Needing a break from COVID imposed time at home, I recently spent a few days exploring Maitland and historic Morpeth, a less than two-hour drive north of Sydney. Not having spent time in Maitland, I was interested to discover more about the area.
In the early 1800s, for around 20 years, Maitland was the second largest town in Australia. It was where goods transported on the Hunter River from Newcastle and Sydney were offloaded.
Morpeth really only wakes up on Thursday through to Sunday so while I stayed in Morpeth, I discovered Maitland’s highlights earlier in the week before exploring Morpeth itself.
Places which are open seven days include Morpeth’s historic Commercial Hotel offering tasty meals, select coffee shops and Miss Lily’s Lollies so you won’t go hungry should you stay there.
Arriving in Maitland
Entering Maitland via a roundabout, I get confused and take the wrong exit. I turn into a side street where a tanned shirtless man wearing black stubbies watches me from the verandah of his double storey weatherboard home.
Finally, I find what I am looking for. The “Welcome to Maitland Mural” painted on the wall of a storage facility opposite the train station. The Italianate buildings of the heritage listed station date from the 1880s.
Matiland Regional Art Gallery (MRAG)
The large behind of a man bending over greets me as I walk from the parking lot of the Maitland Regional Art Gallery (MRAG) to the entrance. Bigger than life size, “Fetch Boy”, by Gillie and Marc Schattner, is actually a long-eared dog dressed in a suite. He’s bending over to pick up a pile of doggy do.
Housed in the old Maitland Technical College, the exhibition spaces at MRAG are large and bright. Responding to the isolation imposed by the pandemic, “Hello Again – it’s nice to see your face” is an exhibition of portraits from the gallery collection. I recognise familiar faces like Margaret Olley and enjoy meeting new ones as I wander through.
Gordon Elliott and Michael Eyes have loaned their private collection of over 300 pieces to the gallery until early October. It’s a wonderful opportunity to view art usually housed in a home in Erskineville, Sydney.
The name Reko Rennie, draws me in for a closer look at two of his works. I know his “Welcome to Redfern’ mural and “Remember Me” installation at Sydney’s Carriageworks well.
The collectors explain that commissioning a work by Alex Seton, where each letter has a price tag, they chose the letters “A-R-T”, individual marble letters approximately 15cm high to “provide the best value for money”. By rearranging the letters they get ART, RAT and TAR depending on their mood.
A tasty turkey, brie and cranberry toastie at the Gallery’s Seraphine Café sets me up for an afternoon walking around Maitland Gaol.
Maitland Gaol (East Maitland)
High sandstone walls topped with coiled razor wire looming above me confirm that I’ve reached my destination. Maitand Gaol is now a tourist destination yet the security, razor wire and watch towers still intimidate me. Opened in 1848, the jail was a major employer in the area until it closed in 1998.
With the self-guided tour downloaded on my phone and a warning not to touch the sharp razor wire, I begin my discovery. Walking alone through this unfamiliar environment, surrounded by fences and heavy doors I’m more than a little uncomfortable. Hopefully someone can see me on a screen somewhere should I lose my way.
The tour starts innocuously enough in the visitors’ area. The small children’s play area to the side of a rectangular room containing small round tables each surrounded by four plastic chairs fixed to the floor is at once comforting and shocking.
The tour leads me through the work area, cell blocks, chapel, shower block and muster area. Little of life in jail is left to the imagination. In the shower block two new winged inmates flit between the open stalls.
I listen to an inmate from 1961 saying “it was the toughest jail in the state at that time”.
A prison guard describes his workday as “hours of boredom punctuated by sheer terror” when “something went down”.
Tip: take a battery pack as the app can drain your phone.
Steeped in history, many buildings and homes in Maitland have interesting backstories. Following the map, I begin the Maitland Heritage Walk. Besides heritage, I discover colourful murals and faded ghost signs.
There’s the delightfully named Coffin Lane and the freshly painted “Blackboy” hitching post which has stood in High Street since 1886. An elderly woman suns herself on the veranda of a rare example of a timber Settler’s cottage. I wonder how long she has lived there. When I look back, intending to ask her, the chair is empty.
A pleasant riverside walk along the Hunter River which flows behind High Street completes my Maitland discovery.
Slow Food Earth Market
The twice monthly Slow Food Earth Market began in 2016 with a pop-up stall selling pumpkins that would otherwise have been ploughed back into the ground. The volunteer run market now boasts 19 stalls offering turmeric, honey and a range of fresh seasonal vegetables.
Nine-year-old environmentalist, Millicent, helps her mum. She wears a hospital mask with hand-written slogans in written in black texta announcing her commitment to the planet
The ‘garlic’ woman sells 5 varieties of garlic and explains that garlic “needs a bit of sea salt to help it along.” The Lorn Lemon Grower explains that for her this all started when her husband had a stroke. He began gardening and she sells his produce including fresh eggs and lemon butter.
Wandering from stall to stall, I chat to the growers who follow the philosophy of “Good Clean and Fair Food for All”.
My bags start to weigh a tonne as I add soil encrusted potatoes and a pumpkin to ruby grapefruit and bright green snow peas.
Project leader, Amorelle Dempster explains that the market is run by volunteers who aims to protect the food system and reduce waste. The market supports small scale growers and encourages farmers to diversify their produce.
With a strong commitment to locally grown food, Amorelle tells me that during COVID, Maitland is “food secure”.
Not only does the market meet the Slow Food movement’s aims around food security, it also provides a great community hub. As I chat to Amorelle, people wave and greet her and one another.
Having discovered that Amorelle Dempster runs the Reader’s Café and Larder at the Library in East Maitland, I make a point of going there for lunch. I know the ingredients in my vegetable frittata have come direct from the farm. It’s certainly full of flavour.
Walka Water Works
I am struck by the ornate brickwork of the 19th-century heritage listed pumphouse and chimney at Walka Water Works. Red and yellow bricks arranged over arched doorways and under eaves form intricate patterns. Buildings these days seldom display such care and attention to detail.
Walka Water Works is a popular and recreation area, the word “walka” being the Aboriginal word for “resting place by the water”. The 19th-century heritage listed pumphouse and chimney look out across a grassed area and lake where over 140 species of birds can be found. Built in 1887 to supply water to Newcastle and the Hunter Valley, the building is currently closed to the public.
Besides picnicking, walking or enjoying a spot of bird watching, there are twice monthly mini train rides for the kids.
The cold wind blows my hair into my eyes and whips up the water on the lake. As I set off on the 3km loop around the lake, a small mob of kangaroos slowly moves on. A joey’s tail hangs from it’s mother’s pouch.
A splash of red flits through a nearby bush. The bird makes a mouse-like squeak, the red beak and red across its eye briefly visible. Pity my bird book is at home.
Donarch Fine Chocolate
Nestled amongst a strip of local shops in Tenambit, a few kilometres from Maitand and Morpeth, Donarch Fine Chocolate is one shop you need to know about. Award-winning Donna Archer makes her chocolate offerings with care and attention to detail.
Handing me a salted caramel cube Donna warns “it’s quite salty”. The smooth milk chocolate cracks as I bite into it, smooth salty caramel spilling out. Beautifully boxed, these chocolates make perfect gifts.
My home for two nights is the Bronte Boutique Hotel in the historic town of Morpeth, only 5 minutes from Maitland. Comfortable and central, it’s perfect for my needs.
I take my host Clint’s advice and eat at the historic Commercial Hotel located opposite the Morpeth Bridge. Seated near the cosy fireplace, my pumpkin quinoa salad is tasty and filling. Next time I’ll try a paddle of their craft beer.
Morpeth Heritage walk
Once a busy river port and agricultural and industrial hub, Morpeth has a rich history. The heritage walk starts at Illalaung Park next to Morpeth’s historic bridge where markers indicate the water level when the river floods – an all too regular occurrence.
I walk past the Commercial Hotel with its decorative cast iron balustrades, the sandstone Bond Store and the Courthouse whose clock locals relied on for their timekeeping. Single workers cottages have been tastefully restored but the railway station needs some TLC.
As I walk through the town, locals nod or wave in greeting. This friendly town is not yet over developed or discovered by the Sydney set.
Visitors browse the eclectic range of goods in Campbell’s Store. From hats and jewellery, cabinets of curiosities, road signs and books, there’s something for everyone including breakfast or lunch at The Servant’s Quarters Tearoom.
A barn behind the sandstone building houses gourmet foods and galleries. When mixed with soda water, the Ginger Beer Cordial from the Ginger Beer Factory is perfectly refreshing.
Miss Lilys Lollies
Freshly made fudge is my downfall and I head for Miss Lily’s Lollies. Lifting a fresh batch of smooth rich caramel from the tray Brett Dears carefully measures and cuts my fudge. He points to a large shiny steel ‘pot’ with a heating element “that’s my kettle” he says adding that he makes two batches of six flavours every week.
In the evening I wander over to Boydell’s for dinner. The seasonal menu allows for a choice of two, three or four courses. I settle for a mushroom tart entree, lamb shoulder to follow and dessert of lavender scented panna cotta accompanied by a glass of Boydell’s Verdelho.
It’s a long time since I’ve eaten in a restaurant where the pace is slow (but not too slow), the food delicious and carefully presented and the atmosphere warm and welcoming.
Thoughts on Maitland and Morpeth
For some reason, I’d never been inspired to visit Maitland, but now that I’ve been, I’ll be returning with friends. Maitland is interesting, has a great gallery and heritage and the locals are friendly and welcoming.
- Wednesday: Maitland Regional Art Gallery. Maitland Gaol. Accommodation Morpeth: Bronte Guest House. Dinner: Commercial Hotel.
- Thursday: Slow Food Earth Market. Section of Maitland Heritage Walk. Walka Water Works. Back to Morpeth via Tenambit and Donarch Chocolates. Dinner Boydells.
- Friday: Discover Morpeth with the Heritage Walk and a poke around the shops. Drive back to Sydney via Lorn and Icky Sticky Pastry (closes 2pm).
- Maitland Regional Art Gallery (MRAG). 230 High Street. Open Tuesday to Sunday 10am to 5pm.
- Maitland Gaol. 6-8 John Street East Maitland. Book online. Download the app before arriving. Open 7 days.
- Slow Food Earth Market located in The Levee, Maitland. The first and third Thursday of the month from 8:30 to 12:30
- Walka Water Works. S Willards Lane, off Scobies Lane, Oakhampton Heights, Maitand. Open 7 days 7am – 5pm (or 7pm during daylight saving). Mini Train rides are on the first and third Sunday of the month.
- Campbells Store. 175 Swan Street. Open Thursday to Sunday, 10am-5pm.
- Miss Lily’s Lollies. 4 Green St Morpeth. Open 7 days, 10am-4pm.
- Donarch Fine Chocolate at 49 Maize St, Tenambit is a five drive from Morpeth and Maitland. Open seven days – shorter days on the weekend.
- Icky Sticky Patisserie. 2/27 Belmore Road, Lorn (outskirts of Maitland). Delicious pastries. Open Monday to Friday 7:30am-2pm
Obtain paper maps from the Maitland Visitor’s Centre – Cnr New England Highway & High Street, Maitland. Open 7 days 10am -3pm.
- Maitland Heritage Walk
- Maitland Poverty and Prosperity Walk (45min – 1.5hrs). Use paper map or the Maitland Walks App
- Morpeth Heritage Walk (1.5-2hrs) –Maitland Walks App easier to use than the paper map
- East Maitland self-guided Heritage Walk – Paper map available
Where to Eat
- The Seraphine Café at MRAG. Open Tuesday to Sunday 8am to 3pm
- The Orange Tree 346 High Street Maitland has tables overlooking the river. Open 8am-3pm seven days
- The Bikesmith and Espresso Bar has good coffee. 326 High Street Maitland. Open weekdays 6:30am-5pm and 7am–2pm on weekends
- COQUUN, the Levee 396 High Street Maitland, uses local produce as much as possible. A café, small bar, deli and bistro it’s open Thursday – Saturday 10am – 10pm
- Common Grounds 4/142 Swan Street is only one of many cafés with tasty menus. Open 7 days. Walk down cobbled laneways to discover other hidden eateries
- Boydell’s Restaurant and Cellar Door. 2 Green Street Bookings essential. Cellar door open Wed-Sun 10:30am – 5:30pm. The restaurant opens from Thursday – Sunday for lunch and dinner
- The Commercial Hotel 127 Swan Street. Open seven days for lunch and dinner. Seasonal Menu
- Amorelle Dempster’s Reader’s Café and Larder at 3 Garnett Rd, East Maitland is located in the East Maitland Library. Using fresh local ingredients, it sells produce from the Earth Market. Open Mon – Fri 8am-3pm, Sat 7:30am-12pm
Where to Stay in Morpeth
- The main house at Bronte Boutique Hotel 145-147 Swan Street, has accommodation for six couples. Groups often book the whole house. If you prefer to cook two self-contained one-bedroom apartments (each sleeping 4) will soon be available
- The Surgeon’s Cottage 171 Swan Street, offers two self-contained cottages each with two bedrooms and sleeping 4. Check re additional persons