Central Tilba is a living, breathing time capsule. The village was established in the late 1800s and on the surface not much has changed.
It harks back to a time when you knew all your neighbours, had more time for friends and family and were surrounded by natural beauty; a time and place typically confined to classic novels and history books.
But for the tiny community on the NSW South Coast, it’s a daily reality.
Nestled at the base of Gulaga (also known as Mount Dromedary), the village is embraced by rolling farmland and national parks and is within moments from pristine beaches.
It’s a sacred place for its traditional owners, the Yuin people. Gulaga, once an active volcano, is described as the “mother mountain” and the place of ancestral origin for all Yuin people.
Rich volcanic soil provided European settlers a fertile base for dairy farms, while gold saw the population boom in the late 1800s. These days it’s tourism that drives Tilba’s economy.
Many of its inhabitants aren’t lifelong residents. You’ll find more tree-changers from Sydney and Melbourne escaping the city life.
The heritage-listed village is a colourful collection of late-1800s architecture housing gift shops, antiques, tea rooms and an old-fashioned lolly shop.
Most shopkeepers have a home behind their store – just like in the old days – and they’ll tell you it’s the best way to do business.
Owner of the Tilba Sweet Spot and Tilba Chamber of Commerce president Peter Lonergan has lived in the village for almost 30 years. His original plan was simply a day trip.
“I was holidaying from Melbourne to Pambula Beach and came up for the day,” Mr Lonergan says.
“I just fell in love with the place. I bought a property out the back, went back to Melbourne and sold everything up.
“I’d been working in the corporate world and was really busy. There was never any time for the family and I just thought it would be a great opportunity to see the kids grow up and spend some time with them.”
Everyone who lives here – quite literally – knows everyone else. And while the locals admit this sometimes has its downsides, the pros outweigh the cons.
“The upside is that you have tremendous support,” Mr Lonergan says.
“If you’re ever in need of anything there’s a constant queue of people there to help and it’s fantastic. You rely on people, it’s like one big family in some senses.”
Erica Dibden agrees. She grew up in the neighbouring coastal town of Bermagui and the cheese maker bought the town’s famous cheese factory in 2010 with her dairy farmer husband, Nic.
With their herd of jersey cows, they brought the entire production line – from the paddocks to the packaging – back to Tilba.
Their award-winning cheese has helped put Tilba on the map as a tourist destination, but Ms Dibden says tourism is just one aspect of village life.
“We are a tourist town during the day, we’ve got some lovely shops … but when the shops all close at 5 o’clock at night we really become the community and that’s one of the drawcards of Tilba, that it’s a tight-knit community,” Ms Dibden says.
“One of the benefits is you always know what your children are up to. There’s that kind of duty of care that’s felt among community members.”
Jewellery maker Tarquin Moore is a relative newcomer to the town. He set up his shop Arcadia with his wife, Daniél, just two years ago. They previously travelled the country selling jewellery to retailers, but wanted to settle somewhere that would suit their young family.
Living behind the shops, Mr Moore says, creates the ideal work-life balance.
“A lot of people say you shouldn’t be living where you’re working, but I think the opposite, you know, to be able to raise children, to be able to juggle the work,” Mr Moore says.
“A lot of men would like to look after the kids more, a lot of women probably want to work more and to get that balance. We can do that raising children so it’s fantastic.”
Former Sydney resident Peita Wall says there’s no time for boredom in a town like Tilba.
As the owner of antique, vintage and homewares shop Mockingbird Lane, she says she is constantly talking to people and she actually finds herself with more to do in Tilba than the city.
“Our social life is better here because we have a small group of really good friends and everyone lives nearby,” Ms Wall says.
“In Sydney, people didn’t live nearby so you have to do a bit of travelling.”
All the necessities that you can’t pick up in the village can be found in the closest town, Narooma, which is just 15 minutes away.
And for city entertainment and shops, most are happy to make the scenic three-hour drive to Canberra or five-hour drive to Sydney.
Some residents are even able to keep their corporate jobs, while enjoying the idyllic Tilba lifestyle.
Peter Hopkins and Sharon Perkins own luxury bed and breakfast, The Bryn, but Mr Hopkins still retains work as a solicitor in Sydney.
The Bryn was once the couple’s holiday escape – “we were their best customers,” Mr Hopkins says – and they jumped at the opportunity to relocate when the previous owner announced he was selling.
Perched high on a hill with sweeping views across the village and towards Gulaga and the ocean, it’s a world away from a lawyer’s office in Sydney.
“The biggest question was ‘could I still do my work in Sydney and live down here?’ and I’ve been able to do that very successfully,” Mr Hopkins says.
With a good internet connection, Skype and the occasional day trip to Sydney, he says work is both manageable and enjoyable.
“If you’re lucky enough to have an occupation that you can do from anywhere it’s fantastic,” Mr Hopkins says.
While a lot of towns in Australia have a couple of heritage-listed buildings, few can claim to be completely protected by the National Trust.
Mr Moore says it’s a testament to the community that the town has retained its vibrancy.
“Slowly, slowly, through hard work, people have built up a great little spot to live with retail outlets,” Mr Moore says.
“To protect that authenticity is what’s important and that’s what gets you into the future. It’s not some big, brick veneer multinational thing, it’s just having small little shops and keeping that aspect.”
Tilba’s significance to its traditional owners, its place in the gold rush and the dairy industry, and a passionate community committed to keeping it going, ensure the village will be protected for us to enjoy – for a day or even a lifetime.
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