Laneways

Living in a rural area, on a working farm, means that laneways feature prominently and are often taken for granted as being a part of everyday routine and a necessary adjunct to travelling to and from the farm. But as I pulled together some thoughts for my “launching” blog, I looked closer at what laneways can represent to a country grandmother, bridging that generation gap that we hear about so often.

Old fence post
The remnants of an old gateway at the end of a long-forgotten laneway.

In childhood, laneways led the way from our home down to the mailbox on the main road, and the infrequently travelled route that led to the growing city of Canberra. Any traffic that passed was usually an easily identified local, the re-assuring mailman or a pretty “lost” visitor to the nation’s immature capital, rising defiantly out of the nearby paddocks and bush. Our old pise home, long gone, was situated to the north of Canberra and our sheep grazed where now budding champions play hockey, rugby and netball. My grandfather and Great Uncle held adjoining farms, and you can still see the old elm trees  that sheltered the second mailbox on the second laneway adjacent to our own RMB204.

Of course in the late 40’s and 50’s these laneways scattered around the growing suburbs were dusty or muddy reminders of the pioneering families that settled on the Limestone Plains in the mid 1800’s and eked out an existence through hardship and isolation before the area was recognised and set aside as the site for Canberra. Dirt roads and stock routes were upgraded, school bus runs were established and more affordable access to motor transport saw dramatic changes between the Wars, and children like myself moved on from the sprinkling of small bush schools, into better-built, larger establishments of learning, and yes we were picked up at the farm gate or the end of the lane with considerable excitement on a daily basis.

The laneway to my childhood home passed the remains of an old tennis court in the front paddock, and on the other side, a concrete cricket pitch stood out brazenly amongst the grass and weeds. My curiosity about these old features was always kindled further when my grandmother would delve into her photo albums and lovingly recollect the joys of her own youth, when friends would gather from all round the district to compete, socialise and enjoy each other’s company. I often saw myself in those photos, in my imagination, as I developed a fascination for how people lived and worked in the “good old days” and how I felt more a part of their lives, than my own frantic, post-war era.

Laneways have continued to lead me to discover new spaces and places over the ensuing years, and while I certainly enjoy meandering along a bush walking track, I find laneways make a bolder statement and challenge the traveller to recall as much as enjoy the quicker progress. What gave birth to the laneway? Was it a well-worn path for the earliest inhabitants? Taking them from hunting grounds to watering points to important ceremonial sites? Did the laneway then take on a new role allowing the early settlers to push into fertile regions with their stock and families, linking the ancient routes with the developing need for pasture and grazing land? Did the laneway widen and lose those connections as it became an artery coursing with the life blood of commerce and trade?
Did the laneway trample whole tracts of peaceful verge as the fever of gold drove hordes of people and vehicles into rapidly growing districts? At what point does a laneway lose its identity and take on the greater responsibility of a road or even a highway?

Davis Lane sign
Where two laneways meet at the school bus stop –Laverstock NSW

On our farm these days, laneways are still a guided means of reaching a destination or even better, a means of management that enables safe and efficient movement of stock around the property. A long way from that softly trodden path from thousands of years ago. We are lucky to still have a dirt, tree-lined laneway lead from the hectic pace of a narrow bitumen road, down through gums and scrub to cross the river and wend its way past several farms, before once again joining “civilisation” on an even bigger road, proudly bearing the title of Highway. Those of us living on the laneway, guard this humble connection with the slower pace of life and even with the distant sounds of heavy highway traffic now trespassing on the stillness, stay alert and vigilant, in case progress peeks greedily into our world.

While a laneway can mean leaving, going away, perhaps never to return, it has a purpose in holding you gently but firmly as you depart. The gentle slope up from the river crossing, the first easy bend, the tall grass and scrub leaning towards you as you pass, the gums saluting and whispering “travel safe”, God speed, the distant junction where the school bus waits patiently every day, these are the images on leaving, but what joy awakes and swells in your heart as you return. The laneway is different, the shadows are plays of light dancing in welcome as you turn that corner, and approach the gate. A glance in the rear vision mirror shows the dust settling on where you have been, like the
gentle touch of a re-assuring hand at the end of a long day. Your eyes are drawn forward and although the road is familiar, the trees still clinging to their usual spot, the fences and paddocks still at attention, you can feel the change in how you breathe, and your mind let’s go and your soul knows you are home.

So looking at laneways in different contexts and how they impact on your sense of space, can be adiversion from just accepting them as a necessary adjunct to living in the country. Sharing what laneways mean can cover the practical, and often humorous reality of trying to move difficult stock from one paddock to another, a task made memorable and even more amusing when it all goes terribly wrong or is accompanied by an associated tale of “breaking-in” a new farm dog, or venturing out in a sulky for the first time with a young horse. These farm yarns show that constructed laneways, while adding design and purpose to a functioning livestock enterprise, also bring us laughs
and precious shared moments as tales of mishaps surface again and again over the years. No one recalls how easy it was to muster and move a five hundred sheep to the yards, but everyone will remember the day the farm dog nearly sent three uncontrollable crossbred sheep over the ramp and halfway to Yass.

Tracks in the snow
Tree-lined, paddock laneway in heavy snow August 2019

It may seem that the laneways we have built on our farm are a statement of intent, a mark of how we intend to control and direct. But they can readily be internal pathways of peace and respite from the commercial reality of the adjoining paddocks stocked with animals and sown to crops. Our laneways usually form part of a tree planting exercise, where we are trying to encourage regeneration of native species and the establishment of shelter belts. Walking along these laneways gives you a chance to hear the birds, smell the eucalypts or wattles as they bloom, and look carefully for signs where wallabies have used them as a safe corridor. These are the laneways that I encourage my grandchildren to appreciate, and as I pass on to them my limited knowledge and reasons for why we are only temporary custodians of these lands, I hope that they see a tenuous connection with ancient footpaths, in their lifetime, becoming so much more.

My past is their future.

Well I have started my Blog at last, the ruminations of a farmer, gardener and country grandmother, which will include random photos, (to accompany the humble thoughts and jumbled words) hopefully lots of humorous prose, some whacky attempts at poetry, some “stretched” home truths, good quantities of historical fiction and sprinkles of common sense and practical advice.

I have chosen to “launch” my Blog on a very significant day for me, and I would like to dedicate this journey to a very talented artist and poet, who will always hold a special place in my heart –

I look at all the happiness,
Nature and wondrous humanity,
Thankyou God for your gifts of love –
Of health and friendship and sanity.

I look at all the joy,
I see the stars and sky,
Thankyou God for your gifts of love,
Such gifts can never die.

Lisa-Jane Allan, 22 September 1981 – 9 November 1997

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