The town of Clunes in Victoria, is around 140km from Melbourne CBD, situated north of Ballarat, in the Shire of Hepburn. This historic gold mining town that lies in a steep valley surrounded by extinct volcanoes, is the first place in Australia where Gold was found. The best time to visit this place is any time during the year as the streetscapes look straight out of a Gold rush era history book. But 6th May this year had an extra significance, as the town was celebrating Booktown Festival and it was easy to melt in among the crowd of around 18,000 people who came from all around Australia.
This charming Gold rush town is internationally recognised as a booktown and boasts about the dis-proportionally high number of bookshops, which makes it a books town all around the year. Indians may not be familiar with the concept of Booktown, but there is a booktown in India too. Bhilar, near the popular hill station of Panchgani in Maharashtra, self-declared itself as a booktown in 2017. In Clunes, Booktown Festival offers an opportunity to discover rare, out of print and collectibles books printed in Australia. This year, some of the bookshops were found to be selling Original Newspapers from the 1870’s for just $5. What a Bargain! This also goes along with Author talks and panel discussions, in the heritage buildings of the town, most of them built between 1860 to 1890. To top all, some of the best local food was available at the makeshift outlets around Booktown. Once done with the books, a drive through the wide streets of the town, could bring any visitor back to the days of Gold rush – the streets, the buildings and even the people looked like belonged to that era. With this old charm, a touch of the old Aussie racist attitude, still hung somewhere along.
Clunes is also a location of many of our Movies and Television serials. The early town scenes with the Toe Cutter Gang in the 1979 Mel Gibson starrer, Mad Max was filmed in the main street of Clunes. Fraser Street, became the town of ‘Wee Jerusalem’ in the movie. Many of the buildings in the street are from the 1870’s and the shop fronts that we see today, looked the same 150 years ago. The Club hotel (1870), The former London chartered Bank (1871), Union bank (1865), National bank (1871) and the National Hotel (1862) still stand with their old glory bearing the name changes.
The Heath Ledger starrer, Ned Kelly movie was also shot in Clunes. The Euroa bank robbery scene was shot at the Old State Bank in Fraser street. ABC television series’ Queen Kat, Carmel & St Jude, something in the Air and Halifax f.p was also shot in Clunes.
On the left side of the Club hotel is the Clunes Museum that has a collection of items from the Gold rush era. One notable item not seen anywhere else was the punching clock used in the Mines during the Gold Rush time.
Clunes also boasts of some of the architecturally beautiful historic churches. The 1871 built St Paul’s church of England, The Uniting Church (1863), and the St. Andrews Presbyterian Church (1861) are noteworthy.
The Clunes Town Hall and Court House designed by Percy Oakden and constructed by William Cowland in 1873 is a reflection of the town’s prosperity during the Gold rush era. A two minutes’ walk from the Town Hall is Lee Medlyn Home of Bottles. The bottle collection is housed in the decommissioned South Clunes State School. The building was, for over 45 years, used as the Clunes Interknit Mill. More than 6000 bottles of different shapes and sizes are displayed here. The building itself is an architectural marvel. A collection of old machinery used in the manufacture of aerated water is also on display. George Lee Medlyn, a sheep farmer and a top Merino sheep fleece judge purchased the school building in 1985. In 1989 he opened the bottle museum to the public which he later bequeathed to the shire of Talbots and Clunes. The entry fee to the Museum is only $3.
To make Clunes complete, a few wineries are also located at driving distances from the town. This remains a must visit place for any Australian, as there are not many Gold era towns around, that can match the stature of Clunes. This place has one more distinction, being the first town in Australia to have an organised strike against mine owners.
When we make a return from Clunes, the good news is – there are a few other beautiful old Gold era towns littered along the way back to Melbourne – to name a few, Creswick, Maryborough and Ballarat.