It’s the sort of property that oozes history: from the driveway that slides down to the old brick stables, the main house and farm buildings to the majestic Clydesdale horses that look like they’ve always grazed around the property.
Cooma Cottage at Yass looks like it has been there forever, and it almost has. It shows people today what rural Australian life looked like nearly two centuries ago.
Built by Henry O’Brien in 1829, the now 40-ha site was part of a larger grant originally given to the pastoralist.
It was described in 1837 as a “very nice and commodious cottage, very well furnished and with everything comfortable about it; the grounds and the garden nicely laid out, but as yet quite in their infancy”.
Legend has it that while explorer Hamilton Hume camped by the Yass River one night with William Hovell on their epic overland journey, he fell in love with the site. Hume settled there in 1839 and lived out his days for the next 30 years, constantly adding to the homestead and its complex of buildings.
Today, the home still stands proudly at the entrance to the town of Yass – as one of the nation’s most important historic sites managed by the National Trust.
A small band of volunteers led by Barbara Foster regularly open the house and garden to visitors – from schoolchildren to historians, film crews to family reunions. But according to Barbara, they now need your help to ensure Cooma Cottage and surrounds are still around for the next 100 years.
The house is regularly maintained, but it is the garden, which is just as historically significant, that now needs some TLC.
“What we want to do is keep the gardens, just like Cooma Cottage itself, as authentic as we can,” Barbara said.
Back in the 1970s, historian Dr James Broadbent was commissioned to develop a garden plan showing what was likely to have grown at Cooma Cottage during Hume’s time.
One of his findings was that a rose bed was probably planted near the main house. That has since been installed, with old-fashioned roses dug in just as they probably were in Hume’s time.
Already boasting one of the rarest trees in the country, a large Picconia excelsa grows at the rear of the original front of the house. With only about 20 known in the country the tree, which is related to the olive, is endangered in its natural habitat, the Canary Islands. It is believed to have been planted by Hume, but there’s little evidence left to prove it.
“We keep a special eye on that tree,” Barbara said. “It’s doing well, but there are pockets of garden around the cottage that could do with some help.
“What we need is for some initial heavy lifting help to clean up these areas and then we can keep them under control.”
With the recent heavy rainfall, everything is growing like never before.
“We just need some help from people who can maybe come down every couple of weeks to do a few hours of work,” Barbara said.
“It would be such a worthwhile thing to do to help maintain a place like this.”
With the house closed during winter, volunteers could use this quiet time to get the garden ready for spring – and the expected crush of visitors who haven’t been able to visit since COVID hit.
Barbara encouraged people who may be keen to volunteer to visit Cooma Cottage during its open days and talk to her and the other volunteers and follow them on the tours.
“We don’t have a rigid training process or anything like that,” she said.
“We just encourage people to come down, greet visitors, maybe go on a tour, and pick up information as they go.
“We’ve found that’s one of the best ways to learn about the place and become a great volunteer.”
National Trust property manager for Southern NSW Nicole Taylor also urged volunteers to sign up to help restore the Cooma Cottage gardens.
She said more than 2000 visitors came through the Yass gates in 2019 (before COVID) and that she expected that number to increase in spring this year.
“We’re looking to increase that number this year when we welcome back bus tour and school groups and offer venue hire such as wedding ceremonies,” she said.
“Imagine being one of a handful of couples tying the knot at this amazing heritage place with gorgeous vistas of the Yass Valley?”
Nicole said Cooma Cottage would not be the popular place it was without its volunteers. “We just couldn’t do what we do without them,” she said.
“We would love to welcome more volunteers. There’s a range of tasks to suit everyone – they include gardening, guiding, retail sales, greeting visitors, events management and delivery.”
So what makes a good volunteer? “The best volunteers are those with a warm, friendly smile who are keen to be part of a team that cares about heritage.”
People interested in volunteering at Cooma Cottage, Yass, should visit the National Trust website for more information.