Mud House, Castlemaine review: Substance with style

Read our writer's views on this property below

Paul Kalina discovers a mudbrick retreat in the bush with polished floors and vaulted ceilings.

There's a surprise as we pull into the driveway of our destination that promises to surpass what was meant to be the highlight of the weekend for the choo-choo-obsessed two-year-old - a trip on an authentic steam train that travels twice weekly between Castlemaine and Maldon.

An overexcited, super-size labrador that's unaware of its considerable girth knocks the little one onto his bum as he sidles up for a pat. Hilarious. For the remainder of the stay, the sight of the dog at the terrace door elicits squeals of excitement.

Mudbrick house outside Castlemaine. OK, I know what you're thinking. There was even a barbed joke to this effect in The Slap, when the couple Rosie and Gary and young brat Hugo pack up their troubles and move to this neck of the woods in the hope of making a fresh start.

For starters, this is no hippie shack. The Mud House is an elegant, handcrafted, villa-style studio built from thick and solid mudbrick. Come back in a couple of centuries and it will still be standing, or pretend for now it's a mediaeval villa in the hills of Tuscany, where well-heeled expats retire to write memoirs about unhappy love affairs.

Four sets of large double-glazed doors open to a cobbled terrace surrounded by untouched, natural bush. Inside, there's an open studio with a rounded nook at one end and a rustic wood-fired furnace, apparently of Danish origin.

A quick lesson in how to use the heater from the friendly owners, who live in an adjacent house with their menagerie of pets and a young daughter, and the furnace is pumping out an extraordinary amount of heat, enough to boil a kettle and keep the house warm the entire night. Despite warm spring breezes during the day, the temperature drops to low single figures in the evenings.

A vaulted ceiling and polished concrete floor help make the room even more airy - and dazzlingly bright. The unpainted, ochre walls and exposed timber beams and benches give it an earthy warmth. At the opposite end of the building is a bedroom with tall rectangular windows. With simple furnishing, it feels spartan yet elegant, as does the tile and concrete bathroom, which comprises a shower recess, basin and toilet. There's no door, which makes this a weekender for those used to - or willing to try - life in close quarters.

Kitchen facilities are limited to a sink that wasn't designed with dish-washing in mind, an electric wok, a mini-oven, kettle and toaster.

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There's sufficient crockery to tide one over, as well as tea and coffee-making facilities, though preparing anything more than a one-pot meal might prove a challenge.

In the morning, we wander into the bush outside. Wildflowers have sprung up on the forest floor. The rich scent of eucalypts fills the air. On the other side of the house, down a sloping lawn, there is a chook shed and fruit trees. At the neighbour's fence a few hundred metres away, a curious llama watches and waits to have its nose scratched.

Castlemaine is a five-minute drive away, with numerous shops and cafes, including Apple Annie Cafe on Templeton Street, where pastry chef John Stekerhofs (ex-French Lettuce) bakes rich croissants, pies and breads.

At Talbot, 60 kilometres away, an eclectic market on Saturdays sells everything from builders' hardware to locally grown fresh produce.

As for the vaunted steam train, the little boy slept through most of the 90-minute journey. Just as well we met the well-fed pooch.

VISITORS' BOOK

Mud House

Address Willy Milly Road, Castlemaine.

Phone 0438 578 680.

Cost From $160 a night.

Getting there Castlemaine is a one-hour drive from Melbourne on the Calder Freeway. Trains travel regularly to Castlemaine. The Mud House is 4.5 kilometres from the town centre.

Summary An elegant, yet spare and comfortable, one-bedroom studio surrounded by serene natural bush.

Verdict 17

The score: 19-20 excellent; 17-18 great; 15-16 good; 13-14 comfortable.

All weekends away are conducted anonymously and paid for by Traveller.