Inked to the pioneer past

Tim Richards celebrates the written word in a gold-rush town with a literary bent.

The story of Clunes, north of Ballarat, is that of the little town that could. From a thriving gold rush settlement of 30,000 residents in the Victorian era, it had subsided to a sleepy hamlet of 1000 souls and empty shopfronts a century later.

Then some forward-thinking townsfolk had an idea of how to best utilise those dusty-but-attractive shops, staging a one-day book festival in their interiors in 2007.

Five years later, the 2012 Clunes Booktown Festival attracted 15,000 visitors across a May weekend. In addition to numerous booksellers and food stalls, the festival's events program featured literary guests such as biographical writer Alice Pung, American poet Ryan Van Winkle, children's author Hazel Edwards, science writer Gina Perry and historian Geoffrey Blainey.

To cap it off, the town was recently accepted as a member of the International Organisation of Booktowns, alongside, among others, Hay-on-Wye, which is in Wales.

There are now several year-round bookshops in the town, specialising in second-hand books. That's not to discount the attraction of Clunes' intact 19th-century look that led to its use as a film set for the 2003 Ned Kelly movie.

History

The town's growth was turbocharged in 1851 by James Esmond's gold discovery, which was the first registered gold find in the colony. In 1873, the Clunes Riots erupted over miners' working hours and the use of Chinese workers to break a strike. After goldmining ended in 1893, Clunes settled into a quieter existence broken by only occasional excitement, such as providing a location for the 1970s film Mad Max.

Bookshops

Index on Literature. Proprietor David Bornstein spends his weekends in Clunes, where he runs the town's oldest bookshop in the impressive old post office building. There's a broad selection of pre-loved works, with strength in the area of literary diaries and criticism. Amusingly, the British fiction and Irish fiction sections live as far apart as possible, at opposite ends of the shop (102 Bailey Street, phone 5345 3705, open Sunday).

We're All About Books. An anchor on the main street, this large bookshop with lots of natural light covers all the bases. Owner Pam Adams nominates the New Age section and books about animals as two areas of growing strength (54 Fraser Street, phone 5373 8001, open daily).

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Impedimentia. This diversified business occupies two old shopfronts, one specialising in books and the other stocked with vintage clothing and French-flavoured curios (4 Service Street, phone 5345 3550, open weekends).

Ian Baker's Secondhand. This compact set of rooms next to the butcher's shop is packed with an eclectic selection of books, including an appealing array of old children's annuals (61 Fraser Street, open daily).

Miss Agatha Greene's Quality Books. This venue has a classic shopfront and the most pleasant vibe of all the bookstores, featuring dark-green walls and timber shelving. It has an interesting selection of books on the history of the goldfields (31 Fraser Street, phone 5345 3485, open weekends).

Other attractions

The imposing Clunes Museum on the main street is closed for renovation until 2014 but the Lee Medlyn Home of Bottles (70 Bailey Street, phone 5345 3896, open Thursday-Sunday), within a historic school building west of the town centre, is worth a look for its imaginative internal streetscapes, stories of deadly exploding bottles, and equipment once used to make soft drinks. On the Fraser Street shopping strip, Gold and Relics (28 Fraser Street, phone 5345 3375, goldandrelics.com.au) harks back to the gold rush by selling gold jewellery and arranging prospecting tours into the countryside. Nearby, the Union Bank Arts Centre (22 Fraser Street, phone 5345 3755, unionbankartscentre.com.au) stages occasional exhibitions.

Outside town at Coghills Creek are the cellar doors of Mount Coghill Winery (Learmonth-Clunes Road, phone 5343 4329, weekends) and Eastern Peake Wines (67 Pickfords Road, phone 5343 4245, daily). Another natural attraction is Mount Beckworth Scenic Reserve (Mountain Creek Road), where bushranger Captain Moonlight once hung out; it has picnic areas and walking tracks.

Where to eat

Widow Twankey's. This ice-cream parlour also serves cafe-style food such as curry filo parcels, and smoked chicken and redcurrant jelly sandwiches. The stock of the adjacent sweetshop section ranges from Swiss dark chocolate to the chocolate bars of Victorian manufacturers such as Pink Lady (50 Fraser Street, phone 5345 3426).

O'Hara's @ Clunes Cafe Bakery. Bakery with cafe seating among greenery in front of the shop and in a side garden. The menu runs from pies and cakes to sandwiches, with the salami focaccia providing a tasty highlight (24 Fraser Street, phone 5345 3700).

Enoteca@Clunes. The cellar door of nearby Mount Beckworth Wines sells its cool-climate wines from this location, with popular drops including its pinot noir and chardonnay. It also serves delicious light meals such as local smoked trout with avocado salad (46 Fraser Street, phone 5343 4207, open Fri-Sun).

National Hotel. Unfussy old-fashioned pub with a wood fire for winter warmth, and a small but pleasant beer garden. Serves the usual pub grub from Wednesday-Sunday (35 Fraser Street, phone 5345 3005).

Five Mile Creek Butcher & Delicatessen. Sells excellent meats and a range of international cheeses. The rogan josh lamb sausages alone are worth a trip to Clunes with an esky in the boot (61 Fraser Street, phone 5345 3854).

Where to stay

Keebles Country House. This grand structure opened in 1863 as a pub and had various uses, reputable and disreputable, after that. Now it's beautifully decorated accommodation, with comfortable rooms and lounges, and a garden containing a golf driving range and a tennis half-court (114 Bailey Street, phone 0412 788 816, see keeblescountry houseclunes.com.au).

The Dukes B&B. Another former pub, located just off the shopping strip. The compact rooms are attractively decorated, and guests have use of a sizeable lounge, dining room and garden. Its co-owner, Graeme Johnstone, turns out a good coffee from his espresso machine (19 Fraser Street, phone 5345 3267, ballarat.com/dukes).

Old Dairy. B&B set on a former farm. Rooms have balconies overlooking the town and there's seating in a pleasant orchard (8 Smeaton Road, phone 0409 483 011, mooltan.com.au).

Poplars. This former miner's cottage is now a B&B done out in Victorian-era style, with iron bedsteads and a comfy parlour (21 Service Street, phone 5345 3115, ballarat.com/poplars).

Ella's Cottage. Accommodation for up to four guests is on offer within a restored cottage (1 Cameron Street, phone 0416 116 667, ballarat.com/ellascottage).

Events

Clunes Booktown Festival is held on the first weekend in May. It's a a celebration of the book, with multiple booksellers and a program of guest speakers. See booktown.clunes.org.

Historic Vehicle Show, on the Labour Day weekend, March. Words in Winter, in August. Clunes Agricultural Show, on the third Saturday of November.

Getting there

Late last year, passenger rail services returned to Clunes. V/Line operates one train a day to the town via Ballarat (about 1 hour, 45 minutes from Southern Cross), plus more-frequent buses. By road, Clunes is 140 kilometres from Melbourne, 90 minutes along the Western Highway.

More information

The Clunes Visitor Information Centre is at the bottle museum (70 Bailey Street, phone 5345 3896); clunes.org and visitvictoria.com.

Tim Richards travelled courtesy of V/Line; Tourism Victoria.

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