It was by chance that John and Robyn Hawkins found themselves in the Chudleigh Valley, touring on a back road between Deloraine and Cradle Mountain. On passing through the narrow 'eye of the needle' entrance to the Chudleigh Valley they found a stunning landscape laid out before them. So when Bentley, one of the district's original land grants, came onto the market, the memory of this beautiful vista eventually lured the Hawkins from Moss Vale, in the New South Wales Southern Highlands, to Tasmania.
They have dedicated the last five years to the creation of a splendid country house through significant additions to the original homestead, laying hedges, building dry-stone walls, creating lakes and restoring outbuildings. And apart from Government House in Hobart, Bentley is also Tasmania's first and only heritage-listed landscape.
But this is of little consequence to John Hawkins when what he considers the greatest threat to the surrounding mountain landscape, the clear-felling of native forest, is exempt from all heritage legislation. John believes no other state or country would permit such sacrilege, and he despairs at the visible scars on the surrounding Tiers and the loss in the Chudleigh Valley of some of Tasmania's finest agricultural land to tree plantations.
Life has certainly become a little livelier in the sleepy village of Chudleigh since the Hawkins' arrival. But more than anything, locals credit John with completely recharging the valley and giving them a great sense of pride and appreciation of its visual significance as a unique, fire-farmed Aboriginal landscape overlaid by European settlement.
Bentley was a land grant in 1829 to John Badcock Gardiner who, it is assumed, named Chudleigh after his local village in Devon. Along with a couple of other early landholders in the district, Gardiner struck paydirt by burning lime and sending it to Launceston for building work. The whole valley is home to the most important limestone karst in the
southern hemisphere, which is listed as the Mole Creek Karst on the Register of the National Estate.
More land was added to the Bentley estate by its next owner, entrepreneur Phillip Oakden, who, among other things, introduced blackberries to Tasmania and brought Lincoln sheep to graze his land. A founding member of the Launceston Horticultural Society and the Union Bank in Launceston, Oakden was responsible for planting more than six miles of hawthorn hedge that is such a feature of the property today. The hedges were admired as early as 1870 by a passing traveller:
The road for a mile before reaching Chudleigh passes through what is called the 'Bentley Estate' and is bordered on each side with the finest hawthorn hedges that I have ever seen out of England, planted 28 years ago, standing from 15 to 20 feet high; the smell of English grass hay which was then on the ground lent a great charm to this part of the journey. I could not help envying the lot of the residents of such a delightful spot.
The property underwent further ownership changes before it was sold to Donald Cameron of Nile, in the Northern Midlands, to be farmed by his son, Donald Norman Cameron, who represented Tasmania in the first federal House of Representatives. The Cameron family built the Bentley homestead in 1879, an elegant single-storey house based on a Melbourne 'town villa'.
According to John Hawkins, 'the most famous episode in his career in the federal parliament was when it was being debated whether the federal capital should be built at Canberra or some other site. The decision lay with him. He kept silent for two weeks, tantalising the people of Australia by refusing to say which way he was going to vote; in the end he voted for Canberra.'
After Donald Norman Cameron's death in 1931, Bentley changed hands a few more times and was subdivided along the way. When it was bought by John and Robyn Hawkins, the acreage stood at 560 but this has since been more than doubled, as has the size of the 'villa' to create one of the first important Tasmanian country homesteads of the twenty-first century.
The original house is now one wing and its replica another. Connecting the two is a conservatory which is crowned with an elaborate cupola inspired by the dome on the Royal Pavilion at Brighton. With its eleven north-facing windows, the conservatory captures the sun to warm the building's core. And with restoration of the old stables in progress and a clock now installed in the clock tower, the property is once again a large working estate.
Almost as breathtaking as the house is the new dry-stone wall that surrounds it—at 700 metres, it took three years and 2500 tonnes of rock to build, with two men from Deloraine receiving training from an English dry-stone walling and hedge-laying expert, here on a teaching holiday in 2003. The hawthorn hedges have been correctly laid, pleached and staked at blood horse height, and John Hawkins has found that a tea-cutting machine from his Japanese antique business doubles nicely as a hedge-trimmer, producing the perfect curve.
Everything at Bentley has been done with the landscape in mind. Robyn Hawkins, who created the famous garden at Whitley in the New South Wales Southern Highlands, is responsible for the design of the grounds, the planting of 50,000 native trees and the creation of the grass garden along the creek.
The history of the estate was in part described by John Hawkins in the Australian Garden History Society newsletter, Blue Gum:
The whole valley is presided over by the Gog range, this features a natural rock formation that, in the morning light, produces a perfectly formed human face some 200 feet high. It was from this ridge that the Aboriginals gathered their ochre; O'Connor, the Land Commissioner, called this area the 'City of Ochre' in his survey of 1828. Europeans, under Captain John Rolland, of the Third Regiment, spent nine days mapping the course of the Mersey River in 1823. On climbing the top, he named the ridges Gog and Magog, the classical names for a King and his supposed Kingdom ... Rolland must have been of a literary and artistic bent for apart from the highest peak, which he named after himself, the two peaks to the west he named Vandyke and Claude, after the great European landscape painter .
The rural landscape is largely as created by Aboriginal fire farming and European settlement in the nineteenth century. The land grants ... were taken up over fire farmed cleared floodplains created by Native Hut Corner Aboriginals over thousands of years. Not having to clear the trees made this land instantly valuable and profitable to European settlers. Their landscape was to be contained by hawthorn hedges, the native trees cut to copse, thereby protecting the ridge lines so as to create a large, still-existing parkland, later planted with European trees, all much in evidence.
On learning that the listing of Bentley and its landscape with the Tasmanian Heritage Register provided no protection from the clear-felling of forests on surrounding hills and mountains, John has lobbied for change—so far without success. He believes the Tas-manian government is too closely aligned to the forestry industry, particularly in the matter of exemption of forestry from all heritage legislation.
In an exhaustive review of this legislation for the Labor state government, it was recommended by consultants that such statutory exemptions should be removed and canvassed options for how to better protect historic cultural heritage landscapes, which are also exempt from protection under the legislation. When pursued on the issue of exemptions, the government's response was: 'These provisions will remain at this time.'
John Hawkins, a Sandhurst-trained former British army officer, is determined to reverse this scenario and is leading the charge in the valley for the preservation of this historic and beautiful Arcadian landscape into the twenty-first century.
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