How it all began – History of The Green

It was 10 o’clock on Saturday morning November 3, 1979. For the Sarah family of Canberra, this was no ordinary Saturday morning – it was life-changing. The extent of that change was unknown. It was unknown as to the success or otherwise of the new venture they were just about to embark upon.

In some ways, the change began as far back as 1972. This was when Doug and Brenda Sarah and their three young children, Mark, Sally-Anne and Melinda had set off on an extended holiday to the United Kingdom. Brenda was born in England some 30 years earlier. This trip was a long-awaited return to her country of birth after arriving in Australia with her mother, father and sister in the early 1950s.

During their UK odyssey, Doug and Brenda visited many places. One of those places was Babbacombe, near Torquay in the south-western English county of Devon. Babbacombe was home to a model village established by Tom Dobbins in 1963. With a building background and an eye for detail, Doug was immediately impressed by what he saw. He and Brenda also had a strong interest in gardens, a major feature of Babbacombe Model Village.

That visit was stuck indelibly in their memories as they made their way around the UK for a good part of 1972. It was the catalyst for the life changing event on November 3, 1979. That was the official opening day of Canberra’s and Australia’s very own model village – Cockington Green.

Sitting down with Doug and Brenda to talk about the history of Cockington Green leaves one in no doubt about their passion, commitment, resilience and dedication. “I found out some years later the Cockington Green file held by the then planning department was marked “not expected to succeed”, explained Doug when exploring the period of negotiation for their current site.

It’s clear that Doug and Brenda never set out to prove a point to others. The challenge was more about themselves and their own family. Involved in the early days of the business were Doug’s sister, Elwyn and her husband, Russ. Brenda’s mother and father, Bill and Marjorie, had also moved up from Ballarat in Victoria (Doug and Brenda’s original home town) to join them in the venture.

They had a concept, they had a name, they had done the sums. It was getting to decision time. Where was the best place to bring their dream to reality? From a both a personal and business perspective, there were two standout choices for Doug and Brenda.

“The fact that we were already living in Canberra and that the tourism industry was already established here, albeit major government attractions, was a major factor in our ultimate decision. Was there consideration for other locations? Yes, there was. Obviously, there was family land available in Ballarat where we were originally from”, added Doug.

“Our eventual location was the only real option we had. There was the potential to establish the attraction on the site of the Old Canberra Inn but there was a dispute going on between the old Department of Capital Territories and the National Capital Development Commission. This had something to do with an offer to another business operator. We did look at another property near Murrumbateman but in the end, with encouragement, we opted for the Barton Highway.

“The negotiation for the site and the eventual lease took a long while. We had so many meetings with so many different people. At times it was very frustrating. If it didn’t drive us mad, it must have driven Gordon (Gordon Duff, acting for Doug and Brenda) mad at times,” recalled Doug.

“We had a mid-year meeting in 1973 with the Department and we were promised to have our lease by Christmas. The trouble was that they didn’t say which Christmas they were referring to and we didn’t ask which was a mistake,” said Doug, still bemused.

Doug and Brenda acknowledge that there have also been terrific people both inside and outside of the bureaucracy who encouraged them and supported them in the early days.

“There were people like Tony Blunn and Margaret Reid who gave us lots of support and encouragement. Others such as former tourism bosses Doc Watson and Mac Nichols were great in the early days as were people like Peter O’Clery, George Gibson, Ian Sayers, Ernie Oxwell, Col Byfield and Jillian Sheather,” recounted Doug with much satisfaction.

Elwyn and Russ were a vital cog in the wheel with their exceptional gardening skills. The gardens that exist today are a legacy to their early pioneering on the site. Brenda’s father, Bill, was a very skilled hands-on person with lots of engineering experience which was vital in manufacturing so many of the early structures needed for the display. Bill’s wife Marj was a great organizer and helped to keep things together behind-the scenes. When that was done, it was in the shop to help front-of-house.

Family has always been important to Doug and Brenda as evidenced by the next generation with their hand on the tiller today. Mark and Sally oversee the operations of the business with their partners, Debbie and Roland also involved. Many other family members have participated in the business over the years.

“We’ve both stepped aside and have tried not to overlook the kids too much. We didn’t want to interfere too much and needed to give them free reign to run the business. Of course, it was hard giving up complete control although we still have input from time-to-time. Mark and Sally have their own ideas about how things should work but we are always around to offer advice,” added Doug.

“The inspiration for Cockington Green all comes back to Babbacombe. It was that visit and Brenda’s ties back to England that got us thinking and working out whether I could do it. I didn’t have a job to come back to in Canberra, so I was looking for something to do,” said Doug.

“We didn’t do any real business plans or a lot of the other studies that everyone seems to want to do today. We used the War Memorial as the basis for our market research. Back then they were getting around 600,000 visitors a year. We figured that if we could get around 10 percent of that, we could make it work having done our sums.”

Doug explained, “In trying to find a name for the place, we had to come up with something. Cockington village was a great little place which we visited, being famous as a major attraction in Devon. Given the theme of the original display being buildings and gardens of Great Britain, we thought Cockington Green was just right.”

The encouragement and support were vital. This was unchartered territory. Benchmarking against other similar businesses was not possible. This was a first and came with its own challenges. This included dealing with the banks and insurers.

“We could not obtain finance through the normal banking circles. We eventually obtained it through the Commonwealth Development Bank. This was the bank of last resort for unusual projects which we certainly considered”, remembers Doug.

Very little about establishing Cockington Green was straightforward.

The gardens have become a significant attraction in their own right. When asked what they thought is the biggest attraction, the models or the gardens, Brenda and Doug differed slightly.

“I think it’s both the models and the gardens. They need each other and have different appeal to different markets,” said Brenda.

Doug’s initial response was, “It might be the gardens.” Although in true partnership style, he acquiesced and agreed with Brenda that both the models and the gardens are important and citing how the many school children visiting are only really interested in the models.

Whether it is the models or the gardens, one thing is indisputable. Cockington Green is a purpose-built tourist attraction. As the tourism industry in Australia has developed over the years, there are many places that fell into tourism. Tourism was the only thing on Doug and Brenda’s minds when they were considering their venture. This was all about attracting tourists.

“Our target was mainly tourists. We wanted to appeal to people of all ages and create a tourist attraction that had something for everyone. We wanted a place that families could enjoy as well as the broader tourist market, national and international.

Both Doug and Brenda laughed a lot when recounting some of the earlier days of model-making. This all took place in their then Higgins home. Experimentation was the name of the game. Some of “the disasters along the way” alluded to earlier related directly with the model making.

“I remember I was having a lot of trouble with window moulds but was pleasingly put back on track by Don Buffington from ACT Fibreglass Supplies who remains our supplier all these years later. It was all to do with the hardeners and a quick discussion with Don managed to solve my problems,” Doug reflected.

Brenda added, “Don might have solved Doug’s problems, but it didn’t always solve mine. We had the constant smell of resins throughout our home and this had visitors wondering what was happening. We had to explain this to a lot of people, especially the kids school friends.”

After originally beginning as a display of buildings and gardens of Great Britain, Doug felt that diversification was needed.

Doug explained, “My first intention was to do an Australian industrial area. Things changed and then I had a thought that we should go to an International area. We had the lake as an emergency water supply. We had water supply and so were able to drain the lake to make room for extra displays. I also wanted to get the schools involved but that didn’t work out.

“With Canberra’s location and proximity to the embassies and high commissions, it seemed like a good idea to approach them to support the new area. We wrote to them to explain the idea and fortunately Marylu Nicholls (former Colombian chargé d’affaires) who wanted a building for Colombia was very supportive. Marylu was a real driver in getting the international area going and encouraging others to get involved,” added Doug.

For many reasons, Canberra has been both friend and foe for Doug and Brenda. There were times that they wondered if they were ever really wanted. It would be fair to say that they have won over a lot of people over the years. There would be a significant uprising by a lot of loyal locals if there were any moves to rid Canberra of one of its most unique and loved attractions.

In answer to a question about the biggest challenges faced in establishing Cockington Green, Doug said, “I can give you a lot of examples of challenges. Before we opened, I didn’t factor in maintenance of the gardens. That took time I just didn’t allow for. In the meantime, the workload was growing, but so was the maintenance. It was something I could have done without, but it had to be done.“

It hasn’t all been about the challenges. There have been many pleasant moments. Just 12 years after opening, Cockington Green won an Australian Tourism Award as Australia’s most significant local attraction. There have been numerous other local awards and individual recognition for Doug and others associated with Cockington Green.

When asked if there was anything they would do differently if starting again today, Doug responded by saying, “Probably not. But you couldn’t do it today. You would get so bound up in red tape and green politics. It wouldn’t allow us to build the attraction as it is today.

As the first 40 years closes out, the question was put to Doug about his vision for attraction in the future.

“I would really like to see a very good and comprehensive Australian section which we had previously considered. I think it would be the best thing for the educational market. I envisage buildings from Bennelong’s Hut and all styles, types and periods of housing up to today, although I must say that today’s housing architectural styles are not very challenging.

“We have space becoming available and I think this would really be a great addition to the attraction to give it even broader appeal. All of those decisions are largely with Mark and Sally but I think they are in agreement with that concept,“ concluded Doug.

Opening day back in 1979 might not have been as busy as Doug and Brenda had hoped. Since that day, many of their expectations have been exceeded but that has not diminished their passion and pride in what they have created and their desire for Cockington Green to be successful for another 40 years.

Life changing, yes. Less aspirational, no. Well done on 40 great years!