Launceston Up Close

  Stories, tall and small about Launceston, Tasmania

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Launceston - A Walk Through A Colonial Time Capsule

Posted on 10 January, 2019 at 23:15

You have just landed in Launceston, you have 24 hours to see as much as you can around the town but you don’t want to be running around like a headless chook. So where do you go to get the most out of the town that is chock full of iconic locations?

There are a couple of places you really do need to suss out and two of them are at each end of the CBD – Cataract Gorge at the western end, and City Park is at the east end. Then there’s the big choice of stuff in the middle, and all of it is of historic interest to enthusiasts and plebs alike.

The historical context is important as it links everything together.

In a nutshell, in 1803, Lt Col William Patterson, a botanist who joined the army to pay his debts, led a group of convicts and free settlers to establish a presence on the north coast of Van Dieman’s Land (changed to Tasmania in the 1850’s, and to Tassie in the 1950’s). This was to ward off the French who had shown some interest in this part of the world.

This was very soon after Matthew Flinders and George Bass had just established that VDL was in fact an island. After a bit of too-ing and fro-ing, a settlement was established at the confluence of the North and South Esk rivers opposite the entrance to what is now ‘Cataract Gorge’. A Lt William Collins had sailed up the Tamar River and seen at this spot the ‘most beautiful place in the known world’. While he had not seen as much of the world as most of us, it does look pretty good when the weather and time of day is just right.

So in 1804 Launceston was named after the birthplace of the Governor of the Australian Colony and after almost starving to death – European farming techniques fail badly ‘down-under’, the town slowly became the centre of settlement on the north coast. It had a very busy harbour at one time, boasting more trade than even Hobart, and this is evident today where the magnificent Customs House stands near the site of the old wharf.

When the bubble burst here following WW1, and vessels coming from the UK bypassed Tassie and went straight to Port Jackson, Launceston slowed to a crawl. As you walk through town you can see a plethora of old Georgian and early Victorian buildings which underline the importance of the town to the early development of Australia. But these warehouses and offices emptied and many have been repurposed more than once over the last 100+ years rather than be torn down and rebuilt.

Consequently, most buildings have a story, and you’ll see much evidence of the heritage being preserved. Look out for little blue plaques which will tell you a little about the ex-shop or ex-warehouse.

Then of course there is the river. The South Esk comes out of Cataract Gorge, and the North Esk, comes past the brewery, where they meet just in front of the Seaport development. You can jump on a scenic cruise which takes about an hour and takes in both rivers and under Kings Bridge for a bit of the gorge. If you walk along the levee past Boag’s Brewery you can look across to Invermay and the University of Tasmania and the museum part QVMAG, the Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery, in the old railway workshops.

The Art Gallery bit is just past the town centre above Seaport on Wellington Street.

The most direct route to Cataract Gorge from City Park, which is where Government House used to be, and where the very impressive Albert Hall is now, is straight up Brisbane Street. It will take you past a haunted pub thru what was once snobville, but are now mostly offices and repurposed homes.

On your left, The Princess Theatre is a lovely old place with an art deco façade which was once Victorian, but inside it is pure pre-1900 splendour. It was built by a Vaudeville entrepreneur who was going to present stage shows and extravaganzas, but on opening day the stage area was not completed, so he showed a movie instead, and so it operated as a cinema for the next XX years!

As you cross the intersection of George Street, you will enter the section of Brisbane Street referred to as ‘The Avenue’. It has trees. More shops, and on your right the old Brisbane Hotel, which is built on the site of the very first construction, an inn built of sticks and mud. The hotel you see here is a little run down and now is home of an arcade, but it was once the top hotel in the north. Royalty, Test cricketers, movie stars all stayed at the Brissy. Have a look in the arcade; there is some interesting reading on the walls.

You’ll also pass the old Majestic Theatre, now a men’s clothing store. It was built by the same guy that built the Princess, and finished in about 1911 as a purpose built cinema. Then on your left is ‘The Quadrant’, a pedestrian precinct with a story.

In the parcel of buildings bounded by Brisbane, St John Streets and The Quadrant, is the original ‘Launceston Hotel’, built by Richard White. ‘Dicky’, as he preferred to be called, came to Launceston via Port Arthur and Norfolk Island. His origin is a little vague – did he come from Cajun roots in French New Orleans, or the slums of Manchester? Either way, he was in England where desperation drove him to highway robbery and transportation to the Colonies. He ended up at Norfolk Island where he mended his ways and became a boon to the island and where he eventually earned his freedom. We next hear he arrived here in town, with a bit of money to his name where he built the Launceston Hotel. Rumour has it he supplemented his income with Australia’s first casino. He was a character, getting around in top hat and cane, and was allegedly the inspiration for the character on a Johnny Walker whiskey bottle!

There is a spot in The Quadrant which refers to a well used to water the hotel guest’s horses, and there is also a lane celebrating his being. He died relatively young, but he left many kids he shared with his wife whom he met on their cruise.

On-on westerly and you will enter the Brisbane Street Mall. It was the very first pedestrian Mall in Australia, as it was closed to cars in the early 70s. The Mall has recently been upgraded with sun shade and seats and some tame Tasmanian Tigers roaming up and down the path.

Further along you will pass the local cinema and more evidence of repurposing, where Morty’s service centre for people replaced the service centre for cars and trucks. Great spot for a coffee and a snack.

If you turn right at the next corner, Wellington Street, and walk to Patterson Street, you will see the Art Gallery of QVMAG up on your left, just past the Technical College.

Just behind the Gallery was the location for the colony’s jail and execution yard. It was right at the head of the Tamar River, and as boats came into set down new settlers and convicts, they were often met by the grisly scene of ‘ne’er-do-wells’ dangling by their necks.

Turn left at Patterson Street and you can see the land rising up ahead, though you won’t have to climb it! Over the traffic bridge you can see out to your right Royal Park, a popular spot for concerts and fireworks each New Year and Australia Day. You will pass Launceston College on your left but down to your right you will find the Tamar River Yacht Club, Australia’s first and the longest running in the Southern Hemisphere. Down the pathway, just before the seafood restaurant turn left to follow the path toward Cataract Gorge. This takes you through Kings Park and below the old Stillwater Flour Mill, now a popular pub.

Not far to go! Walk under the highway traffic bridge and you will come up near Kings Bridge, and across the road you will see ‘Penny Royal’.

Penny Royal is a theme park built in an old quarry, and which has free entry, though the activities do attract a fee. The theme is the adventures of Tassie’s most famous bushranger, ‘Matthew Brady’. He was a gentleman to the ladies, and more than one swooned before him. He was also tough on blokes who mistreated a woman, which also made them swoon over him. He was caught near Launceston by another famous colonial, John Batman whose story we learned at school, but now whose story is getting a bit tarnished. John Batman versus John Pascoe Fawkner – who ‘was’ the founder of Melbourne. That’s another story, but in 1835 they both left from Launceston to be the first to settle in Port Philip Bay!

Penny Royal has a great boat ride which takes you under the park, and you can go rock climbing, ride a zip-line or ride in an old sail boat as you chase Matthew Brady up the Tamar, it’s all good fun.

At Kings Bridge you can look down the throat of Cataract Gorge. When the weather is up and the gorge full of water, teeming thrashing like a manic washing machine it can be pretty daunting. But most of the time, it’s a sedate waterway that is a scenic rendezvous for over 100,000 people every year. You can walk along either side of the gorge to the basin and it’s another world. Quiet, green, cool, aromatic…all apply here. Note that the walk on the southern side of the gorge is a lot tougher than the north side. Near the end of the path the gazebo has a nice area to sit down and sip a cup of lemon tea, and the peacocks will put on a show for you, no charge!

As you will see, it’s not far from the CBD to the gorge, or to City Park. It’s not far to anywhere! There is a free ‘Tiger’ sightseeing bus, though last time we rode it, the commentary was a bit hit or miss. Mostly miss. And you will find you have landed in the friendliest city in Australia.

Did I tell you about the boardwalk and the best fish and chips in Tasmania? Perhaps another time!


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1 Comment

Reply tony
23:38 on 10 January, 2019 
A ggod walk, cheers