Previously I posted about my first trip to Kelly Country since the lockdowns but was in the middle of the trip when I wrote it. Evidently the rest of the trip was too busy for me to finish writing up about what else happened at the time, so here we go with a quick recap of the other stuff that happened.
Our accommodation was very close to the centre of Beechworth so a majority of our travel while we were in town was done on foot. Over the next couple of days we visited as many things as we could fit in. The telegraph office was closed due to Covid-19 and the recent shutting down of the Ned Kelly Vault took that off the table. We also attempted to do a tour of the gaol but unfortunately the one day we had time they were closed.
The courthouse was quite strange this time around. Huge sections were cordoned off in the name of public safety, limiting visitors to the main courtroom (no seating allowed), the judge’s room and the two rooms at the back of the court. The place lacked a bit of the usual ambience but was still a worthy drawcard. Currently it is the only attraction in Beechworth with any significant displays related to the Kelly story.
We also briefly visited the ruins of the Beechworth Hospital. The grand facade is all that remains of what was once one of the most important buildings in the region. It was here that Joe Byrne’s father passed away from heart disease. It seems odd, and disappointing, that such a significant building did not survive into the modern day, or at least remain more intact. Imagine the stories that those walls could have told. Perhaps one day I will do some more research on goldfields hospitals and suchlike.
Near to the hospital is St Joseph’s church, where Father Tierney married Aaron Sherritt and Ellen Barry on Boxing Day 1879. It’s still a functional church so the only thing we looked at was the outside. The wedding of Aaron Sherritt is an important part of Glenrowan and really signifies the point at which everything changes for the characters, though they don’t realise it at the time. Nearby is the Anglican church where the Sherritts would attend services when John Sherritt wasn’t warring with the vicar.
On a non-Kelly note we did manage to do a paranormal investigation at the old Mayday Hills asylum. With the aid of some state of the art equipment and our guide Josh, we moved through various buildings in search of ghosts, and we succeeded in finding what we were looking for. We experienced many things that were not explicable by rational, mundane things, ranging from seemingly intelligent energy spikes to disembodied voices and apparitions. Whether you believe in such things or not I highly recommend doing the paranormal investigation through Asylum Tours.
From Beechworth we travelled to Benalla. Once again we visited Joe Byrne, though the unrelenting heat meant it was a short visit and I wasn’t prepared to be out in the sun visiting Martin Cherry this time around. Next time hopefully the weather will be kinder. We also briefly visited the police station (not as prisoners.) It is my understanding that the current police station is built over the site of the original one where Joe Byrne’s body was displayed, strung up to a cell door. A short distance away is the bootmaker’s shop in Arundel Street where Ned Kelly was assaulted by police for resisting arrest, which is now operating as a café.
The next day we headed to Wangaratta where we had an excellent brunch before dropping of some books at Booktique. It was fantastic being able to finally get up to Booktique after they graciously accepted my proposal to have Glenrowan on their shelves. Independent bookstores are absolutely vital to fostering emerging authors and especially the independent authors.
From Wangaratta we headed for Glenrowan. The heat was starting to build up but the old chariot was holding up admirably. We parked near the Big Ned, which seemed like a great idea at the time, but the unrelenting heat would cause my car to chuck a wobbly (literally) when we later went to drive to the accommodation. A quick stop into the post office meant one lucky reader had their copy of the novel sent out from behind the Big Ned. It remains the only copy sent out from Glenrowan to date.
To cool off we grabbed some refreshments from the Billy Tea Rooms. It’s something of a ritual to come here at least once every time I go up into Kelly Country. It looks even better than I remembered and the Blue heaven milkshake hit the spot. The only thing missing was Lazy Harry on repeat (but Kate’s Cottage picked up the slack there.) I can recall those early days where I would get my parents to reluctantly enable my Ned Kelly fascination by driving up to Glenrowan and we’d grab some Ned Kelly soft drink (Red Ned Portello for me, thanks) and hear Old Dad out the front of the Billy Tea Rooms flogging frog-shaped garden sprinklers. Times have certainly changed.
Out of curiosity we popped into the Glenrowan tourist centre, which houses the infamous animated theatre. We were given a guided tour of the premises which is undergoing a major overhaul to incorporate more of a museum to the first two rooms and to make the rest of the show much more polished and historically accurate (with help from bushranger historian Gary Dean.) The change that are being made are fantastic and the place really is starting to reach its potential with a great museum collection and more up to date tech to keep the show running smoothly. There’s even a spot-on Sergeant Steele in the shootout portion of the show now.
In amongst it all discussion turned to the novel and I’m pleased to say that the centre became another stockist for Glenrowan. Now people have the opportunity to see the animated theatre and pick up a copy of the book that tells the more historical version.
Our accommodation was at the Glenrowan Motel. We had stayed there previously so it was good to stay somewhere familiar. However after having sat in the heat for a long time the car decided she was not up for much travelling and spluttered her way down the road from the Big Ned. Out of caution our travel plans were rejigged so that we were able to stay in Glenrowan longer because we were concerned about how we’d go getting to Euroa, where we were going to stay, before the weather cooled down. It turned out to be just what we needed.
That afternoon we stopped in at the Glenrowan Hotel where we had drinks and caught up with some people that we hadn’t seen since before lockdown. It’s a great pub and they have a really fantastic piece by artist Grange Wallis up in the bar to set the mood. It was the perfect way to wind down after a hot and busy day.
The next day we visited Kate’s Cottage to take a look around the museum and replica homestead. The museum was the same as on previous visits: a tiny and very condensed collection of news clippings and antiques to set the vibe as well as two replica suits of armour and a death mask. There are also a few relics from McDonnell’s Railway Tavern, rescued from the demolished building many decades ago, including a door lock. The set of painted portraits were a familiar sight, having remained exactly as they were since before my first visits to the town in the 1990s.
Going through the rear door leads to a gallimaufry of apparently discarded objects including a multitude of props from one of the film adaptations of For The Term Of His Natural Life (which one is not specified), the old wooden cutouts from the gallows at Old Melbourne Gaol that depicted Ned Kelly’s execution, and doors from Pentridge Prison, one of which is slowly being consumed by foliage. There are also two talking cockatoos that you can say hello to before entering the replica homestead.
The replica homestead was a disappointment however. Despite what the advertising may indicate, there is almost nothing left visible on the outside to visitors that resembles the Kelly house, the sides of the exterior now engulfed by ungroomed flora that is both causing the roof to sink while holding the place together. Inside is dirty and crumbling, which ironically gives quite an accurate sense of the squalor that police described when referring to the actual house in the 1870s. A bed in one of the rear bedrooms is equipped with a filthy black wig poking out of a blanket that is probably a few decades old by now, and a motion activated gimmick that is meant to emulate breathing but more closely resembles a trapped snake looking for a way out from under the blanket. At one time this would have been a very effective gimmick, but lack of maintenance has rendered it a bizarre addition to what is otherwise still a reasonably interesting and immersive experience.
Out the back of the house is an outdoor dining area, long since disused, and a blacksmith shop. This particular day the floor was black with dead flies and the walls were literally buzzing from the living ones still trapped in there, which was a first. I am reliably informed that the attraction will soon be changing hands as the current owners have elected to move on after thirty-odd years running the show. It still remains an excellent stop to look for bushranger books new and old.
What happened next is a good indication of the level of anxiety caused by the lifestyle changes brought about in response to Covid-19, especially myself who had only just emerged from months in lockdown.
Our exit was hastened by the appearance of a woman wearing her medical mask incorrectly and ignoring social distancing protocol, while coughing so hard that it seemed like she was actively trying to force her lungs out of her throat. We tried a tactful retreat but she clung to us like a limpet as we attempted to exit through the wooden gate next to the cash register. There was an awkward moment when she grasped the gate as I tried to pull it shut, then yanked it open again with the sort of nonchalance that either indicates obliviousness or the exact inverse. Needless to say, the months spent in lockdown due to Covid-19 have definitely taken a toll on one’s mental state and the dreaded virus seems to be an invisible enemy lurking everywhere, resulting in a level of paranoia about people that is not something I’m accustomed to.
Lunch was had at the Glenrowan Bakehouse, where a few years ago the Glenrowan journey had its big launch. I recall standing outside the bakehouse giving an interview about the attempt to bring the story to life as a film on a crisp morning on the anniversary of the siege. A brief shower of rain cooled everything down a bit as we ate pies outside. It was a great way to end a busy morning.
That evening I conducted a guided tour of the key locations related to the siege via a live streamed video on Facebook. I didn’t go down as far as where Curnow flagged the train but I did cover the gatehouse, the site of the Glenrowan Inn, and Ned Kelly’s capture site. Then I indulged in a little self promotion and read an excerpt from the book. It was almost surreal to physically trace steps I had taken in my head countless times in the process of writing the book. It felt as familiar to me as my own home town (probably more so given how much of a shut-in I was during that time.)
It would be nice to have a big overhaul of the locations and replace the decaying wooden bollard “statues” with something a little more tactful and weather resistant. The informative signs are great, but there’s very little to catch the eye. The stone bearing a plaque to mark where Ned was captured is now hidden in the middle of a stockade of native grasses, and the scrap metal that is meant to represent his body armour remains in place looking like a piece of misplaced abstract art. I would love to see some kind of brass statue there depicting the capture – preferably one large enough to deter thieves. I would also love to see a bust of Thomas Curnow erected somewhere near the siege site so that visitors can pay their respects to the man who, at great personal risk, set about stopping the potential mass loss of life that Ned Kelly had planned. As much as some of Ned’s most vocal supporters launch all sorts of derogatory names at Curnow, there’s no denying that in most any other situation such pluck and daring would be universally applauded and it would be nice to have a monument to that.
The next day I visited the Vintage Hall Café again and supplied them with some stock. It is very exciting to have the book as welcomed in Glenrowan as it has been, and to have it so readily available to visitors. The Vintage Hall Café is one of my favourite spots in town for its food and its collection of antiques and bric-a-brac. Any establishment with a friendly dog automatically gets bonus points from me. The pedant in me would really love to give those dummies out the front a makeover though…
The BBQ Garden is one of my new favourite places in Glenrowan too. It replaces the old Glen Rowen Cobb & Co shop and utilises the space brilliantly, making it feel breezy and light. Gone are the shelves of trinkets and the downstairs museum (the best pieces of which are now in the museum of the tourist centre), replaced with the best local spices, jams, drinks and more. It’s a great place to snap up some gifts and sample the local produce. The dining area is a great open space where you can enjoy a meal while taking in the atmosphere. It is a sign of the way that Glenrowan is beginning to emerge from its cocoon and spread its wings a bit, which is hopefully indicative of good things to come.
On the way home that afternoon we stopped in Violet Town for a drink and contemplated the simple joy of being able to go to a regional town and have a drink in the sun. It’s also worth mentioning that Violet Town is also the place where Constable Thomas Lonigan was stationed at the time he was called up to be included in the ill-fated Mansfield party, though I’m unaware of there being any form of memorial or suchlike in the town.
In the end the trip was both a tremendous success for the book and a great opportunity to get away from things. I can’t wait to get back up to Kelly Country again but there has been a lot of work to do so that will just have to go on hold for now. As we charge headfirst into Christmas hopefully there will be a few copies of Glenrowan under trees this year and that we get some sort of relief from the unrelenting insanity that has been 2020.