourful piece of street art which soon has cameras and mobile phones snapping away.
In contrast to Lollies ‘n’ Stuff, across to the other side of the mall, inside an old whitewashed Art Deco style building, is a store aptly billed Guys Stuff. Here over 1000 items are on sale, either from the store or online, for lovers of collectables or memorabilia Items. Almost everything from pristine model cars and aircraft, and Harley Davidson items, to commemorative coin packs and puzzles are on sale along with a range of sporting merchandise – perfect for the man cave at home.
Over 1000 different variety of lollies at Lollies n Stuff
What also makes Windsor particularly special is that some of its historic buildings have been preserved, restored or converted into contemporary eateries. For a taste of Italy, Biviano’s has been a popular spot to dine since the owners Anthony and Kylie renovated the 1840 heritage merchant’s cottage 16 years ago. Meanwhile, housed in what was a majestic bank is 89 Thai, a feature at the front door being the colourfully painted tuk tuk, a familiar form of budget style three-wheel taxi commonly seen buzzing around the streets of Bangkok.
Visit Windsor from Thursday and Sunday (between 11am and 8.30pm) and chances are you will meet Snappa, a particularly cheeky Australian-born blue and gold macaw who, depending on mood, has plenty to say. Spotted in a large cage near the front door to the award-winning Windsor Seafoods, in George Street, Snappa is the much-loved pet of proprietor Barry Lane who works feverishly with his team to cater for queues of hungry diners.
Whether you are young or young at heart, a visit to Windsor is not complete without a call on the ever-popular Windsor Ice Cream Café. With as many as 40 ice cream flavours and additional gelato and sorbets on the board, it is not surprising guests take their time making a choice. Almost everything from Mango, Vanilla Choc Fudge and Rum and Raisin to Macadamia Nut, Ginger and Liquorice can be ordered. And particularly popular among the younger guests is the colourful Rainbow delight.
Windsor seafoods proprietor Barry Lane with Snappa
On a warm day, the banks of the Hawkesbury are an ideal spot to throw open the picnic rug. It doesn’t get more casual or laidback. Whether you are interested in Windsor’s pioneering European history or just want to shop for locally handmade jewellery this Lachlan Macquarie town – has something for almost everyone. Not only did the town provide a vital food bowl for the early European settlers, but its place in history could not have been possible without the help of convicts who were shipped to our shores as punishment.
One person of note was Francis Greenway who designed the impressive 1817 St Matthews Anglican Church, the “Cathedral of the Hawkesbury”. Greenway was sentenced to death in England for forging a financial document, only to have his sentenced reduced to 14 years transportation. England’s loss proved to be Windsor’s gain.
Surrounding the Flemish-style brick church with its familiar square tower – a donation from King George IV – and “walls of crosses”, are the graves of some of the area’s famous pioneers, among them 26 from the First Fleet, 12 marked, 14 unmarked.
The banks of the Hawkesbury are the ideal spot for a picnic rug
Dominating the site is the giant plot where John Tebbutt rests, along with 24 of his family members. Tebbutt’s claim to fame was as an astronomer, who was credited with discovering the Great Comet of 1861 from his Windsor observatory, which has been rebuilt several times over the years. The oldest grave is that of chief magistrate Andrew Thompson who organised barges to reach the settlement from Sydney. Thompson, who died in 1810, was posthumously recognised by having the centrally located square of the town named in his honour. Famous explorer William Cox, the first road builder over the Blue Mountains in 1815, is also buried in the graveyard which pre-dates the construction of the church.
For history buffs, there are self-guided walks with maps that trace some of Windsor’s heritage sites. Organised ghost tours which focus on the “spirits of the Hawkesbury pioneers” can also be booked in advance. You can almost sense the clip clop sounds of the horse-drawn carriages as you stroll past such sites as the 1828-opened former post office, St Matthews Anglican Church and the 1834 opened toll house, which was rebuilt in 1887 after the great flood of 1864 and is today overshadowed by a modern bridge.
The Observatory where Tebbutt discovered the Great Comet
Much of Windsor’s colonial roots date back to the early 1800s, but it was not until the 1980s that the riverside settlement and the neighbouring Hawkesbury towns came to prominence on the TV screens, as the exterior locations for the filming of multi Logie award-winning A Country Practice.
Fans will have little problem identifying the “Wandin Valley” sites, screened in the popular Australian serial, from the “doctor’s surgery” in North Street. This was once known as the Court House Inn, Swallows Inn and Peninsula Inn, to the old garage in nearby Pitt Town. A few strides away is the old courthouse which continues to be in use. Wandin Valley Hospital was shot at Clare House in Oakville, character Molly’s house was at Maraylya. Windsor High was the local high school, while Wandin Valley police station, was located along Johnston Street, Pitt Town.
The 'doctor's surgery' from TV show A Country Practice
As we move from shop to shop on the walk through Windsor we are constantly reminded of the town’s TV fame and pioneering past, and the importance of keeping that heritage alive for all to see and experience, cone of ice cream in hand.
WHERE TO DINE:
Italian restaurant Biviano’s has been a popular spot to dine since owners Anthony and Kylie renovated the 1840 heritage building 16 years ago. Originally a merchant’s cottage, the building was transformed into what many believe was a doctor’s house before ultimately becoming an Italian restaurant where the warm and friendly décor of the rooms is as enticing as extensive menu.
Expect to dine on Italian favourite entrees as arancini, calamari and traditional meat balls before tucking into a selection of pasta, risotto, meat, vegetarian or seafood dishes. And tiramisu is a hot number on the dessert menu. www.bivianos.com.au
Housed in what was a majestic bank is 89 Thai. A feature at the front door is a colourfully painted tuk tuk, a familiar form of budget style three-wheel taxi commonly seen buzzing around the streets of the Thailand capital of Bangkok. Here you can dine on your favourite, sometimes spicy Thai dishes from salads and soups to curries to stir fries. Plenty of food for thought the next time you visit Windsor.
WHERE TO DRINK AND EAT:
Far from its original purpose as a church, Windsor’s The Church Bar in Kable Street is a magnet for its pizza, schnitzel, and American-style pork ribs. And the extensive list of main courses includes one which befits the location – a chicken dish described as the Holy Grail.
Apart from the dining menu, the bar prides itself on its range of beers, wines and cocktails and often hosts evening live entertainment on Fridays and Saturdays. The whitewashed building dates from 1869 and closed its doors to the last congregation a few years back. Significantly, The Church Bar is a popular venue these days for family wedding receptions.
A hive of activity on weekends is the historic Macquarie Arms Hotel, where local bands provide entertainment in the back garden. This two storey Georgian building with its eroded sandstone steps, dates back to 1815 and is considered mainland Australia’s oldest hotel building, although this has been contested due to the fact that hotel has not had a continuous licence.
In summer, a good spot to dine on schnitzel or steak and chips and a schooner when the relieving north-easterly breeze is blowing is on the second-floor outdoor balcony overlooking Thompson Square. In winter, the indoor open fires are particularly welcome.
NOT TO BE MISSED:
Always a hive of activity on weekends is the Windsor Mall Sunday Market.
Almost anything from art and craft, fashion items and fresh locally grown produce and locally produced jams and sauces can be bought from the stalls while buskers keep the crowd entertained by performing at locations on the short walk through the heart of the historic mall. The street market begins at 9am with stalls closing around 3pm.
Hawkesbury Regional Museum
A good spot to begin a self-guided tour of Windsor is at the Hawkesbury Regional Museum, in the heart of Windsor. Open six days a week – 10am till 4pm Wednesdays to Mondays – the museum is free to visit and is jam packed with essential information. The contemporary building also houses a quaint, eye-catching exhibition of Australian memorabilia which shaped the lives of people not only the area but throughout the nation.
At the entry to the exhibition is a taxidermy figure of the mythical flabbit, a cross between a bird and rabbit, which was supposedly sighted and photographed in the area and was later found to be a hoax. It is a quirky exhibit which grabbed the headlines of The Daily Mirror around the same time as the filming of A Country Practice.
Discover the Hawkesbury: www.discoverthehawkesbury.com.au