Turning Morpeth’s history into a future

FUTURE PAST: Trevor Richards in front of a string of restored historic buildings along Swan Street, in the heart of Morpeth. Picture: Simone De Peak TREVOR Richards clearly remembers the moment –and the feeling of relief –when he realised his investment in the past just might have a future.

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“I’ve got a photo when we had 11 cars out the front of the shop in the main street, and there wereno other cars in the main street, nowhere,” herecalls of that day in late 1986.

“From then on, I knew it was going to work. That was quite momentous. Eleven cars! It sounds ridiculous now.”

Richards is the owner of Campbell’s Store, the antique and craftcentre in Morpeth’s Swan Street. It is perhaps the biggest drawcard in the tourist town, attracting up to 5000 people through its doors each week.

These days, particularly on weekends, visitorswander through history in Morpeth, soaking upthe nostalgia in the museum, shopping in the storesin restored terraces, and sipping coffee or eating gourmet meals in the restaurants and cafes. That is, once they’ve managed to find a car park. There are always vehicles in Swan Street now.

“When we first started restoring Campbell’s Store 31 years ago, we could tell what time it was by the amount of traffic,” he says. “So three o’clock in the afternoon,it would increase as mums picked up the school kids, then it would go quiet again.”

Swan Street was deathly quiet whenTrevor and Shirley Richards first drove into the village from South Australia in 1981.

It may have been a bustling river port and a hub of the Hunter Valley’s economic lifein the 19thcentury, but Morpeth’s good old days had been all but buried by the early 1980s. The river townhad become a backwater.

“Morpeth was derelict,” asserts Richards. “The buildings were derelict, the main street was derelict, the museum didn’t exist. People forget what it was like, [they think] that it’s always been pretty, there have always been restaurants and cafes. There weren’t;it was a dump.”

Little did Trevor Richards know at that point what role he would play in bringing life back to the old buildings, or what role they would play in redirecting and reinvigorating his life.

TREVOR Richards was born in Manly in 1949. When he was a teenager, his family moved to the state’s South Coast. There he met Shirley, and they were married in 1971. Trevor had trained as a chemist, and hiscareer took the couple to Tasmania then to South Australia, where he worked for the state government, helping to care for the Murray River.

As Richards describeshis youngeryears, we are sitting in the Common Grounds cafe, overlooking another river, and the prime reason Morpeth was born: the Hunter.

“When we first came here and people started telling me about the ships that used to come here,I thought they were just pulling my leg,” he says.“Andthatthe train used to come here;Iknewthey were pulling my leg then. And the fact that Arnotts startedhere, and Brambles,Caleb Soul [who]started Soul Pattinson.Andyet no one knew about it! No one even in the Hunter Valley knew about it, let alone anywhere else.”

TheRichards family may not have known aboutMorpeth, butthey did want to bein the Hunter.To be within driving distance of Shirley’s family on the South Coast, Richards had applied for a job with the New South Wales government.

He loved living in the Hunter –“good wine, and that’s important, out of Sydney but close enough to get there, wonderful beaches within a stone’s throw” –but he didn’t love the job. Richardswas bored. He looked foran escape. He found it in the villagewhere they were living.

LIFE RESTORED: Trevor Richards outside Campbell’s Store, which he and wife Shirley bought in 1986 and converted into an arts and crafts centre. Picture: Simone De Peak

In the mid-1800s, when it was built by James Campbell, the large store sold everything that could be brought across the oceans and up the river, from fine clothto flour.

Yet when Richardsinspected the building in 1986 with an architect friend, it held only memories. And that was about all it could hold, he reckons, as the ground floor boards were gone or rotting, “so you had to jump from joist to joist or bearer to bearer”.

Still, Trevorand Shirley Richards bought the propertyfor $93,000. He borrowed 125% of the agreed price, juggling loans between two institutions to buy and restore the building. He figured the worst-case scenario was to lose the store, but “I didn’t lose any sleep over it. The bank manager did when he found out what I’d done!”

Richards figured the risk was worth it. For one thing, his wife wanted to open a craft store. Yetthey saw the possibility of having a group of craftspeople and artisans leasing spaces in the building, demonstrating their skills and selling what they made –and helping pay off the loan. He also figured if one building could be given a new lease on life, so could others down the street.

“I thought if we could restore Campbell’s Store and get craftspeople into there, people would be more than happy to come,” he recalls.“I thought if we could make a go of this here, other people would see the potential to open up along the street, and gradually there wouldbe a domino effect.

“It was obvious to me that the whole village could be turned into what it is today.”

Trevor Richards outside Campbell’s Store, a tourist drawcard in Morpeth

Yet it wasn’t so obvious to others, according to Trevor Richards. Many thought he was “stark raving mad –and weprobably were”. Clubs and organisationsclubs would invite him to talk about what he was thinking.

“I’d start off by saying, ‘At present, Morpeth is 11 kilometres from Maitland. It won’t be long before Maitland is 11 kilometres from Morpeth.’And that brought a huge roar of laughter from everyone. But I was deadly serious.”

The Richards began publicising their store, and those 11 cars showed up. Then more cars arrived, andcoaches, with Trevor offering free tours around the village. The domino effect took hold. More buildings were restored and new businesses opened. The business people promoted the village andplanned festivals –jazz, teapots, gourds – whatever brought in the people. Morpeth was back on the map.

Initially, Trevor Richardssays, not everyone wanted to see their home village turned into a major tourist attraction. Some liked it the way it was. Otherswere converted, for as Morpeth’s heritage was restored and the village’s popularity soared, property prices rose.

“The main complaint you get from the older people now is that their kids can’t afford to come back into Morpeth and buy,” he says.

I ask Richards does he worry the village might become overdeveloped and lose the very soul and atmosphere that make Morpeth what it is. Hebelieves nature will offer protection. He points across to the expanseof fieldson the other side of the river.

“If it wasn’t for this floodplain, all of us would be in big trouble,” he says. “There’d be urbanisation right to our doorstep.”

Trevor Richards owns a string of properties in Morpeth, and he and Shirley are planning to builda new home on the fringe of thevillage. But he doesn’t see himself as an entrepreneur. He never did, even when he bought Campbell’s Store and wanted a restart –for himself and Morpeth.

“It was just an opportunity to have a go,” Richardsshrugs. “And to make life interesting.”

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