Patchewollock: Passing the pub test
What its silo art trail and thriving hotel, this Mallee town is packed with character.
Patchewollock is a town in the heart of the Mallee, about 430 kilometres north-west of Melbourne. If you imagined a line between Horsham and Mildura, it would be about halfway. In terms of Victoria, this town is on the edge of nowhere, but in the right light it has a glowing appeal.
Most towns in the Mallee are deemed to be dying, and Patchewollock is not immune to this trend. After a peak of a few hundred some decades ago, the town’s population is down to a handful. Bryce Harriman, the local publican, says the population is about 30 “when everyone’s at home”.
Despite the decline, the Patchewollock Hotel – or the Patche pub, as it’s known – is teeming with life. Farmers drift in from miles around to tell tales around the horseshoe bar. Tourists stand with their backs to the fire and listen to the tales. The pub has been in rude health since a southerner took a punt on the place seven years ago.
In 2011 Greg Wallace, an electrician from Geelong, made an offer for the Patchewollock Hotel that was gratefully accepted. He renovated the place and developed a signature dish, the ‘Wyperfeld steak’, named after the Wyperfeld National Park to the south-west of the town.
The Wyperfeld steak was nothing new, and certainly nothing fancy; it comprises a big, juicy scotch fillet with two fried eggs on top. But people talked about it, describing it as ideal shearer’s tucker.
While many of the pub’s old regulars are gone, they’re not forgotten. If anyone asks about the beginnings of the pub, they are acquainted with the specifications of men like the late John ‘Spindle’ Hulland – born on the day the pub opened, 16 September, 1940 – and given a solid grounding on the men of his ilk.
He became famous for his ability to pick up a lamb and correctly guess its weight.
There was Ray Loxton, who would arrive at the bar at lunchtime and drink stout through the afternoon. In the days before strict drink-driving laws, Ray and his trusty fox terrier would head home in his ute, with the dog navigating. If Ray needed to turn right, the dog would pat him on the right shoulder. If a left turn was required, the dog would lay his paw on Ray’s left shoulder. Henry Lawson wrote about the Drover’s Dog, but it’s the Driver’s Dog that has endured in Patchewollock folklore.
Another pub favourite was big Merv Young, a local farmer and noted country footballer whose demeanour and dimensions made him a natural inclusion in the Carlton & United Breweries beer ads that were shot in Patchewollock in the 1970s.
Merv’s son Gary is also something of a local legend. A superb athlete in his youth, Gary was considered a certainty to make the grade in league footy in Melbourne, only to be blinded in a shooting accident. As a stock and station agent, he became famous for his ability to pick up a lamb and correctly guess its weight.
He became more famous for his ritual of walking from his office to the Patche pub, and taking his regular seat at the bar, with never a hitch or a stumble.
For publican Bryce, the town became home after his mother noticed an ad for the lease of a pub in north-west Victoria.
Bryce recalls walking into the Patchewollock Hotel for his first look. There were about 15 drinkers, arranged around the horseshoe bar in welcoming fashion. “I thought, ‘Yeah, I might stay,’” he explains.
Originally from Kyneton, via a career as an outback mining geologist, Bryce moved to Patchewollock last spring with little else but his ute and Tilly the kelpie.
The greenhorn publican faced an early test last October when he hosted about 2000 country music fans, in town for the Patchewollock Music Festival. In June, he hosted another festival crowd, when about 60 folk gathered at the pub for the inaugural Mad Dog Morgan Lost Gold Festival, in which history buffs and locals traced the apparent path of the infamous bushranger Dan Morgan through the Southern Mallee. Some say Morgan’s trail was dotted with ill-gotten gold that fell from his saddlebags.
The simple genius of the Wyperfeld steak is confirmed through the vigorous demand for counter meals.
This year, the number of visitors to the Patche pub has escalated thanks to the Silo Art Trail, which features portraits of locals on silos in six locations stretching from Rupanyup in the southern Wimmera to Patchewollock, the trail’s northern-most point.
The portrait on the silo in Patchewollock features a striking image, painted by artist Fintan Magee, of Nick ‘Noodle’ Hulland, who happens to be the son of the late ‘Spindle’ Hulland, he of the apposite birth date.
After taking in the portrait of Noodle, the tourists often head over the road to compare notes in the Patche pub. Many end up staying the night. The six rooms at the pub are often booked out, and the simple genius of the Wyperfeld steak is confirmed through the vigorous demand for counter meals.
Meanwhile, in the surrounding scrub, the wildflowers are bursting to life in a way that reflects the fortunes of the pub. It’s springtime in Patchewollock in more ways than one.