School Hill, Hunter Valley review: Cloudy, a chance of bongos

Read our writer's views on this property below

Getting rained in isn't a problem for Andrew Taylor, who finds a country retreat that's a roomy antidote to cabin fever.

FORGET about the intricately carved four-poster bed, the fountain spurting water into a pool brimming with fish, Smeg stove the size of a ship and bucolic views. The real test of a weekender is whether a 12-hour downpour of biblical proportions induces cabin fever so deadly it makes you want to hurl the furniture at your companions. Despite Dungog's tempestuous weather and two Sydney boys' low boredom threshold, School Hill passes, with fountain and furniture intact.

It could so easily have turned out in a nasty Lord of the Flies way.

The journey had already veered off-course four days earlier when Greg forgot to put the handbrake on after parking at the top of a hill. The result? Three scratched cars, a flattened give-way sign, a slightly damaged Paddington shopfront and Greg's car to become scrap metal.

Three days later, it is my turn to be saboteur after navigating our hire car into Maitland, in the Hunter Valley. It takes one more wrong turn before we crunch along School Hill's Dungog driveway, to be greeted by the magnificently named Sally Tickle, the property manager and owner of a 810-hectare Angus beef farm across the road.

After showing us the on-off switches, where to find the corkscrew and the woodpile, Sally hands over the keys and returns to her heifers.

Greg and I immediately case the joint like a couple of bent coppers, opening drawers, searching the well-stocked kitchen cupboards, peering behind curtains and under the mattresses.

Trained by countless home-renovation shows on TV, Greg notices the diamond-patterned tiling in each bathroom and exquisitely painted skirting boards - clearly the work of a proud builder, he declares. I find the bongos and pound them until he threatens to break a guitar on my head.

We decide it's hard to fault the four-bedroom, multi-toileted School Hill.


The dusk chorus of birds and views of cows munching contentedly up and down the grassy hills are splendid. The vase of miniature bougainvilleas on a side table is a caring touch. The house even smells good: an earthy, woody scent like dad's Old Spice.

I'm so enamoured of the place I start hugging the white mahogany support columns until Greg suggests it will give me a face full of splinters. My attention turns to the bottles of wine, a packet of cheese twists and a box of Lindt chocolates Sally has thoughtfully laid out.

That covers enough food groups but Greg is thinking ahead to breakfast, so we jump back in the car and tootle to the supermarket, stocking up for tomorrow's planned day of outdoor he-manning at nearby Barrington Tops.

After the supermarket closes at 7pm, Dungog seems to give up for the night. The recommended Chillbillies Restaurant is closed, while the Bank Hotel's dining room is deserted, although it's unclear whether this is related to the quality of the food or the evil eye cast by the old soaks propping up the bar.

The Dungog RSL looks more inviting - there's a class of downward dogs in one room, while an energetic group of line dancers rips up the floorboards in the main function room. The bistro, however, is closed, and the pot-bellied, ZZ Top-bearded bartender points us back towards the Bank Hotel.

The first drops of rain are tickling School Hill's corrugated-iron roof when we return.

Half a day later, the he-men of School Hill are still in their jim-jams, contemplating breakfast and an afternoon of massaging the couch in front of the television.

We eventually head into the great outdoors and explore the garden planted with apricot, apple and fig trees as well as casuarinas, agapanthus, tea trees, grevilleas and jacarandas. That's according to Greg, who seems to have digested a year's worth of Gardening Australia and has probably joined the Don Burke Facebook fan page.

The wind howling through the hills eventually blows away the rain, replacing it with an autumnal chill and star-studded night sky. Despite School Hill's vast cathedral ceilings, the wood fire has no trouble keeping the house warm (and there are radiators in each bedroom for the truly cold-blooded). Another marathon sleep and gluttonous breakfast steels us for the drive back to Sydney.

We haven't achieved much else but then, isn't that what a weekend is all about?

The writer was a guest of School Hill and Tourism NSW.

Trip notes

Where School Hill, 381 Sugarloaf Road, Dungog, (02) 8003 5228,

Getting there Take the F3 towards Newcastle until you see signs to Maitland. Follow these until you see signs to Dungog; drive through town, turn left at Hooke Street and follow it out of town where it becomes Chichester Dam Road. About two kilometres on, turn left on to Sugarloaf Road and follow it for about 3.5 clicks.

How much The weekend rate is $450 a night.

Style statement Woody but not too wild; the manly outdoors spiced with the flavours of Bali.

Perfect for Sauvignon blanc-sipping inner-city types who want to show off their culinary chops. Oh, and interior decorators looking for ideas.

Take the kids? Definitely. The parents' retreat is at the opposite end of the house from the children's bedroom and there are plenty of distractions.

Don't forget Your designated driver. Dungog is in the Upper Hunter Valley, so wineries are a little drive away; the Dungog Film Festival is from May 27-30 at the historic James Theatre, the oldest cinema in Australia still in use.

A shame about The kettle that doesn't work and condensation on the outside of the fridge.

Kudos The wonderful garden will keep Peter Cundall groupies busy for hours.