For old times' sake

Historic buildings and gardens will open for the city's heritage weekend, Sandy Guy reports.

Just outside Ballarat is a house that sits amid stone-flecked hills and rises out of the rural landscape like an enchanted castle from the Scottish Highlands.

Ercildoune is everything its romantic name invokes - a grand two-storey stone mansion adorned with gabled roofs and castellated parapets, with expansive formal grounds studded with majestic trees.

Towering Californian redwoods, golden elms, giant bunya pines, Scotch firs, Lombardy poplars and weeping willows planted as early as 1842 form a breathtaking backdrop to Ercildoune's gardens, which combine sweeping lawns, expansive garden beds, scenic lakes, wooded dells and a rose-filled walled garden built in the 1870s.

It is difficult to believe the whole remarkable place was established by two teenagers. Scottish brothers Thomas and Somerville Learmonth were only 18 and 19 when their father sent them to Victoria in 1837 to establish a sheep run in the unexplored bush. Not only did the brothers complete the mission, they managed to establish a pastoral empire.

The original modest homestead, a cabin of stone and timber, still stands. The Learmonth brothers lived here for two years while they built the mansion.

Over the decades, several tenants also enjoyed the estate's charms, including the diva, Nellie Melba, who leased the property for six months in 1907. Melba installed a tennis court you can still see today and, legend has it, entertained lavishly.

Today, driving into Ercildoune, 20 minutes north-east of Ballarat, is like turning the clock back a century to the days of Australia's squattocracy. Restored to its former glory by owners John and Christine Dever, Ercildoune is one of Victoria's finest examples of a 19th-century pastoral estate.

Its ornate gardens (not the mansion) are among a bevy of historic treasures that will have a rare opening during Ballarat Heritage Weekend on May 8-9. The equally historic Lal Lal Estate, a working cattle and sheep farm amid rolling hills at Yendon, east of Ballarat, is another local beauty for garden lovers to explore.

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The gardens at Ballarat's Loreto College will also be open, as will Loreto's chapel, regarded as one of Australia's most magnificent convent churches. And while Lake Wendouree, sadly, remains dry as a result of drought, the collection of venerable trees and colourful garden beds at Ballarat's Botanical Gardens, established from 1858, is in fine form.

The wealth generated by the gold rush is reflected in the architectural grandeur of Ballarat, from the imposing Town Hall to the Mechanic's Institute, railway station, St Patrick's Cathedral, Her Majesty's Theatre and the Mining Exchange.

Pick up walking tour brochures and event programs from the Mining Exchange, which is also the venue for a series of heritage-related seminars and heritage collectables.

Almost 100 activities and events are planned during the weekend, most free, including exhibitions of working steam engines, vintage buses, horse-drawn carriages and classic cars. Several venues, including the restored Craig's Royal Hotel, will serve high tea.

Ballarat Heritage Weekend, May 8-9, phone 1800 446 633, see ballaratheritageweekend.com.

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