New Norcia - a town like no other, and its lovely River Walk
Updated: Aug 10, 2020
Whenever I mentioned visiting New Norcia people always mentioned how wonderful their bread is. They were spot on. The breads are baked in a wood fire oven, with temperatures around 260 degrees Celcius. This gives it a rich, chewy, golden crust and a slightly smoky toasted-wheat flavour. Did I mention how delicious it was?
You can also purchase nut cake, pan chocolatti and biscotti baked to traditional recipes. (A hint – if you wish a particular type of bread, ring a day or so before arriving to order it, there is no guarantee what is being baked each day). Whilst there is no actual bakery open to the public here, the bread can be purchased at the gift shop or nearby roadhouse. The roadhouse is close by and sells great coffees.
I recently had the pleasure of discovering for myself the delights of New Norcia, a town just one and a half hours north of Perth, with the peaceful feeling of being a world away. New Norcia is the only monastic town in Australia, and home to Benedictine Monks, a religious order within the Catholic Church. The monks follow the Rule of St Benedict, which has been followed by monks since the sixth century, and they promise to remain at the autonomous monastery for the remainder of their lives. In fact New Norcia is named after the Italian town, Norcia, where St Benedict was born.
With so much to see and do there, this is the first of my three stories on this town.
The monks welcome visitors to come visit the town, either visiting the museum, taking the 2 hour guided town tour that is run at 11am and 1.30pm each day, 7 days a week, or to stay in one of their various accommodation venues. It is not necessary to be religious to stay here.
The Spanish words PAX (Peace) and SALVE (Welcome) are found all over town.
The museum, Art Gallery and Gift shop are open 7 days a week from 9.30am to 4.30pm.
All proceeds from purchases at New Norcia are used by the monks to help preserve this historical and spiritual treasure.
As far back as 1847, only 57 years after the first European settlers came to Australia, Spanish Benedictine Monks arrived in Western Australia and set off into the bush to establish a mission and monastery. They eventually became education providers and now New Norcia is a place of spiritual retreat, a museum and a town that wants to share its changing history with others.
The monastery guesthouses were very inviting. There is no requirement to be religious to stay here, and as it is a working monastery, you need to be respectful. The seating in the common lounge and dining areas allows you to mingle with other guests. Everyone I met there was very friendly.
There is a choice of bedrooms, either a single room with shared bathroom facilities, or double rooms with an ensuite. A donation is recommended for staying here and as at August 2020, it is $60 a night including breakfast or $100 per night, including breakfast, lunch, dinner and access to the kitchen with fruit, tea, coffee, biscuits and toast available at any time. This is a bargain.
I stayed one night in each type of room, to experience the difference, and they were both warm and comfortable. There are no need for televisions here, there is so much to see and do, or as a retreat, absolutely nothing to do if you choose. Meals are provided in the shared dining area, and I also attended the optional silent lunch with the monks on one of the days I was there. Other guests were lovely to chat with over the meals and I was even invited to join another group and share their afternoon tea.
Breakfast was self-serve from cereals, fruit grown in the orchard here, to the delicious New Norcia bread baked here.
Lunch and Dinner are both 2 course hot meals served in the communal dining room, and complimentary wine is offered at the tables if you wish to imbibe. The food was delicious and wholesome. The bread is served at both these meals.
There is also overnight caravan and camper space available.
Guests are welcome to attend vespers with the monks before the evening meal, if they wish. It was a pleasant experience to attend with the other guests, and listen to the sound of a pipe organ and the monks singing their vespers.
It is peaceful here. Sitting on one of the many scattered seats in the garden, I can feel the warmth of the winter sun and hear the leaves on the surrounding olive and citrus trees gently rustling. Listen more carefully and birdsong greets you. Large bushes of lavender grow in abundance and as I crush the leaves and flowers between my fingers, the soothing aroma of the lavender reminds me of the smell on my grandmother’s pillows. There is also an inviting scent of wood fires on the air. This is a timeless place that gives you time to slow down and just enjoy being present.
Deciding to head off before dinner was a lovely time to experience the nearby river walk. As the sun was just about to set, there was an air of mystery and a tinge of orange setting sun to the day. The walk is well sign posted, with time and distance to the next attraction and details of the destination.
Old Wyening Road.
This track from the old covent to the river was the start of the road from New Norcia to Wyening, 40kms to the east, where the Benedictines had an outstation and winery. The Benedictine monks operated Wyening Mission as a pastoral station, poultry farm and winery for over 90 years.
Wyening Mission Farm is now an important heritage site and family owned business operating as a grain producer which promotes regional food, history and farming.
It also quotes a rule of St. Benedict and a word in the local Aboriginal Yued Language. Djena koorl-iny – meaning walk
The gravel path leads through bean fields and past a rustic stone house that is also available as short term accommodation for guests.
Looking back, the rear of the imposing monastery is just visible in the twilight behind the gum trees.
The pastures are surrounded by old gums, and lead past the old well to a babbling creek that is the perfect spot for a pause or a picnic. There are permanent tables set just near the crossing for those who want to savour the serenity a while longer.
Crossing over the stream via the footbridge brings you to the Apiary landscape. A few olive trees, an almond and a pomegranate tree are the remains of the once extensive orchards and vegetable gardens that fed the monastery. In the Yued language this is moonda (k) meaning bush environment, in the bush.
Staying at New Norcia allowed me to take my time wandering the River Walk, so I returned for dinner and recommenced my walk the next morning. But first I enjoyed my morning cup of coffee basking in the view of native vegetation from outside my room. What a gorgeous garden in the centre of the guesthouse area. So many areas here invite you to sit, slow down and ponder.
Seeing places at different times of the day is seeing it anew. The dew was still kissing the young bean leaves as I set off in the morning.
As the sun shone through the large trees, I wondered how many of the young students in years gone by had climbed these beauties. Or were the trees a lot smaller 100 years ago?
Row upon row of mature olive trees greeted me, their award winning olive oil is available for purchase in the gift shop at the nearby museum. The clock tower, with a face on all 4 sides, stands tall above the olive trees and buildings for all to see.
New Norcia was built in the shape of a Latin cross. With the cemetery forming the end of its east-west axis, looking east from the gates you will notice how the Statue, Church and Monastery are aligned.Close by is the New Norcia cemetery. Burials here date from the 1860s and include some 130 Benedictine Monks and Sisters, pioneers of the Victoria Plains and Aboriginals who lived and worked at the mission. The graves of the Aborigines are marked by simple white crosses.
As an amateur genealogist, I enjoy walking through cemeteries and learning part of the history of the region through its headstones (see previous posts about Perth cemeteries walks). There are always a few gravesites that are interesting.
One of these was Lila Stewart Wilson who was born in the Guildford area of Perth in 1898, the youngest daughter to Henry Alexander Wilson (a surveyor) and Catherine Cecelia (nee Kennedy). She died at St Gertrude’s College on 9 March 1909, aged 10 years and 8 months. I was left wondering how she passed, but was unable to locate this information.
Another was a simple memorial to Mary Ann Boxhal. Mary (born about 1847) was the daughter of an Irish pensioner guard. On 4 May 1863 in New Norcia, she married William Boxhal (born about 1832), an English ex-soldier, who was convicted of burglary and transported to Australia in 1856. They had nine children and Mary passed away on 3 February 1887 at the young age of 40. William had worked for Dom Salvado (the first abbot) for a number of years and then became the first farmer to secure land in the area. William died in 1893 and is also buried in New Norcia cemetery.
After exploring the River Walk and the outside of the town, I was very much looking forward to my tour and getting to learn about and see inside these amazing buildings. Indeed, they are hidden treasures and I look forward to sharing them with you on my next New Norcia article.