In the Steps of Charles Darwin
© John Low
The term ‘landmark tree’, coined by the English environmental organization ‘Common Ground’, describes those trees that tell us something about a place. Such trees carry stories and contribute to distinctive local character and there are a number in the Blue Mountains.
One of the most important of these, in my view, is the Evergreen Oak (Quercus ilex) located at the rear of a modern sporting oval in Wentworth Falls. It was planted at a ceremony in January 1936 by Mr. W. W. Froggatt, President of the Field Naturalists’ Club of NSW, to celebrate the centenary of Charles Darwin’s visit to Wentworth Falls (or The Weatherboard as it was then known) toward the end of his long voyage as a naturalist on HMS Beagle. Around midday on 17th January 1836, Darwin and his guide “baited their horses” at the Weatherboard Inn on their way to Bathurst. The tree also marks the site of the old inn.
I have long been fascinated by Darwin and his voyage on the Beagle and with celebrations this year marking his 200th birthday and the 150th anniversary of the publication of his On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, I’m sure this place will attract a good number of visitors. Given his impact on the way we think about the world, Charles Darwin may well be the most significant figure to have visited the Blue Mountains.
Darwin’s tree and the Weatherboard Inn site are located only a short walk up the hill from the Wentworth Falls railway station. Built in the late 1820s, ‘The Bathurst Traveler’ soon became known simply as ‘The Weatherboard Inn’ after the locality, which in turn had taken its name from a weatherboard store depot placed here during the construction of the Western Road. A triumph of popular usage that survived until 1878, by which time the inn had long closed and the locality was given its current name of Wentworth Falls!
All that remains of the inn now is a disturbed piece of ground beside the oval. Council bulldozers accidentally uncovered some foundations in the 1980s and a hasty archaeological excavation unearthed the usual flotsam of brick, pottery, clay pipes, nails etc. before it was all covered up again. There was talk of creating an historical precinct but nothing came of it. A revival of interest, though, may well be at hand.
Darwin, like his horses, probably took refreshment after arriving at the inn on that hot January day in 1836. Then, as he records in his journal, he went for a walk “following down a little valley and its tiny rill of water” to where that ‘tiny rill’ plunged spectacularly into the vastness of the Jamison Valley. This “magnificent” scene greatly impressed him: “… one stands on the brink of a vast precipice, and below is the grand bay or gulf (for I know not what other name to give it), thickly covered with forest.”
Europeans may well have begun following the path Darwin trod to the Weatherboard Falls as early as the establishment of the aforementioned road storage depot in October 1814. With the opening of the inn in the late 1820s, word-of-mouth and the active encouragement of the early innkeepers (who probably cleared parts of the developing pathway and made it more accessible) led to the establishment of what could be the earliest ‘tourist’ walking track in the Blue Mountains.
Following years of neglect, interest in the track and its associations with Darwin were revived in the mid-1980s. I remember, as a still fairly new local studies librarian, being invited in January 1986 by the artist Renis Zusters whose property bordered the track, to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Darwin’s excursion to the falls by spending an hour or so walking in his footsteps.
Turning a bend in the track we were surprised to find Darwin himself, in the guise of the actor Tim Elliot (another Wentworth Falls resident), suddenly among us. Our companion for the remainder of the walk, Darwin was also the guest of honour when the then Mayor of the Blue Mountains, Peter Quirk, unveiled a small plaque attached to a rock face above the path. It is still there, not far from the “magnificent” view he remarked upon, and reads: “Charles Darwin passed this way in 1836, remembered by his friends in 1986.”