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One of the cute cottage gardens at Sovereign Hill, Ballarat. Picture: Visit Victoria.

Christine McCabe, Why Sovereign Hill isn’t just for kids, The Australian,

Ballarat’s acclaimed outdoor museum takes a meticulous approach to its historical accuracy, right down to the gardens.

I last visited Ballarat’s Sovereign Hill a lifetime ago and had forgotten the lure of a good costume drama. Even as a winter chill settles, stagecoaches negotiate muddy roads and women in period frocks hitch their hems above the muck.

Recreating the life of a town that grew as swiftly as a mushroom after rain, when gold was discovered in 1851, Sovereign Hill was established as an outdoor museum more than a century later in 1970. As a child, I remember it as a very Famous Five adventure, panning for gold, donning an olde worlde dress for a sepia-hued portrait, queuing for lollies in the old-fashioned shop.

Today as a grown-up with a keen interest in gardening I’m touring the grounds with manager of gardens and landscapes Cherrie Neale and seeing the town through new eyes. Summer’s flush has long passed, but the grounds are nevertheless impressive, not so much for their botanical significance but for their authenticity. Around every period cottage or house that lines the streets of this impeccably recreated hamlet, Cherrie and her team have imagined a little vignette using plants that would have been available at the time, thereby telling the story of its imagined inhabitants, their social status and various peccadillos. Historical records and old nursery catalogues were scoured to capture the lives of those who resided on the gold fields.

In the mid-19th century, gardens were important status symbols, beneficiaries of the derring-do of plant hunters. Even in this hardscrabble gold-mining town, botanical specimens arrived as cuttings by ship from England. Bright View, the first period house donated to Sovereign Hill and moved to the site 51 years ago, was home to an architect, so there is a formal structure to this lovely plot, including a pretty parterre.

Elsewhere, Cherrie and her team have recreated the neat orchard of a town surveyor, a little market garden, complete with free-­ranging chickens, and Mrs Davidson’s medicinal plantings tucked around a tiny timber cottage, so sweet I could move in on the spot, if it were not for the lack of a washing machine and electric kettle.

Establishing the vegetation has been challenging. The entire museum is built on top of a giant mullock heap, says Cherrie. Her team has toiled over the years to improve impoverished soils with homemade compost, using horse manure supplied by the museum’s obliging Clydesdales and woodchips from the wheelwrights and coachbuilders workshop, one of Sovereign Hill’s more compelling ­attractions.

Great Dickensian belts and pulleys clank and whirr, fires flare from braziers and the intoxicating scent of shaved timber and wood smoke lace the air. Wheelwright Ben and his hirsute team cut quite a dash in 19th-century garb. Vintage hipsters.

Ballarat Botanical Gardens. Picture: Visit Victoria.

Across town at the 40ha Ballarat Botanical Gardens, established in 1857 on the western shore of Lake Wendouree, all that golden booty was sunk into plants and classical statuary. Famous for its annual begonia festival, the gardens hold a globally significant collection of tuberous begonias. In season, the pretty conservatory is “an explosion of colour” (although that rather undersells it). Along with a wealth of magnificent trees, the parklands represent one of the last bastions of “bedding out”. For non-gardeners, I’m not talking camping or glamping, but the annual massed planting of dainty spring flowers. In Victorian England complex bedding arrangements were a serious expression of wealth, and in some great houses thousands of plants were switched out overnight to astonish and amaze guests.

At the Ballarat gardens, about 10,000 Iceland poppies, foxgloves, pansies and primulas are planted for early spring. The council plants thousands more along Sturt and Victoria streets.

All this Victorian grandeur supports that adage Melburnians have for Ballarat: “Old, cold and gold.” However, like many regional towns and cities, Ballarat has benefited from a Covid exodus from the big smoke. The city is still cold. No one who’s visited will argue this point. And that gold is evident in the city’s impressive architecture and public institutions including a fine art gallery. But old? Less so. “There’s been a real shift over the past four years,” says Sovereign Hill’s head of external engagement, Mark Hemetsberger, with an influx of young city refugees opening restaurants, cafes and bars.

Ragazzone in Ballarat. Picture Rebecca Michael.

Ragazzone is a good example; a cosy, modern Italian eatery with an excellent table d’hote that includes cauliflower arancini or sensational Waubra lamb cotoletta, a ricotta tortellini with spanner crab or duck ragu spaghetti with pickled pears. Co-owner Drew Harry, who opened this stylish eatery two winters ago, agrees Ballarat has changed. “This place (Ragazzone) wouldn’t have flown five years ago,” he says, “but the food scene is getting really interesting.” He recommends Underbar, an acclaimed 16-seater reopening in September in the new Hotel VeraMoon and MountainMr Jones, and the newly opened Pencil Mark Wine Room on Doveton Street North.

Most of the best eateries are downtown, so following an excellent dinner at Ragazzone, it’s a short stroll to my digs, Battista, housed in the impressive Roman revival Baptist Church, situated opposite St Patrick’s Cathedral.

Behind soaring Corinthian columns, a brilliant blue door opens into a modern apartment with an impressive art collection. The owners, who featured on the popular Restoration Australia, have done a fabulous job (and spent a fortune) converting the cavernous space with its soaring arched windows and ornate cornices.

A glass box has been slotted into the fabric of the building to house a large bedroom, cosy sitting room and slick bathroom. The glass wall allows views down into the oversized living area from the bedroom. Everything you need for a cosy night in is provided, including well stocked kitchen, coffee machine, giant TV, squishy sofa, underfloor heating.

Battista, stylish apartment accommodation in Ballarat.

With lots of books and oversized artworks, the apartment feels like a private home with plenty of welcoming touches, such as breakfast vouchers redeemable at L’espresso, around the corner. This popular cafe swiftly becomes my favourite bolthole. The vintage timber panelling, pressed-metal ceiling and racks of vinyl records are charming. As rugged-up ­locals, accompanied by pooches in dog jackets, tuck into pastries and coffee at tables on the footpath, it feels very inner-city Melbourne. It’s a good exemplar of Ballarat cool, as opposed to cold, but bring your winter woollies.

In the know

Sovereign Hill is not just for children and certainly warrants more than one visit. The Centre for Rare Arts and Forgotten Trades offers workshops across a huge range of disciplines, including woodblock carving and printing, armoury, Japanese Saori weaving, and silversmithing. Don’t forget to take home a bottle of Sly Grog gin, using botanicals grown in the museum gardens by Cherrie and her team, with profits supporting the Sovereign Hill Museums Association.

The famous Ballarat Begonia Festival returns March 2023 but the gardens are gorgeous any time of year.

For lunch and an introduction to the wines of the Pyrenees and Grampians, check out Mitchell Harris Wines, located downtown in a sturdy old store house.

Apartment at Battista from about $630 a night (minimum two nights).

Christine McCabe was a guest of Visit Victoria.


Council of Australasian Museum Directors c/o Lynley Crosswell, Museums Victoria, GPO Box 666, Melbourne VIC 3001, © CAMD 2023
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