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Little more than a century ago, the glorious heritage-listed Beau Brown Pavilion in Bathurst Showground – arguably Australia’s oldest rural showground – was a rollerskating rink, and the town gave rise in 1909 to world record–breaking skater Mr J. Kaye.

Rollerskating is enjoying a revival in Bathurst, but it’s not the only recreational activity to come back into vogue in this historic inland city. Last March, local teenagers were navigating with flair the same space on modern-day penny-farthings, as part of a revival of interest in old arts, crafts and trades, once central to life but now largely lost.

Penny-farthing maker John Kitchen has worked with bikes for more than 40 years. He’s built – from scratch, and to order– 20 of these high wheelers during the past decade in Bathurst. That’s included hand-forging the 64 spokes in each of the huge front wheels. It’s a slow process engineering these marvels by hand. But that’s characteristic of each of the old crafts and trades showcased locally every autumn as part of the Bathurst Heritage Trades Trail.

All the colour and characters from Bathurst’s Heritage Trades Trail in 2023. 

Bathurst is one of several regional inland cities, including Bendigo and Toowoomba, to hold historic-trades fairs during recent years. The fairs celebrate a growing enthusiasm for a slower, more sustainable way of living, whereby goods, including saddles, buttons or chairs, are made by hand. They’re conspicuous in a mass-produced world underpinned by cheap manufacturing and consumerism.

As well as the showground and other significant landmarks, Bathurst’s heritage trail takes in the preserved cottage of former prime minister Ben Chifley and the privately owned heritage icon Abercrombie House. During the fair, the showground hosts dozens of artisans skilled in rare crafts who, throughout a bustling weekend, sell and showcase their creations via demonstrations such as whip cracking and drystone-wall building.

While some heritage tools for sale may have had their day – like the 200-year-old bunion reliever I picked up at one stall during the 2023 fair – many of the old trades are finding new purpose in a modern world. Handcrafted lacework, for example, is back in favour in the mercurial world of fashion, and if a runway extended from Paris to Bathurst, dedicated fashionistas would find exquisite berets, bowls and even entire gowns made by lacemakers who’ve spent lifetimes perfecting their skills in the craft.

We also met a young fletcher, Pete Storey, who subverts the traditional craft of making bows and arrows by using new materials such as PVC and foam, raising eyebrows along the way among bushy-bearded elders. Pete has tapped into the appetite of cosplay fans for expensive costumes, and transforms traditional bows by embellishing them with fantastic decorations as props for television and films.

Pete felt he was walking a “solitary path” and was hopeful that, by taking part in his first Bathurst heritage fair, he’d find a supportive community who shared his passion for fine craftmanship with a modern twist.

The ear-splitting sounds of Brad Harper cracking two whips in spectacular unison drew queues of aspiring young cowboys and cowgirls to try their hand. But the most popular master craftspeople were charismatic Wailwan/Yuin singers Laurance and Fleur Magick Dennis. The pair are senior cultural educators sharing knowledge of Indigenous tools that are still used on Country as part of everyday life.

Just as the Heritage Trades weekend is revitalising old crafts and traditions for contemporary life, Bathurst is transforming into an exciting, progressive city that trades on its grand past as the nation’s oldest inland European settlement, all the time firmly looking to the future, with the local council investing heavily in new sustainable technologies and contemporary arts and culture.

Electric car–charging stations sit incongruously outside heritage venues, once-derelict laneways and car parks have been repurposed into event spaces with light projections and outdoor art, and a state-of-the-art high-tech collections facility has been built to safely house museums and gallery collections.

Yes, it seems that everything old is new again in Bathurst.

Lara Hadley (standing) wears an elaborate lacecollar made by Sandy Taylor (seated) of the Orange Lacemakers Guild, in the sitting room of Abercrombie House, a grand 1870s Scottish baronial mansion restored by the Morgan family. The house was built by pioneers on one of Bathurst’s original land grants and will be open to visitors on 16–17 March 2024. Sandy has been making bobbin lace for about 35 years. The collar took two months to make and she wore it at an annual international lacemakers congress event. She says the lacemaking community is very social: “I have made friends all over the world through lace. And even though years may pass between seeing one another, we pick up again as though it was only yesterday.” Sandy has taught leaving-certificate students to make bags from lace, and teaches home-schooled kids. “I think it’s sad people don’t have time in our busy world to take up a hobby,” she says.
Bowyer and fletcher Peter Storey (at right) and his partner, Toola Adrianopoulos, take aim in their garden in Medlow Bath, in Sydney’s Blue Mountains. Toola is holding a hand-sculpted octopus recurve bow and Peter has a Penobscot-style, double-limbed recurve bow called the Chimera. In medieval times, four different crafts equipped archers for battle. Bows were made by bowyers, bowstrings by a stringer, arrows by a fletcher and arrowheads by an arrowsmith. Today, Peter makes them all himself, along with armour, helmets, guitars and all sorts of bespoke props for film and television. Business is thriving: Peter is busy keeping up with the growing demands of steampunk, fantasy, military and medieval enthusiasts who attend huge costume-themed events and festivals, such as Ironfest in nearby Lithgow and Oz Comic-Con.

Roy Davi, the ‘Bodger of Leura’, works his handmade pole-lathe, which “has served me well for 26 years and shall be my companion until I can no longer work”. Bodgers were originally wood-turners who made parts for Windsor chairs outof English beech, crafting legs where the timber was felled. Roy sources his timber from around Leura, from friends, and from strangers he meets at markets and Medieval Fayres while demonstrating wood-turning. Like early itinerant English bodgers who camped in forests, Roy works on unpowered lathes. His father was an immigrant bootmaker from Italy who made shoes by hand, using a footoperated leather sewing machine that Roy occasionally treadled. He played in his father’s workshop as a child, collecting scraps of wood and, “like all kids, I belted them with nails”.

Whipmaker Robin Wills (left) holds his treasured Simon Martin whip, given to him by his wife, fellow expert horsewoman and whip cracker Judy Wills (right). Judy holds an even more valuable whip, crafted by Brian Fahey from Dorrigo. Robin was one of the galloping stockmen who helped open the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games. He was a Ten Pound Pom who, at the age of 17, went straight from the boat to the outback. He worked as a drover, then horse breaker, becoming expert at cracking whips. He began making whips after he retired from his second career as a schoolteacher, and has since taught the craft in schools.

David Morris, a specialist Western saddlemaker, poses with his horse Bob Pocket at his central Bathurst horseyard and workshop. This remnant block of pasture, complete with stables, is where he grew up and is now in a rapidly developing inner-city area. David has a two-year waiting list for his saddles, and says it’s “very rare for me to have anything to show off, because it flies out the door as soon as it’s finished”. He’s one of an elite crew of Australian saddlers. His artisan skills were honed during apprenticeships from the age of 16 with master-saddlers, followed by study tours of the USA and time spent working in the horse cultures of Argentina. He’s had further training at London’s Cordwainers College. David’s saddles have been displayed in the foyer of England’s Victoria and Albert Museum, and one of them has sold for the princely sum of $18,000

Among the most popular attractions at the 2023 Bathurst Heritage Trades Trail were demonstrations of traditional Aboriginal crafts such as weapon- and tool-making by Milan Dhiiyaan, a company that provides cultural immersion experiences in Bathurst and across the Central West. Here, Milan Dhiiyaan dancers Lesley Carberry (right) and her daughter Raylene (left) hold a coolamon, a carrying vessel used both in daily life and in ceremonies by First Nations people. They are standing atop Wahluu (Mt Panorama), a place of significance to Wiradjuri people. Wahluu means “to watch over”.

John Kitchen (pictured) and his wife, Ivy-May, have built at their home outside Bathurst a penny-farthing workshop, a mini-museum and sheds holding more than 100 bikes from different eras. They include what John believes to be Australia’s oldest bicycle, an 1867 Michaux Boneshaker from France, with wooden spokes and rims, and steel tyres. John’s competed three times in the National Penny Farthing Championship wearing his period-style waistcoat, but not his hat because “you have to wear a helmet when racing”. This year he’ll be at the Bathurst Showground showing how fast his penny-farthings can go. The size of the front wheel allows these bikes to travel faster than many of their modern counterparts.

Vicki Hartley (standing) from Lithgow Living History meanders through the pavilions in late Edwardian-era costume, as Ian Jane (seated) sells handcrafted dulcimers. Vicki planned to wear a fussy early Edwardian-era outfit with a bustle, but instead chose a dress from just before WWI, when clothing became more practical, so she could ride one of John Kitchen’s penny-farthings. She likes his Coventry model, which has a cover over the chain and is made for women wearing dresses. She often dresses up, usually for airshows, but Ironfest – an arts festival held in Lithgow, NSW, celebrating the birth of steel in Australia – is her biggest event. She works for a plumbing company, but finds that costume dressing “breaks down barriers and people will talk to you”. Dressing up as different characters, such as Rosie, a factory worker in overalls, provokes different responses. She bought the hat she wears here “from Target, for the Melbourne Cup a few years ago”.

Whipmaker Robin Wills says even though there’s much tech and machinery used in modern agriculture, whips remain one of the most effective ways to manage cattle. They were the first object made by humans to break the sound barrier, and every whip sounds different when it cracks. Robin advises beginners to “imagine you have a piece of string with a rock on the end and swing it around your head”. Here, aspiring cowboys learn to crack whipmaker Brad Harper’s products.

Hayley James (left) and Merryn Stanger (right), conservators at the Grimwade Centre for Cultural Materials Conservation at the University of Melbourne, were at the Bathurst fair in March 2023, working with heirlooms and other treasures. Here, they inspect a rare tinsel picture donated to St Joseph’s Heritage and Conference Centre, a former convent, at nearby Perthville.

Jeff McSpedden is a local market gardener, collector of rare tools and expert across several trades. Although the primary trade he demonstrates at the Bathurst event is making traditional wooden buckets, here he’s demonstrating how a bunion reliever works. The tool, which can be seen in his right hand, was important during colonial times because the lower classes didn’t wear socks.

The 2024 Bathurst Heritage Trades Trail is taking place at Bathurst Showground on the weekend of 16–17 March, 10am–4pm. A free shuttle bus transports visitors to other heritage sites on the trail.