KEVIN McLoud, the presenter of the popular ABC series Grand Designs, visited Australia last year.
A reporter asked him was there a place that captured his imagination architecturally? McLoud responded, "I loved Cessnock in the NSW Hunter Valley. I photographed almost every house along the main road: 1920s and 1930s domestic architecture, low to the ground and with a veranda. We don't value that era in the UK, and we don't do ground-hugging architecture well."
I was more than a little stunned at the nomination of Cessnock. What about Collins Street in Melbourne, I thought?
Or the Rocks in Sydney? Or Beechworth in Victoria? Or Canberra, or old Adelaide or Hobart, or even inner Newcastle?
I rang Cessnock real estate agent Heath Baird and read him the quote. Heath laughed in disbelief.
I rang Professor Lindsay Johnston, formerly of the architecture department at the University of Newcastle and resident in the Cessnock district. Maybe the newspaper reported the town wrong, said Lindsay, puzzled.
Heath Baird gave me some insider knowledge.
Head out to Abermain, he said, and look at the old miners cottages and then the cluster of brick buildings around the old Mines Rescue Station, established in 1926.
Which I did last week, late in the day, following a storm, with steam rising off streets named after older towns like Armidale, Bathurst and Goulburn.
We forget that settlement in the Coalfields is a recent thing.
Lindsay Johnston directed me to the marvellous book Early Architects of the Hunter Region by retired Newcastle architect, Les Reedman.
The book can be read at www.coalriver.wordpress.com.
The book tells of the rollout of fine buildings in the Coalfields commencing at the end of the 19th century. The geologist Edgeworth David had charted the rich and extensive South Maitland coal seam in 1887 and during the first decades of the 20th century the Coalfields towns and villages grew like topsy.
Great pubs beat the churches to the best locations.
The distinguished work of the Penders, the Scobies and T. W. Silk - all with original practices in Maitland - delivered lavish Victorian and Edwardian buildings.
I left Abermain and drove down Vincent Street.
At opposite ends, the Cessnock Hotel (1908) and the Royal Oak (1921) were welcoming evening patrons no doubt well aware their hosts had each been awarded three-schooner awards in the Sydney Morning Herald's 2013 Good Pub Food Guide.
Resisting closer inspection, I watched a soft evening descend on the old CBC Bank (1906), the police station and courthouse (1913), the School of Arts (1924) and the wonderful art deco swimming pavilion (1931).
I saw that the Hunter Water building (1924) had been converted into the Cessnock Regional Art Gallery and the Morris Light-Grace Bros building (c. 1924) into the Performing Arts Centre, and I read now that this conversion won the Newcastle Architects Division 2009 Award for Excellence in Urban Design, and the NSW Local Government 2012 Performing Arts Initiatives Award.
I like this story.
The barely 100-years-old Coalfields towns host some of New South Wales most attractive streetscapes.
History, often with harsh years, spared the Coalfields towns many things, like 1960s office blocks and fully enclosed shopping malls. And the district's natural features have thrown up opportunities not only for mining and industry but also for wine making.
And now the tourist, like Kevin McLoud, is enchanted by the historical mix.
But a question remains. Kevin McLoud refers to houses, not civic and commercial buildings.
What houses could he have been referring to, I asked Lindsay Johnston?
Perhaps the federation houses, Lindsay wondered? Or perhaps the wooden miners' cottage?
The passage of these cottages through generations is a fascinating Aussie story. Typically a miner's cottage was built by its owner, sweat equity we now call it. The design was carried in a back pocket, identical to others built in Cooks Hill, Balmain and Coaldale. A modest oblong with a simple gable roof, boxed with weatherboard, with an external brick chimney, a posted veranda, and tin sheets on top.
Perhaps McLoud was fascinated by the durability of these cottages. Coming from Britain, he would have been struck, says Lindsay Johnston (an Irishman), by the fact that working-class families in Cessnock could live in houses that they built and owned; that these houses are detached, on large blocks of land with gardens and plots for veggies.
Perhaps Kevin McLoud saw too that these homes have remained affordable through the decades, and that their towns continue to thrive, without airs and graces, but with charm and history, and that the best history is a continuing one, with new uses for the old, which ensure new adventures ahead.
Phillip O’Neill is a professor of economic geography at the University of Western Sydney.