It’s hard to remember sometimes, but this adolescent planned city of politics and politicians we now call Canberra actually has a history longer than we might imagine, and like much of our nation, it too is steeped in rural and convict beginnings.
A visit to historic Lanyon Homestead sprawling peacefully in the foothills of Tharwa on the outskirts of Canberra is an entry into a time gone by, and a revelation into what once was.
Inhabited by Indigenous peoples for eons before, the Lanyon property began colonial life with squatters and was purchased as a rural property by James Wright and his mate John Lanyon, for whom the property was named, in 1835. John went back to England leaving James to manage Lanyon, with the help of convict labour. It supported a community of 60 for some time, but financial problems resulted in the bank foreclosing on him, and he moved across the river.
Enter the Cunningham family who purchased the property in 1849. After the very first home there was demolished (the excavation of that remains), the current homestead itself was built by the Cunniningham family in 1859, where they raised a family of eight. 1859 is pretty bloody old by Australian standards, especially in Canberra. The homestead and property underwent a number of changes and ownership over the years, eventually being compulsorily acquired by the ACT government in 1971 as the urban sprawl spread outwards towards Tuggeranong and more land was required for housing. That made the then owners, the Fields, pretty unhappy and a long legal battle ensued, ending in the High Court. The Fields lost the property, scored some money which undoubtedly wasn’t enough, and the ACT government picked up a wonderful historic asset. Somehow Lanyon escaped suburban development and instead was turned into a national treasure now maintained by the ACT Government through ACT Historic places.
I’ve visited Lanyon decades before, when the large collection of Sidney Nolan paintings he donated in 1974 specifically for the property were still housed there (and before they were moved to their current home at CMAG under another furore). I attended a wedding there and even participated in an enthralling treasure hunt aimed at the kids as we ferreted our way around the property solving clues and seeking out treasure. (I’m not sure there was actually to be found but just the thrill of the chase.)
But it was fun to go back with a local group of instagrammers (read chronic photo-takers) to be guided through the homestead and its various outbuildings, dating from convict days, by a team of dedicated and knowledgeable guides to explain some of its past. The homestead building is original, and charming, while the furniture and fittings inside have been re-imagined with items from the era, allowing you a peek into times gone by. It’s really quite lovely.
Outside the main property is a collection of all those outbuildings any self-respecting homestead should have: a kitchen, cooks’ quarters, stables, cellar, etc. There’s even some wonderfully alliterative hand-hewn hexagonal hardwood to hoo-hah at on the floor of the stable, a whole foot deep.
A little meander away, just on the edge of the Murrumbidgee River, there’s a little white hut that once housed the convicts overseer to make sure the convicts were all in place after the days’ work. The residents there could look out just across the river to the spot where William Farrer, of Australian wheat fame, used to reside and experiment with rust-resistant wheat strains suitable for Australian conditions. History at your backdoor indeed. Thirty years I’ve lived in this city and I’ve never twigged that the suburb Farrer was named for that man.
Once you’ve had your fill of history, you can enjoy a picnic from the gardens with the blue hills of the Brindabella Ranges as your backdrop, or grab a coffee or lunch in the cafe if you prefer. Hell, you can even get married at Lanyon if you want.
Some of the property is still leased as a working farm, and the smattering of black cows and a still working Southern Cross windmill from the 1930s render it as truly authentic.
I missed the famed vegetable garden and I didn’t get time to photograph the cows, but here are some resident ducks and their babies instead.
Too much to take in. Too little time. Perhaps I’ll have to go back again.
With thanks to the IgersCanberra team for organising and the lovely ladies @ACTHistoricplaces, Kate, Sally & Clare, who showed us the sights and explained the history, and even put up that timber sheep ‘hurdle’ (above) as they used to do in days of old. Impressive.