Joni Mitchell said it pretty well. Remember Joni? Big Yellow Taxi?

“Don’t it always seem to go,
That you don’t know what you’ve got, ’til it’s gone;
They paved paradise,
And put up a parking lot.”

Sure enough, Australian cities have lost many magnificent heritage buildings to demolition over the years. But regional centres have fared somewhat better. Many of New South Wales’ historic heritage assets are located in regional towns.

And this is where their contribution to economic growth is of greatest importance. Although Australia’s non-indigenous cultural assets are seldom more than 200 years old, they represent important icons and contribute to our sense of national identity.

So, here I am, standing at the entrance to Victoria Square in Forbes, 380 kilometres from Sydney, so surrounded by timeless heritage beauty that I raise my hat to a passerby. Within this square, bounded by single city blocks, are nine fine buildings classified by the National Trust. They include the Town Hall, Court House, Anglican and Presbyterian churches, Police Station and the Vandenberg Hotel. The library is housed in a building fashioned from three earlier buildings — the School of Arts, the Literary Institute, and part of an old jail.

Opposite the entrance to the square’s pretty park, with its decorative cast iron rotunda still used for musical recitals, is the imposing Town Hall, built in 1891 and recently sensitively renovated. The park itself is a pristine example of 19th century municipal landscaping, and both park and Town Hall say some very nice things about the vision of early governments.

The Victorian classic revival Court House, built in 1880, dominates another side of the square, its stern authority acknowledging the days when it served a vast district including Parkes and Condobolin. It was designed by the colonial architect James Barnet, who was responsible for more than 12,000 projects in New South Wales, many of which were designed in the style of the Renaissance version of Classic architecture.

Another fine heritage building facing the square is the Vandenberg Hotel. Previously named the Court House Hotel, it was run by the Vandenberg family from 1863 to 1903 and hosted visiting dignitaries and important functions. In 1887, Sir Henry Parkes, the Father of Federation, addressed an audience of 2,000 people in Victoria Square from the balustraded balcony of the hotel.

The hotel once had its own adjoining concert and dance hall, with a driveway for coaches and an enclosed garden with fountain. Today, its main drawcard seems to be “Jim Beam Cans $6 All Day Every Day” rather than balls and banquets, but the building itself still radiates great style and dignity.

And a stone’s throw away — if such a vandalous act can be envisaged amid such timeless elegance — is everyone’s favourite Forbes building, the Post Office. Difficult to reconcile with Australia Post’s current cost cutting drive, this is a beautiful Victorian Italianate structure with decorative colonnades and a classic clock tower.

Across town, the charming Forbes Railway Station, built in 1893, now houses the local Visitor Information Centre, where you can pick up a Centenary of Federation Heritage Trail Guide directing you to more than 20 heritage landmarks that give the town such charm and character.

Forbes is not alone. Nearby Parkes has a fine cluster of buildings (“a coherent civic group of buildings” in heritage architecture terms) comprising the Court House, Police Station and Post Office. The Court House is a robust masonry building in Federation Free Classical style with an impressive arched colonnaded entrance. It again is the work of colonial architect James Barnet, with additions by government architect Walter Liberty Vernon, a familiar association in the Central West.

The Post Office, also designed by Barnet with alterations by Vernon, is listed for its landmark value and its contribution to the streetscape. The Police Station is a brick single-story building with a timber verandah between two gabled bays, and is listed for its contribution to the historic commercial townscape of Parkes.

Grenfell is a leisurely half-day drive from Sydney, but boasts a host of heritage buildings that take a full day to walk around. A self-guided trail starts with the dignified Courthouse built in 1873, and proceeds past the Police Station and Lock-up (1877), the School of Arts building (1896), which now houses the excellent Grenfell Museum, the Oddfellows Hall (1873), Tattersall’s Turf Hotel (1888) and the old Bank of New South Wales building (1890). The old Salvation Army Citadel is all the more charming for the little freestanding brick Band Hall constructed in 1883. Highly recommended after such a walk is the faithfully restored Albion Hotel, established in 1866, at the top end of Main Street.

The entire quaint little town of Carcoar, 250 kilometres from Sydney, is classified by the National Trust and looks like the setting for an English period drama. Residents have restored and preserved many of the old buildings and promote a two-kilometre walking tour that embraces more than 30 heritage buildings.

St Paul’s Anglican Church was the second Anglican church built west of the ranges and dates back to 1845, and the Enterprise Stores — still trading seven days a week — were built in 1851 and feature butterbox shelving and cedar counters. The most impressive of the buildings — again the work of James Barnet — is the Court House of Italianate design with classic clock tower and hand-forged verandah iron work.

Canowindra, a little over 300 kilometres from Sydney, is famous for its entire main street being heritage listed. The curved street follows an old bullock track and has been dubbed Bendy Street by the locals. Governor Fitzroy crossed the Belubula River here in 1836, and the many preserved buildings in the main street give the town a distinct 19th century character.

Tourism industry planners are just beginning to understand the potential of developing tourism to embrace heritage and cultural landscapes in regional and rural Australia. There is no doubting that this is a critical new growth area of Australian tourism, and increased tourism remains one of regional and rural Australia’s greatest opportunities to reinvigorate economic growth. Regional New South Wales is studded with heritage assets and the interest in them is burgeoning.

Small towns with cultural heritage attractions have a resonance in more than just legend and mythology. As more and more people add stress and pressure to metropolitan living, we start looking back to what we imagine was a simpler and better time when we lived in small places with a sense of community and traditional values. The most sought after suburbs in big cities these days are those that promote a village atmosphere.

It’s not true that “nostalgia ain’t what it used to be”. Nostalgia is snowballing, and the very people who used to be fixated on aspiration now have a hunger for the past.
Joni Mitchell might have to change those lyrics to “if we don’t know what we’ve got, it’s because it’s been too long since we went out and had a look”.