During World War One, seventy seven men from the small Blue Mountains community of Blackheath, NSW volunteered to serve. Their names are engraved on the local war memorial. Six were killed in action; H. CULLEN, R. MURRAY, J. SKEEN, D. SPRAGUE, J. STEENSON, & R. THOMPSON.
After hostilities ceased it was decided to create a park honouring those volunteers, to be named Memorial Park. Mr Green, the town clerk, organized an art union to fund the project and stated;
‘We don’t want the desolate-looking, bald-patched affair, with rickety seats and uninviting shrubbery which many townships exult by the name of ‘parks’…….This it to be Blackheath’s last effort to perpetuate in suitable manner the names and memories of fellow citizens who faced death for us.’
The site chosen was a natural drainage basin, and the site of the old golf links. The first sod was turned by the NSW Governor Sir Walter Davison, during the first official visit by a governor since Lachlan Macquarie named the town in 1815.
In 1923, local residents raised £1,000 for the purchase of 77 rhododendrons, to beautify the park and to create a Remembrance Walk. It was the perfect plant choice, as rhododendrons suit the cool climate of the Blue Mountains. More importantly, the peak of their blooming coincided with Remembrance Day, November 11. (They seem to flower slightly earlier now, which may be a sign of global warming.) Finally, rhododendrons can live for several hundred years, creating a permanent memorial.
By 1950 the shrubs were well established. The Sydney Morning Herald published the following paragraph by a correspondent called ‘Waratah’;
The Memorial Park planting has advanced far since those days of 30 odd years ago, when I remember them as gawky small plants in a rough setting. They were received with amused toleration. Now they have blossomed into belles of shrubland.
The rhododendrons continued to thrive, until they can no longer be described as shrubs. They are now imposing trees. I am fortunate enough to live so close to the park that it is almost an extension of my own garden. My husband walks through it every morning, diligently picking up any rubbish he spots.
In October 2012 and 2014 we had very late, heavy snowfalls. Because new foliage held the snow, damage in local gardens was extensive. However Memorial Park, transformed into a fairyland, with the unusual sight of snow on the giant rhodos. Visitors were enchanted, especially very young visitors. There were soon sledders and snowboarders enjoying the slopes in idyllic surroundings.
2019 has been a bumper year for the rhododendrons.
The paths through the 26 acre park were named after World War One battles. As the blossoms fall they take on a beauty of their own.
There is another body of water for us to enjoy….along with the ducks and other wildlife. The pond!
Behind the swimming pool complex are the Gallipoli Steps. If you walk up, then follow the bush track, you will exit in Robertson Lane. From here (on the way to the village), there is a lovely view down into the tops of the rhodos.
What a fitting tribute to those who served not just in WWI, but in all wars. It is a classic demonstration of what can be achieved when local authorities use vision and foresight in their planning. Additionally, it is a reminder that residents themselves can play a huge role in such projects.
The flowering of the rhodos heralds the start of the annual Rhododendron Festival.
These little boys, Fergus and Luke, have a lemonade stand in the park during the festival. They are utterly delightful. Their presence honours the old soldiers and gives me hope for the future, even the dark days we are currently experiencing.
UPDATE…OCTOBER 2020. The rhododendrons are reaching their peak as usual, although everything else is very different in this year of Covid. But if you are craving peace and beauty, come up and enjoy this wonderful legacy.