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Ebb and flow of the mighty Hawkesbury River

Autumn leaf floating on the surface of the Hawkesbury River at Hanna Park, North Richmond.

Autumn leaf floating on the surface of the Hawkesbury River at Hanna Park, North Richmond.


By Ellen Hill                     Photos: David Hill

(Continuing the story of the Hawkesbury River, we re-publish here an article that featured in the April-May 2009 edition of Blue Mountains Life magazine.)


THE last tendrils of fog swirl up to meet the golden rays of a weak winter sun, mirrored on the still surface of the water.

The occasional jumping fish makes a quiet “blip’’ noise. Birds twitter in the trees and skate across the gentle ripples before settling on the surface to float aimlessly with the tide.

The Hawkesbury River has always been part of Ted Books life.

The Hawkesbury River has always been part of Ted Books life.

This is Ted Books’ favourite time of day to cruise the Windsor section of the Hawkesbury River in his boat, the Montrose. He’s alone.

By mid-morning, the water twinkles in the glaring sun, the river a silver thread pulsing through colonial Governor Lachlan Macquarie’s kingdom with the monotony of routine.

Given the majestic Hawkesbury River has supported his family for five generations, you understand Books’ attachment to it.

As the boat gently bobs along the water, Books’ shares his memories and tells the history of the stretch he knows best _ the strip of water his famous colonial ancestors eventually learned they could not tame.

Ted Books is known for expressing a strong opinion and enjoying a chat. But he’s not known for being an emotional man. A former wrestler and retired excavator, he tends to say his bit in his no-nonsense way and leave it at that.

River stones in the Hawkesbury River at Yarramundi near Navua Reserve.

River stones in the Hawkesbury River at Yarramundi near Navua Reserve.

But aboard the Montrose, I not only see a different side to Books, but the river I have known most of my life.

“Sydney’s salad bowl’’, “Sydney’s playground’’, the Hawkesbury River has supported Australia’s largest city since European settlement.

For the handful of free settlers desperately trying to survive with virtually nothing in a foreign environment, the river was their transport, it watered them, their crops and animals.

In colonial times while chain gangs of convicts were still cutting roads by hand, the Hawkesbury River was the natural highway to Sydney Cove.

In fact, ships including the 101 ton Governor Bligh were actually built on the river. Two of Books’ ancestors _ Captain John Grono and Alexander Books _ had a shipyard at Pitt Town on Canning Reach, the remains of which can still be seen at low tide.

Among the 200 cargo vessel movements on the river each year were tall ships which took three inward tides (about 20 hours) to travel from Brooklyn at the mouth of the river to Windsor.

The 100 ton SS Erringhi was the last of the big ships to trade on the Hawkebsury River between the 1920s and 1937.

“I used to dive off the Windsor bridge and there used to be 30ft of water there,’’ Books says. “We used to dive off the bridge and go with the tide to Pitt Town, about 4 miles by water.’’

Deerubbin Park at Windsor.

Deerubbin Park at Windsor.

The Hawkesbury Nepean River is part of the vast 22,000 sq km Hawkesbury Nepean Catchment, stretching from Goulburn to Lithgow, Moonee Moonee, Pittwater and Singleton.

Its tributaries and creeks begin in the higher land of the Great Dividing Range, others in the highlands to the west of Wollongong and south of Sydney.

The Nepean begins in the Camden Valley near Moss Vale and becomes the Hawkesbury at Yarramundi after being joined by the Wollondilly River, on which Warragamba Dam, Sydney’s main drinking glass, was built in the 1950s.

From the 1870s, a series of dams was built on the Upper Nepean, south east of Camden and its tributaries the Cataract, Cordeaux and Avon Rivers.

The mighty Hawkesbury Nepean River ends at Juno Point at Broken Bay.

“Sydney would never survive without this river,’’ Books says. “This river is the playground for the city.’’

The Hawkesbury River has been Sydney's playground for generations.

The Hawkesbury River has been Sydney’s playground for generations.

Every now and again Books stops the boat, points out a landmark, pulls out yet another packet of black and white photographs and tells the story of the place.

“See that place up there? That’s where Thomas Arndell (the first surgeon to the colony, he came out with the First Fleet) settled when he came to the Hawkesbury. His homestead’s still there.

“They built next to the river because it was clean water and there was fish.’’

The oldest church building in Australia is at Ebenezer, built from stone in 1803 by a small band of free settlers. The church used to run a punt across the river to transport people to church.

The water is deepest _ about 90ft _ nearby, opposite Tizzana Winery at Sackville Reach Wharf.

Glancing at the river banks from the boat, it seems not much has changed apart from technology. Irrigation pumps spew water across enormous paddocks of turf, veggies and flowers. The staccato bark of a dog sends drifting ducks into a flurry. The sun’s rays highlight the fur on a lowing cow staring with lazy interest at the boat. The ghostly figures of farm workers can be seen inside a row of greenhouses.

Remains of an old punt at Sackville.

Remains of an old punt at Sackville.

But then Books’ tale of how his dad and his mates used to catch more fish than they could eat up this stretch of the river is broken by the roar of a power boat towing a skier.

Books pauses and waits for silence to return before pointing out another historic property on the hill.

He revs up the engine and the Montrose slips on.

The river remains a great source of seafood: flathead, bream, mullet, hairtail, mullaway, whiting, flounder, tailor, snapper, trevally, blackfish, leatherjackets, kingfish, John Dory, shellfish and prawns.

It is also home to much bird life: shags, cormorants, kingfishers, ducks, sea eagles, pelicans and terns.

And down in the salt water near the river mouth at Brooklyn there are sharks, sea snakes, jellyfish, stingrays and fortescues.

The Hawkesbury River has ebbed and flowed for millenia.

The Hawkesbury River has ebbed and flowed for millenia.

Today, the Hawkebsury, Penrith and Baulkham Hills region along the river generates a whopping $1.86 billion worth of produce (not including the equine industry). Sydney chows through 90 per cent of it.

The vast quantities of fruit, vegetables and turf grown in the Hawkesbury have fed the entire Sydney population and beyond for generations.

The river is also a major tourist attraction used extensively for recreation (the annual Bridge to Bridge boat race attracts thousands). Tourism and recreation reap $2 billion a year, thanks to the river.

Private moorings along the Hawkesbury.

Private moorings along the Hawkesbury.

Three car ferries and several bridges provide crossings over the waterway.

Crowds of day trippers are drawn to popular swimming, fishing, water skiing and boating spots each weekend.

A startling white glare suddenly burns the retinas of our eyes. Deck chairs blindingly white in the sun, emerald green manicured lawns and landscaped yards, expensive boat sheds. The property listings at the local real estate agents would reveal that river frontages are also becoming private paradises for the wealthy.

But later, in the golden after glow of sunset, the birds and fish replay their evening ritual as the mist settles like a gossamer blanket over the water surface, melding with the gloom of dusk. The river continues to beat its slow rhythm of life just as it always has.

Ducks in flight on the Hawkesbury River.

Ducks in flight on the Hawkesbury River.



Time Travelling Tailor

By Ellen Hill     Photos: David Hill

WHEN Lorna McKenzie dresses each day, friends can tell exactly what mood she is in – and which era – simply from her outfit.

But her love of period dress was not born simply out of a superficial liking of the look or a romantic ideal of times past.

It is an outward show of her environmental, humanitarian and anti-establishment ethics.

“Unfortunately, the fashion industry is unethical, there’s lots of piece work and things aren’t made to last,’’ she says.

Lorna learned to sew from her mother Edna and continued it at school before honing her skills during a TAFE course in the 1980s.

“I’ve always sewn,’’ she says. “I really can’t remember when I learnt to sew.

“Mum ran a dressmaking business from home and she made wedding gowns, ball gowns, debutant dresses. My bedroom was the fitting room, so I grew up surrounded by all these beautiful fabrics and dresses.’’
Lorna keeps her period clothing folded in a camphor-scented Colonial era dress box just like people of the past.

“I’m not fussed about fashion, I never have been,’’ she says. “I’ve always dressed eclectically, I’ve     always worn second-hand clothes (my mother used to be appalled) – we call it vintage now.

“Fashion in the stores never fits me – I’m very short in the waist and clothes always bunch up at the back and I hate wearing things with brand names on them. Frankly, most fashion today is designed by men for men’s bodies – no hips, no breasts, no anything.

“But if I make something, I know it is going to fit me. What I work on is timeless. I like Regency, 19th century, Italian Renaissance  and 1940’s. 1940’s is my favourite, it suits me.”

By contrast, today’s ever-changing fashions represent the modern consumerist society Lorna abhors.
Before that, most average people would have made do with hand-me-downs and owned a small number of clothing items.

“If you were in service you would receive only one gown a year. You’d have two or three pieces of clothing: you’d have your Saturday walking out clothing and your everyday gown and linen underneath everything and that’s it. Unless you were rich you didn’t have nightgowns.’’

Period dressmaking is part of Lorna’s ethical living standards, of bucking against a wasteful society which throws away items simply because they are no longer in vogue.

As well as being a member of mediaeval research and re-enactment group the Society for Creative Anachronisms (Dismal Fogs Shire) and the Australian Costumers Guild, Lorna has also joined diverse local and global environmental and humanitarian groups.

“I grew up with parents who lived through The Depression, so I make do and mend and I don’t like wasting things and I’m a shocking hoarder.

“My mum used to wear a singlet underneath her bra because it keeps your bras cleaner and you don’t have to wash them so much. You let things air on the line. We wash too much and waste too much water. Clothes lasted longer because of that.’’

Apart from which, period clothing is often more comfortable.

“I wear 19th century corsets and I lace into about two inches smaller than my natural waist and that’s still perfectly comfortable. My medieval corset, which I’ve made out of hemp rope, that’s the most comfortable thing I have. I love to wear it because it supports my breasts and it shapes my waist and is really comfy. Women have not worn tortuous clothes for thousands of years – we wouldn’t put up with it, we’re not stupid.’’

In fact, Lorna took part in an 80km long, three day fundraising march recently with the Napoleonic Society dressed in garb of yesteryear. And next year she will mark the bicentennial of the crossing of the Blue Mountains by re-enacting the event wearing clothing of the era.

“These were clothes women wore,’’ she says. “When you go to a fancy event, it might be a little bit uncomfortable because it’s a little bit tighter than what you would normally wear, but they made clothes that were comfy. Women worked all the time except for high class ladies, but even they sat and embroidered and they walked everywhere.

“They wore natural fibres, and natural fibres breathe. When I dress up in 19th century, I will have on a chemise, corset, skirt, a petticoat, lots of petticoats or a crinoline or a farthingale or something like that. Over that I will then have my dress, but it is all made out of natural fibres – mostly linen and wool so it’s not uncomfortable.’’

But then there is the fun of playing dress-ups and living the life of whomever she wishes.

“When I am wearing a particular dress for a particular period, I am time travelling,’’ Lorna says. “I am living with a woman of that period. I make it like she did and then I wear it and I get laced in and I’m suddenly in another time. You stand differently; you move differently and even speak differently. It’s empowering. You don’t need a tardis; you just need to make a new gown for a different period.

“For example, as a member of the Society for Creative Anachronists, a medieval society, I’m Bethan, an Italian Renaissance woman wealthy enough to be able to have nice clothing but I’m not really, really wealthy.’’

Most re-enactment groups require costumes to be 90 per cent authentic, but generally Lorna is more relaxed with her period reproductions.

“In the historical world they don’t like you to make things there isn’t proof and evidence of. There’s also the fashion police, the informal self-appointed people (they’re called ropers from the Tudor period).

“Of course if you’re making something for a competition it has to be correct and you have to use the exact techniques of the period. But if nobody’s judging it, you want to have the outside looking exact, but what you do on the inside is up to you.

“I tend to make what I call generic gowns of the period. I look at all the elements and I might decide that I want that neck and that whatever and then put them all together.’’

A case in point is the 1940s fashion range Lorna is creating using original patterns from the era which once belonged to a well known Blue Mountains dress maker.

“I am designing a 1940s range, but I am taking elements from that time and making them for 21st century women because sizing was totally different in vintage patterns,’’ Lorna says.

“My expertise is vintage and historical sewing. I am not a 21st century designer. I’m a 21st century excellent copyist from the past, I’m an adaptor.’’

And Lorna is not alone with her dress-up box.

“Because of social networking now, I’m in contact with people all over the world who do this. I used to think I was weird and strange but there are thousands of us, probably millions of us, and I no longer feel strange or different. I feel I’ve got a community, and I adore that because now I know there are people who create like me and make like me, and they don’t watch television 24/7 and they sing in choirs and life is an adventure.

“There are parts of me that really like past eras and wish I could live there because consumerism has taken us over today. But really I’m glad I am a woman living now. Until the 19th century, while they believed women had a role, men were still debating whether women had souls.’’

Jim Aitken: No Pretender

By Ellen Hill     Photos: David Hill

SITTING above his peers in a seat of power Jim’s white silk and cotton blend shirt with the monogrammed initials discretely embroidered on the breast pocket glows under the neon lights. The folds of the red robe fall elegantly around his body. His rimless spectacles always polished spotless, catch the light as he turns his head. The gold discs of the long chain around his neck clank gently as he moves.
Jim is the number one citizen in his adopted city.
But not everyone is happy.
There are those who don’t like which political fence he sits on. Others have taken offence at his honest opinions and criticism. Some envy his wealth.
Then there are those who will never let him forget he is a newcomer. They show him in so many ways – a glance, a shrug, a power playing downward handshake, an apologetic declining to attend a function. They think he is a pretender and new money living above his station.
But in this egalitarian land of second chances, Jim knows he has earned this right.

Jim contemplates his past over a cup of coffee at his cafe in Springwood.

PENRITH and Lower Blue Mountains real estate agent Jim Aitken’s prospects didn’t always look so rosy.
Born in 1947 near Parkes in the NSW Central West, his early childhood began happily enough on the family farm.
However, home life deteriorated into domestic violence, alcoholism and poverty about age six as his father spent increasing amounts of time away, leaving his family little or no money. When he did return for short stays, it was to drink heavily and abuse his family.
“When he wasn’t drunk he was a great father,’’ Jim says. “There’s no doubt that he loved us. I wanted to see it worked out because I just wanted to see my Mum and Dad happy.’’
Eventually, when Jim was age nine, his father left for good.
After living off the goodwill of others for two years, the family was eventually tossed off the farm in 1959 and moved in with Jim’s grandparents at another NSW central west town. Six months later Jim’s grandfather died and the family shifted to a caravan in his grandmother’s Penrith driveway before moving from one rental property to another.
Life was miserable.
To compound matters, “I couldn’t read or write very well’’, Jim says.
“They’d say I was just a dummy. I didn’t have many social skills. It was a very unhappy time. In some ways I was dumb because I was uneducated and didn’t understand things and just followed along. I didn’t think far enough ahead. It wasn’t that I didn’t have the opportunity to learn, I just couldn’t grasp some of the things they were saying at school. Some people would say I was dyslexic. It might be true, I don’t know.’’
However, Jim refused to leave his fate in the hands of others and by age 11 had a newspaper delivery run and sold cigarettes, matches and lollies on Penrith railway station. By his Intermediate year, he was also washing cars, vacuuming a mortuary and mowing lawns.
He had no designs on wealth and status. Jim was just desperate to put money on his mother’s table.
“I don’t feel sorry about having to get up early and work. I actually enjoyed it. It was a need. You just have to do it.’’
Jim was then offered an apprenticeship at several butcher shops in the main street. He also helped a bloke repair second-hand washing machines and, in the early 1960s, worked with another mate installing television antennas.
“I figured I wasn’t going to be a brain surgeon. I didn’t have any great ambitions of what I was going to do in life. Education-wise, I just wasn’t interested. I didn’t understand it and I thought it was always better to run away from things you didn’t understand and just concentrate on the things you could do. And that was talking to people, dealing with people, keeping to my work.’’
Although Jim was managing a butcher shop by age 19, he remained on the social fringes. So, he often headed back to Parkes in the NSW Central West where he revelled in his “city slicker’’ status with awestruck mates.
About that time, Jim tracked down his father. The pair stayed in touch but the relationship remained strained. Jim was in his twenties when his father died.
“It damages you in some ways: looking at father/son movies I get a bit teary. There were times when I thought I needed a father: it gives you a history; it gives you a place; its support if you’re going through a rough time. I guess it’s something I’ve never come to terms with, as much as I’ve tried. It’s probably not important anymore.’’
At age 20, Jim added on-call firefighter to his list of job achievements. He also met his future bride.
Jim’s first foray into the property market was in 1969 when he bought two blocks of land. Next he built an expensive house.
Finally he was beginning to receive the social respect he craved.
In 1971, he was asked to manage a butcher shop in Penrith’s first full-blown shopping plaza and in 1972 he bought two shops of his own. His idea was to generate an income from those shops so his wife would not have to work.
“When we’d paid them off I thought: `I’ve never had a flash car’, so I said to my wife: `Those two shops are going to pay for our cars for the rest of our lives’,’’ Jim says. “They still do.’’
The couple married in 1970 and had three children. Their second daughter was born severely autistic.
The difficulties of raising a child with a disability prompted Jim to give up butchering and buy a taxi so he could work more flexible hours for his family. He also serviced and repaired taxis and had a sideline business fixing gearboxes. Then he bought a second cab, employed drivers and ran them 24 hours a day.
“I decided then that I wanted to make a fair bit of money to give my daughter a life and not hold the other two back,’’ he says. “But there was no great plan to become a millionaire. That was never the goal. The goal was to get over the day’s problems, short-term issues, to have my eyes firmly fixed on the next ten years.’’
In 1991, Jim earned his real estate agent’s license and became the highest educated person in his family.
Then, in 1994, he was asked to run for the Liberal Party in the State seat of Penrith. Totally unprepared but so sure of winning that he sold his skip bin hire service business, Jim lost to the long-time Labor incumbent by 750 votes.
“I was very well known in church circles, by the man on the street and the people I did business with, but not in what I call the cocktail set. They’d say: `Here comes another try-hard’. I definitely learnt a lot of lessons.’’
Never one to lie at the feet of defeat, Jim bought a franchise in a major real estate agency with his eldest daughter and another partner. After a few years, they set up their own real estate agency chain under Jim’s name.

Penrith Councillor Jim Aitken discusses changes to a building application.

Today, eight offices employ more than 100 people and the business includes cafes, printing, gift shops and an art gallery.
Jim has been a Penrith Councillor for 15 years and mayor for a term. He has many business ventures and positions and is a director and shareholder of a local newspaper.
In 1989 Jim was awarded an Order of Australia Medal for Service to the Community of the Penrith District, especially through youth welfare and service organisations and local government. In 2007 he received an award for Outstanding Contribution to Western Sydney at the Champion of the West Awards.
He is a fellow of the Australian Institute of Management, is involved in a plethora of community, church and charitable organisations and is renowned for his generosity.
However, Jim counts his efforts to be the father he never had and having a loving family as some of his greatest achievements.
“The only goal I ever had was to be happy,’’ he says. “You see people with a bit of wealth and they measure themselves on their worth… Those people, when they lose it, they lose everything.
“I’d start again. If I lost all my wealth I’d have lost nothing. I’ve enjoyed this sort of life, I enjoyed life when I had nothing…’’

Read the full life story of Jim Aitken in the Deep Hill Fine Art Media book People Like You ($49.95). The collection of true stories about everyday people who have overcome challenges we all face in life includes topics on grief, mental illness, poverty and homelessness, immigration, disability, abuse, speech and learning difficulties and anxiety. Order through and $5 from every sale will go to the Springwood Neighbourhood Centre Co-Operative’s Christmas Hamper Appeal.