landscape as destiny header

The human history of Woodford Reserve has been driven by the physical and ecological setting. The reserve, as 20 Mile Hollow, occupies a significant feature in the local landscape.

Prior to extensive modification through the many waves of European use, it would have been typical of a number of similar swampy basins in the headwaters of creeks scattered along the central ridgeline of the Blue Mountains Range. Indeed, these particular basins seem to be distinctive to this area, but many have been eliminated or highly disturbed by ridge-top development since 1813.

The Blaxland, Wentworth and Lawson expedition camped at a series of five such swamps through the central mountains, as described for 20 May 1813 at a place near present Hazelbrook:

“They…encamped at noon at the head of a swamp about three acres in extent, covered with the same coarse rushy grass as the last station, with a stream of water running through it.”

The ‘coarse rushy grass’ corresponds to a variety of sedges that inhabit these swamps. Camping by such swamps became the pattern for subsequent colonial travellers along Cox’s Road:

“Their grasses and reeds were suitable for horses and bullocks, and they quickly became the favoured colonial campsites for the explorers, convict teams and other colonial travellers.”

The early inns and huts that developed into settlements along the road were established in the dips in the ridge top, where swamps and a thin topsoil developed providing some meagre grazing for stock, and became known as hollows.

These were designated by their distance from the Nepean River crossing [Emu Ford] at the foot of the Mountains. Thus 17 Mile Hollow – Linden, 18 Mile Hollow – Bulls Camp, 20 Mile Hollow – Woodford and 24 Mile Hollow – Lawson.

These swamps were the most reliable sources of surface water along a ridge-crest that was mostly devoid of such. The hollow-swamps occur as a consequence of the local geology and topography. Geology is paramount, as it gives rise to topography.


The bedrock on the eastern part of Blue Mountains Range is Hawkesbury sandstone, described as “medium to coarse-grained quartz sandstone with minor shale and laminite lenses”. This rock type is a determinant of much of the human history of the region.

The ‘shale and laminate lenses’ which are scattered through the sandstone mass are key to the swamps.

“Swamps develop on poorly drained sites where the soil is waterlogged for long periods. They occur on valley floors and also in the headwaters of creeks and on steep valley sides (‘hanging’ swamps). The upper boundary of the hanging swamps if often a clearly defined line coinciding with the outcropping of a layer of claystone. Groundwater seeps along the top of the impermeable claystone layer, reaching the surface where the claystone outcrops, and forms a swamp below.” The extent of the swamp and volume of water depend on the size of the catchment and of the shale lens.

Swamp vegetation

It is probable that the original vegetation of the 20 Mile Hollow swamp would be some variation to what has been mapped in recent times as ‘Blue Mountains Swamps’.

These swamps form a complex of communities which “vary greatly in their structure and plant species composition” and may be dominated by shrubs, sedges, ferns, or any combination in different parts of each swamp. Given the early interest of Europeans in 20 Mile Hollow, and observed remnants of native vegetation, it is likely that this swamp was dominated by sedges (‘coarse rushy grass’) and ferns (notably Pouched Coral Fern, Gleichenia dicarpa).

Better soils

In the western part of Woodford Reserve, below the original spring, rock slabs are exposed in many places and probably lie close to the surface elsewhere. However in other parts of the Reserve, especially on gentler slopes towards the east, deeper soils are evidenced by the historic earthworks.

These soils would have been comparatively conducive to cultivation compared to the rocky, shallow soils along most of the main ridge-line. With a shale lens inferred above the spring, downslope movement of fine sediments into the basin may also have enhanced these soils. 

Bedrock features

Extensive open rock platforms are another characteristic of the Hawkesbury sandstone, and would have been attractive to both Aboriginal use (see associated article ‘Aboriginal History’) and white settlers. This rock unit also readily develops overhangs and caves which were used by both groups. Many such caves present smooth, indurated surfaces that facilitated Aboriginal artwork.

Topography and hydrology

Surviving topography shows a prominent drainage line running eastwards across the reserve from below the reported position of the main spring.

However it is apparent that other parts of the reserve can also be damp and waterlogged. In wet times water would have flowed/trickled from the soil and across many of the sandstone edges in the reserve, as well as along the main drainage line.

It is probable that the development of the catchment above the spring, especially with housing and roads, has reduced the infiltration of rainfall and hence the amount of water emerging in the swamp/reserve from what may have occurred historically.

The ‘tortuous ridge’

Other topographic elements have played a role in determining the history of 20 Mile Hollow.

The ridge-crest of the Blue Mountains Range from Linden to Woodford presented great difficulties to early road-builders, road travellers and the railway that followed.

It was narrow (only 20m wide at one point), winding and very rocky, connecting sections of the ridge to east and west that are more plateau-like.

It has been described as a ‘tortuous ridge’ and early white travellers on Cox’s Road found it to be a very rough and unpleasant passage. “One of the most notorious sections was where the road crossed the exposed Hawkesbury sandstone ridge between Linden and Woodford.”

“The mountain-road, from Emu Ford to Spring-Wood, is comparatively excellent…but the portion of road from Spring-Wood to the weather-boarded-Hut…is execrable in the extreme. Accidents are consequently occurring every week… The main section of the road is bad beyond English comprehension; sometimes it consists of natural step-like rocks protruding from the dust or sandstone…we had to jolt and bump along as best we might.”

The only respite along this section was 18 Mile Hollow (later Bulls Camp), and westbound travellers must have been relieved to reach the first expansive piece of plateau with the pleasant, well-watered 20 Mile Hollow as its gateway. One early writer said it was the first chance for a drink after leaving Springwood.

Aboriginal use of 20 Mile Hollow

There is evidence of Aboriginal use at Woodford Reserve, and it is one of a large body of recorded sites in the central Blue Mountains. Swamps were attractive as sources of animal and plant foods as well as water.

It is likely that Aboriginal people camped there before colonisation.

European use of 20 Mile Hollow

It is likely that 20 Mile Hollow was one of the best water sources along the route of Coxs Road through the mid mountains.

A ready water supply would not have been the only attraction for both William James and Thomas Pembroke in establishing the first facilities for colonial travellers at 20 Mile Hollow.

The sedges provided some grazing for horses and bullocks. Exposed rock platforms may have provided ready places to build without clearing trees or elaborate foundations.

The gently-sloped basin with relatively good soil and probably open vegetation, and the gentle wider landscape, offered good opportunities to move freely around, to build, to collect resources such as stone and firewood, and to establish produce gardens.

It was perhaps the first such opportunity west of the renowned ease of the Springwood plateau and its fertile shale-cap soils.

Later, these characteristics enabled Alfred Fairfax to develop orchards, perhaps facilitated by earthworks to direct and retain water, still evident on the present reserve (noting that the date of these earthworks is unknown).

text: Ian Brown