Friday, March 25, 2005

Government House

Tasmania's annual Three Peaks endurance race starts in the north this afternoon. The race begins at Beauty Point on the Tamar River just north of Launceston and ends in Hobart on the Derwent River.

In between competitors must run and scramble up Mounts Strzelecki, Freycinet and Wellington, and sail along Tasmania's coastline.

Thirteen teams will compete in the four-day event, with two from interstate. More than 10,000 spectators are expected to watch the start. (The only cloud over the event is the increasing cost of insurance coverage.)

Monday was an extraordinary day. The Tasmanian Churchill Fellowship Association, celebrating 40 years of Churchill Fellowships [they’re a sort of scholarship], was sponsoring a series of special events.

Julie and I signed up for the “Heritage in the Antipodes” day, which gave us the opportunity of meeting three Churchill Fellows and seeing their work first-hand.

We began at St Mary’s Cathedral with Gerry Cummins, one of Australia’s leading experts on stained glass. We were the first to see the 1848 window he and Jill Stehn have just finished restoring.

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I learned more about stained glass in an hour than I had in the rest of my life.

Then it was on to the other attractions, with a break for lunch at the Narryna folk museum in historic Battery Point (I wouldn’t have eaten so much if I’d realised that was only the first course...).

A great collection of colonial relics. I must go back there another day when we have more time to study them in depth.

Down in Sandy Bay, Brian Andrews showed us artefacts from the career of 19th century designer A.W. Pugin. Much (but not all) survives that he produced for the Catholic Church in Australia. Chalices, vestments, portable altars... quite a range.

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When they showed us how some of the goblets were gold-plated silver, I bit my tongue not to quip “This is the famous Catholic gilt?” in front of the nuns.

But the jewel in the crown, to use an apt expression, was our visit to Government House. Graeme Corney of the Tasmanian Heritage Council led us on a tour of the grounds of what has been called the best of all Colonial Government Houses in the British Empire.

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This was the first time we’d ventured into the grounds of the Governor’s official residence, though we’ve passed by it many a time. The house is a lovely piece of Early Victorian architecture and the gardens are immaculate.

We began at the site of the old Rossbank Observatory, which was part of a 19th century project to map the magnetic field of the earth. This necessitated a special building constructed without any metal in it at all.

After that we strolled down to a charming little lake that was created from the quarry that produced much of the sandstone used to construct Government House.

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One of the previous governors used to keep it stocked with trout so he could go fishing without having to leave home!

We wandered around the grounds, pausing regularly to check the plaques under the trees. It’s a custom for prominent visitors to plant a tree during their stay here. We saw trees that had been planted by the Queen, Prince Philip and Prince Charles.

The ones that everyone was watching for were the two planted by Crown Prince Frederik and Princess Mary, who were staying there until two days before. We may not have seen them, but we have photographs of their trees and the window of the room they stayed in.

The Governor wasn’t at home, but as we came around one corner of the house somebody dressed in jogging gear left the house and looked momentarily taken aback at the sight of a dozen strangers meandering through the grounds.

“Look, there’s the Queen’s suite.” “Is the conservatory original?” “Did you say there are five staircases?” “Where does the Governor sleep?” “What’s on that coat of arms?” "Are those gargoyles?" "Where are the busts of Queen Victoria and Albert?"

My father had some minor business dealings with Government House when I was a child and actually received a couple of invitations to functions there. He wasn’t interested - “that kind of thing” wasn’t his cup of tea.

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But 40 years later we finally got in the front gate (that's me on the far left).

Altogether a fascinating afternoon.

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