Category Archives: Rural Childhood

Back in town

Inverell Court House, built in 1886 (Photo: Cgoodwin).
DAY IN COURT Inverell Court House, built in 1886 (Photo: Cgoodwin).

A Writer returns to the scene of the crime. 

MORE than 20 years after my family moved away from the country town of Inverell, leaving behind failed dreams and a broken marriage, I returned on a rainy evening in late 2003 with some unfinished business.

I’d called ahead to my grandmother, who was still living there in a nursing home. Before taking her to lunch the next day, I dropped into the local courthouse, an imposing clock tower at the centre of town, where a helpful woman proceeded to assist me in finding my mother’s name in the court records.

The court staffer didn’t flinch when it quickly became apparent we were not looking for a plaintiff of any kind, but rather a defendant. Trouble was, I had no specific dates to search, only the barest clues from what I’d been told about mum’s appearance in the court on a shoplifting charge sometime in the 1970s.

That meant mum’s name was still on the police computer database, in which the dates became brutally clear: just before Christmas, 1977, the police had made their way to our property off the Bingara Road, with complaints from two Inverell shops that mum had stolen childrens’ clothing and kitchen implements.

All court records prior to 1980 were stored in the archives of the New England University at the nearby city of Armidale. Would I like them faxed over? I agreed to return to the police station adjacent to the courthouse when they were ready.

Next, I dropped into the council chambers with a request. I had in my possession a hand-sized flat stone which had been picked up off the driveway of our farm, a flint-like rock with a broad space for a thumb to hold the sharpened edge to use it for cutting – an aboriginal hand axe of indeterminate age.

I asked if there was any kind of Aboriginal cultural heritage centre, or perhaps a museum, which would be interested in taking this stone tool off my hands?

The council staffer held her gaze with an open, shocked mouth, and shook her head, muttering “no…,” and, “good luck with that,” before leaving.

The tourist information centre had the name of an Aboriginal elder who lived locally. I drove the streets of our old neighbourhood searching for the address, but there was no-one home, and the only Aboriginal public office was well and truly closed.

SHOW & TELL Aboriginal hand axes from Arnhem Land.
SHOW & TELL Aboriginal hand axes from Arnhem Land.

I began to wonder whether the stories I’d been told about this stone were true, or if they’d been elaborated into family myths? I had taken it to school for ‘show and tell’, with the family name written on it using thick black marker pen in my mother’s hand. She was interested in anthropology, and we had inherited all kinds of fossils and artefacts at her death at decade before.

But on returning to the riverside shopping centre to buy grandma a present, my doubts were allayed by the wall built of local stone at the gateway, the very same blue, brown and ochre basalt. The wall was all that remained of the department store built by my ancestors in the town. I knew then I had the right rock back in the right region.

Grandma was dressed and eager to get out and about, waiting for me outside the door of the nursing home. We laughed as I lifted her into the passenger seat of my four-wheel drive, me allaying any embarrassment she felt by reminding her of the hundreds of times she had lifted me into a car when I was a child.

We had a lovely lunch. She enjoyed the meal and hearing all my news about life in the big city. We’d corresponded about family stuff many times, and it seemed a waste of time to go over it all again – she and I had come to terms already. We loved one another, that’s all that mattered.

I dropped her home when she started to tire, and headed out of town, along a well-trodden road into the uplands south west of Delungra, where fields of wheat in black soil run for miles and miles under enormous skies.

I’d met the present owner a few years before, but I hadn’t come to see the house again. I’d picked-over the traces of my family’s dream many times before: the room where my baby brother died, and the hopeful imprint my parents had made on a property which was derelict when they moved there.

I looked over the stones on the driveway, and sure enough, scattered along the verges were more of those flinty fragments like the larger one in my pocket.

I was headed a few kilometres further west, to a lonely place on the Bingara Road, where a memorial had been built in the year 2000 to the Aboriginal men, women and children who were slaughtered on a hillside in 1838 at the hands of European settlers in what came to be known as the Myall Creek Massacre.

MASSACRE SITE: The Myall Creek Massacre Memorial (Photo: Department of Environment: Mark Mohell).
MASSACRE SITE: The Myall Creek Massacre Memorial (Photo: Department of Environment: Mark Mohell).

There, I walked along the trail which marks the gruesome milestones of this iconic event – the first time in Australia’s history that settlers were tried and hanged for the murder of Aboriginal people.

I took the Aboriginal axe, with our family name impossible to erase from it, and buried it at the site, not only out of respect for the Aboriginal lives lost, but also those in my own scattered family.

Night was falling when I arrived back at the Inverell police station, where a large envelope awaited me. At a motel out of town I pored over its contents, like some terrible play in which my parents were protagonists.

Buried deep in the court transcripts, describing in detail how mum was found guilty of multiple counts of theft, was the news of one shop owner who’d waived all charges in the light of the psychologist’s report, and the one who’d refused.

The sentence in Mulawa Womens’ Prison in Sydney, a day’s drive away from her children, detailed the number of days’ imprisonment resulting from the value of each item of clothing stolen.

The transcripts of friends who stood in the dock spoke of her good character.

The psychologists’ report itself – one clinical, succinct letter linked mum’s behavior to deep feelings of guilt and shame about the death of her third child, the result of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS).

And then the suspended sentence – no jail time to be served, in exchange for a warrant of good behaviour.

I suddenly understood why mum did not put up a fight for her financial share of the marriage settlement. Buying her freedom had cost our family dearly, and walking away with nothing but a car and some furniture, she might have felt she’d repaid her dues.

I could also see why she eventually left town, allowing the myth to emerge that she’d left dad, not the truth, which was all the other way around. Our family name on ‘Burge Bros.’, an Inverell shopfront, speaks of our pedigree as descendants of proud local shopkeepers, which mum might have felt was brought into disrepute by a depressed city girl. Housed in the same precinct was the shop whose owner would not forgive her.

I remembered how mum recalled being interviewed by the police after my brother died. It was a matter of course, apparently, that the mother was the first subject of investigation after the death of a child who had been laid in his bed by her arms only hours before. Lindy Chamberlain was to face that same moment only seven years later.

And I remembered it was mum who told me about the Myall Creek Massacre. While the other adults were playing tennis at the courts near the creek, she pointed to the hillside and whispered to me about what had occurred. Whispered. Not to the other kids, or any of the white adults enjoying weekend sport, but just to me.

The Myall Creek Massacre memorial was eventually the subject of an Australian Story episode in which descendants of the settlers who committed the crimes reached out in reconciliation to the descendants of the Wirrayaraay people who were slaughtered.

SET IN STONE Plaque at the Myall Creek Massacre memorial.
SET IN STONE Plaque at the Myall Creek Massacre memorial.

But in its first decade, it endured vandalism. Not brainless destruction, but calculated censorship of the facts about the case and its impact on lives.

It’s a beautiful part of the world, the place I was born, but it can be a harsh place too.

The shock and grief wrought on one family in the wake of the sudden death of one baby tells us how magnified the same emotions would have been after the sudden slaughter of multiple defenceless women, children and old men at Myall Creek, but despite the well-known contributing factors of depression and grief-related kleptomania, there was little reconciliation or understanding on offer for my mother in the 1970s. The community was still coming to terms with what happened to the Wirrayaraay.

Mum got away from Inverell and made a new life. Grandma died in 2008 and we gathered in Inverell for her funeral, but no-one in our family lives there anymore.

I’ll go back to Myall Creek one June for the annual memorial service. Hearing the true story of the place probably marks the start of my journey to being a writer.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved. 

Dry stone country

BOTH SIDES NOW Stephen Harrison, master waller, instructing on one of his dry stone walling courses.
BOTH SIDES NOW Stephen Harrison, Master Waller, instructing on one of his courses.

A Writer’s encounter with Britain’s boundaries.

ON the property where I grew up, porous volcanic rocks covered a little peak near the farm-house, the hundreds of holes in their sides the perfect dwelling place for the fairies we imagined lived there. Hours of exploration ensued on that hillock, from which the edges of the wider world could be seen, but not yet explored.

For exiled Europeans living in the pastoral dream of New South Wales, stone boundaries and homes were a link to the lands we had come from. The Northern Tablelands are scattered with flints, shales, and granite boulders. In parts, where the scrubby trees are scarce, and the skies large, you could swear you were on the Yorkshire Dales.

So when the opportunity to produce a program about dry stone walling came up, I leapt at the chance. The directive included the name of artist Andy Goldsworthy, who could be credited with taking the ancient craft and making it into a fine art.

We turned first to the Yorkshire Dales Field Centre, where Master Waller Stephen Harrison taught weekend courses in walling for anyone wanting to have a go.

This was the dawn of the reality show era, and it was suggested that we find a television presenter to send on one of these courses, to ‘throw them in the deep end’. We approached Dylan Winter, a country-based broadcaster. He was willing, we set a date in the Dales’ village of Settle, and went to build walls.

Cameraman Alan James got to ride in a hot air balloon filming the network of walls across part of the Dales. We went to an all-day walling competition. The whole thing was so much fun it hardly felt like work!

The true art of dry stone walling is in the word ‘dry’ – Stephen showed us places on the high ridges of the Pennines where walls had been built and maintained over centuries which you could kick and not make a dent in, yet they stood without a trace of binding mortar.

Very often there is little sign of human habitation, apart from the walking track, and then you’ll crest a hillock and suddenly see lines of stone – barriers – running across everything in their path for miles and miles.

The beauty of stone walls belies terrible times in the nation’s past – Hadrian’s Wall in the north might not technically be mortar-free, because it was built to keep people out of England, but dry stone walls are also evidence of a great ‘keeping out’ movement.

CLOSING-UP An English enclosure notice of the 18th Century.
CLOSING-UP An English enclosure notice of the 18th Century.

It was almost four centuries of Enclosure Acts that fenced-off the shared common lands of the countryside, starting in and around villages, but extending over time across every patch of farmland. Eventually the entire landscape was owned by someone, and it was walls (or hedgerows, where stone was scarce) which marked where the boundaries were deemed by law to be.

Men and women who once worked common land found themselves fenced out of it. Many eked-out new livings on the crews who built the walls. It’s a skill which has been handed down through generations.

Sourcing archival images and footage of walling crews at work in the early 20th century proved an adventure in itself, but between the libraries of the Lake District, and private collectors, we unearthed some very unique footage for our program. The interesting thing about the photographs in particular is how they revealed walling was a family pastime – men, women and their children were taught to wall in certain communities.

Stone is an effective barrier – if used correctly it can halt flood or fire, it looks better than barbed wire, and it’s not hard to work with.

Which is the message Stephen Harrison and the Yorkshire Dales Field Centre were keen to spread to city slickers like us. Dylan made some classic errors in his section (or ‘stint’) of wall, but, as Stephen pointed out, even a flawed wall will outlast most modern wire fences.

ART OF STONE Andy Goldsworthy at one of his Cumbrian Sheepfold projects.
ART OF STONE Andy Goldsworthy at one of his Cumbrian Sheepfold projects.

We travelled to Cumbria to meet Andy Goldsworthy’s assistant at an agreed time in a remote pub car park. She led us up into the foothills nearby, to a sheepfold – a square or round enclosure of stone designed to pen sheep. Andy was nowhere to be seen, but his work, on that occasion an arrangement of straw on the ground inside the stone enclosure so that it would catch the light from different angles, was incredible.

We all drew breath. Someone said “wow”. I noticed a scrap of woolly grey from behind the wall at the far side, and thought perhaps it was a stray Herdwick sheep, but when the sheep stood up it revealed itself as the artist.

“Good reaction,” he said, before I told him I thought he had Herdwick-coloured hair. He laughed, and within the stunning setting of a Cumbrian valley, we interviewed Andy Goldsworthy about his work with dry stone walling, and dry stone wallers, particularly on the long-term Sheepfold Project of the 1990s.

Stephen Harrison is one of a group of British wallers who regularly work with Andy Goldsworthy on art projects both in Britain and North America, but the boundary between artist and waller is invisible. Goldsworthy started out a farm boy, after all, and Harrison is very much an artisan in his own right.

Very often they build stone structures (not always walls) in art galleries. More regularly they’ll work in farm land, or in the wilderness.

In addition to Cumbria and Yorkshire, we interviewed wallers in Wales, Scotland (where walls are known as ‘drystane dykes’), and Derbyshire. In each region the stone varies in colour and density – in parts of Wales you can chop it with your hand, in some places around Scotland you can barely break it with a hammer.

I can’t think of a more accessible way to participate in ongoing heritage than to repair or build your own dry stone walls. As soon as I had my own garden I started, and I learnt that if you follow a few simple guidelines, anyone can seem like they’ve been walling for years.


Dry Stone Country is distributed on DVD by BecksDVDs.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

Tilting at windmills

WINDY HILL Jack and Jill Mills in Sussex (Photo: David Blaikie).
WINDY HILL Jack and Jill Mills in Sussex (Photo: David Blaikie).

A Writer’s quixotic adventure.

THEY all said I was mad. Every Miller in England told me there would be no wind in August. If I was expecting the sails of their mills to be turning when I arrived in the languid late summer with a camera crew, I’d be wasting my time.

But I’d already scheduled a month’s worth of filming between Lincolnshire and Sussex, crisscrossing the country in search of some of England’s most treasured surviving windmills, in places where I’d just assumed there would be plenty of wind, all year round.

So I just sat on this wisdom quietly, because I’d already promised delivery of a one-hour program in time for Christmas. If it was going to happen, the footage needed to be in the can and edited by the end of September at the outside.

Our packed itinerary started close to home in the Cambridgeshire fen lands, where, on arrival at Wicken Fen drainage mill (managed by the National Trust), the little green canvas-covered sails of the smock mill were ripping around at a very pleasing pace.

Thinking that I’d struck the one day of late summer wind, I got cameraman Alan James to film just about everything we could see that was moving in the gale.

The next day we had two interviews scheduled. Ideally, I wanted windmills turning gently in the background. Apparently, they could be cranked around by hand, so at least I had that option up my sleeve if there was no wind.

First subject was Nigel Moon, Miller at Whissendine Mill in Rutland, who scratched his head when we turned-up as agreed, saying he couldn’t credit why the wind was blowing so well for the time of year.

As we embarked, the crew noticed something very interesting about wind.

When the sun comes out from behind a cloud, it brings with it a thermal gust strong enough to get a windmill’s sails turning, making a pretty picture behind the interviewee.

But for a film crew, bright sunlight means the interviewee will be over-exposed. A sudden gust of wind is also hazardous for sound recording. The crew handled this frustrating situation with great skill and patience. We all became instant weather watchers, recording only during the passing of very large, long clouds.

At Green’s Mill, right in the city of Nottingham, Miller and writer of our documentary, David Bent, took us through the entire workings of one of England’s best-preserved windmills.

We quickly completed every bit of filming that didn’t require turning sails, so I let the crew go for lunch. Meanwhile, I climbed up into the tower mill, surrounded by its fascinating internal workings, all so beautifully wrought from timber, stone and iron. Out on the balcony, where the Miller would set the sails on his mill, there was not a trace of wind. Had my run of weather-luck finally come to an end as predicted?

Ever-hopeful, I climbed higher again, to see tiny windows looking over the courtyard where the crew lunching far below.

UNHORSED BY WINDMILLS I felt a little like Don Quixote.
UNHORSED BY WINDMILLS I felt a little like Don Quixote.

The pressure of the quixotic plan to bring my first full-length documentary in on time and budget was now palpable. I’d hitched my reputation to something as fickle as the weather, an energy I already had a love-hate relationship with. The realisation struck me with a feeling of anger and desperation, so I did something I rarely do … I prayed!

After a few resigned moments looking at the view, the noise of one of the large timber-toothed cogs inside the mill caught my attention. I watched it, oblivious for a few moments to what its movement meant.

A shadow slid across the small room from the window, and I realised the sails outside were turning.

I shouted out the window to the crew and got them back on deck within a minute. Across a nicely windy afternoon we got all the shots we needed.

After a great night’s sleep we headed north into Lincolnshire. With its endless skies capturing as much wind as any Miller would ever want off the North Sea, Lincolnshire was surely designed to harness wind power.

With its sleek black tower, the six-sailed Sibsey Trader Mill (stewarded by English Heritage) rises above the flat landscape like something straight out of Tolkien. I half expected to see Saruman stalking the wrought-iron balcony.

Alford’s beautiful five-sailed Mill put on a brilliant show for the camera. This tower mill was the first operating windmill where we saw windmill-ground flour for sale, and the point of the whole windmill revolution sank in.

In the summer of 1996, food was still fighting for attention in the midst of the media’s gardening and home renovating revolution. Operating mills, which had once been the centre of every town’s economy, were lucky to have survived the industrial revolution and the invention of the supermarket. At many of Lincolnshire’s mills, the seeds of the current paddock-to-plate movement had well and truly sprouted.

Wrawby Post Mill was the next quintessential timber post mill in our Lincolnshire leg, where the Miller kindly acquiesced to my requests for him to catch a ride on one of his mill’s sails for our documentary’s historical recreations.

The majestic span of the mighty eight-sailed Heckington Mill at Sleaford was turning so fast we were able to get excellent shots of the internal workings of a windmill without the essential (but not that attractive) caging required to prevent visitor injury.

In the heat and noise within the cap of a working windmill we got a great sense of the dangers that mill workers endured. Hundreds of timber teeth wait to capture every bit of loose clothing and each stray finger.

David Bent had researched some macabre extracts from The Stamford Mercury, relating the terrible deaths of Millers in centuries past. Once harnessed, wind power can be every bit a life-threatening as electricity.

We’d been warned by more than one Miller to watch out for low-passing mill sails, which are often so quiet they’re easy to forget about, as they come rushing up behind you.

(Photo: Jason Smith)
WILD MILL Halnaker Mill in Sussex (Photo: Jason Smith)

We reached the south of England in a more confident mood, and climbed the path to film the stunning Halnaker Mill in West Sussex, high on a wild hill where every blade of grass was bent by the wind.

The Clayton Mills on the South Downs are also beautifully situated on a hillside, which is why they got their names “Jack” and “Jill” mills. Like the Union Mill in the beautifully preserved town of Cranbrook in Kent, Sussex’s upland mills show the prominence that windmills had in most townscapes during the era when wind power was the major source of energy.

By the time we got home to Suffolk, every mill that was capable of having its sails turned by the wind was captured in motion. My sense of achievement helped in tilting-at a great voice for the documentary’s narration, so I approached Janet Suzman’s agent.

I arrived at the recording studio more than a little nervous. She just stepped out of a cab, rolled up her sleeves and dived-in, instantly capturing the feel I’d anticipated for the commentary, and in her character readings of those gruesome northern newspaper reports.

Maybe it was beginner’s luck, but since the making of Seven Centuries of the English Windmill, whenever I’ve been faced with outdoor location filming and performances, I have quietly invoked whatever spirit answered my weather prayer inside Green’s Mill in Nottingham. I’ve also become an advocate for wind turbines, because wind power has a longer, cleaner and cheaper track record than any other human-created power harnessing method we’ve ever mastered. No wonder it’s considered so controversial as it makes its comeback.


Seven Centuries of the English Windmill is distributed on DVD.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.