The Hidden Gem of Harwood

Of all the tiny towns dotted along the Pacific Highway, the small cane farming village of Harwood is one place that’s determined not to be overlooked.

This story was first published by My Clarence Valley.

From the outside, it’s easy to see it as little more than a few rows of houses, a school, pub and a general store perched on the idyllic edge of the mighty Clarence River.

What you don’t see, until you spend some time here, is that this village of about 300 people is a place steeped in rich history, from its ties to cricket as the proud owners of Australia’s oldest private cricket pitch to its charming antique stores.

Harwood’s story has always been heavily intertwined with the Clarence River. Imagine, if you can, sugar cane being cut by hand and tugged to the mill via the river in 1875. In 1908, an average Saturday meant the old steam ferry (brought to Harwood in 1885) carried 176-foot passengers, 31 bicycles, 130 horses, 16 buggies, 71 sulkies, 6 wagons, 15 horses and 152 head of cattle, across the river.

As motor traffic developed after 1910, the Harwood punt became ever more important, because it carried traffic on what was slowly becoming the main road from Grafton to Lismore, and later, from Sydney to Brisbane. When the first Harwood Bridge was built in 1966, it too became a dominant feature of the town.

Today, with a new, multi-million-dollar bridge quickly taking form in the village’s backyard, alongside the first, the locals are looking for even more ways to capitalise on the town’s charm. Well, we think Harwood’s already a pretty charming place. Here’s why…

Sugar Mill

Ever wondered where the sugar in your Tim Tams comes from? There’s a good chance it’s from Harwood. As Harwood’s biggest employer, the sugar mill really is the lifeblood of the town.

Here are a few sweet facts about the mill: beginning operations in 1874, it remains the oldest sugar cane crushing mill still operating in Australia and the only fully Aussie owned sugar mill and refinery too. Harwood supplies nearly 20% of sugar to the domestic market. In 1883, the Harwood CSR Company was producing 3,000 gallons of rum per week!

And in unveiling quirky facts about the Clarence Valley, Coastbeat discovered that Inner Circle Rum was first created in 1873 at the mill’s custom-built distillery. This connoisseur rum was made only for distribution to the company’s Colonial Sugar Refinery’s Board of Directors and special clients, hence the name.

Harwood Sugar MillA sketch of the sugar mill in 1874. Image courtesy of Harwood Sugar Mill

Cricket Grounds

If you’re a fan of cricket, you’ll definitely find something to chat to the locals about at the pub here. In fact, Harwood’s cricket ground on Mill Road is one of the oldest privately-owned pitches in Australia – its grandstand is even heritage-listed! Today, the local Harwood Cricket Club still fields several teams.

Cricket GroundsAerial image of the cricket grounds. Image courtesy of My Clarence Valley

Harwood Farm Store

The Harwood Farm Store is the place to go for all things agricultural. But for outsiders, the biggest drawcard is perhaps the iconic mural emblazoned across the front of the building. If you do enter, be warned – you might leave with a kilo of fresh local honey and a couple of chickens.

Sharon Holloway, who’s owned and run the store for the past four years, says she and her husband had always seen themselves running a country store. Then they stumbled on Harwood. “It’s nice to have the luxury of being on the river, close to the ocean, and still on acreage,” she says. “You feel like you’re in the country but it’s not, really. You get the best of both worlds.”

Being the agricultural hub of the area also means visitors are happy to stop for a chinwag – everyone from hobby farmers to the local cane producers and cattle farmers. “Everyone here is super supportive; we’ll sit out the front and have a good old chat. That’s really important – we’re very lucky,” Sharon says.

Meet one of Harwood’s Rising Stars

In the Autumn 2018 issue of Coastbeat we met one of Australia’s rising opera stars, Michelle Ryan, who also calls this delightful village home. From sugarcane country on the banks of the Clarence River to performing on the stages of Europe, discover more about Michelle’s fascinating journey.

Coastbeat featured opera singer Michelle Ryan
Coastbeat featured opera singer Michelle Ryan. Image by Elize Strydom

Get on the water  

Explore Harwood from the beautiful Clarence River by jumping aboard the Harwood Island Cruise. The ferry departs every Wednesday and Friday from Yamba at 11am, returning 3pm, and from Iluka at 11.45am, returning 2.30pm. Refreshments are available on board and there’s a fully licensed bar too.

The Harwood Hotel

Harwood Hotel owners Mike and Cheryl Smith know it’s the atmosphere and larger-than-life characters, not the fittings, that keep locals and visitors coming back each week.

“Everybody on this side of the river comes here because this is their local,” Mike quips.

“It’s the local for the locals.”

The hotel is not only the hub of the region when you’re in need of a good feed or an ice-cold beer – it is also the centre of local fundraising efforts through its Friday raffles, and – in true country style – it becomes the go-to place during a flood. After the 2009 flood, the locals rallied together to raise funds for a flood boat to enable the pub to get emergency supplies to the isolated and the elderly.

“We really want to promote the river culture and get that going again,” Mike adds.

“Originally Harwood had four pubs and a brothel, it was a big place. There were ships coming up and down the river and pulling in – big steamships that would go all the way to Grafton.

“The new bridge gives us some good opportunities if we can get people to come off the highway. Instead of stopping at a service centre, they stop at a little town where they’ll get a feed, go to the general store and wander through antique stores.”

Harwood Hotel owners Mike and Cheryl Smith
Harwood Hotel owners Mike and Cheryl Smith. Image by Debrah Novak 

For more information on the hidden gem of Harwood, see My Clarence Valley.