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Published July 28th 2016
Wade through history in Willunga
A stroll around Willunga reveals a place saturated with history as I have discovered on several visits over the years, including a recent sojourn in the peak of winter. A look at a heritage map of Willunga shows around 60 heritage buildings identified, comprising cottages, larger dwellings, former churches, government buildings, pubs and shops.
As outlined in one of my recent articles about some of the food and refreshment options available in Willunga, the town is well laid out with High Street and Hill Street being two of the main thoroughfares and within that precinct alone, there are numerous historic buildings on show.
The name of the town Willunga is derived from an indigenous word Willa-unga or Wilangga meaning "place of green trees". Being one of the earliest settlements in South Australia, dating from 1839, John McLaren conducted the first survey with the aim of establishing Willunga as the "new" half-way town between Encounter Bay and Adelaide.
The town soon prospered with the discovery of slate which brought Cornish quarrymen and their families to the area, joining other settlers who were already engaged in wheat growing, sheep and cattle raising as well as horticulture. The planting of both almond and olive trees proved successful over the years due to the ideal climate in the area.
Of the many historic buildings in Willunga, there are 8 which inflamed my curiosity to discover in more detail.
At the top end of High Street, before you leave the town limits on the left, lies the historic site previously known as the Government Reserve. This was the site of the first colonial settlement at Willunga in 1839 and the reserve comprised 3 huts, one for the police, one for the land surveyor and the third for the original Post Office.
The courthouse, police station and lock-up cells were built between 1855 and 1872 using stone from a nearby quarry. These buildings were also used as temporary homes for newly arrived female Irish immigrants, most of them survivors from the shipwreck "Nashwauk", which ran aground off Moana. It was also a place used later for displaced Aboriginal people.
Prior to 1854, court proceedings had been held at the historic Old Bush Inn, which still exists today but it was thought that justice could not occur on a serious level in the confines of a pub, hence the reason for a purposely built Courthouse constructed in 1855.
A wander around the grounds behind the old Courthouse and Police Station brings to light the old stables which were built in 1864, replacing earlier ones on the site. The stables principally housed the horses for mounted police. Following restoration by National Trust, the old stables were re-opened as a Slate museum in 2005.
Police and court operations ceased at the historic site in 1929 when for many years, it became a private home. The main buildings were restored by National Trust in 1970.
National Trust have the site open for visitors between 1 pm and 4 pm monthly on the first Tuesday and also similar times on the second and fourth Saturdays and Sundays. A word of warning - during the hot summer period, the museum is not open when the temperature reaches over 35 degrees C. The cost is minimal at $5 per adult, $4 for concession, and school aged children accompanied by an adult - free.
Across the road from the old Courthouse and Police Station site lies the Old Post Office and Telegraph Station, erected originally in 1858 to supply these important services to the thriving community, as well as being the residential quarters for the postmaster.
In 1865 another storey was added to the building and continued in its important role until 1916 when the functions ceased operation. The building was eventually sold by the government in 1935 and after being restored in 1986, today it is a private dwelling, a fact I did not realise until I had completed a circumference of the property.
To think that original mail deliveries between Willunga and Adelaide were by horse drawn coach right up to 1915, when regular train services began as well as passenger bus services and eventually the mail was delivered by official Post Office vans.
Now the home of a French provincial style restaurant La Terre, the buildings were originally erected for the Atkinson family in 1886, consisting of a shop, bakehouse and residence. The family operated the bakery for some 80 years and in the early days bread deliveries were by horse and cart. Outlying families in the area welcomed the deliveries and were able to catch up with the latest news at the same time.
The bakery not only sold bread and other associated products but also an assortment of drapery, groceries, ironmongery, crockery and tinware. In the 1980's the building was utilised as the Willunga Studio gallery in the shop section, followed by its re-invention as a design business, before it was finally leased in 2013 for the French restaurant. The building represents a great example of a nineteenth-century store. Further details on La Terre are outlined in my recent published article about eating and drinking spots in Willunga.
Used as a private residence today, the Oddfellows Hall was originally built in 1863 as the town's first cultural centre and over the years hosted meetings, lectures, concerts, as well as being used as a reading room and even singing classes. Although fire severely damaged the hall in 1923, events were continued to be hosted into the 1930's.
Before the Willunga Show Hall was built in the 1890's, Oddfellows Hall was also its home for many years. Although privately owned these days, there are still the occasional art and photographic exhibitions held there.
For around 30 years, the Primitive Methodist Church operated in Willunga, from the 1860's through to the 1890's and sprung up as one of a handful of this denomination's churches around South Australia. The Primitive Methodist philosophy was based on a supposed purer form of Christianity that the early Methodists adopted. The architecture of their places of worship was always simple in form with relatively plain design work compared to the Wesleyan Methodists who used more elaborate structures.
Following the closure of the church, the site was utilised as a wine store and then became a private home right up to the early 1970's when the building was leased to a veterinary clinic.
The building has since seen a diverse mix of businesses operate from the site including the once renowned Vanessa's Restaurant which ran for some 20 years, offering fine dining with silver service, from 1979. The restoration of the building around that time saw the installation of some original stain glass windows from the Pirie Street, Adelaide Methodist Church.
In 2000, the premises were re-named Willy Hill Cafe, and for 5 years from 2007 until 2012, it was known as Christina's. Finally in 2012, the Altar Bistro opened, which still operates today.
The imposing Willunga House was originally built as the Postmaster's house in the 1850's, for Henry Malpas. The upper storeys and balconies were added in the 1860's and the sizeable property was sub-divided and a part sold off in 1962, becoming the site for the Willunga Council offices.
Today the white washed house is a bed and breakfast and provides boutique accommodation for couples and small groups. The house contains a total of 5 guest rooms, kitchen, dining, lounge, balcony as well as access to a pool and the beautiful gardens.
The breakfast supplied as part of the tariff boasts the use of local produce, even some from their own garden.
An example of the cost of staying in such a historic property is a Queen room with private bathroom for $245 a night for 2 persons or for a Queen Ensuite room, again for 2 persons, $265 per night. This is based on a weekend rate, rates being cheaper for multiple nights stay and weekday stays.
On Hill Street, a historic building lies adjacent to the Alma Hotel, which now houses several businesses including Pizza Kneads and Le Mistral, a French restaurant.
This building was originally erected to house the Willunga Store, which operated from the 1850's. The first proprietor, Francis Laufkotter, made candles from beeswax which apparently burnt very well, however the colour was seen as unusual and not at all popular. Business proved difficult and stealing apparently was prevalent. Laufkotter's insolvency in 1871 reportedly led to depreciation in the town lots in Willunga.
The next owner, Jacob ran the Willunga Store for around 28 years, building up the business to sell to the community groceries, china and glassware, habadashery, soft furnishings, clothing, stock feed as well as hardware. In 1920 refreshment tea rooms were added, allowing tourist bus passengers to stop at the half-way point between Adelaide and Victor Harbor.
The site was run as a cafe by several owners right up to 2014 when the building became the site for Fino Restaurant and Slate Hill Cafe. Fino's operated until February this year, when the French restaurant/cafe Le Mistral opened.
Known in the district originally as Alma House, it was built in the 1850's as an inn for travellers and the 2 storey section was added in the 1870's. In its heyday as a holiday destination, the Alma contained 22 furnished rooms, with a new section being added in 1974.
The Alma is recognised as the oldest hotel building still standing in Willunga.
This is but a tip of the iceberg as far as heritage properties are concerned within Willunga. The great thing about Willunga is its nearness to Adelaide and what it has to offer in terms of food and wine, South Australias first farmer's market, festivals such as the Almond Blossom Festival, which is on this weekend (30/31st July), not to mention its historic and heritage value.