I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve visited the NSW Hunter Valley over the past 40 years or so. Perhaps 50, perhaps more.
But last weekend was, I think, only my third visit to the village of Wollombi, centre of the valley’s southernmost reaches and an important component of what became known as the Great North Road, which was established, largely by convict labour, between 1826 and 1836 to link Sydney with the Hunter Valley.
And it was certainly the first time that I had visited the village fully enough to stay for a couple of nights and seriously attempt to absorb something of what really is a charming village and a strong reminder of many thousands of years of Indigenous history.
I can offer a few excuses for this lack of attention.
Firstly, it is a “bit out of the way” and not on the direct route to anywhere. Secondly, its wineries — places such as Stonehurst, Undercliff and Noyce Bros — aren’t as well known as those around Pokolbin, Lovedale or Singleton. There certainly aren’t any Tyrrells, Draytons or Brokenwoods to write about.
Not that these excuses hold any water whatsoever. They should, indeed, spur on the naturally curious.
It is, as already mentioned, a charming village that forms a fascinating destination in its own right. Its wineries have some delicious wines for tasting and purchase. It enjoys a splendid natural setting. And it offers a plethora of colonial and Aboriginal history.
I was drawn there at this time by the 15th annual Sculpture in the Vineyards, a thriving and growing exhibition which this year has attracted well over 40 works from up-and-coming and already well established Australian sculptors.
Saturday evening’s official opening at Stonehurst and announcement of winners attracted a large, enthusiastic gathering and augured well for a festival that will run until December 3 (visit www.sculptureinthevineyards.com.au).
The 40-minute drive to the Finchley Lookout in Yengo National Park is certainly worthwhile. The lookout provides an important glimpse into the area’s importance as an Indigenous centrepiece — one that is a junction of five tribal areas.
On a clear day the view from the top takes in rugged, densely timbered countryside that seems to stretch forever and includes the highly significant, flat-topped Mt Yengo, from where, legend has it, the mythical Baiame ascended to heaven after creating all the mountains, lakes and rivers around Wollombi.
Much of the creation story is told in a huge ‘map’ carved into an extensive flat, rocky area near the lookout. It’s also worth having a chat with Stuart Gibson in the Little Yengo Room, right in the centre of Wollombi, to put the area’s ancient Indigenous history put into perspective.
Wollombi has several worthwhile dining venues.
I found Panino Restaurant and Café, in Wollombi’s historic Grays Inn building, especially good. Victoria and Bruno Giagu are serving fantastic, hearty dishes of Italian far, including an absolutely delicious linguini-and-prawn combination served with tiny ripe tomatoes that burst flavourfully in your mouth. They also have a range of wonderful pizzas.
A seat on the large, welcoming veranda, which overlooks a leafy back yard, is a particularly pleasant afternoon and summer evening venue.
Also worth trying is the food at the Great Northern Trading Post in the nearby village of Laguna. It has an eclectic store, where you spend quite a deal of time browsing, and the only fuel in the Wollombi Valley.
Good for breakfast are both Myrtle House, in the centre of Wollombi, and Settlers Kitchen, in the guest house in the immediately adjacent village of Mulla Villa.