Railton, in the north of Tassie, styles itself Town of Topiary. On the Internet there is a town plan showing the location of dozens of topiary features dotted about all over the place. We like quirky, and decide to give it a go.
First indications are promising. As we drive into Railton we spot a topiary show-jumper, pretty much life-sized and in good order, a real labour of love.
But as we drive on into what Americans would call downtown, along what they think of as Main Street (actually its Foster Street), we begin to feel uneasy. In the UK I’ve driven on motorways that aren’t as wide as Foster Street, but apart from a few random parked cars the road is unoccupied. The place has the feel of a nineteenth century American frontier town that’s down on its luck. It would be no surprise to see John Wayne to ride by on a black stallion, closely pursued by a ball of tumbleweed.
We’ve been driving for hours and need a break. The cafe looks fairly OK from the outside, and in the absence of any other options we decide to give it a try. Inside the place is deserted except for the server and one old man, presumably a local, who is wading through a pile of newspapers. He glances up briefly, decides our presence is not worth acknowledging further, and returns to his reading.
The hot food cabinet is all but empty, just three sausage rolls huddled together in a corner looking sorry for themselves. The pastries seem a little better, so we order and take ourselves off to the seats in the window. Outside the supermarket is boarded up and for sale; it doesn’t look to be a proposition that would get Alan Sugar’s heart racing. A stray dog wanders up and down the street, sniffing and listless. An occasional car passes through, but there are no pedestrians. Railton seems lifeless.
Revived by lunch and mocha (who can’t be revived by mocha?) we take to the streets in search of inspiring topiary, but are quickly disappointed. Many of the living sculptures have seen better days and are apparently suffering from die-back, or neglect, or both. A few are plainly still tended and the “topiary park” has some reasonable figures, but others have clearly been abandoned to their fate and nature is taking its inevitable course.
We suspect that the topiary was The Big Idea to revive the town, to get people energised, to engender a sense of pride and community, to bring the tourists in. Only it hasn’t quite worked out: topiary requires long-term effort and commitment, and apparently there isn’t enough of it here. Too many people have moved on or moved away, have lost interest or hope or maybe both.
The Town of Topiary isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. The topiary could almost be a metaphor for Railton as a whole: some pockets of achievement and honest effort, but not enough to overcome the sense that this is a place that’s lost its way. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe there’s more to it than meets the eye, but I came here expecting much more, and leave saddened by thoughts of opportunities lost.