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  • Michelle Meehan

Cultural Landmark from Major Engineering Feat

Located two minutes outside the city centre, Walka Recreation and Wildlife Reserve is one of Maitland’s most popular picnic and recreation areas, visited by hundreds of runners, families and nature lovers each week.

But do you know the story behind the towering chimney and ornately bricked pumphouse standing proudly at the centre of the 112-hectare site?

The historic Walka Water Works were built in 1887 in a bid to improve water supply to the inner city areas of Newcastle.

The site was chosen by noted British hydraulic engineer William Clark, with the proposed water works, estimated to cost 170,000 pounds to construct, designed to supply water to 37,000 people.

Several changes in government prevented the initial plan from being realised until December 1882, when the Public Works Department called for tenders to construct the Walka reservoir and associated works. The design of the waterworks was a major engineering achievement at the time. Water was pumped from the nearby Hunter River at Oakhampton to a large reservoir at Walka, moving through a large brick tunnel 1.8m in diametre, which was built 9m below ground.

Three pumping stations, an engine and boiler house, filter beds and settling and clear water tanks were also built on the site to facilitate distribution of water through the Walka Water Supply Scheme, which served as the sole water supply of the Lower Hunter towns from 1887 until 1929, when it was superseded by the Tarro Pumping Station.

At the time it was built, the Walka Water Works was the most sophisticated scheme of its type in the country and the first place in Australia to have a water treatment system that incorporated the original river water source, through to the Walka lake reservoir and on to filtered kitchen tap water.

The water works were downgraded to become a standby site following the completion of the Chichester Dam in 1924 and were later shut down in 1931.

By 1945 the water works had been officially closed, however, a section of the site was leased to the Electricity Commission of NSW between 1951 and 1978, which used it to host a prefabricated power plant.

The Walka Water Works is now considered an important cultural landmark and was listed on the New South Wales State Heritage Register on April 2, 1999.

With its striking chimney and ornate brickwork, the pumphouse is part of one of the largest and most intact 19th-century industrial complexes in the Hunter Valley, which also includes the settling tanks and the stone dam wall to the lake.

In the mid-1980s a Trust was formed with the aim of re-opening the site to the public and restoring the water works complex.

These days it has become a popular site for picnickers, recreation and fitness enthusiasts, with more than 300 runners and walkers converging on the bushland site each Saturday morning for the free 5km parkrun event.

Now known as Walka Recreation and Wildlife Reserve, it features 112 hectares of park, lake and bushland and is home to a large population of wild kangaroos, as well as more than 140 species of birds.

Twelve kilometres of mainly gravel trails provide a variety of well-signposted routes for walkers and cyclists to explore flora and fauna throughout the site, while the Walka Ecology Walk Explorers Guide was created to identify the best viewing areas to observe the wildlife around the lake.

A mini train track runs along the edge of the lake, with a group of passionate volunteers offering rides to passengers on various dates throughout the year, while bridal parties and other groups can hire areas of the lawn and the former boiler house for wedding receptions and other events.

A host of educational resources have also been developed to help visitors and school students understand and interact with the site, which are available on the Maitland City Council website.

These resources, which won the 2016 Interpretation Australia National Award for Excellence, include the Walka Bird app, developed with the assistance of the Hunter Bird Observer’s Club, which allows visitors to learn more about Walka’s communities of freshwater birds, woodland birds and raptors. The Walka Water Works Listening Guide has been designed to celebrate and compliment the site’s natural environment, and to provide an aural experience that connects listeners more deeply to the variety of sights and sounds around them, with musical samples paired with on-site nature recordings.

Upcoming resources due for release in 2020 include new education units focused on the human history of the Walka Water Works site, while future conservation work at the site will continue thanks to a recent $366,000 grant from the Crown Reserves Improvement Fund (CRIF).

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