Bathurst is a city that has been eclipsed by a motor race but it has a whole lot more beyond its famous circuit.
Take my breath away is playing on the car radio. It’s fitting considering my dad is driving us around Bathurst’s famous Mount Panorama.
Though at 40 kilometres an hour, it hardly rivals the famous motorcycle scene in Top Gun.
I’m in the back seat listening to dad’s commentary; he’s explaining to mum that we’re heading down The Dipper. Though I’m sure he would have wanted to put pedal to the metal, the heavy rain outside (and the 60-kilometre speed limit) has us doing a rather cold lap instead.
Motor racing became part of Bathurst’s landscape in 1938 when the city’s somewhat cheeky Mayor Martin Griffin received funding for a road that he proposed as a scenic drive.
But with its sharp hills, hairpin bends and downhill straight, he always intended for the track to be used as a racing circuit. Later that year the first racing event at ‘Mount Panorama Scenic Drive’ was held.
Since then, the name Bathurst has become known around the world as a motor race rather than a city, with many people overlooking Bathurst as a destination.
But Australia’s oldest inland city has an incredible history that begins with the Wiradjuri people and spans centuries: European and convict settlement, a remarkable gold rush, the establishment of the iconic Cobb & Co headquarters, the arrival of bushranger gangs, and a boom after World War I when returned soldiers were granted local land for agriculture and orchards.
A walk through the town centre reflects this rich history, with its fabric made up of beautifully preserved historic buildings that date from the 19th and early 20th centuries, many of which now house charming cafes, restaurants, bars and boutique stores.
“Assuming Bathurst is only about a motor race is a bit like watching just one lap of the Bathurst 1000,” says Campbell Hedley, owner of Bathurst’s Two Heads Brewing which opened earlier this year.
“You miss 99 per cent of what’s on offer!”
Hailing from nearby Orange, Campbell (a former lawyer) and his brother Greg (a former quantity surveyor) were both keen home brewers.
When it came to choosing the location for their dream brewery, they said the region’s growing appreciation for good quality local produce made it an attractive prospect. But ultimately, it was the historic century-old Crago flourmill in which the brewery is housed that won them over.
Named Crago Mill Emporium, the charming building is also home to an interiors store, cafe, yoga studio and a speakeasy-style underground bar (coming soon).
It was awarded ‘Best Adaptive Reuse of a Heritage Building’ in the Bathurst Bicentenary National Trust Heritage Awards last year and is a nod to the revival of a city where old is becoming new and lively, driven by the influx of a younger generation.
A great barometer of how well a town is doing is the presence of a decent coffee, something The Hub is credited for in these parts. This quaint cafe has a leafy courtyard perfect for sunny days and cosy wood fire for winter.
It’s a top spot to start the day with a good hearty breakfast made mostly from local produce, and a mean coffee made from Bathurst’s own Fish River Roasters’ beans (The Hub even has its own signature blend).
Tired of the rat race, owner Ross McDonald moved to Bathurst from Sydney for “some fresh air”.
He acknowledges the city is growing at a more rapid pace than he had imagined when moving here eight years ago; it’s now one of the country’s fastest growing regional centres.
“The cost of living is very realistic for the younger generation coming through,” he says.
Someone who knows just how much Bathurst has changed over the years is Christopher Morgan, owner of heritage property Abercrombie House. Christopher grew up here in the 1970s, a time when he says the locals wore brimmed hats, goods at the hardware store were counted in units of three, and when the opening of Kentucky Fried Chicken caused a mile-long traffic jam.
“We knew Bathurst was changing when the first stop-lights were erected. For a while we ignored them and continued to give way to the right.” But he’s optimistic about the city’s growth.
“Bathurst is now entering its golden age,” Christopher declares. “We are big enough to sustain a diverse and interesting culture, but small enough to have a really strong sense of community.”
Christopher pours us a cup of freshly brewed tea, which we enjoy in front of an original 19th-century fireplace, one of 30 in Abercrombie House. Built in the 1878 from granite, this Scottish Baronial mansion stands atop a hill just west of Bathurst’s town centre (via a scenic country drive).
Originally from Sydney, Christopher’s parents purchased the house, which was abandoned for decades, as a weekender when he was just six years old. The family has spent more than 40 years restoring its 52 rooms, seven staircases, grand ballroom and extensive gardens; it’s all accessible to visitors (via tours and special events) to aid its ongoing restoration.
We mention to Christopher that we are staying in the lovely and cosy Lochinvar Cottages located right on Mount Panorama, and so, as most conversations with visitors surely do, our attention turns back to the race.
Christopher isn’t jaded by it, though: “The race gives us our international identity and we love that. But we have many layers of rich culture and heritage here to be discovered, which are quite incredible.”
I think about this as we head back down the Conrod Straight; I can barely make out the iconic Mount Panorama sign etched into the side of the mountain through the dreary weather, but what I can see is a city that has a whole lot more to offer than horsepower and hot laps.