SHORT BREAKS – Calder House
Back in the ’60s, when prime-time television was awash with goodness and niceness, there was a show called Petticoat Junction. It was about a cheerfully harried middle-aged widow running a rustic hotel with her three perky daughters, Bobbie Jo, Billie Jo and Betty Jo (yes, yes, only in America). It was a family business, and guests always got to know the family’s business.
That’s the thing about a country bed-and-breakfast place. It’s up close and personal. If it’s the real McCoy, you get to hear your hosts’ life story (reciprocation, thankfully, is not required).
Which is why I can tell you about Gaylia Lowe’s first kiss. She told us all about it while engaged in a long and tangled explanation about why she would not be here to cook our dinner. “It was long and sweet and gentle,” she says, her voice dreamy but her eyes full of mischief. Before explaining that she (and her husband George) would shortly be off to celebrate the 50th birthday of the man with whom she had shared it.
Gaylia was anxious to reassure us (and herself) that our dinner was in good hands. Her three adult daughters – Tyler, Cassie and Nadine – would take over: one waiting front of house, one cooking, and one, as her sister so beautifully expressed it to us later, playing “dish pig”.
We were privy to all this because we had rather taken to the chesterfields, the music system and the free port – a deeply happy combination – in the guest drawing room at Calder House. The Lowes run a bed-and-breakfast in this lushly restored historic home, built in the 1860s, in the former goldfields town of Maldon. The grandeur of the drawing room – high ceilings, delicately painted cornices, rich wallpaper and ornate dressers – contrasted sweetly with the domesticity of the bulletins delivered by various female heads popping around the door on their way to or from the kitchen, which happened to be nearby.
On a winter’s weekend, Calder House would be a perfectly comfortable hidey hole for curling up with a book or music or a game of chess. On a warm day, it is even nicer; there is a choice of the chesterfields or of the cushioned wicker chairs and tables on the broad veranda that overlooks the sunny cottage garden. Failing that, the largest bedroom, “Elizabeth’s room”, is a generous bed-sitting room that has two couches and a small table and chairs as well as a prettily dressed four-poster bed. There are nice little touches; an almost-bridal spray of fresh flowers sits on the table, and the antique dresser has heart-shaped mirrors.
Downstairs in the drawing room, there is a folder with a history of the house and on the walls are photographs of the family of Thomas Calder, the local businessman who built the house. The two grand front rooms – one of which is now Ruby’s Restaurant – were built to accommodate the governor-general who visited the house in 1884, and it has also offered hospitality to the writer Henry Handel Richardson, who was a friend of the Calders.
The little town in which it sits has broad curved streets and shops with wide, old-fashioned veranda fronts. Whatever it once might have been – at its peak, during the gold rush of the 1880s, it had a population bigger than Melbourne’s – Maldon is now a tourist town: it is lined with cafes, arts and crafts and bric-a-brac shops, a motor museum and the kind of old-fashioned lolly shop found in country towns aspiring to an air of old-world charm. It also has Cherry’s Ice Creamery, whose existence is more than justified by the lusciousness of its cherry-ripe ice-cream. Forget sharing with your partner; buy your own.
Having no children with us, we could pass on a browse of the teddy-bear shop and a ride on the Maldon-Castlemaine steam train. We decided against the local wineries and took off for something we hadn’t known existed: Porcupine Township on the outskirts of Maldon. “Recreated 1850s ghost town. Offers hands-on experience of the goldfields era” reads the ad in the tourist magazine.
It felt like a ghost town all right. Once past the ticket-seller, Porcupine village was utterly devoid of life other than our own, perhaps because we went on a hot afternoon. It turns out to be a collection of rough timber and clay buildings, some moved from other sites and some recreated, to mimic a goldfield’s shanty town. It does give a sense of the hardships of life back then; the buildings are small and primitive, with hessian bags for curtains and rough or no flooring. On this hot day they are stifling and buzzing with flies.
At the “undertaker’s”, a small child’s coffin has the words “Our darling” engraved in silver on the lid. Several buildings have old carriages and descriptions of their purpose: brougham, landau, sulky. The “doctor’s surgery” has a notice explaining that a doctor on the goldfields would nail his flag to a post instead of hanging up a shingle, and that he would probably charge more than doctors in London. I puzzled over the reason for a mallet in the doctor’s surgery. My partner raises an eyebrow. “Anaesthetic?” he suggests.
Back at Ruby’s for dinner that night, we get the more comfortable side of colonial times: balloon-backed chairs, linen tablecloths and a view of the English-style garden. The menu is simple and hearty – oysters Kilpatrick, rabbit wontons, steak, lamb shank – and the service quietly attentive.
Gaylia needn’t have worried: her girls did her proud.
Calder House is pretty, atmospheric, comfortable and beautifully run. Book the largest room – it is only $20 more – and have dinner at the restaurant.
The Place: Calder House, 44 High Street, Maldon (opposite the visitor’s centre).
Price: Weekend accommodation starts at $120 a room a night including full cooked breakfast. Two nights’ accommodation in the best room – Elizabeth’s room – with a three-course dinner for two, including wine, on the Saturday night costs $410.
Contact details: Phone: 5475 2912. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Website: www.calderhouse.com.au
Getting there: Maldon is 135 kilometres north-west of Melbourne on the Calder Highway.
Break the journey with dinner at the The Stables gourmet pizzeria in Malmsbury (behind the bakery). Calder House has no off-street parking.
First published in The Age.