Old Surrey Road

In The Footsteps of Henry Hellyer


Old Surry Road was the first road built from the Bass Strait coast into the hinterland of Tasmania's North West after white settlers entered the region. Approval had been given in late 1827 for the establishment of a port at Emu Bay (Burnie) on the Van Diemen's Land company's 15,000 acre Emu Bay property which extended from Emu Bay to Cam River. In May 1827, Surveyor Henry Hellyer supervised the construction of a jetty, a store on Blackman’s Point near the jetty, a sawpit and a few huts. This was the beginning of Burnie.

Work was then commenced on the construction of a road, between 18-20 feet wide, from the little settlement to Surrey Hills, an inland area selected as a suitable place for the Company’s sheep to graze. Under Heller's guidance, a road work of five men constructed a muddy track through the dense coastal rain forests. The route they took is generally followed by what is now Marine Terrace to the Emu River, then up from the coastal plain via Old Surrey Road, through Romaine, Ridgely, Highclere and on to Hampshire, a distance of around 30 km.


The road passes through Emu Heights and the suburb of Havenview, created by the Housing Department as a residential suburb of Burnie to house workers and their families who were drawn to Burnie by its industrial development during its strong post-World War II growth. The view across the Emu River valley is typical of the hinterland of Tasmania's north west - rolling hills, rich red soil, cattle grazing in lush green pastures, backed by healthy forest plantations. It's a far cry from what Hellyer's men had to cut through - seemingly endless forests that took decades to clear and turn into the farmlands we see today.

Beyond the main residential area of Havenview are two thriving factories, both of which will be key industries in Burnie's future - the iconic Heritage cheese and dairy produce factory, and the Hellyer Road Distillery. The Heritage site was originally set up by Milan Vyhnalek in 1955, producing 50 tonnes a year of hard cheeses. Dongrain acquired the facility in 1981 and introduced soft ripened cheese in 1985. National Foods further acquired the site in 2006 and merged with Lion Nathan in 2009 that led to the re-branding of the company as Lion in 2011.

Lion commissioned the expansion of its speciality cheese manufacturing hub named The Heritage in May 2015. The expansion and re-development has made the site the biggest speciality cheese manufacturing facility in the Southern Hemisphere. The project was implemented with an investment of $150m, using $1.5m of public funding from the Tasmanian government. The operation is now run by Canadian dairy giant, Saputo.


Next door to The Heritage is another local business success story - Hellyer Road Distillery. Taking its name from the man who, according to local legend, carved the road alongside which the distillery stand with little more than a bullock gang and the most basic of tools, the distillery was founded by a group of local dairy farmers who knew their environment was perfect for sourcing ingredients of purity and quality.

Hellyer Road Distillery

Hellyers now exports to over to 20 countries, and along the way become Australia’s biggest selling locally crafted whisky. Their complex includes a visitors centre where you can purchase from the full range of Hellyers Road products, including some special limited release bottles at the Cellar Door. You can take a fully guided tour of the distillery (fees apply), and enjoy a meal at the fully licenced cafe, all of which overlook the rolling tranquil landscape of the picturesque Emu River valley.



Old Surrey Road joins Ridgley Highway at Romaine, a quiet semi-rural community scattered over the hillsides between Romaine Creek and the Emu River. Romaine takes its name from William Romaine, whose name appears on a list of men, women and children who were shipped to Circular Head (Stanley) on the Thomas Laurie in 1839. They were farmers brought in by the VDL Co. to settle and cultivate the Company's land in Tasmania's North West. Many were assigned to the area opened up by the Old Surrey Road; William Romaine is believed to have been one of them. Little else is known about the man, except that he came from Yorkshire, England. Many of the VDL farmers returned to England after three years, disillusioned by the isolation and hardship of having to clear the dense forests before they could begin farming. Whether Romaine stayed on or returned to Yorkshire is not known.

Emu Valley Rhododendron Garden

Tucked away on the hillside above the Emu River is the Emu Valley Rhododendron Garden. It was conceived by three locals who discovered their shared interest in rhododendron culture and from it arose the concept of the garden. Opened in 1981, it is a private garden, owned by its members as an independent non-profit organisation. The Garden is divided and space allocated to each part of the world in which rhododendrons grow in the wild, and each was named accordingly.

Plants which originated anywhere from the icy Himalayas to tropical New Guinea and across the Pacific to the Americas have adapted willingly to their new hillside home. Subject to seasonal variations, the huge large-leafed rhododendrons flower during August and September. This is followed by the main flowering period which peaks in mid October and finishes in December. Vireya rhododendrons flower all year. Autumn colours shown by the deciduous companion plants are spectacular during April and May. The Gardens have a cafe and caters for weddings and special events. Entry fees apply.


Melba railway line, Ridgley

The narrow-gauge Melba railway line between Burnie and Melba Flats follows Old Surrey Road up through the Emu River valley and finally meets it at Ridgley. It was originally constructed as a private railway line by the Emu Bay Railway Company and was one of the longest-lasting and most successful private railway concerns in Australia. It previously ran through to Zeehan carrying minerals and passengers as an essential service for the West Coast community. The railway began in February 1878 as a 71 km horse-drawn wooden tramway opened from Emu Bay (Burnie) to Rouse’s Camp, near Waratah to serve the Mount Bischoff tin mines.

Ridgley railway siding

The name Ridgley was given by Henry Hellyer during his intitial expolration ofthe area in 1827. The community here grew to be the largest of any along the Old Surrey Road. It was originally known as Stirling, but Ridgley was settled on when Ridgley school was established in 1905. Today it is somewhat of a dormitary suburb of Burnie, perfectly suited to those who prefer a rural lifestyle but want to work in Burnie.

Pet Reservoir, Ridgley

Alongside the township is Pet Reservoir, which was created as Burnie's main water supply in 1956 with the building of the 4210 ML dam across Pet River at Ridgley. Surrounded by gently sloping grassy banks with many sheltered shorelines the Pet is a quiet and peaceful desitination limited to foot access only. The dam is stocked with brown and rainbow trout; boating is prohibited therefore all shore-based angling methods are practised.

Guide Falls

Just outside of town is the turn-off to Guide Falls on the Guide River. Guide Falls Reserve is a popular picnic attraction with tables and bbq amenities located near the entrance of the reserve and further along the road at the top of the Guide Falls. From the lower picnic area it is an easy 5 minute walk to the bottom of the falls. It's an ideal setting to enjoy the peaceful sounds and gentle mist of water. There are relatively steep steps to the top of Guide Falls, where there is a viewing platform and the upper picnic area. A road which leads back down to the lower picnic area and entrance/exit.

The road between Guide Falls and Ridgley passes through some very pretty scenery - if you visit mid-morning on a clear day, the sun shining on the hillside and through the open stands of eucalypt plantations is a sight to behold.


Back on Ridgley Highway, the next settlement is Highclere. Not far from Highclere is Guide Dam, which supplements Pet Reservoir as a water supply for Burnie. The Pet and Guide dams are both great waters for fishing, especially during the first month or two of the trout season.

Highclere was named by surveyor Henry Hellyer on his journey of exploration with Richard Frederick Isaac Cutts, from Circular Head to St Valentines Peak and back, in February 1827. Its name recalls a village and civil parish situated in the North Wessex Downs in the Basingstoke and Deane district of Hampshire, England. Hellyer had great hopes for Highclere, expecting it to become a regional centre for the Van Diemen's Land Company's sheep farming activities in the area. Unfortunately, the area proved totally unsuitable for the activities the company was created to perform, and its plans for Highclere were never realised.

Hampshire Hills

Eventually the forests were cleared, cattle were introduced and Highclere found its mojo as a centre for dairy farming and forestry plantations. It was a similar story for the next locality along the Ridgley Highway - Hampshire. Hellyer named Hampshire Hills for their similar appearance to the English county of Hampshire during his trek to St Valentine's Peak. Four months earlier, from the peaks of Mts Claude and Van Dyke on his first journey through the region, Hellyer had first seen this open country which he believed might be suited to the Company's purpose.

Returning to it in the summer of 1827 to view it up close, Hellyer and his two companions walked out of the deep myrtle forests and onto a tract of grassy hills he described as "covered in luxuriant grass and there are a few large stringy bark trees at the top of the ridge, which runs down the centre of it". The next day, he climbed St Valentine's Peak; there before them, to the south and west, lay more lightly timbered undulating hills, which appeared similar in many aspects to the open bushland of the Tasmanian Midlands in late summer. He named this new country Surrey Hills, as they were about the same distance from the coast as Surrey Hills of his homeland.

Hampshire and St Valentine's Peak

Hellyer sent a very favourable report to Edward Curr in Hobart recommending the VDL Co include the Hampshire zand Surrey Hills as part of their grant. Curr needed this encouraging discovery and immediately agreed to commence stocking them with Merino and Saxon sheep under the care of ex-convict shepherds. It was seven months later, in mid winter, that agriculturalist Alexander Goldie finally visisted the area and assessed it to be a sub-alpine plateau totally unsuited to the production of fine wool. By that time, plasns to introduce sheep into the area were too far advanced to withdraw, and the failure of the venture was inevitable. Thousands of sheep died from starvation, the cold weather or were killed by Aboriginal people or Tasmanian tigers.

John Glover’s paintings show open savannahs and grasslands in Tasmania.

Apart from the weather, the European colonists had initially found that these grasslands seemed fine for sheep grazing. What they didn't know was that this idealistic gressland environment was not natural, but had been created by the Aboriginal people over thousands of years with the use of fire. Their fire-stick method of environmental control increased the amount and diversity of food available. Though it had rich soil, the rainforest was not rich in food plants and animals, however the heathland and wet scrub and grasslands that replaced it provided plenty of animals and food plants. Two of the staples of temperate Australia were grass trees and bracken. Bracken colonises burnt forest, so it rapidly provided food after the burning. The pith at the centre of the grass tree was eaten by the Aboriginal people.

As the European farmers took over their hunting grouds, the Aboriginal people moved from the area; the regular fires had stopped, and sour grass and scrub quickly replaced the open grassland. The European agriculturalists and their sheep farming lasted only 18 years, the Aboriginal people who lacked agriculture had lasted many thousands of years on the same land.

St Valentine's Peak

St Valentine's Peak was Hellyer's destination on his trek from Circular Head in February 1827, and it is ours. To get to there, continue on Ridgley Highway to Bunkers Road in Guildford (42 km), take Bunkers Road to the car park at the foot of St Valentinme's Peak.

Hellyer's original trek to the summit of St. Valentines started from Stanley; the current walk starts approximately 4.5km from the summit. To get to the start of the walk turn left off the B18 highway 15km South of Ridgley into the Upper Natone Road, then after 1.7km turn right on Kara Road, then drive just over 6km to a left turn just before the gate to the Kara Mine. Then follow this thin, muddy road to the carpark at its end. The dog friendly walk is approximately 4.5 hours return, the first section is a little overgrown, but this improves quickly.

Care should be taken in these alpine areas, as parts are very exposed, and the peak may be capped with snow, also the final section of the walk requires you to negotiate a ridgeline which is extremely thin and steep either side, so again, please take care.