Sentenced to a high-life

Preserved: the manor house, verdant grounds and towering Bunya pine at Brickendon Estate.
Preserved: the manor house, verdant grounds and towering Bunya pine at Brickendon Estate. Photo: Andrew Bain

Andrew Bain lives and breathes history on a convict-built property and Australia's only World Heritage-listed B&B.

It's Anne of Green Gables meets convict life. In the shadow of a double-storey barn, sheep, goats, ducks and turkeys wander about, surrounded by some of the oldest convict-built structures in Tasmania.

Children hand-feed the cute animals, while a roll call of convict names relates Dickensian-type crimes punished by the severest of penalties: life sentences for pickpocketing; 14 years for stealing a few handkerchiefs.

The dining room at the convict-built farm is loaded with history.
The dining room at the convict-built farm is loaded with history. 

It's not Port Arthur, and it's not Sarah Island. It's Brickendon Estate, one of Tasmania's oldest farms and one of 11 places gathered together under the United Nations' World Heritage listing of Australian convict sites in 2010.

What sets Brickendon Estate apart from its World Heritage cell mates, such as Port Arthur, Hyde Barracks and the Fremantle Prison, is the fact that it remains a working property, a seventh-generation family farm, and, now, with sister property Woolmers Estate, the only bed-and-breakfast in the country that can boast World Heritage credentials.

The road into Brickendon from the town of Longford is squeezed between hedgerows, creating a suitably manorial entrance. The Archer family has occupied the main homestead, which is built of bricks made on the property, since 1828, and directly across the driveway is the Coachman's Cottage, now one of five guest cottages on the estate. It will be my home for the next two nights.

Like so much of the estate, the Coachman's Cottage was built by convicts in the 1830s. Almost two centuries on, it retains mostly original features, down to the worn wooden steps and the creaking stairs, with a sunroom and bathroom added at the back in the 1970s.

The kitchen-turned-dining room features an old bread oven and a cooking fireplace, and the bathroom has a deep claw-foot bathtub. A private garden leads down to a lagoon rich in birdlife, where I spend much of my time as the modern lord of the manor.

But it's the estate's main garden, wrapped around the Georgian house, that is arguably Brickendon's prize feature. One of the most impressive gardens in Tasmania, it has an exotic collection of trees rivalled only by the Royal Tasmanian Botanical Gardens in Hobart.

Atlantic cedar, an Algerian oak and a Bunya pine tower over the grounds, where a carriageway leads down to an orchard of pears, chestnuts, mulberries and a rare medlar plum tree.

At the base of the garden is the butter-yellow Gardener's Cottage, the second of Brickendon's original guest cottages (its three additional "farm cottages" are modern constructions). The positioning of the cottages is reflective of 19th-century social order, with the respected coachman near to the homestead, and the scrubby gardener hidden away from sight.

The 465-hectare estate is a property in two parts, with most of its 20 buildings about a five-minute walk from the homestead, in the so-called farm village. It feels like a reconstruction but it truly is a 19th-century convict-built farm - not just a living museum, but once life itself.

Convicts built this section of farm from 1824, and worked it until the assignment system ended in 1841. Those who toiled here were often skilled labourers - blacksmiths, sawyers, wheelwrights - constructing a mini village around the original cottage of William Archer, Brickendon's first owner, who lived here from 1824 until the main house was built four years later.

Most of the original structures remain intact, from a pillar granary (used to store flour and grains) that's said to be the only one of its type in the southern hemisphere, to a smokehouse, shearing shed and chapel.

Head towards the rear of the village and there are the foundations of one of the few buildings no longer standing: the convict barracks.

Next to the relics of the barracks is the old dairy, now an interpretation centre, while in the adjacent blacksmith's forge, tools stand almost untouched since their last use in the 1930s.

In the distance, the homestead at Woolmers Estate rises on a bank above the Macquarie River.

As I wander back through the farm village, chickens and turkeys scurry underfoot, and the only sound is the hum of a distant tractor.

It's a scene so bucolic, so perfectly agrarian, it's easy to forget it was built on the sweat and blood of convicts.

Andrew Bain travelled courtesy of Tourism Tasmania.

CONVICT CRASH PADS

If you like the hard cell when it comes to Tasmanian accommodation, there are a few other convict-related options around the state.

On the Tasman Peninsula at Koonya, Cascades Colonial Accommodation (cascadescolonial.com.au) has a selection of guest cottages inside a former 1840s convict jail. In nearby Taranna, Norfolk Bay Convict Station (portarthuraccommodationtasmania.com.au) was once the end of the line for Australia's first convict railway (convicts pulled the carriages from Port Arthur).

For something almost as basic as convict times, hire a cell in the Darlington penitentiary on Maria Island (parks.tas.gov.au). Rooms contain bunks, a table and wood heater, with shared showers and toilets.

FAST FACTS

Getting there Brickendon Estate is on the outskirts of Longford, about 30 kilometres from Launceston. Jetstar (jetstar.com) and Virgin Australia (virginaustralia.com) have daily flights to Launceston from Sydney and Melbourne.

Staying there The Coachman's Cottage costs $205 a night for two people, and the smaller Gardener's Cottage costs $190. Continental breakfast provisions are included; see brickendon.com.au.

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