I’m a lad of Western Victoria, born and raised in Hamilton in the state’s Western District.
I lived there from 1963 until 1995. Then I moved to Melbourne.
Hamilton is the place I consider home. Despite my 20 years in the big smoke, I still have a hankering for that small rural town.
This Easter weekend I spent my time in the area, it was a bit different this time around.
I visited those places that were important to me, well, those places that give me fond memories.
The house where all thirteen of us lived is still there. It seems that no work has been done on it in the last twenty years, it’s starting to fall apart. The gutters are covered in mould and moss, the windows looked dirty, it needs a paint job. The roses that Mum and Dad pruned every year haven’t been touched in decades.
I thought that our back garden was huge. It was divided into three areas, the dog’s yard, the vegetable garden and the other area that had a big round garden in it that didn’t really have a name. Perhaps we just called that the back yard. The reality in my adult years is that it is just a standard house block. Many years we spent riding our bikes around the round garden and up the driveway, looking at the birds in the aviary, playing with the dog or getting the chook eggs.
In the dog’s yard was a tree that my brothers and sisters spent many hours in, climbing it and sitting in its branches, looking over the back yard and beyond to Portland Road and the empty paddocks. Just on the outskirts of town was the abattoir and we had a clear view of the building and often we could hear the sheep carrying on in the paddocks having their last feed and then we were treated to the distinctive smell of death. From the tree it felt like we could see all the way to Port Fairy. We had special branches that we sat on that formed little seats for us.
When I wanted to sneak out of the house, I would go to the rear corner of the vegetable garden and climb the fence, it was the only area that my mum couldn’t see from a window in the house, or so I thought, I doubt I ever really was sneaking, but it sort of gave me that impression. I’d jump up on the fence, over the stump, land on a rock and be gone.
Once over the fence we could wander down the hill of Skene Street to the creek. In the early days it wasn’t a concrete path, just a dirt track with a big open gutter. When the foothpath was finally concreted we built billy carts and raced them down the path, holding on for dear life. It must have annoyed the crap out of the neighbours.
The creek, or more accurately, the Grange Burn, at the end of the street is ugly. Still. It should have character and charm. Picnic tables and ducks. It has a footbridge, the original bridge had some character, when Wags (the dog) ran across it the whole bridge would wobble much to the terror of us small ones. My dad or older brothers would bounce on the bridge to get it swaying just to give us a fright.
There’s an historic sign there now that says the trees were planted in 1904 to beautify the area, 110 year later I’m still waiting to see the beauty. From a childhood perspective though, the creek was an escape. We would spend hours under the willow tree trying to catch the prickly-back yabby. I spent hours with a fishing line in the water, I think I only ever caught two fish, but plenty of yabbies. In the 70’s there was talk of beautifying the area again, that saw the Council go through and remove a bunch of bullrushes and Poplar trees, but it never really looked any good.
The other place that I spent my youth was at the local scout camp, it’s still there, called Mallangeeba. It’s about 20 minutes out of town, close to the Wannon Falls. I was there when the scouts first started using the site in the early 70’s. I’m told that we scouts all got on a train at Hamilton and took the journey there and got off at Wannon. We planted trees and camped the weekend.
I was there when the scouts bought the place from the Church of England. We had to sell the land that we had a few kilometres down the road and I remember that being quite a fight, people threatening to resign if we sold Reed’s Park. Years later it doesn’t seem so important.
As a lad we use to camp there with the 3rd Hamilton Scout Group, I can still sing you the Group song, every now and then I find myself humming it. It was a Catholic Group and because we were Catholic we had a strong commitment to Mary the Blessed Virgin and mother of God. Known as the BVM. Every time we went camping we’d take this statue of the BVM with us. At Mallangeeba we’d put her in a tree hollow and say the rosary. That’s one Our Father and ten Hail Mary’s. At least the standard 5 decades, interspersed with a Glory Be to the Father and requesting St Francis to pray for us.
As a Leader I too took my young charges to camp at the Wannon. We’d gather around the flag pole on the parade ground, I’d stretch out my arms and yell “Pack, Pack, Pack, Pack” and a bunch of cubs would respond with “Paaaaaaack” before squatting down at my signal and doing the Grand Howl.
Over the road from the Scout Camp is the Wannon Falls, a spectacular fall when the water is flowing, at the moment however, it’s dry. When I left in 1995 the Scouts gave me a photograph of the falls in full flood.
As we drove back into town we stopped at the cemetery. I haven’t been back here since we buried Dad in August 2013.
I’m not sure what I was expecting, but I marched up to the graveside, my parents’ remains are in the same grave. I read the plaque and stood in quiet contemplation. There was nothing emotional about it. I wasn’t talking to them, I wasn’t really remembering anything in particular I was more interested to see who was buried around them. Some part of me needed to see this final resting place of my parents, the final resting place of my youth and the final resting place of my connection to this Western District home.
As I drove around the town for one last time, it occurred to me why I was here.
Hamilton is where I was born, I went to school, my first job the paper round, then years of working in the newsagency and then the City of Hamilton. I was here when man landed on the moon, when the local member Malcolm Fraser became Prime Minister, when we won the America’s Cup, when the first Iraq war started. It all unfolded in Hamilton.
When I was first married I lived in Hamilton, our two children were born here. We went to play group and kindergarten together before we moved.
I was the City of Hamilton Young Citizen of the Year, received the WF Waters Award for my contribution to Scouting and a Certificate of Merit for Scouting. I knew people, and they knew me.
Hamilton was my town.
As I drove out the Glenelg Highway back towards Melbourne, with a few tears rolling down my cheek, I realised that I was here to say goodbye.
Home isn’t here any more.
My folks are dead, buried with a bunch of other people I know, just another plaque on the ground.
Now there is no reason to call this home.
Michael and I drive back to Melbourne, we are going back to make a new home for us, the Western District lad has finally left home.
*photos by Michael Barnett