Armidale & Uralla: A Cultural Profile

Two typical 'New England' towns The city of Armidale and the small town of Uralla just 23km to its south, are typical New England towns. Situated in the high country on the Northern Tablelands, roughly halfway between Sydney and Brisbane on the New England Highway, both are characterised by their cool, temperate climate and enjoy four 'real' seasons: a short blast of winter with fog, frosts and occasional snowfalls, and hot summers blessed with evening thunderstorms and cool nights. Armidale, in particular, is renowned for its colourful autumn, because of the large number of introduced, deciduous trees.

The winter snow in New England is occasionally heavy enough to block highway access. Newby Park, Armidale. Photo courtesy Armidale Tourism

The area features some spectacular scenery along the Waterfall Way and the wilderness along the escarpment of the Great Dividing Range and New England National Park and there are twenty national parks within a two hour drive of Armidale and Uralla. Unlike much of the rest of the state, the New England region has been drought-free for the past few years and Armidale has been identified as one of only twenty centres in Australia with an abundant long term water supply.

The Anaiwan and Kamilaroi people were the traditional owners of the country that encompasses current day Armidale and Uralla and the local Indigenous population is still more than double that of the Australian average (5.4% in Armidale and 5.8% in Uralla, compared with the Australian average of 2.3%). Both towns have relatively small immigrant populations with just 9.7% born overseas in Armidale and 6.8% in Uralla (compared with 22.2% in the rest of Australia) although both towns have an interesting history of Chinese immigration dating back to the gold rush in the 19th century.

Armidale Armidale is the administrative centre for the Northern Tablelands region and is an established regional seat of learning and culture. Home to the first Australian university to be established outside a capital city- the University of New England, established in 1938 - it is known as a university and cathedral city, with its distinctive skyline of spires and large population of students and educators. There are around 1700 tertiary students enrolled in Armidale out of a total town population of around 20,000. As much as 12% of the population is employed in the tertiary education sector (the Australian average is 1.8%) and another 7.8% is employed in school education (nearly twice the Australian average of 4.5%).

Armidale, the city of churches. Photo courtesy Armidale City Council

The university has strong links to the rural community and undertakes a lot of agricultural research but has also contributed to the development of a strong local artistic community and a cultural sophistication which is uncommon even in other, larger, Australian rural towns.

In addition to its main education sector, Armidale's economy is strongly reliant on retail and professional services. (Professional, managerial, administrative and clerical workers together make up nearly 50% of the workforce). The town has positioned itself as a knowledge-based regional service centre and, with investments in the food, wine and tourist sector, has set its sights on attracting more professionals to the town.

There are an additional 5,000 people in the greater Armidale Dumaresq Local Government Area which extends eastward from the city through farming districts to the gorges and escarpments that mark the edge of the Northern Tablelands. Agriculture is an important contributor to the local economy and there are many well-established and wealthy grazing families in the area. The main activities are grazing and high-grade fine wool production as well as dairying, timber processing and potatoes and stone fruit production.

A city of the arts, Armidale has a long history of investment in local cultural development by its civic leaders, local philanthropists and artistic community. Famous artists who 'developed' in Armidale include musician and singer, Peter Allen, poet Judith Wright, the playwright, Alex Buzo and rock band, Cold Chisel™s keyboardist, Don Walker.

The town has eight museums and 35 National Trust listed buildings, including examples by famous colonial architects Horbury Hunt and Sir John Sulman. The New England Regional Art Museum (NERAM) is recognised as one the best regional art galleries outside the main metropolitan cities in New South Wales and is famous for its collection of over 1,000 Australian paintings from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, now valued at over $40 million.

The Armidale Teachers College is the base for the New England Conservatorium of Music (NECOM), the TAFE Film & Television School and the UNE Department of Music and the local musical community is closely linked through the Armidale Symphony Orchestra, an Armidale Youth Orchestra and many choral and other musical groups. Armidale is also known for its well-established biennial New England Bach Festival, Musica Viva concerts, jazz concerts and thriving live music scene.

The Armidale Playhouse and UNE Theatre Studies stage regular performances; Oz Opera performs in Armidale every two years and Stage One conducts drama, dance and circus classes for young people.

Armidale also has a twin cinema which shows mainstream and art house movies and hosts an annual international film festival. There is also a Writers Centre and an Aboriginal Cultural Centre and Keeping Place offering visual and performing arts programs.

Armidale has three local papers, two community radio stations - including one of Australia's oldest aimed at a youth audience - a commercial broadcaster and two narrowcast stations (including RAW FM offering dance music also aimed at a young people).

Uralla Nearby Uralla is a small town of just 5,700. Fondly referred to by locals as 'The Glebe' of New England, it is characterised by its large number of significant heritage buildings and a charming old-style village atmosphere. Uralla's particularly beautiful main street - which has escaped the chain store invasion and is entirely controlled by independent retailers - includes a number of small galleries and antique stores, an antiquarian bookstore and a cafe, as well as two great old pubs with wide verandahs.

The mainstreet of Uralla. Photo courtesy Uralla Council

Uralla is also known as 'Thunderbolt Country' after the legendary Captain Thunderbolt, the local 'gentleman bushranger' who is represented by life-sized statue at the end of the town's main street and is the focus of much of the town's tourism (which makes a significant contribution to the local economy). The town also provides a backdrop for village style weddings, complete with authentic London taxis and custom designed woolen wedding gowns.

Uralla has a strong community spirit and over recent years a thriving community of artists and potters has grown up around the village, which benefits from its proximity to the cultural and commercial centre of Armidale but also enjoys its distance from it. The Uralla Book Festival is held every year in September (around the same time as the Dog Agility Trials) and the annual Thunderbolt Country Festival is a highlight of the town's calendar each November.

Uralla boasts some fifty heritage buildings, including the oldest continuously operating foundry in Australia; a pioneer cemetery; a stone house built in the 1840s with a magnificent garden; a military museum; and the little village of Gostwyck (now privately owned) which includes a picturesque chapel covered in Boston Ivy and a fully operational, architecturally spectacular woolshed, all dating from the mid to late 19th century 'pioneering' days.

Also housed in a 19th century heritage building is Uralla's McCrossin's Mill Museum, which has a reputation for excellence in the regional museums sector and includes displays depicting the early gold rush days, a Chinese Joss House (featured on the front page of this website) and a collection of paintings by Phillip Pomroy depicting the last day of Captain Thunderbolt.

McCrossin's Mill museum, purchased and lovingly restored by the Uralla Historical Society, Uralla. Photo courtesy McCrossin's Mill

Uralla is the site of the famous Rocky River Gold Field where the discovery of alluvial gold in 1851 sparked a gold rush and led to Uralla officially becoming a 'town'. By 1855 the population was over 5,000 and the town had three hotels, stores, a post office, a flour mill and a school. Gold was discovered again in 1856, 1887 and 1889 by which time Uralla had been proclaimed a municipal district.

Today the Rocky River areas is used for raising merino sheep and Uralla is renowned for its super-fine and ultra-fine wool. A number of vineyards have also been established, as well as apple and other fruit orchards. The town's three foundries and other metal manufacturing businesses are the other significant contributors to the town's economy.

The environment and issues of soil erosion from logging and farming are a major focus of local government and community environmental bodies.

References http://www.armidaleregion.com.au http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Armidale

Coordinates: Armidale 30°30'S 151°40'E Uralla 30°38'S