Beechworth Victoria: Food, wine and shopping in historic goldmining town

Beechworth has rich goldmining and bushranger history and a terrific food, wine and shopping scene

A long weekend in Beechworth on the edge of the Victorian high country really ticks all the boxes.  It has buckets of gold rush and Ned Kelly bushranger history, a charming small-town streetscape, boutiques and gift shops that rival the best big city offerings, fabulous restaurants, atmospheric accommodations, and even a craft boutique brewery. It is also a terrific stopover on a road trip between Melbourne and Canberra or Sydney.

I am struck by how wide the main street is, wide enough, I am told by local historian Michael Beattie, to turn around a stage-coach, laden with gold. It’s a boulevard, really, and it’s lined with Victorian shop fronts with awnings shading pedestrians much like they did in the 1870s.

I meet Michael outside the Beechworth Information Centre, located in the heart of the Historic and Cultural Precinct. Dressed in an Akubra hat and jaunty waistcoat with fob watch, the long bearded guide, or one of his colleagues, takes visitors on guided walks around town.  The Gold Rush Walk starts at 10:15am and the Ned Kelly Walk begins at 1:15pm.

Gold Rush Past

This corner bank is now the home of Provenance restaurantAs we stroll along Ford Street, Beattie tells me that the Beechworth area was the site of a fast and furious gold rush from 1852-57. During the first election campaign in 1855, one candidate, Daniel Cameron, rode a horse shod with solid gold horseshoes. The logo for Beechworth is still a golden horseshoe.

More than four million ounces of gold were found in the first 14 years and men and women started arriving from the US, England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales and China. Thousands of miners took up claims along the many creeks around Beechworth, camping in tents under difficult conditions. The Chinese were not allowed live in town and resided on the outskirts, starting market gardens around Spring Creek.

At the beginning of 1880 it is estimated that 900 miles of water races had been cut though soil and rock in the Beechworth district, making it unique in Victorian goldfields for its use of hydraulic sluicing to find gold. Michael takes me down to Spring Creek and points out the entrance to the 1100-yard-long Rocky Mountain tunnel dug with Australia’s first hydraulic jack through solid granite straight under the town. It established world records for tunneling in hard rock.  And what happened to all that rock? Well, the gutters lining Beechworth’s wide streets are all made of granite.

By this time Beechworth had become established as a major regional center. The miners worked hard, played hard and prayed hard. There were 64 pubs, 15 opium dens, seven churches, four banks and a sub treasury that processed more than 153 tons of gold.

Bushranger Ned Kelly

Bridge Road Brewers is one of Victoria's leading craft breweries.Surprisingly, none of Beechworth’s banks were robbed, in spite of the fact that Australia’s most famous bushranger Ned Kelly asked his one-time Beechworth colleague Aaron Sherritt, ‘what say you about the banks in Beechworth?’ The latter replied, ‘Forget it.  Too many police.’

Michael explains that Ned Kelly had a long and not very happy relationship with Beechworth. At the age of 16, he was sentenced to three years hard labor in Beechworth gaol for receiving a horse. In one happier episode in town he won a bare knuckle prize fight that went 20 rounds.

Later, after shooting three policemen dead, the Kelly Gang were marked men.  At their final stand in nearby Glenrowan, an enterprising Beechworth telegraph operator tapped out 100 Morse-code messages on his portable telegraph machine to keep the London tabloids informed. When he was finally captured, Ned was taken to the Beechworth lockup. On August 6, 1880 he made his last proud appearance at the court house, where he was charged with murder.  He was hung at Melbourne Gaol at the age of 25 on the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1880.

What is special about Beechworth is that you can hear all these stories while visiting many of the buildings where the action took place. More than 30 buildings are listed by the National Trust. I check out the 1858 sandstone court house, the telegraph station, the sub treasury, and the Burke Museum. One of the best regional museums in Victoria it has a fascinating photographic collection and displays on the Kelly gang, gold mining, and the goldfields Chinese community. It is named after local police superintendent Robert O’Hara Bourke who, with William John Wills, was the first European to walk 2000 miles from the south to the north of Australia in 1860/61. Bizarrely chosen to head the expedition, the Irish-born Burke had no experience in exploration and no bush craft skills and it was due largely to his poor leadership that both leaders and all but one of the party died on the return journey.

Great restaurants

Fully satiated with Beechworth’s history, it is time for me to turn to more sybaritic pleasures and luckily just a few steps from the Court House is Beechworth’s most awarded restaurant, Provenance, located in the high-ceilinged 1856 Bank of Australasia building. I savor owner chef Michael Ryan’s exquisite local delicacies many of which have a touch of Japanese seasonings and ingredients. Michael comes out for a chat between courses and I ask him why he thinks Beechworth is so special.

“It has a lot of 19th century English-style buildings set in a distinctly Australian landscape. And it has kept its village feel. There are not many country towns in Australia that still have that. Plus the food and wine scene is really vibrant. On a professional level, I have access to great wine and produce.”

 Atmospheric accommodation

This evening I am staying at the 1860 House, a beautifully restored horizontal timber-slab hut hand hewn from mountain ash trees in, yes, 1860. Owners Matt Pfahlert and Gina Bladon painstakingly transported the hut to a pretty spot overlooking Spring Creek and, together with rescued materials from a warehouse, old stables and pubs, have cleverly maintained the charm of the original hut.

Inside it is all simple luxuries with open fireplaces, leather lounges, fine linens on the king-size bed and a fully appointed kitchen. An old blacksmith’s bellows is now the coffee table, and the dining table is made from reclaimed blue gum.  They even deliver fresh bread and the newspaper in the morning.

 Terrific shopping

Kathryn Hammerton has clothes that rival the best boutiques in the big citiesFortified I am out bright and early next day to explore Beechworth’s 20th century charms.  I make a beeline for Ford Street, which is chock a block with enticing shops to explore.

Kathryn Hammerton, whose boutique of the same name would fit as easily into the Marais as Melbourne, explains to me why so many city folk love to come here.

“Beechworth is a unique little country town with a city vibe.  It is leafy, gorgeous in the autumn with all the changing colors, and has lovely restaurants. And best of all, it has great shopping. People now come to Beechworth to shop…they’re on a mission because they know we have so many distinctive boutiques with hand-picked treasures from all over the world.”

She stocks French labels like Crea and Didier Parakian, Spanish Sita Mirt, New Zealand Chocolat and Obi, as well as Australians Lisa Barron, Daronne and Tiffany Trealore as well as an inspired selection of costume jewellery.

I spend the entire morning wandering up and down the street. Fine Florentine stationery, Syrian olive oil soap, Portuguese pots and French glassware are tantalisingly on display at Francis Pilley while The Growing Suitcase has lots more treasures for the Francophile including Le Prince Jardinier range of high-end clothes, gardening tools and home wares plus old French linens and Paris lampshades. Dalcheri offers a wide selection of organic and fair trade clothing and Divine Linen specializes in fine Egyptian bed linens as well as linen clothing, hand-poured candles, Danish toys and handmade jewellery.

For something more down to earth, I check out Beechworth Honey Experience with its massive range of honeys and other bee-related products, including fun kids cooking kits.  There is also a live bee display and a free tour showing how four generations of the Goldsworthy family have kept bees in eucalypt forests and today run the largest specialist family-owned honey company in Australia.

After this delightful perambulation, it is time for a cool beer. Beechworth has its very own microbrewery, Bridge Road Brewers, located in a 150-year-old coach house and stables under an archway behind Tanswells Commercial Hotel. Owner Ben Kraus pours me tasting glasses of his seven full-bodied European-style ales, whose labels honour the town’s most infamous (jail) resident, Ned Kelly, who I’m sure would definitely have approved.

The Beechworth Honey Experience offers something for everyone

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Sue Gough Henly

Sue Gough Henly is award-winning travel writer and photographer whose bi-line has appeared in The New York Times, Travel & Leisure, The Guardian, The Toronto Star and all the major Australian publications. Her travel blog, Genuine Journeys, is full of insider tips on the best places for authentic experiences and luxury splurges. She is also the author of Australia’s Best Places travel app. When she doesn’t have sand between her toes or a pack on her back, she writes about food, wine and culture.

2 comments to Beechworth Victoria: Food, wine and shopping in historic goldmining town

  • abigail smith  says:

    Thanks heaps for all this great information about Beechworth. You make it look like such a great place to escape for the weekend.

    • Sue Gough Henly  says:

      It is the perfect destination for a weekend getaway. I’m thrilled you found the post useful.

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