SHEFFIELD STEAMS AHEAD
Whether you like to watch iron monsters belching steam, view spectacular murals or sample the sweetness of a honey farm, there’s something for all tastes in and around Sheffield!
WORDS BY MARG MCALISTER, PHOTOGRAPHY BY MARG MCALISTER, JOHN HABERFIELD AND ROB CAMERIERE
There’s much to explore in Tasmania, our beautiful island state. The main problem is deciding where to start! Sheffield, only half an hour from where the Spirit of Tasmania docks in Devonport, makes an excellent base camp for the immediate area and day trips. With imposing Mt Roland as a backdrop— sometimes shrouded in mist, sometimes bathed in sunlight—and all kinds of attractions within 50km, you’ll be kept happily occupied for some time.
We kicked off our Sheffield visit with a day at SteamFest, held on the March long weekend each year. Organised by the Redwater Creek Steam and Heritage Society, SteamFest is now in its 21st year—and after spending a day there, it’s easy to see why it is drawing ever-increasing crowds.
We were there early, in time to watch the big traction engines being fired up. Clouds of steam eddied into the clear morning air, while owners busied themselves polishing and buffing immaculate machinery. One by one, stalls all around us opened for business; the scent of food and coffee filled the air, and the crowds began to pour in. We wandered around drinking it all in, keeping a wary eye out for those iron monsters trundling around as they made their way, inch by inch, through the crowds. There is so much packed into just one festival— everything from huge steam-driven vehicles to bullock teams and shingle splitters. Some of the crowd were dressed in period costume (like Jake Coleman, who was kind enough to give me a tour in his Lykamobile, a steam-driven car).
At this event you can cheer at the tractor pulling, wander around a display of beautifully restored buggies and carriages, watch hay-baling and ploughing, ride on the steam train, or stop to stare at the enormous rock crusher at work. Take time out to view the art and craft in the sheds, too, where you’ll also find model trains and handcrafted miniature steam engines.
We spent the whole day at SteamFest, loved every minute, and I’m certain we still didn’t manage to take it all in!
TOWN OF MURALS
It’s easy to see why Sheffield is known as The Town of Murals! This unique art display had its origins in 1985, when the townsfolk decided to take action to arrest a worrying economic decline. Their plan was to attract tourists by painting murals on walls all over town.
The strategy worked. Everywhere you walk in Sheffield, you’ll see the murals that comprise “Tasmania’s Outdoor Art Gallery”. Talk to the shop-owners and residents in the town, and you’ll discover that many of the murals have a special significance for them. “My favourite is the mural about Dr. Sender,” says Geneen Duff, who works in the Tourist Information Centre. “He was the one who delivered me!” Visit the Cradle Mountain Candy Company in the main street and talk to Laura Inder, and she’ll show you a mural outside featuring her and her husband Brian, the owner of Tasmazia and the Village of Lower Crackpot.
Brian was also instrumental in establishing MuralFest, a renowned display of public artwork that gives visitors a visual feast each year. Come to Sheffield at Easter, and you will be able to watch the artists at work each day in Mural Park, competing in a weeklong ‘paint-off’. When the competition is over, the murals remain in the park until the following year.
AROUND TOWN IN SHEFFIELD
Stay a while in Sheffield, and it isn’t long before you find yourself thinking: “This is a really nice town!” Visitors usually call into the Fudge ‘n’ Good Coffee Shop for a snack, before heading across the road to Laura Inder’s candy-and-honey shop. On a nearby corner you’ll see Slater’s historic country store. You will love this place! The façade alone invokes feelings of nostalgia, and the heaped tables of wares on the pavement outside invite you to browse. Go inside, and you’ll find treasures at every turn. Make sure you don’t miss the old wooden telephone on the wall behind the front counter, or Nellie “Grandma” Slater peering down at you from her elevated office—where she worked until she was 93, giving change on cash sales that whizzed along to her on “the flying fox”. Wonderful!
WORLD OF MARBLES
When you can manage to tear yourself away from Slater’s, keep walking down the street until you come to The World of Marbles. This is one of those things that just grew and grew: the owner, Jan Clay, started with one question in mind: “How do I make a marble?” She became engrossed in it, turned it into a business, and now it’s a popular tourist attraction! In this store, you can buy marbles with vortexes or clever inserts—but you wouldn’t want to use them in your average schoolyard game! Watch marbles being created at the tiny workshop beside the counter, try your hand at one of the marble runs, or choose a puzzle to keep you occupied on a rainy day. There are cute gifts for kids, and a range of handcrafted jewellery as well. Opening soon is a new room that goes by the intriguing name of “The Contraptuary”, featuring interactive contraptions created by Jan’s son Shasa, a mechanical engineer. This is due to open right about the time you read this.
If you want eccentric, trot along to the emporium in the main street of Sheffield. This is the most intriguing place. “I hate throwing anything away,” says the owner, Mark Beach-Ross, and you can well believe it. There are countless things to catch your eye – old books (one dated back to the 1700s); sculptures, knives, old banknotes, and intriguing old advertisements backed with card and wrapped in cellophane, ready for you to frame for quirky wall art.
TASMAZIA AND THE VILLAGE OF LOWER CRACKPOT
It’s hard to comprehend the energy and vision of men like Brian Inder, owner of Tasmazia and the Village of Lower Crackpot, 15km from Sheffield. Brian was a dairy farmer who was forced to come up with other ways to make his property pay when things got tough in the early 1980s. He had some success with lavender and herbal products, but he really wanted to build a hedge maze. The problem with that is that hedges take a long time to grow, so Brian came up with another idea to keep himself busy – a model town, built to a 1:5 scale. “Where did the name come from?” I asked curiously. Brian just laughed. “I was looking for an interesting name, and there was a village in the UK called Crackpot. So “The Village of Lower Crackpot’ it was!”
Tasmazia is a hugely popular tourist attraction for both Australians and people visiting from other countries. Every house has a story. Some are dedicated to friends and some to family; others reflect Brian’s quirky sense of humour. You’ll enjoy the Embassy Gardens, too: some buildings are serious, others not. (Even Dr. Who would feel at home here in the intergalactic embassy!) After snapping a gazillion photos of these wonderful miniature buildings, you can head off to try your hand at negotiating a maze: there are eight of them! The reward for finding your way to the middle of The Great Maze is finding the House of the Three Bears, built to a 1:2 scale—adults and kids alike love it. When you finally find your way out, you can recover with a delicious meal at the Pancake Parlour. We had soup and damper; absolutely yummy, but if you feel like more sinful delights try the range of sweet and savoury pancakes or a Devonshire tea.
A great place to stay nearby is the free camp (Kentish Park) at Lake Barrington: we talked to a couple of very happy campers here who liked it so much that they came back for a second stint! There is a toilet block here but no fresh water: you need to be self-contained.
RAILTON – Town of Topiary
At Railton, around 12km from Sheffield, we were reminded again of the resilient nature of townsfolk who don’t just sit back and bemoan their fate when a town seems to be dying, but take action. Sheffield gave the town a new lease of life with its now-famous murals; Railton came up with topiary, the brainchild of Neil Hurley, who saw the idea working for another town. Drive around and you can see imaginative topiary everywhere, along the main street and in private gardens. There’s a self-guided tour map at the Laser Optic Magic store. I love the sense of humour shown by the topiary at the back of Neil’s store. “Did you see the man sitting down and reading a book?” he asked. “His mower stopped working so he’s taking it easy while his wife does all the work!” I looked where he was pointing and yes indeed, there was a man at ease reading, with a half-grown topiary mower beside him and his leafy wife nearby, pushing a barrow full of weeds. Great stuff!
The laser optic store itself was filled with interesting (and reasonably-priced) knick-knacks that would make ideal gifts or mementos. You’ll enjoy the Limestone café too, across the road. Callie, the owner, is a great source of info on the town and surrounds, and has some delicious fare if you feel like a quick snack.
THE SEVEN SHEDS BREWERY AND MEADERY
It’s hard to resist a boutique brewery, especially once you know the ales have been handcrafted by Willie Simpson, a prize-winning home brewer who also wrote “The Beer Bible”! The co-owner of the Seven Sheds Brewery, Catherine Stark, is happy to pour ales and mead for a tasting and explain how they use fresh local produce (honey and fruit) to create the unique flavours. Pale ale is their bestseller, and another great brew is Razzamatazz, with local strawberries and honey overtones. RVers are welcome to bring a picnic lunch and enjoy it in their outdoor area while sampling the ales.
The Seven Sheds Brewery is part of the Cradle to Coast Tasting Trail. You can follow the entire trail, visiting places like The Makers’ Workshop at the Cheese Shop, Giaconda Coffee Roasters, Providore 24 and Pier01 Restaurant, or just pick the destinations close to your base camp. Read more about it here: www.cradletocoasttastingtrail.com.au
CHUDLEIGH AND MOLE CREEK – Melita Honey Farm
About 35km from Sheffield, via Union Bridge Road and Mole Creek, you’ll find the Melita Honey Farm at Chudleigh. The first thing you notice when you walk into the shop is the golden glow; you’d almost think you were in a jar of honey! In this delightful shop you can watch the bees at work (safely behind glass!) and browse through an enormous range of honey products. We tasted half a dozen different flavours and textures of honey – regular, creamy, and with nuts – and the mango ice cream was to die for; really creamy and smooth. But it’s not all about what you can eat. There are great little presents for kids (umbrellas, boots, games), beeswax candles, honey spoons, beeswax furniture polish, body lotion and boot polish – the list goes on!
Right across the road is the Chudleigh Showground where you are permitted to camp for 4 days. From the showground you have beautiful views across to Mount Roland; there is a toilet block, but you need to be otherwise fully self-contained. I chatted to an RVer here who said she loved the campground: not only did she feel safe, but it also made a great base for exploration. This is great value at just $5 per night, paid at the general store.
Just a few doors down from the Honey Farm is the Silk & Roses of Chudleigh Gift Shop. This is well stocked with beautiful silk, quality clothes and souvenirs—and fudge, which the RVers camping across the road tell me is irresistible!
Leaving Chudleigh, we took the scenic drive back along Mole Creek Road and made a point of calling in to see Mole Creek Caravan Park, after hearing enthusiastic reviews. This is a quiet, picturesque park: pet friendly, with reasonable rates (less for solo travellers). Sassafras Creek bubbles cheerfully over stones beside the campsites, and there’s a resident platypus that often makes an appearance. It’s also handy if you want to visit nearby Mole Creek Caves, Cradle Mountain or the National Park.
We left Sheffield, happily sated with our experiences here, with a final backward glance at one of our now-favourite backdrops: Mt Roland, ever watching over this idyllic part of Tasmania. If you are looking for the perfect spot to start your Tassie exploration, you’ve found it!