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Historical Northam in the Avon Valley

Home > Perth > Escape the City | Museums | Picnic Spots | Weekend Escapes
by Carolyn Hopping (subscribe)
I'm a freelance writer based in Perth, Western Australia, who enjoys writing about the things I love: travel, nature-based activities, the arts, spirituality and creative, fun activities for children.
Published November 23rd 2012
A friendly country town just an hour from the city
Located in the heart of the beautiful Avon Valley, Northam is a fascinating spot to explore, either for a few hours or several days. A thriving regional centre and the largest inland town in Western Australia not connected to mining, it's located just 97 kilometres east of Perth, an easy one hour drive along the Great Eastern Highway. However, despite its close proximity to the city, it's often overlooked as a day-trip destination: unfortunate, since the drive there is gorgeous, passing through the rugged national parks of the Darling Ranges, and picturesque agricultural land.

Fountains in the Avon River.
Fountains in the Avon River.

The history of Northam is almost as old as the Swan Valley Colony itself. While the area was first surveyed by British colonists in 1830, just a year after the colony was established, the town itself was founded in 1833. During those early years, Northam was a departure point for pioneers heading off to remote localities further east, while later in the century during the Gold Rush, miners passed through the town en-route to the eastern goldfields.

During the gold-rushes of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, thousands of prospectors departed for the goldfields from the old Northam Railway Station.
During the gold-rushes of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, thousands of prospectors departed for the goldfields from the old Northam Railway Station.

Northam's pioneer history is reflected in its many beautiful old buildings, and a drive around the town can be interesting for local history enthusiasts. For the energetic, the 2 kilometre Northam Heritage Trail is a great way to appreciate the town's architectural heritage. Apart from Fremantle, Northam has the highest number of heritage buildings in Western Australia. There are also two museums where visitors can gain a fascinating insight into the early days: a folk museum at historical Morby Cottage and the Old Northam Railway Station Cultural Precinct and Museum.

Built in 1836, Morby Cottage is one of the oldest buildings still standing in Western Australia. It was constructed by John Morrell, the first European to settle in the Northam area shortly after he was granted a 500 acre parcel of land on the Avon River. Lovingly restored, the cottage is now open every Sunday from 10.30am until 4.00pm, and visitors can see many of the original items used by the Morrell family and even read the journal written by John Morrell during his long voyage to the colony. Morby Cottage is situated at the corner of Katrine and Stack Roads, Northam. Entry for adults is just $2.00, and children are $1.00.

Morby Cottage, today.
Morby Cottage, today.

The Old Northam Railway Station Cultural Precinct and Museum is also an interesting destination for those who are interested in the town's colonial history and is administered by the Northam Heritage Forum, a collaboration of several community groups, including the local historical society. Visitors can wander through the beautifully restored old station building, marvel at the many old-fashioned artefacts and old photographs which document what life was like in the early twentieth century. An exhibit which is particularly popular is an old steam engine and carriages which date back to the era. Read here for more information on the important role that the railway played in the Northam region. The Old Northam Railway Museum is situated on Fitzgerald Street, Northam. It's open on Sundays from 11.00am until 3.00pm, and admission is a gold coin donation. For more information about either of these museums, call Northam Visitors Centre on 08 9622 2100.

The Old Northam Railway Station Museum.
The Old Northam Railway Station Museum.

For the brave and adventurous, hot air ballooning is another popular tourist attraction for visitors to Northam, although at $270.00 to $320.00 a head it's not an experience that comes cheaply. However, the views over the surrounding landscape are incredible, and overseas visitors will especially love the chance to see native wildlife from such a unique angle. A popular time to take to the sky is in the early morning, just as the sun rises. Windward Adventures has some amazing packages available, so check out their website to find out more.

The Avon River flows through the heart of Northam, and there are some beautiful parks along its banks. One of the most popular is Bernard Park on Minson Avenue, close to the Northam Visitors Centre. The river here is quite wide and appears to be deep, with a few decorative water fountains within it, providing an attractive focus. The river is also home for many white swans: descendants of a few which were brought to the town from England in the late eighteenth century.

The picnic area at Bernard Park.
The picnic area at Bernard Park.

Bernard Park boasts a cool playground for the kids
Bernard Park boasts a cool playground for the kids

It's here that the Avon Descent, WA's premier white-water event, begins every August, attracting thousands of visitors, and regular markets are also held in the park. However, at any time of the year it's a lovely spot to relax and the views over the river are priceless. There are some picnic tables scattered throughout the park, and an exciting-looking adventure playground that the kids will absolutely love.
Be sure to drop into the Visitors Centre, as they have a terrific range of information at their fingertips as well as some lovely local arts and crafts on sale.

The starting point for the annual Avon Descent.
The starting point for the annual Avon Descent.

Northam Visitors Centre.
Northam Visitors Centre

In a nutshell, Northam is a terrific spot to visit, whether you're just driving up for the day, or are spending a few in the area. There is so much to see and do, both in the town itself and the surrounding countryside. Throughout the year, several major events are special drawcards for visitors including the Avon Descent every August and the Northam Agricultural Show in September. I also recently heard that the popular York Gourmet Food and Wine Festival and the York Antique and Collectors Fair are to be relocated to Northam in 2013, and rebranded as Avon Valley Food and Wine Festival, and the Avon Valley Vintage Festival: two more reasons to head up the Valley to Northam. Go to the Northam Visitors Centre for more information about upcoming events, or email them at For further information about Northam, including a more detailed history and the many accommodation options, check out this comprehensive guide from the Sydney Morning Herald.
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Why? It's a friendly & picturesque country town, just a short drive from Perth.
When: Any time of the year.
Phone: 08 9622 2100
Where: An hour from Perth in the Avon Valley.
Cost: It depends on what you do.
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