The need for more space was the driving force in the decision for Writer and Illustrator Tohby Riddle’s move to Katoomba. With a third child on the way, Tohby’s small Bondi apartment could no longer accommodate his growing family so they returned to the place of his childhood holidays.
Tohby’s family owned a small weatherboard house in north Leura that was the site of regular weekend trips, back when the area was full of small dairy farms and orchards. As an adult he resumed this tradition with his own family when they were living in Sydney. “I came back up here one weekend, many years later, and remembered the smells and the atmosphere that I experienced as a child. I could still really identify with the place.”
On one such visit another weatherboard house caught his eye. “Around 1999 we came up for a short stay and this house was available for sale,” says Tohby. “I remember looking at the price and realising that the price of a house here was about the price of a garage in Sydney, so I just thought ‘I could afford that’, and I bought it really without thinking too much. The house was a bit derelict and so I’d come up at different times to work on it.”
Eventually, his growing family necessitated a change of scenery and they made plans to move. “It’s funny because around that time too it seemed like a few people were making the same move for the same types of reasons. The sort of crazy property boom happening in Sydney created this diaspora. As it turned out there’s a bit of a tradition of this happening, and it meant that there’s a lot of like-minded people living here.”
As such, Tohby and his family found themselves connected to the place almost immediately. “I’ve always liked urban spaces. That’s another reason why moving here wasn’t that hard, because there’s a sufficient amount of urbanism to keep you going…It reminded me of Bondi in the sense that you’ve got lots of bookshops and cafes and people from all around the world hanging around” says Tohby. “I think that’s why Katoomba does appeal to people from the inner west of Sydney.”
In terms of his working life Tohby, already a well regarded illustrator and author, has found that living in the Blue Mountains meant that he could concentrate on creating picture books full time. “I’ve found that I’m able to focus here. On a practical level I can work with less overheads too,” says Riddle. “There’s a sort of pungency up here with the colours, the smells, the sounds, the way the sky behaves that you do find that you’re absorbing. It’s hard to be explicit, but intuitively the place has an impact. In (my book) Unforgotten, there are images of clouds flowing through the streets and that was an intuitive response to being around here, because even on a sunny day like this a cloud could go through your backyard. You get these strange little fogs and low clouds. Also there’s an autumn leaf sequence in the book, which uses one of the trees in my backyard. All these things find their way into my work.”
In addition to the natural beauty of the area, the built environment provides inspiration for Tohby’s work. “It’s an extremely idiosyncratic place with a quite eccentric history. It reveals itself slowly…This place is a natural subject for psychogeography because there’s all these interesting ways you can circulate through the place, and discover weird relics of earlier usage.”
For Tohby, the Blue Mountains, and in particular Katoomba, has an uncanny ability to provide exactly what is needed when required. “If you’re on the lookout here you can find things that might inspire you or play a part in your work that you wouldn’t easily find elsewhere. Katoomba’s just been a place that keeps delivering, and strangely it just feels like whenever I need something, it just turns up.”
Words by Chloe Killen. Photography by Ona Janzen.