UNLOCKING THE PAST: The Hunter River Reserve is one of the region's hidden beauties

One of the most beautiful stretches of bushland in the Cessnock local government area is also one of the littlest known.

Its tall trees echo with the crack of whipbirds, its narrow gully has moss-covered boulders and old stone steps and a dirt path lead down steeply to a stretch of the Hunter River boasting a yellow-sand beach perfect for swimming.

Its the Hunter River Reserve.

The reserve started life as Greta Common, gazetted in 1889 and variously controlled by the NSW state government and the former councils of Greta and Kearsley. By the time Kearsley Shire Council had inherited the Common the devastating effects of the Great Depression were biting deep and unemployment was widespread throughout the Hunter.

Each state in Australia introduced a system of unemployment relief and to receive this temporary work public work schemes were created. Many council maintenance projects were completed during this time and much local public infrastructure was built.

Between 1934 and 1939 the council put local unemployed men to work on Greta Common, creating a picnic ground, planting trees, building kiosks and undertaking general beautification projects. A quarry gang was active laying stone steps through the Common which allowed picnickers to access the river and walk around the grounds more easily.

World War II bought an end to the Great Depression, albeit a dreadful one. The Hunters men went back to work in re-opened businesses or mines, many others enlisted in the military. All public works at Greta Common stopped.

Over the years the Common became a sleepy backwater, the kiosks were removed and it became a beloved bushland spot known mainly only to the locals. It was re-named the Hunter River Reserve and in 1994 restoration work was done on the walking trails and the original sandstone steps.

Today this eight-hectare stretch of bushland is so beautifully still and quiet its almost meditative. The lovely stone steps laid by the Great Depression relief workers remain, criss-crossing the bush through Lower Hunter Dry Rainforest vegetation just as they did when they were first put down.

The steps still lead walkers through the bush and down the steep slope to the Hunter River. The steps are a tangible reminder, 85 years on, of those long-gone gangs of desperate men working in the Reserve during a terrible time in their lives and our history, but who ironically left these enchanting steps as their legacy.

Kimberly O'Sullivan is the Local Studies Librarian at Cessnock City Library. Email her on kimberly.osullivan@cessnock.nsw.gov.au