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Published January 28th 2013
The Best of Hamilton and the Southern Grampians
V-Line coach from Ballarat to Hamilton
A veil of misty rain was drawn across the city as I gripped my windbreaker and made my way to Melbourne Central towards Southern Cross station. Due to works underway during the Queen's birthday long weekend, a detour to Sunshine station placed me on a comfy V-Line train ride to Ballarat where the legacy of the gold rush was still evident in the Victorian and Edwardian architecture that lined the streets.
The hazy grey of Lionel's Melbourne gave way to patches of perky blue as the train transformed into a coach, riding the country roads of Southern Grampians towards my final destination, Hamilton.
The southern peaks of the Grampians rose above the open vista of sheep-grazed pastures and gentle rolling hills accompanying most of my journey, and 4.5 hours later, the sight of the Hamilton Railway Station signalled my arrival. Opened in 1887, this major railway station which carted passengers and goods around the Shire for 100 years hinted at the rich history of Hamilton and its surrounds. Regretfully the station is used only for through trains today while its building serves V-Line coach passengers.
As I planted my feet on the fertile soil and breathe deeply the fresh rural air of the Southern Grampians, I gave thanks to the three Aboriginal tribes, the Gunditjmara, Tjapwurong and Bunganditj, past and present, who walked these ancient lands. Modern-day Hamilton hospitality in the form of Hugh Koch and Peter Johnson sweetened a pleasant journey with V-Line and hinted at the warm welcome that would be my constant companion during my visit.
Hugh Koch and Peter Johnson of the Southern Grampians Shire Council
Jess was all smiles when we arrived at the Comfort Inn Botanical. Her parents Geoff and Lyn Hayes were on a romantic sojourn during the Queen's Birthday long weekend and she would captain the hotel and restaurant.
Rooms were along single storey blocks equipped with parking right outside the doors. My queen room was not fancy but spacious, clean and adequately equipped with bathing amenities, small dining table, television, mini-fridge, coffee and tea making facilities for less than AUD150 a night. With my Vodafone wireless broadband down, the free Wi-Fi in the room was a welcomed blessing. Its location opposite the botanical gardens and short walk from the V-Line coach station and into the main streets of Hamilton made it an ideal place for accessing different parts of the town.
My spirits lifted by the warm welcomes of Hugh, Peter and Jess, I was ready to uncover the best that Hamilton and the Southern Grampians had to offer.
Home to Great Produce and Good Food
As one of Australia's most fertile farming regions, the Southern Grampians is home to a quality range of family-owned produce including meats, diary and wine. Peter Johnson tells me one of the best examples of the Shire's produce is the Grampians Pure Sheep Dairy situated between Glenthompson and Dunkeld. The farm is known for its award-winning farmhouse style sheep cheese and specialty yoghurt containing only ewe's milk and culture.
Grampians Pure Sheep Dairy / Image courtesy of the Southern Grampians Shire Council
A bit of a hidden gem and rarely discussed is the Shire's own Henty wine region according to Geoff Slocombe of Bochara Wines, located only 11 km outside Hamilton. In typical Hamilton hospitality, we were treated to conversations and glasses of local favourites, Picnic Train Rosé and Chardonnay at Geoff's recently opened cellar door. Much thanks to Peter's "birthday", we were also treated to a specially opened bottle of Geoff's methode champenoise sparkling wine "Arcadia". Geoff explained that the region is home to only a limited number of wineries and even smaller number of cellar doors as the vineyards in the area are pale in size and production compared to the commercial ones in Yarra or the neighbouring Grampians wine region. However, small volumes do not equate poor quality as the Henty region is slowly developing a reputation for elegant Riesling, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and cool climate Shiraz.
Geoff Slocombe of Bochara Wines and Peter Johnson of the Shire Council
What would complete the Shire's produce picture are accessible farm gates similar to those I visited in the Mornington Peninsula and a regular farmers market in town where I can access affordable and fresh farm produce similar to what I'm used to atQueen Victoria Market in Melbourne city.
The artful touch on great produce often results in good food, and Hamilton is home to some great cooking that rival the likes of Melbourne.
I stumbled into Darriwill Farm Café and Restaurant managed by Chef John Hedley and his wife Jacinta. A most pleasant and engaging person, John and I struck up an extended epicurean conversation that deserves its own airtime on my Hamilton Food and Wine Channel. Pleasantries aside, my belly-mind was tuned to his French-inspired cuisine. John's confit duck resting on mushroom and baby spinach risotto, sprinkled with Grampians Pure Sheep Diary's pecorino and accompanied with a wild rocket salad was bursting with flavours. Taking a cue from Matt Preston of Master Chef, I indulged in a slice of John's French bourdaloue baked pear, almond and apricot tart with a side of crème anglaise and double cream, which was his modern take on a classic French desert. [If you're reading this John, I'm looking to spend time in your kitchen and exchange recipes].
For affordable and tasty country fare of grilled and roasted meats on steamy vegetables and chips, along with free coffee or tea and a pot of cheap beer, I was directed to the local favourite social-club style restaurant in Alexandra House, a 1874 building overlooking the town' centre and Hamilton's home of cricket, the Melville Oval. I struggled to wash down a hearty mix grill of brown-gravy covered sausage, pork, beef patty, sunny-side, chips and salads with a pot of XXXX gold.
I understand Hugh and Peter's catering of hearty country pies, Italian meat balls and platters of local meats and cheese which won appraise from locals and visitors alike came from Gilly's Cafe Restaurant & Bar. I did not get a chance to dine on the Italian-inspired menu and taste any beers from its list of 60 local, national and international beers in the restaurant but the quality of their catering puts this restaurant high on my to-eat list when next in Hamilton. Another on my list is the Royal Mail Restaurant in Dunkeld where I was told Chef Dan Hunter had turned a remote small town restaurant into a world-class food and wine destination, awarded 3 Chefs Hats by The Age Good Food Guide 2012. Despite the Lutheran history of Prussian and Saxon farmers who settled around Hamilton in the early 19th century, I did not come across any archetypal Eintopf meals or one-pot German-style meals featuring Kransky Wurst (meat sausage) or Schweinenacken (pork neck) in my scan of the local food and wine scene.
The tranquil farming community of Coleraine is the kitchen headquarters of award winning handmade biscuits like Anzacs, florentines, gingerbread, melting moments, orange shortbread, cranberry and vanilla and chocolate chip cookies by Fiona Wall Fine Foods. Converting an empty butcher shop into her café and factory, Fiona is a local success story who combined fresh ingredients with homemade, country baking in the heartland of Australia's sheep grazing country into a growing gourmet biscuit business sold to cafes in Melbourne and around Victoria.
Never a Dull Moment
Hamilton is very deceptive to the visitor's first glance. Like the Grangeburn River that meanders through this provincial centre, its placid surface distracts from an active undercurrent, concealing a vibrant ecosystem teeming with life enriched by history, education, arts, industry, sports and leisure. A 2-hour Hugh and Peter fun-filled navigation of Hamilton and its surrounds, piloted by Trotters Coaches on Day 2 allowed me to experience the town's joie de vivre.
The first page of the town's rich history is drawn by bluestone spires of Gothic-style churches that reach towards the heavens, rising above single storey Federation red brick homes with period features. Together with the Colonial, Edwardian, Gothic, Victorian, Queen Anne and Federation-style buildings that dot the town, they mark the ages of Hamilton's development from a colonial outpost since 1851 till today. Although I could not locate any stonemasons working the local bluestone, production of the red brick is still alive and well in Glenthompson. Glenthompson Bricks operated by Simon and Michelle Henry continue to manufacture the heritage red clay brick using manual kiln firing method and 60 year old brick presses.
History attracts history buffs and the dated backdrop is ideal for the annual Hamilton Queen's Birthday Rally organised by the Vintage and Classic Car Club in Ballarat. My Day 2 jump-started with the rumbling of motors outside my room. Pulling aside the blinds revealed a row of immaculate classic cars warming up from the night's chill. These vintage auto fans were enjoying their annual rally and adding their own moving antiques to the historic sites in and around Hamilton.
Hamilton has more schools than Melbourne city has universities, making it appear like the education capital of Victoria. For a small town, I counted at least 4 Primary schools (with Hugh boasting about the 1852 Hamilton (Gray Street) Primary School where his son attends), 3 Primary to Year 12 schools including the popular Monivae College, a special school for autistic children, a South West Institute of TAFE offering post-secondary and trade qualifications, a Rural Industries Skill Training Centre providing vocational education and training for the rural industry, and a regional campus of Australia's largest tertiary institution, RMIT.
The robust education infrastructure is also a boon to the vibrant arts scene, already anchored by the town's own Hamilton Performing Arts Centre as the major arts venue in the Southern Grampians region. The AUD6.3 million Kantor Family Music and Performing Arts Centre in the Hamilton and Alexandra College adds the latest music and performing arts facilities in the form of a 519 seat auditorium, an Orchestra Room and practice classrooms to the local arts scene. Opened by the Federal Education Minister, Peter Garrett on 10 March 2012, the project which also received AUD1 million through the federal government's capital grants program, will make a significant contribution to performing arts and education in the Shire. Already, Orchestra Victoria is hosting a number of school community workshops and a Community OV Concert in the new facility later this year.
Hamilton Art Gallery / Image courtesy of the Southern Grampians Shire Council
The artistic wealth of the region is further grounded by the Hamilton Art Gallery, recognised as one of the most important galleries of regional Victoria for housing collections of paintings and decorative arts from the 1700s and in particular a holding of 22 gouache by English painter Paul Sandby (1731–1809), second only to the Queen of England.
Contributing as much as 15% of Australia's total wool clip, the Southern Grampians is largely known for its wool and sheep grazing, and a tribute to this ever-important wool industry exist in the form of The Big Wool Bales. Designed to resemble five gigantic wool bales, the building serves as a museum for wool-related equipment and memorabilia. The Hamilton region is still famous for producing very high quality fibre wool as evident by the magnificent sheep properties dispersed throughout the district, and Mayor Robert informs me there is nothing more characteristic than when sheep are being sheared and the atmosphere in the shearing sheds are electric.
The Big Wool Bales / Image courtesy of the Southern Grampians Shire Council
Few are aware that the economic profile of the Shire illustrates a diverse industry base supported mining, manufacturing, education and training, community and health services, retail and tourism. I understand from Hugh the Shire generated a total gross regional product of AUD795 million and AUD2,487 million of total output in December 2011, with agriculture and mining way ahead of construction, healthcare, retail, finance and education. An example of this robust rural economy is the Western District Health Service which employs more than 740 staff and manages 7,000 admissions, 200 deliveries and 3,000 surgical procedures annually through its Hamilton Base Hospital, Penshurst District Health Service, Coleraine District Health Services and the Frances Hewitt Community Centre.
Dan Tehan, Federal MP of the Wannon electorate, is supportive of a strong local economy that is pro-business and underpinned by industries that can create local jobs, and encourage young Australians to work. Dan whose parents ran a Merino sheep and Hereford cattle farm in rural Victoria now lives with his family on the outskirts of Hamilton.
Less known to visitors is Hamilton's role as the cradle of Australia's aviation industry, with the first passenger flight by Ansett Airlines from Hamilton to Melbourne in 1936. At the height of the airline's success in 1998/99, it operated a fleet of more than 125 aircraft to 142 towns and cities throughout Australia and Asia with a turnover exceeding USD2 billion. The history of Sir Reginald Ansett and his founding of the airline in Hamilton originally as a road passenger service between Hamilton and Ballarat in 1931, and the early days of the airline operations, is recorded in the Sir Reginald Ansett Transport Museum. The humble town continues to celebrate its air travel connectivity with the AUD2.3 million upgrade of the Hamilton Airport contributed by the Victorian Government's Regional Infrastructure Development Fund, and is home to regional airline, Sharp airlines.
All work and no play make Mayor Robert a dull man. With the variety of leisure activities available in and outside Hamilton, Robert has little time for monotony. Spoiled for choice, he has many favourite places. He suggested I visit the neighbouring towns, each with their own unique characters just 20 to 30 minutes' drive from Hamilton, or Warrnambool, Portland, Port Fairy or Mount Gambier in South Australia in just over an hour of drive time.
For sports fans, there are 2 AFL teams, cricket, tennis, netball, basketball, soccer, field hockey, lawn bowling, snooker and rowing serviced by several facilities spread around town. The most prominent facility being the Hamilton Indoor Leisure & Aquatic Centre or HILAC as fondly referred to by residents. An AUD9.7 million state of the art sporting facility, HILAC not only provides the whole community with a fitness and sports hub but is home to one of the 72 fish and other aquatic creatures produced to represent each participating nation in the 2006 Commonwealth Games. For golfers, there's the Hamilton Golf Club which feature an 18-hole Par 73 course that's akin to typical championship golf courses.
Collage of Hamilton Indoor Leisure & Aquatic Centre
Horsing around is a serious matter in a town well known for horse racing and harness racing. For visitors, the Hamilton Harness Racing Club is a unique rural gem. Revived as a result of strong community efforts and AUD1 million funding boost to upgrade the track by the State government in 2010, harness racing returned to Hamilton in February 2010. With addition funding from the State
Government's Raceday Attraction Program in January 2012 and the support of the Minister for Racing, Denis Napthine, the Club's own Hamilton Pacing Cup added a 'Living Local' theme that delivered greater entertainment and family-fun value this iconic harness racing event for the Western District. The Club continues to work closely with the local community to support and build the harness racing industry on one of the best state-of-the-art tracks in Australia.
Nature blossoms at the Hamilton Botanic Gardens, nestled in the heart of the town. Designed by the curator of the Melbourne Botanical Gardens, William Guilfoyle, the oaks and pines, have stood watch over the town for 150 years, providing a slice of early European vista with lawns, lake, fountains and rotunda that continue to provide a sanctuary for families, native and exotic birds, kangaroos, emus and wallabies.
For a larger slice of nature and family fun, a short drive out of town will bring you to 2 feature waterfalls in Victoria's most important cultural landscapes, the Wannon and Nigretta Falls. Both Falls are located in a reserve of 71 hectares marked by walking trails, fishing holes, picnic and barbecue facilities, viewing areas cared out of the basalt valley and koalas and kangaroos. They are impressive when ample rain and snow melt provide voluminous water conditions. The smaller of the 2 Falls, Nigretta is dotted with pools and fishing holes, while the larger Wannon Falls features water cascading 30 metres off a vertical basalt lava cliff into a deep plunge pool below.
To close any further debate on monotony, Hamilton and the Southern Grampians produces a continuous calendar of local and large regional events, many of which are held at the Hamilton Showgrounds managed by the Hamilton Pastoral & Agricultural Society. The venue regularly hosts community events such as Relay for Life, the Murray to Moyne Bike Ride, Dog Shows, Trash and Treasure Markets, Social Club events and Fairs. It is also best known for its Sheepvention since 1978 and the Beef Expo since 1992 in its 12 hectare site fringing the town's CBD. In 2010, a state-of-the art exhibition and conference with broad, clear-span pavilions was added to accommodate large-scale meetings, events and even fashion parades.
Australian Alpaca Association's Alpaca Fest in Hamilton
The Hamilton Showgrounds was the stage for the Australian Alpaca Association's Alpaca Fest between 9 to 11 June. The Association felt that Hamilton's first-rate facilities and experience with major agricultural events made it an ideal location for their premier Western Victorian Region event, which featured almost 300 alpacas, fleece classes, craft displays and trade stalls. I managed to engage with several Alpacas and their breeders in "fleece-ful" conversations.
There's just so much happening in this small town and it would take me months to experience them all.
Out of the 200 names expressing interests for a scenery change to the quiet rural of Southern Grampians at the Regional Victorian Living Expo, 10 couples and families arrived from urban Melbourne to sample what the town and Shire had to offer. For some of us, it was our first trip to this part of Victoria. Fortunately for me, all the visitors turned out to be really nice people. I fondly remember Vernon and Erica who were looking forward to enjoying their retirement in the beautiful surrounds of Hamilton in the near future, and the large family of 2 children, father-in-law and brother-in-law accompanying Jaime and wife, Raelene. Jaime and Raelene shared with me how the general hum of Altona Meadows and the strangled traffic conditions of the West Gate Freeway pushed them away from Melbourne towards the peace, quiet and greenery of Hamilton and the Southern Grampians.
As introductions were exchanged and conversations picked up, I was intrigued by the diverse range of industries and employment opportunities in forestry, education, healthcare, retail and trades in addition to wool and sheep commerce. I also learnt about the existence of a vibrant food and wine scene from Susan and an active Arts community from Ewen which begged further investigation. The highlight of my evening conversations was meeting the unassuming Mayor Robert Penny who shared animated tales of Hamilton and his love affair with the Southern Grampians.
Mayor Robert Penny / Image courtesy of the Southern Grampians Shire Council
Originally from Melbourne, this veteran police officer of 42.5 years came onto the Southern Grampians in 1996 as Chief Inspector of the Victorian Police Force for the Glenelg Police District, finally retiring from active duty in Hamilton in 2007. "Upholding the Right" quickly became service to a community where Robert applied his experience and open personality to uphold the quality of the Shire as a Councillor. Not one to remain static in retirement or in public service, he was selected by peers in 2010 to be Mayor of the Municipality, a role he believes is both a privilege and an honour. This leadership role in local government is not without its challenges. Robert emphasises that his major responsibilities are to ensure that the Council provides good governance and is financially viable. It is also about leadership and maintaining a good working relationship with the Councillors and council officers, especially the CEO.
Robert explained that Hamilton and the region is an easy place to live as all the services and amenities needed for quality of life are available. The key feature is the high friendliness index, so high that if you wanted to chat to somebody, just stand outside the local post office and you'll be transfixed for an hour by friendly and courteous conversations with residents. A point reconfirmed by Colin in several conversations. I couldn't get the notion that Hamilton lived and breathed friendliness out of my head.
With the same twinkle in the eye of a child in Disneyland and the Cheshire Cat grin, Robert confessed that he had no intentions to return to Melbourne. Seems the rural magic of the Southern Grampian has a firm hold on this Mayor. And he is not alone. I understand that for one of the visiting couples, Ian and Sue, it was this same Hamilton-brand of friendliness, first expressed by Hugh Koch and Hugh McDonald at the Expo, and perpetuated by other residents that attracted them to swap New South Wales for Hamilton. The town has already received a truck load of Ian and Sue's furniture and should be welcoming the couple and their kids soon.
There was a general praise among all of us visitors for the Shire's enthusiasm at the Expo, initiative to engage potential residents, and impeccable hospitality of the town that left us salivating for another dose of Hamilton. The surprisingly contemporary urban interiors of the Visitor's Centre provided a sociable environment for the gathering, made even cosier by the friendly residents; the buzz of conversations that naturally developed quickly brought locals and visitors together; the altruistic efforts of nice folks like Mayor Robert, Susan and Colin to personally ensure we were fed, engaged and enjoying ourselves imprinted the big-hearted warmth and friendliness you can come to expect from the Southern Grampians.
Our coach driver John proudly showing his handy work
Some folks call it old fashioned country hospitality but to me, Hamilton is simply a town of really nice people, not limited to the present company at the evening event. John from Darriwill Farm Café and Restaurant who was so enthused with chit chat about the town and produce from around the Shire; Jess from Comfort Inn Botanicals who extended me a late checkout without hesitation to save me from hours of street wandering while waiting for my transport back to Melbourne; the flannel-warm hellos from your everyday town folks working in stores like Coles, Chicken Feed and those passing you on the street; and our veteran driver John from Trotters Coaches who proudly shared his hand-made blue gum table and lemon tree on steroids. If John is any example of aging well with youthful vitality, I need to get me some good old fashioned Southern Grampians living.
A Town on the Grow
Walking along the main streets of Hamilton and studying the shopping hours revealed a common appeal of rural living where residents often make the conscious decision to put business or work aside for more time with the family. However this doesn't mask the signs that this rural town is blossoming.
You know a town is on the grow when the smile of KFC's Colonal Sanders greet you as you drive towards its main streets, only to be further welcomed by big brand supermarkets like Coles and Safeway, and the golden arches of Maccas feeds you at 5.30am from Sunday to Thursday and 24 hrs on Friday and Saturday. Add to these an AUD9 million extension of Cole's operations incorporating 11 new specialty shops and street frontage upgrades; overhaul of the Arts and Cultural Precinct; and further retail developments illustrate a vibrant and bustling town.
Mayor Robert believes the area is on the verge of establishing its real identity as a regional centre, characterised by first-class educational facilities, excellent medical services, access to rail freight, three highways, and an airline with services to Melbourne and other locations. Add to these, a uniquely friendly and welcoming attitude of residents to visitors, a slower-paced lifestyle and a reasonably safe community as far as crime is concerned. What he feels is needed is an increase to the population with small business and light industry development in the Hamilton hub. And I concur.
Hamilton needs a multi-interconnected approach to developing the town and Shire. On a simple level, Infrastructure of quality education, healthcare and housing is a base ingredient to attract population not just from Melbourne but from overseas, much needed to increase commerce and provide talent for existing and new industries, adding to increased cultural diversity that enriches the Shire's lifestyle attraction and create more jobs in retail, food, arts and tourism that in turn attracts more population that supports further infrastructural development. The additional challenge facing Robert and his team will be balancing the Shire's appealing lifestyle drawcard with the socio-economic-spatial impact of urbanisation and economic development. With a dedicated Mayor and council, townspeople and staff members like Hugh and Peter, Hamilton has a chance at a second wave of prosperity built on a diversified economy and realise its vision of becoming Australia's Most Liveable Provincial Community.
Despite all the buzz of growth, I managed to bite into a generous slice of rural Victoria through Hamilton – the crisp fresh air, general sense of calm and quiet, absence of population pressure, an identity around community, politeness and courtesy wherever you look, and the many friends I made in a short span of 3 days. In Robert's honest words, "Don't expect too much, it is not a paradise, but it is close to it". It takes time to settle in but getting involved in the local community definitely opens the doors of friendship and allows you to reap the benefits of the Southern Grampians lifestyle. Perhaps Hugh Koch may still be able to make a farmer out of me.