Lanigan Abbey Estate, Gundagai review: Mind your manners

Read our writer's views on this property below

Bruce Elder spends an evening with his eccentric host in a restored former convent.

Bed and breakfasts can be divided into those where the hosts live separately from the customers and those where the customer has to become part of the family. Lanigan Abbey Estate definitely fits into the latter category.

Searching for the entrance, we arrive via the back door and a narrow corridor. We enter the dining and breakfast area where the television is on, an ironing board is still up and the usual chaos of a lived-in room – papers and magazines piled up, towels covering chairs – is in evidence. We are greeted by two small, ageing Maltese terriers. Later they join us for dinner and, because of their tendency to wander through the house, a plastic barrier is needed to keep them from climbing the stairs to join the occupant of the Irish State Suite.

The place is owned and run by the eccentric art dealer Brian Tozer, who used to run Bandamora Art Gallery in Katoomba.

He has taken the Sisters of Mercy Convent in Gundagai, built in 1888, now heritage- and National Trust-listed, and turned it into a six-room bed and breakfast, an art gallery and an Italianate square where functions can be held.

Tim Fischer was farewelled here by the Catholic citizenry of Gundagai and environs before he departed to fulfil his ambassadorial post at the Holy See.

Tozer spent years repairing what was effectively a ruin – it had been derelict and unoccupied for a decade – and has turned it into a celebration of Victoriana, realist rural art and rural Catholicism. The original chapel, which is still consecrated, has been beautifully restored and contains the original eight seats once used by the nuns.

The result is a strange combination of an elegant old convent, which was consciously designed as a smaller version of Rippon Lea in Melbourne, stuffed to the rafters with dubious art and antiques (lots of porcelain and Aussie landscapes) and with, perhaps surprisingly, a number of attractive themed rooms with deliciously comfortable beds. Inevitably the original plumbing and internal design have meant that some of the rooms – notably the Rose and Blue suites – do not have their own ensuites.

Gundagai is not known as a centre of culinary excellence – although the Niagara Cafe in the main street was much admired by Prime Minister Curtin when he stopped off for a late-night meal in 1942 – so Tozer does a three-course evening meal for $65. He prefers it if you BYO wine but will sell you a half a bottle of good red for about $10. The meal is suitably rustic – fish and prawns for entree; roast pork with a novel apple, apricot and liqueur sauce and perfectly cooked potatoes, carrots and broccoli for main; and small choux pastry tarts with a helping of fresh cream for dessert.

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The transition from art dealer to host has not been easy for Tozer. He vigorously claims to be a stickler for manners (in the Victorian sense), insisting on saying grace before the meal and railing against past patrons who did not know how to use a butter knife and who did not cut their toast into small portions. Yet, with the wonderful inconsistency so common to those who protest the behaviour of others, he sees nothing incongruous about answering the mobile phone at the table, letting his pants fall down as he leaves the room or allowing the dogs to slurp at their water bowl during the evening meal.

Tozer conducts tours of the convent, including a visit to the chapel, the opportunity to view the diverse artworks and an inspection of the outstanding, dark and stolid Victorian dining room. He also presents an interesting account of the history of the building and its restoration. Many of the rooms have pressed metal ceilings and, although they have been expanded and modified, it is still possible to imagine the small, rooms where the nuns lived ascetically.

You can also spend hours at the Bandamora Art Gallery, transplanted from Katoomba and now in the adjacent school building. There are lots of unknown artists shown but when we visit there are also a good Pro Hart and limited prints by Charles Blackman and Lionel Lindsay.

Lanigan Abbey Estate will not suit every traveller. However, if you have a love of dogs, Catholicism and eccentricity then this unique and historic property will welcome you with a warm glow of familiarity.

Weekends Away are reviewed anonymously and paid for by Traveller.

VISITORS' BOOK

Lanigan Abbey Estate

Address 72 First Avenue, Gundagai.

The verdict If you are looking for a unique experience, very comfortable beds and want to enjoy the host's company you won't be disappointed.

Bookings Phone 6944 2852 or see laniganabbey.com.au.

Price Irish State Suite $250 a night, Gatekeepers Cottage $225 a night, Rose and Blue suites $195 a night — all include breakfast.

Getting there Via the Hume Highway, Gundagai is 377 kilometres south-west of Sydney. The journey takes a little under four hours. Turn off the Hume Highway at the Gundagai exit, proceed along the town's main street, Sheridan Street, until you reach Homer Street. Turn left. Lanigan Abbey Estate is on the corner of Homer Street and First Avenue.

Wheelchair access Yes.

While you're there Visit the remarkable Rusconi's Masterpiece at the Gundagai Information Centre; the Dog on the Tuckerbox eight kilometres north of the town; and the Gabriel Gallery above the Mitre 10 store, which has a superb photographic exhibition of the town's life at the beginning of the 20th century.