There's Something About Uralla
There’s something about Uralla.
Our drinks glide to us over the bar. One whiskey sour and an orange blossom G&T, each served with a perfect sphere of ice, spinning as if by magic.
My partner and I take a sip, our eyebrows raised in delight.
Our 10-month-old son wiggles to the tune being played by the live band, Sons of Autumn, just a few metres away. They sing Appalachian Americana & Melancholia-style songs to bittersweet melodies played on mandolin, guitar and banjo. Our little boy can’t get enough. He claps his chubby hands as a gummy grin spreads across his face.
A couple is twirling around the dancefloor. I’m tapping my foot to the beat, soaking up the first live music we’ve heard in over a year. I realise it’s our baby’s first ever experience of live music thanks to being born in 2020.
Right at this moment, I feel alive with warm, glowy happiness. As though I’ve escaped to another time and place where the routines of everyday life don’t matter. I realise I’ve not felt this content and relaxed in a very long time.
Sometimes, it’s unexpected moments, as this one certainly was, that become our most treasured.
While we’d planned on exploring as much of the Uralla Shire as we could, including the magnificent Dobson’s Distillery at Eastview Estate in Kentucky, we certainly hadn’t anticipated we’d be able to relax in the speakeasy with our energetic baby. Cliche as it may sound, this out-of-routine Sunday afternoon drink was the perfect end to our day of exploration.
But that’s not where this story starts. Like many great stories, this one begins over a good, strong coffee.
We took our seats inside The Alternate Root, Uralla, a café housed inside the historic frontage of the old Trickett's General Store building, circa 1910.
Inside, it’s instantly welcoming. The first thing I noticed was the stone fireplace reaching up to the lofty pressed metal ceiling, surrounded by armchairs and a patchwork couch. Reclaimed timber tables were topped with brightly coloured pots of tea, lattes and plates of brunch fare – much of which is locally grown and sourced. It was a bustling Sunday morning as the coffee grinder whirred over the chatter of a full house.
After our early morning out-the-door rush and drive with baby in tow, we exhaled and relaxed in unison. Even though there was a tangible energetic buzz in the air, it was hard not to feel at ease. Indeed, it’s hard not to feel relaxed anywhere in Uralla.
The scene wouldn’t have been out of place in a trendy inner-city café. What may have felt out of place? The genuine friendliness. The crowd was a mix of locals, day-trippers and travellers, but everyone said hello and good morning regardless of whether or not they knew each other.
Friendly, proud locals and country charm are everpresent in Uralla Shire, an area I’ve travelled through my whole life but only truly experienced in recent years.
You know those places you drive past so many times you don’t see them? And then one day you’re on foot and discover things you never knew were there?
That’s how I feel about Uralla.
Although I’m embarrassed to admit, I only discovered the joy of Uralla several years ago. It was a place my family passed through on the road to Bellingen for almost thirty years, but never a destination.
As a child, I knew Uralla as the home of Captain Thunderbolt. My sister and I would play eye spy as we drove past his namesake rock on the New England highway. Aside from the infamous bushranger, there wasn’t much I could have told you about the town.
Now that I’ve stopped, explored and returned countless times, Uralla is a place I can’t talk about without animatedly telling people they should visit. I’ve fallen in love with the Shire, its breathtaking landscapes and the people that live there. Especially the people. It’s rare to find a community that is collectively creative, diverse, humble yet passionate about their hometown as the locals are in Uralla Shire.
Uralla Shire is located halfway between Sydney and Brisbane in the stunning New England High Country. Comprising of the town of Uralla as well as the surrounding villages and communities of Kentucky, Saumarez, Wollun, Kingstown, Bundarra, Invergowrie and Arding, Uralla Shire is home to just over 6000 people.
Not surprisingly, the shire is known as a great stop-over for travellers on the road. That it may be. My hope though, if you take anything from this story, is that you see it as a destination worthy of a visit in its own right. A destination that invites you to stop and stay awhile, to slow down and enjoy all there is to offer.
Because unlike many trendy, tourist hotspots, Uralla Shire has retained its country town humility while expanding a sophisticated offering for visitors. You get the best of both worlds.
The mix of outdoor adventure, immersive experiences, incredible food and coffee, arts scene, locally made artisan products, boutique shopping, accommodation options to suit all tastes and budgets as well as a community that welcomes you with open arms, makes Uralla Shire the perfect place to escape to.
One that you’ll want to spend at least a long weekend exploring. Well, on your first visit anyway.
For most, there’s an element of escapism when it comes to travel. A break from the routine of everyday life. The chance to experience something new or see the world from a different perspective. To feel a rush of excitement. To relax, refresh and rest. Perhaps all of the above.
However you like to escape, Uralla Shire has it all.
There’s shopping, yes. Great shopping in fact but more on that soon. An endless line up of local gastronomic delights to savour and drinks to enjoy. You’ll find Aboriginal cultural sites, museums, galleries and historic landmarks to satisfy your curiosity. There’s a sense of space and freedom to simply relax. And given Uralla’s proximity to several National and State Parks, outdoor adventure, wilderness and breathtaking landscapes abound.
While there’s plenty for visitors to experience, Uralla Shire is unique because it doesn’t feel touristy or contrived. There’s a refreshing authenticity – it doesn’t seem as though the locals have created experiences just for visitors. They’re doing what they do because they genuinely love it – growing, creating, baking, brewing, curating, teaching, crafting – and because they’re incredibly generous and proud of their town they want visitors to experience their passions with them.
What’s most intriguing about Uralla though is how it affects you long after you’ve visited.
Uralla Shire is a place that will inspire you beyond your visit. It’s not only the people, they will undoubtedly inspire you if you stop a while and talk to them. It’s also the landscapes, the feeling of spaciousness, crisp high country air and the wide-open skies.
It’s hard to put words to what exactly it is about this delightful little place that draws you in and leaves its mark on you. But one thing is for sure. If you take the time to get to know Uralla Shire and its people, you’ll leave feeling inspired. To do more of those things that feel like an escape for you and to make them part of your everyday life.
Wandering the wide, open streets of Uralla, the town appears to be a busy place. There are lots of people coming and going, but it never feels hurried or frantic. No one ever seems to be in a rush or too busy to stop and have a chat.
After our Sunday morning coffee, we were off to explore, slowly making our way around the shops, galleries and cafes along Bridge Street. We took our time, admiring the mix of architecture and storefronts. Even though I was visiting all the stores, and tempted to buy something everywhere I went, simply strolling past the old facades and buildings around Uralla was an experience in itself.
If historic buildings and imagining scenes from decades past interest you, the Uralla Heritage Walk is a must. The self-guided walking tour opens your eyes to the fascinating history of the town with almost 60 heritage-listed points of interest. You can collect a copy of the beautifully illustrated guide from the Visitor’s Information centre.
For someone who drove through Uralla with eyes wide shut for many years, this was the best way for me to get a feel for the town’s history and early residents. Seeing historic landmarks always helps me get a sense of a place and how it came to be the way it is today, much more so than just reading about its history.
Depending on how much time you like to devote to details, the Heritage Walk could easily fill half a day or more. Especially if you explore McCrossin’s Mill Museum, the first stop on the walk.
We visited the three-storey, beautifully restored museum and it was a delight. I especially appreciated the wit, sensitivity and sense of humour of the curators. Forget what you think you know about small-town museums, I promise McCrossin’s will surprise you in the best possible way.
As we walked through the town, we spotted miniature Fairy Doors in window fronts and stores. Uralla Fairies started as a community project for the local children during the initial COVID19 lockdown and has become an attraction that visitors of all ages enjoy. There’s even a Uralla Fairy Map to help you discover all the doors, complete with a story about the fairies of Uralla and clues of where to find more that aren’t on the map including ‘somewhere else’ and ‘maybe another place’.
This community spirit and cheekiness is symbolic of what you’ll find in Uralla. People that take their craft, community and their town seriously, but not themselves.
Throughout the day, we visited just about every shop and boutique we could find. From homewares to fashion, fine art, antiques, books and ceramics to gourmet ingredients, local produce, and skincare, it’s surprising just how much there is on offer, with many products locally made or designed.
Shopping in Uralla isn’t for everyone though. If you love mass-produced, generic items you can find almost anywhere, then you’ll likely be disappointed. There isn’t a chain-store to be seen. But if you love unearthing one-off finds, thoughtfully handmade and locally produced items, you’ll love the experience of shopping in Uralla.
Perhaps even more interesting though, was talking to the people who owned the stores and made the products. If you ask, you’ll hear the stories behind every store and in many cases, each product.
Everyone I spoke to was generous with their time and genuinely wanted to help. Not only that but the level of devotion, skill and in many cases, mastery was awe-inspiring for a small community. I could write a whole book about the people of Uralla Shire, their stories and the creativity and resourcefulness that flourishes there. Needless to say, when you shop in Uralla you know that you’re supporting local people, their craft and a community.
After a day spent eating, shopping and talking our way around the town, we drove out along the New England Highway towards the village of Kentucky. The soft afternoon light was glorious as it fell over the rolling fields. We were tired from our day, but that good tired you feel when you feel satisfied and happy. Even our little boy was quietly staring out the car window, relaxed and content.
We thought we’d quickly stop by Eastview Estate on the way home, just to get a feel for what was on offer.
I wasn’t sure what to expect as we drive through the gates of Eastview Estate, home of Dobson’s Distillery. I’d tried their gin in a local pub before. I’d also visited the website which hints at the curiously wonderful bar, restaurant and distillery they have on the estate. But nothing prepared me for the experience of being at Dobson’s.
I’m sure you’ve read one too many travel articles that say something along the lines of “you need to visit this place to believe it”. However, there is nothing else to say about Dobson’s. Their website and marketing brochures proudly claim that it’s “not for everyone”. Which of course only leaves you evermore intrigued to visit.
I’ve shared how our afternoon rounded out in the lively speakeasy bar at Dobson’s. It was symbolic of the experiences we had in Uralla Shire that day and the memories we made together as a family. When we left for home, somewhat disappointed that our visit had to end so soon, we vowed to come back with friends and make a weekend of it.
The name Uralla derives from the Aboriginal word ‘oorala’, meaning ceremonial meeting place or camp. The traditional owners of the land around Uralla Shire are the Aniwan People, who have called the area home for over 35,000 years.
While the landscapes around the Uralla Shire have no doubt changed over the centuries, you can be immersed in unspoilt nature, getting a glimpse into what life may have been like for the Aniwan people for thousands of years, just minutes from town.
Much in the same way I didn’t appreciate the township of Uralla for all those years, I feel like I’m only just beginning to see the beauty and diversity of the countryside around Uralla Shire. From the giant granite boulders that dot the landscape and winding country roads (that do indeed make you feel like you’re somewhere in New England) to breathtaking panoramas across rugged gorges and impressive waterfalls, it only takes a moment to appreciate what a special part of the world this is.
The second day of exploring the shire started at Dangar’s Lagoon, just 4kms south-east of Uralla. The lagoon has had many uses over the centuries including during the Gold Rush and even for swimming carnivals in the 1930s. It’s also believed to have been an important source of food and materials for the Aniwan People for thousands of years.
On this day, I was joined by my Dad and brother-in-law. Both were keen to come and see the places I’d been telling them about on my journey to learn as much as I could about Uralla Shire.
We arrived at Dangar’s Lagoon, impressed by the expanse of water that is unexpected given how close it is to town. As I stepped from my car I could see black swans gliding over the lagoon’s surface.
It was quiet and peaceful by the water, aside from the odd call of a bird. We read on the information board that over 110 species of bird have been recorded at the lagoon. Naturally, I started to take more notice of the wildlife and could see it was indeed a bird-watchers paradise.
Up until that moment, I’d never considered bird-watching but it was wonderful to take the time to simply sit and watch the comings and goings of wildlife over the water. While it felt peaceful for us, I smiled to myself that it was a pretty busy place for all the birds!
From there we headed towards the village of Bundarra in search of the Mount Yarrowyck Nature Reserve, which preserves some of the traditional lands of the Aniwan people. Located about 25kms from Uralla, the reserve is home to an important rock art site that I was keen to explore.
To get to the rock art site it was a 3km round trip walk from the reserve carpark. The meandering track is easy to follow, winding through trees, past neighbouring farmland and over a stream or two. It wasn’t physically challenging aside from the final approach up to the rock art which was short but steep.
After 20 or so minutes of walking and talking in the bright midday sun, we reached the site. It was a cool relief to sit beneath the shade of the rock and admire the red ochre paintings.
The three of us stopped there a while to look at the art, feeling miles away from the stressors of the modern world. It was awe-inspiring. The paintings themselves, estimated to be between 150-500 years old, symbolise bird tracks, eggs and either a human or a lizard. But there is so much more to rock art site than the surface level meaning of the images.
Like any art that you see in real life, it moves you in a way that a photograph of the art can’t. And to imagine the Aniwan people creating those markings hundreds of years ago, surrounded by the towering rocks and bushland, gave us a glimpse into their lives.
Looking at them we wondered what the markings meant to the people who made them, how they were used, who took the time to make them? Being there in that moment, in the stillness of the bush, I felt the faintest glimmer of understanding what it means to feel connected to the land. I decided I want to learn more about rock art and the role it played in the lives of Aboriginal People.
There is much more I could share about the day I spent with my Dad and brother-in-law. From the incredible pies that we couldn’t stop talking about to the moment when we thought we’d found a diamond whilst fossicking in the Woolridge Recreation & Fossicking Reserve and the laughs that followed. The villages we explored, the scenic drives that sparked conversations and the people we met.
What stood out the most though, amongst all the experiences we shared, was that feeling of truly escaping. We enjoyed the moments right in front of us. We marvelled at the unexpected and lost track of time. More importantly, the three of us shared a day that we’d never normally have spent together. I’ve travelled the world in search of this feeling, of escaping the everyday. I certainly didn’t expect to find it so close to home.
Spending time in Uralla Shire has taught me a valuable lesson. What I’ve learnt is that we don’t need to travel to far-flung, exotic destinations to escape. To escape, we simply have to see the world in front of us differently.
There’s something about Uralla Shire that will help you do this. You’ll feel worlds apart from the faster, go go go, bigger is better culture we live in. Maybe it’s the energy of the community, the generosity of the individual creatives who passionately share their life’s work, the rich history and tangible sense of place you feel while you’re there, the stillness of the bush or the space to breathe. Perhaps it’s the combination.
Let me clarify that I’m not talking about slow in a ‘there’s nothing to do’ sense. Far from it. It’s more about slowing our mind enough to be in the moment and enjoy what’s right in front of us, which we’re often too busy and distracted to do.
When you visit the Uralla Shire, you’ll experience something new. Something that pulls you away from the routine of everyday life and inspires you. There’s so much to do and to see and yet, somehow you want to slow down.
Whether you’re adventuring in wild terrain, savouring a locally grown and prepared meal, learning a new craft, buying a handmade treasure and hearing the story behind it or simply switching off and doing nothing at all, that time will come when you’ll realise your mind is entirely focused on the moment you’re in. Which to me is the ultimate form of escape.
It doesn’t matter if you visit, see, taste and explore anything I’ve mentioned, they’re just a small selection of what’s on offer. There’s so much to experience in the Uralla Shire, you're bound to find your thing – that flavour, keepsake, conversation, a new skill, view, adventure – that moment that you realise you’ve escaped. And that is a feeling you can carry with you long after you’ve left the magic of Uralla Shire.