Mount Wilson: A Garden Community

The road to Mount Wilson is flanked by gnarled and twisted scribbly gums, with an understory of low heath plants typical of much of the Blue Mountains’ rugged sandstone landscape. Ahead lies the mount, the vegetation dark unlike the washed out tones of the sclerophyll flashing by the car windows. As we begin our ascent, the tree ferns appear. The basalt this town is renowned for makes itself known.

‘Mount Wilson rises an oasis in the desert,’ states a Sydney Morning Herald article in 1876, not long after the area was discovered by white explorers. ‘A mass of volcanic rock has burst through the surrounding sandstone, and decaying has left a soil deep and fertile, bearing a vegetation majestic in its grandeur and equalled in richness only by that of the most favoured climes; rugged precipices and masses of table rock afford points of view overlooking the wild untamed beauties of the surrounding country.’

The story continues, ‘… As a place of resort from the drudgery of city life, it were hard to find a more desirable spot than Mount Wilson.’ 120 years later, and I’m not sure much has changed. The small town is still a popular place of retreat from steamy Sydney summers, and its location will always be majestic.

The area was first subdivided in 1870, but there wasn’t much interest from buyers as it was still very remote and hard to access. When the Mount Wilson train station was built near the town of Bell in 1875 it became a more attractive proposition and folk began to buy and develop land on the mountain, however very few of the early settlers intended to live there permanently. ‘Mount Wilson was the ultimate Australian hill-station, based on the Indian model, where the well-to-do of the plains could retreat in summer,’ states historian Ian Jack.

Mount Wilson has always attracted money. Large homes were built in the late 1800s and early 1900s by people like retailer Marcus Clark, Edward Cox, Richard Wynne and a bunch of other wealthy folk from Sydney. Clearly, the rich soil and cool climate enabled the early settlers to indulge their ideas of a European aesthetic – avenues of deciduous trees, English plants, and the cool, wet climate of the mother country.

The connection between geology and money is made clear at Mount Wilson.

Gate detail - Turkish Baths Museum, Mount Wilson
The house and garden of Withycombe, Mount Wilson
The garden at Bebeah, Mount Wilson
The garden at Nooroo, Mount Wilson
The Turkish Bath Museum, Mount Wilson
Avenue of pine trees, Mount Wilson
The Avenue, Mount Wilson
The gateway to the Turkish Bath Museum, Mount Wilson

Nowadays, there are around 200 permanent residents in the town and it’s surrounds. The number swells on weekends, as it’s still very much a place of retreat. Gardens are, as they’ve always been, an important attraction. I can’t think of another town in Australia with so many grand gardens in such a small proximity. There’s the vast 100 acre Breenhold estate, Bebeah – a grand 12 acre garden originally built by Edward Cox in 1880, Nooroo which houses botanist and writer Peter Valder’s wisteria collection and huge old trees, Withycombe, Merrygarth, and more.

The competition is stiff – heaven help the poor soul who doesn’t maintain his/her Mount Wilson garden!

Mount Wilson is a gorgeous place, a storybook village with lovely old houses and tree lined streets. It’s a community linked by a desire to live in a relatively remote location, and a shared love of gardens. There’s nothing else like it in Australia.

In some ways though, and like much early settlement in Australia, it’s a town built on an ideal – creating it’s own idea of what a landscape should be, rather than celebrating the one it sits within. Mount Wilson is entirely surrounded by world heritage national park with a unique natural vegetation, yet these aspects of the place are hardly visible within its gardens.

Of course, the town’s cultural heritage is in many ways what makes it special nowadays, but as someone who sees so much beauty in the wild and rugged native landscapes of Australia, and particularly the Blue Mountains, I feel a sense of sadness that the extraordinary beauty of the native landscape has been pushed aside in the desire to create an ideal of what a garden should be.

The historian Ian Jack puts it like this; ‘The character of Mount Wilson and Mount Irvine is quite unlike the temper of the villages and towns of the Great Western Highway. It is not a simple character, nor a simple relationship between the original environment and the modified. The sublimity of the rich vegetation of the basalt cap with an understorey of magical tree-ferns remains in part, but this vegetation is interspersed with ruthlessly large clearings filled with exotic gardens around fine old houses. I love Mount Wilson, but its heritage values are complex and its pleasures are not unmingled with regrets.’

There’s no denying the beauty of the gardens of Mount Wilson though – I could happily wander its streets for days on end, picking, sniffing, admiring. After over 100 years of care, the town at the top of the basalt mountain has grown a nationally significant collection of cool climate gardens, distinct for their scale, grandeur, and geology.

We’ll be sharing some more stories and images of Mount Wilson gardens in the upcoming weeks – stay tuned!

Breenhold, Mount Wilson