IF you could somehow drain the colour from what you are looking at as you stand in Wollombi’s main street, you would create a picture of the past.
In this village about a half-hour drive south-west of Cessnock, the patina of history covers just about every surface, from the rough-hewn timber slab walls of the 1850s barn to the honeyed sandstone of the former telegraph office, from the rusting iron roofs to the general store’s weatherboard skin, tattooed with fading signs.
Yet many who live around here are adding colour to its heritage, as they gradually transform Wollombi from a dormant agricultural centre to an arts and tourist hub. In many of the buildings are restaurants and cafes, galleries and craft shops.
“There’s quite a rich seam of artistic talent,” said Steve Patterson, who runs the Wollombi General Store with his wife Cath.
“A lot of people come here for the quiet life and then express their artistic side.”
Steve and Cath Patterson should know. They moved from Sydney’s Northern Beaches about nine years ago and have gradually swapped their careers as a radiographer and nurse for a life behind the store counter.
Cath Patterson has also become involved as an actor in the local theatre group, Valley Artists. The couple is also planning to open a theatre restaurant at the back of their store.
Neighbouring the Wollombi General Store is an Aboriginal art gallery, and on the other side is the historic Grays Inn, which houses the cellar door for the intoxicatingly creative efforts of Noyce Brothers Wine.
As well as being a local vineyard owner, Phillip Noyce has a celebrated and lucrative artistic career out of the valley. He is a film director.
Tucked away among the rugged sandstone hills, where even mobile phone reception can be dodgy at times, Wollombi is a world away from Hollywood for Phillip Noyce.
“It’s a tiny, sleepy village, where I can truly relax,” said Mr Noyce. “It is a place without artifice, no pretensions.
“It’s very much retained its original beauty that I remember from when I first went there, but it’s increasingly attracting more attention, with the artists and restaurateurs seeking peace there, but sharing their skills.”
Phillip Noyce’s brother Michael has been involved in the local hospitality and wine industry for many years. He once owned the Wollombi Tavern, home of the famous Dr Jurd’s Jungle Juice, whose recipe was reputedly a work of eye-popping creativity in itself.
About 15 years ago, he and his brothers cultivated their vineyard on land owned by the family since 1970.
“Forty years ago, this was not a tourist destination, it was a rural centre,” Michael Noyce said. “There were no restaurants, no wine, other than Dr Jurd’s Jungle Juice, and the place was seriously full of characters.
“Physically the town hasn’t changed. Wollombi has changed by virtue of the different people.”
Local real estate agent Steve Annis-Brown has been watching the change for 30 years, as many people are seduced by the history and environment and imagine themselves as having a future here.
“If they are not artists before they come here, they think they’re artists once they get here,” said Mr Annis-Brown, who added that he had not discovered his inner artist yet.
“They are surrounded by like-minded people and the beautiful environment, and they discover their artistic self. They’re inspired by the district.”
Guntis Jansons was an artist before he became a local. He bought 10 hectares of land in one of the secluded valleys near Wollombi in the early 1990s, giving away a career in advertising.
In his metal shed studio, Mr Jansons is painting a large landscape. He need only look out his windows for inspiration.
“These landscapes are basically in my backyard,” he said, gesturing to the paddocks and the bush outside.
“I like the tranquillity here, and that’s what I like to encapsulate in my painting. That feeling of stillness. All your city worries wash away here.”
Mr Jansons estimated there were between 30 to 40 artists and craftspeople working in the area.
Yet while many like to create around Wollombi, comparatively few actually live in the village, according to real estate agent Steve Annis-Brown. When asked about the number of full-time residents, he said there were about 700 in the valley, and in the village itself, six, maybe 12 – “and I’m not being artistic in my expression with that figure”.
“We’re a smaller village now than it was in the middle 1800s,” said Mr Annis-Brown.
The vast majority of people he sold property to were from Sydney, and they wanted weekenders or holiday retreats. As a result, he said, the village’s atmosphere on the weekend, when it was humming with people from all walks of life, was vastly different to the mood of weekday Wollombi.
“That’s the interesting thing about this place, it wears a couple of uniforms,” Mr Annis-Brown said.
Michael Noyce said the growing numbers of artists and performers in the area had led to more cultural events, including the Wollombi Music Festival, a country fair and Sculpture in the Vineyards. In turn, those events attracted tourists.
Mr Annis-Brown believed for the village to become more vibrant, it needed more than weekend visitors. It needed more full-time residents. One way of attracting more people, he suggested, was to ease restrictions on subdividing rural blocks. The current minimum was 40 hectares. Mr Annis-Brown emphasised he was talking about only modest growth for the village, not developments that undermined the very atmosphere that attracted people to Wollombi in the first place.
Yet in considering Wollombi’s future, no one in the area wants to see its colourful past – and creative present – fade.
“You wouldn’t want it to change too much,” said Guntis Jansons. “It would lose its character. And there’s something magical about this place.”