I rolled into Glen Innes in the dead of night, when the stars were hanging vividly overhead, rabbits were launching themselves under my car and a palpable chill had settled in, as it often does here (I later found out). I’d just been on a lengthy drive through Thunderbolts Way before arriving at this charming little New England town, which lies roughly two hours west of Grafton, in NSW.
What drew me to Glen Innes was its reputation for the arts, history, culture and a few odd quirks – and I wasn’t disappointed. Upon investigation next morning, I discovered I had unwittingly entered ‘Celtic country’, so named after the Scottish pioneers who contributed much to town life. I also discovered Glen Innes spews forth sapphires, holds various festivals and plays, is home to a national Celtic monument and even produced a champion tent-pegger.
Things to do
After wandering into the town’s tourist and information centre, I also discovered the loose-lipped locals. As it was some time later that I emerged with a map and a plan to tackle the town heritage walk – which is a great way to ‘discover’ Glen Innes’ centre in an hour or so. After slurping a compelling creamy coffee at the Coffee Incident, in the main drag, I began zigzagging my way past the town’s heritage buildings.
Much of these were established in the late 19th-century and have been placed on the Register of the National Estate. Buildings of note include the Glen Innes Court House, built in 1873; the eclectic town hall, built in French renaissance Italianate style and wielding a melange of flags; and the St Joseph’s Convent and St Patrick’s Catholic Church – which have handsome helpings of both stained glass and leadlight.
Roughly two minutes drive east from the church is the national monument to Australia’s Celtic pioneers – the Australian Standing Stones. Inspired by the Ring of Brodgar in Scotland’s Orkneys, the Standing Stones is a circle of 24 stones representing each hour of the day. Three centre stones and four cardinal stones also mark true north, south, east and west, while seven stones mark both the summer and winter solstices – the longest and shortest days of the year.
This ‘array’, which also contains the Southern Cross (which symbolises old meeting new worlds), was built in honour of ancient Celtic calendars and is the only official one of its kind in Australia. Lying adjacent to the stones is a café-cum-Crofters Cottage, which is built from black basalt and is a replica of the Taigh Dubh ‘black house’ that survived the 1746 Battle of Culloden.
Feeling like more big rocks, I decided to head roughly 15 minutes south of Glen Innes to Stonehenge Recreation Reserve – a grassy plain strewn with hefty boulders, knotted trees and hordes of rock-loving sheep. These granite rocks, which are sacred to the local Ngarabal people, were named after their resemblance, however vague, to Stonehenge in England.
While nothing like the real Stonehenge, this recreation reserve has plenty of atmosphere, with its snarled, deciduous trees, handsome granite formations and windswept, grassy hilltop. The reserve looks a bit like a fertile wasteland, and I could only imagine sunsets here would be rather splendid. Besides missing sunset, I also managed to overlook the star attraction, the balancing rock – a whopping boulder that’s balanced on a point roughly 500 metres past the reserve.
Places to stay
For the budge conscious, try St Joseph’s Convent just off the New England Highway. A broad dwelling armed with welcome doses of stained glass and leadlight, the convent was abandoned by the Sisters of St Joseph before it was developed for tourism. Rooms start at $39 per night.
Places to eat
Try the vegetarian rolls at Smeatons Bakery – previously an old bread factory built in 1920. I’m a sucker for pastry and this is some of the nicest I’ve had. For coffee, as I mentioned earlier, try the Coffee Incident, where you’ll find a good cuppa and anecdotes sprawled across the wall if you’re entirely without reading material. It’s also kid friendly.
There’s loads to do in and around Glen Innes, too much to write about here. Here’s some other ideas you might want to investigate:
- Experience the colourful Land of the Beardies Bush Festival (named after two seminal, hairy settlers) in November
- See a play at the old Chapel Theatre
- Visit the Wright Robertson boutique winery, just out of town
- Take a drive through the surrounding mountain villages
- Visit the Emmaville Mining Museum – containing gems such as sapphire, topaz, garnet and amethyst
- Visit the town’s saddlers shop, containing hand stitched finery
- Visit the tree line avenue and pavilions of the historic showgrounds
- Explore nearby Washpool and Gibraltar Range National Parks