What to do in St Arnaud

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Like many regional towns, St Arnaud has had its share of ups and downs. First the gold ran out and the mines had to close. Then the water ran out and the brewery had to close. Then flood shut the main street.

Now the little town is starting to climb up from one of its down periods, a time of faltering businesses, discontent among some sectors and an identity crisis. Art, food and community pride are powering the resurgence and the last thing the town needed was a televised allegation of drug abuse.

Many people wouldn’t readily find St Arnaud on a map of Victoria and many more have never been there. Unlike, say, Beechworth, it doesn’t have enough iconic attractions to make it a rewarding destination for several days.

But there’s a buzz around town, a resurgence of civic pride inspired by such luminaries as famed curator/art director Maudie Palmer, former international hospitality professional Samantha Pritchard, restaurateur Gerald Diffey and 99-year-old former mayor Ella Ebery.

With the help of volunteers, they are guiding the town and district along a track lined with food, art, wine and fun. Some residents are sceptical but in general the community is behind a long-term project that could set an example to fading country towns across the nation.

This was the picture a couple of years ago: 10 pubs down to two, many empty shops, gourmet food was extra sauce on a burger. Few visitors stopped for more than fuel.

Enter Sam Pritchard and husband Peter Bloomfield, who had just bought a large farm on the outskirts. They were impressed by the Victorian architecture in the town’s main streets but underwhelmed by the lack of some of the finer things in life. They noticed a couple of one-time pubs that need more than a lick of paint to revive them.

So they bought them. And what they bought consists of one pub with 10 bedrooms, remarkable only for the amount of bird droppings on the floor. And another pub with 19 bedrooms crammed with a bewildering amount of hoarded stuff.

We also discovered vast potential, and the longer we live here, the more potential we see,” says Sam, who has helped run luxury hotels from the Gold Coast to London’s Mayfair and won’t let a bit of bird guano get in her way.

“We figured the town and district could do with a serious facelift as a start to regaining some prosperity. You have to give visitors a reason for driving all this way ... we thought with a lot of help we could start a ball rolling.”

But just before that ball started to move, ABC-TV screened an investigation into crystal methamphetamine – ice. Unfortunately the focus seemed to be on St Arnaud rather than the hundreds of other small Australian towns with similar issues. St Arnaud was on front pages for the wrong reasons.

Ella Ebery, for 32 years editor of the town’s newspaper, former mayor and an acknowledged force of nature, says that although St Arnaud is going through a difficult period she’s optimistic about the future. Her optimism is legendary – after battling a broken hip, breast cancer and loss of driving licence at 96, she took driving lessons, passed a test at 99.

“We’re in the middle of the most dramatic change in the town’s history and it’s being reinvented once again ... I’m sure there are problems with drugs, but that’s the same the whole world over. We’ve got to band together to keep the old town moving in the right direction.”

Until recently the old town’s empty shop fronts told a story of decline. Now those windows are enlivened with art as part of a street museum concept visualised by Maudie Palmer. It’s a major element in the civic precinct plan of the Northern Grampians Shire and will introduce artistic ideas to an area that has seen lovely old buildings knocked down under the guise of progress.

The inaugural artist was James Geurts. He was intrigued by the way gold and water came together in one dramatic incident in 1924: deep drilling for the metal burst open a vast underground lake which forced its way to the surface, bringing with it a high level of arsenic.

Another time, rain flooded the town. Geurts illustrated the flood level with a gold banner marking the waterline for the length of Napier St, punctuated by a massive artwork titled Watertable. It suggests the interplay of groundwater, mining and the strata of the earth’s crust.

Artists-in-residence occupy part of the old Manchester Hotel – now reborn as the Lamartine Hotel – and may endow the town with their work. The owners’ plans for the once-grand hotel includes a mix of community centre, events venue and rooms where performance and food come together.

Across the street is their second acquisition, the faded but massive St Arnaud Hotel. It will be extended to include a gallery for sporting art. Upmarket food and wine will be directed by Gerald Diffey, of Gerald’s Bar in Carlton and now also of San Sebastian, Spain.

Makeovers to country towns are not new. Many have brought prosperity; others have faded. St Arnaud is a work in progress with some strong people confidently building for the future.

For more information about St Arnaud, go to www.ngshire.vic.gov.au/Our-Townships/St-Arnaud

Lamartine Hotel
Art installation marking the high watermark of a major flood
St Arnaud Hotel
St Arnaud main street
Queen Mary botanic gardens
Written by Paul Edwards, Photos Anne Morley
September 01, 2015