A shrewd withdrawal

Bruce Elder checks into the safest place in town - The Bank Guest House.

There was a time in rural Australia when the bank manager was a revered local citizen. A man who understood the unique economies of the grazier and farmer, the bank manager was courted by the cockies, lent money when times were tough and advised how to invest when times were good. Invited to join local clubs, hold court at dinner parties and sip tea at tennis gatherings, he was provided with a gracious residence in keeping with his social standing.

These days, most of the old bank buildings, symbols of solidity and prosperity, have become private residences or offices. InWingham, the old Bank of NSW (that's Westpac, for those too young to remember) has become a combined restaurant, cafe and guest house.

Built in 1929 (presumably just before the stock market crash on October 29 that year), the old bank stands proudly on the western side of Wingham's Central Park – a large open space that is about as close to a village green as you're likely to find in Australia.

The bank looks as though it was built to stand for a thousand years. Its exterior is heavy and solid and inside there's dark timber used everywhere: from an elegant stairway to the upstairs rooms to casements with sash windows and picture railings around the rooms with threemetre ceilings.

The owners, Bev and Rod Petterson, have worked wonders on the old building, turning the bank's main office into Tellers Cafe and Restaurant (it used to be open to the general public but now caters only for people staying at the guesthouse and special occasions). They have opened up the back rooms as a lounge and dining space with a large television, an open fire and sofas; and have exposed and polished the old bank's beautiful timber floors.

This is not some dilettantish experiment. Bev has worked in the hospitality industry for many years, including a stint as the manager of a resort on the island of Tanna in Vanuatu. She is also an excellent cook, offering house dining packages (a sensible option given the limited culinary options in Wingham after dark) of $35 for two courses and $45 for three courses.

We book in for an evening meal, sit around a table in the old bank's back room with the other guests and enjoy the conversation over a dinner of pumpkin soup, blue-eyed cod with broccoli and potatoes and an excellent rhubarb and apple crumble with ice-cream. There is also a good, small range of wines by the glass. A hearty cooked breakfast and excellent coffee are also served in the restaurant.

The bank has six guest rooms: four upstairs in the main building and two at the back. There's also the Maitland Cottage, a self-contained cottage in the back garden, and the Garden Room, where we stayed. This was added to the bank in the 1970s to house a member of staff. It's small and comfortable and has an en suite.

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On the surface, the small town of Wingham (population 4700) doesn't seem like a natural destination. But the fact it is only 12 kilometres off the Pacific Highway (and, therefore, 1000 kilometres from care) is a persuasive argument for anyone driving north and needing a break. After a day negotiating trucks and traffic, it's a peaceful diversion and, surprisingly, the town has a number of interesting attractions that deserve at least half a day to explore.

In Central Park is an amusing plaque declaring: "In a rugby union match played here on 22 July, 1907, popular NSW and Australian forward Alec Burdon suffered a serious shoulder injury. Player unrest at rugby officialdom's indifference to the plight of Burdon and other injured footballers was a major factor in the formation of the NSW Rugby League on 8 August, 1907."

There's a 19-tonne log symbolising the region's historic dependence on the timber industry and a Vampire Jet perched on a pole, installed in 1971 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the RAAF.

But the real highlight of the town, and an attraction that has been updated recently, is the seven hectares of bushland known as Wingham Brush. It has new boardwalks through one of the last surviving pockets of subtropical flood-plain rainforest in Australia.

This is a lovely walk through an area dense in ferns, orchids, Moreton Bay fig trees, bougainvillea and more than 100 species of birds, including brush turkeys. An Aboriginal corroboree ground was located within the reserve and the remains of two cedar saw pits can still be seen in the northern section of the brush.

If you're driving north and want to avoid the predictable stopovers, then Wingham is a sensible, almost exotic option. The Bank Guest House, with its ambition to re-create a world of oldfashioned country elegance, offers four-star accommodation that hovers between tradition and modernity.

Weekends Away are reviewed anonymously and paid for by Traveller.

VISITORS' BOOK
The Bank Guest House Address 48 Bent Street,Wingham. The verdict A rare opportunity to feel like a prosperous rural bank manager. Price From $155 a couple with breakfast during the week to $175 a couple with breakfast on the weekend. Bookings Phone 6553 5068, see thebankandtellers.com.au.

Getting there Wingham is 319 kilometres north of Sydney via the Newcastle Freeway and Pacific Highway. Take the signs off the highway to Taree, continue through town and proceed 12 kilometres toWingham.

Perfect for An exploration of the midnorth coast hinterland and for those who fancy some time in a sleepy country town.

Wheelchair access No.

While you're there Visit Ellenborough Falls (about 40 kilometres from town), explore Wingham's heritage buildings or drive less than 45 minutes to beaches at Black Head and Crowdy Head.

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