Castlereagh, one of the earliest places of European settlement in Sydney’s west and some of the oldest evidence of Aboriginal occupation is now largely an imagined landscape and a forgotten community. The oldest intact European colonial landscape in the country has been replaced by a series of deep quarries and a growing system of artificial lakes to fill them.
Castlereagh, on the Nepean River, was settled by Europeans in 1803 as part of the growing community of farmers that was spreading along the river from Windsor and Richmond. It was a social experiment in many respects. After the free for all that had been the settlement style at Windsor where ex-convicts grabbed and grappled for land and violence amongst settlers and Aboriginal people was rife, Governor King placed some limits on Castlereagh. Farms were set out in neat rows of long straight paddocks running between a new road to Richmond and the river. Never mind the thick brush vegetation, that could be cleared out and the rich alluvial soil put to good use.
And so it was: Veteran soldiers, free settlers and some choice emancipists were given land to clear and farm. They cleared so much and so effectively that in 1804 Governor King forbade further clearing in some of Australia’s first environmental laws. The environment was an ever present factor of life at Castlereagh. Most notably was the river, which bought both life and death. As a source of fresh water it was invaluable to the settlers, but it was notoriously dangerous in flood times, washing the farms away on a regular basis. Major floods devastated the area in 1807 and twice in 1809, so much so that Governor Macquarie ordered a new settlement on higher ground be laid out, but few people were willing to move off the rich soil.
The area was (and remains) important and also home to Aboriginal people, who moved in and around the settlers and between the Castlereagh area and the Blue Mountains that overlook it, as they had for millennia. Like the Europeans, they were drawn to the area for its rich natural resources, the river, the forests and the food they provided. They also came for the blue stone river rocks and pebbles which were used for axes, scrappers and other essential tools. The stones were worked and traded across a vast trading network.
Farms dominated the landscape until the 1960s. Some families had farmed the same plots since 1803. But from the late 1880s and early 1890s small scale quarries also began to appear. At first they operated in the river itself, extracting gravel for road base and building. From the 1960s however they began to move into the farm land, opening larger quarries to get gravel and sand to feed Sydney’s housing boom.
So much gravel was being taken that Penrith Council stopped approving quarry development in 1964 so they could assess the impacts. The new plan was to fill the site with water after the quarries were finished, to create a recreation lake system and waterfront building lots. A consortium of the quarry companies formed the Penrith Lakes Development Corporation to manage and develop the area. Water is to be diverted from the river to fill and flush the system. In 2000 the first part was opened as the Sydney International Regatta Centre in time for the Olympics.
15 years later none of the 4000+ planned houses have been built but the colonial landscape is long gone, churned up, crushed and put back into the cement of a new Sydney.