What can we learn from the ruins?

FOBIF has made a submission to the process of updating the Castlemaine Diggings NHP Heritage Action Plan [now known as the Heritage Landscape Management Framework].

Our view can be roughly summed up in the words of the old Heritage Plan: ‘The current forest setting is not an interpretive problem, but rather an interpretive bonus for the Park. It highlights the transience of mining, demonstrates the severe environmental impact that can result from inadequate environmental constraint, and illustrates some of the resilience of Australia’s native vegetation.’ [Our emphasis]

In Norwood Hill. This is not a natural scene, it’s part of our cultural history: the destruction of our waterways is part of the epic of gold, and needs to be explained to visitors.

Essentially, our submission urges consideration of the natural landscape as an important element in our heritage: consideration of mining ruins in isolation from the way mining affected the environment is to lose sight of one of the most important consequences of the gold rush: environmental change. That’s part of our heritage too.

The essentials of FOBIF’s submission are set out below:

We hope the comments below do not come across as too negative. There is much in the distributed material that we like, and as residents of the goldfields we are obviously grateful inheritors of the gold rushes. However, we think a revision of heritage ideas in this field would not only be a more faithful account of what we’ve inherited, but it would make the presentation more dynamic and interesting.

We don’t have the time to provide a detailed comment on this material, but would like to offer the following:

  1. The action tables do not adequately reflect the concerns expressed in the online survey and the ‘walkovers’ with environmental matters. We freely acknowledge the importance of mining ruins, but would like to see some of the presentation of these places concentrate less on technical matters and a little more on their effects: why not point out that sluicing trashed local waterways, to the despair of farmers downstream? [This kind of thing is very clear from the platform at Spring Gully carpark, for example]. Or: why not point out that Castlemaine Landcare has replanted Banksia trees along Forest Creek? [this species was wiped out in the 19th century]

Please note that the online respondents’ distinct emphasis on enjoyment of the natural attributes of the Park marks a change in the public’s perception of the park. While visitors still appreciate the historic feel of this landscape they are increasingly sensitive to things like seasonal wildflower displays, and curious about what the landscape was like before the deep scarring evident in dry gullies.

  1. The table you have provided of miners’ activities and their impacts on the environment neglects one of the most obvious of these impacts, and offers misleading [or false] information about two others: a. No mention is made of the digging and sluicing of waterways, easily the most obvious, and most obviously destructive of mining activity. b. [Under ‘timber cutting’] Although timber getting was rampant, and regrowth dense and largely coppiced, this is becoming less and less obvious today: our contemporary forests are on the whole easily traversed and are very gradually returning to a more open woodland. Coppiced trees are less common and in many places not obvious. The most obvious heritage of rampant timber getting is soil loss and erosion, not dense bush and coppices. c. [Under ‘timber cutting’] ‘Conversely, forests were protected to provide firewood’: this is misleading. The conservator of forests began the process of protection in the late nineteenth century for a variety of reasons, the most prominent being [in our region] to protect the catchment of the Loddon. [see the document appended to this submission].
  2. On the whole, we believe that any new walks developed in the park should be centred around the Goldfields Track, and worked out in consultation with the track committee. There have been many new walks laid out in the last 20 years, and a lot of them have fallen into disuse, leaving only decaying and inscrutable signs. The Goldfields Track is now well established, has a very good guide book, and could be used as the spine from which other explorations could be undertaken.


We offer these comments in the belief that the failure to integrate consideration of landscape with interpretation of mining ruins leaves a disturbing vacuum in the process. VEAC’s Historic Places draft, in its brief discussion of Aboriginal heritage, correctly laments the failure to communicate the ‘layers of experience at sites that are rich with Aboriginal heritage.’ A similar failure is inevitable when landscape is ignored as ‘heritage place’: the need to understand  the layers in the landscape of the goldfields—what it was like before the gold rushes, during their heyday, and the land’s long, partial recovery since—disappears when visitors are encouraged only to focus on methods of mining, and the social realities it revealed.

There are serious implications here for the way this particular heritage place is managed and promoted. For example, the Park’s management [2005] plan envisages that over the years the park will carry a ‘more appropriate balance of juvenile, intermediate and mature trees’—in other words, that it might return to something more like a pre 1852 landscape.  Given that fire practices over the last 10 years have tended to destroy large numbers of mature trees, you might say that such practices have heritage as well as environmental implications. The Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act requires that any action significantly affecting areas listed as national heritage needs ‘prior approval’: we suspect that approval for fire activity in the Park has only been sought in connection with goldfields ruins, and that no consideration has been taken for the landscape impacts of such activity.

Is ‘heritage’ just a nice lot of old stuff we can look at and be nostalgic about? Or is it something more challenging? The 2014 Parliamentary enquiry into Heritage and Ecotourism quoted the National Trust, as follows: ‘The existence of heritage, its protection and its connection with the community does not guarantee that it will attract tourists. A sanitised heritage presenting a safe interpretation of history and culture holds little appeal and will not generate interest amongst tourists.’

The current Heritage action plan for the park offers this challenge: ‘The current forest setting is not an interpretive problem, but rather an interpretive bonus for the Park. It highlights the transience of mining, demonstrates the severe environmental impact that can result from inadequate environmental constraint, and illustrates some of the resilience of Australia’s native vegetation.’ [our emphasis]

If the present revision falls back from this challenge, we will end up with a plan which, after all the work done on it, will be inferior to its predecessor.


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2 Responses to What can we learn from the ruins?

  1. Alex Panelli says:

    I wholeheartedly support this submission. We do not need to sanitise our history or worry about making it attractive, simple and untroubling to all who come.

    To allow, and even to encourage people to become aware that our heritage is not “just a nice lot of old stuff we can look at and be nostalgic about” but is, in a continuing way “something more challenging” and something that, unless addressed, will continue to impose it’s blindnesses and practical limitations on our imaginations and our actions.

    What might the landscape in which we live be like, both in itself and for us, if we allowed ourselves to understand, and to wonder about, it’s history and its future differently?

  2. elaine says:

    I totally love the professionalism and efforts put in by the key players in FOBI. Thanks so much and very well done on a great submission.

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