“I was so excited I forgot to eat my popcorn.” James, aged 9. Any movie…
On 27 and 28 October, Canberrans have the chance to peek inside a ‘secret garden’, see an historic homestead and walk round a most unexpected sculpture park. This is the story of ‘Old Graham’.
A drive in the country was a game changer for a Canberra couple, and the start of a truly unique ‘garden’. One day, about 25 years ago, John and Liz Baker found themselves on a back road in rural New South Wales, having taken the ‘scenic route’ home to Canberra from Dubbo, when they came across a “derelict old stone house, with holes in the roof, broken windows and sheep grazing around it.”
“We stopped to stretch our legs and to look at it when the owner appeared—apparently she’d had people stealing the bath and fireplaces from the house and thought we might be up to the same trick,” says John.
“We chatted and she showed us inside—it was a really scary—with a dead sheep in one room, rotten floors and so on. Driving back to Canberra we talked about what a beautiful old place it must have been and maybe we could buy it and restore it.”
And so they did. So began a restoration project which continues to evolve decades later, and is now known as ‘Old Graham’.
A fascinating history
The house has a fascinating history. Originally built in 1878 as a private home for Edward and Mary Ann Kerr, rooms were added in the following years to allow it to open as the Glencoe Inn in 1884 with a Grand Supper and Ball. The celebrations were short-lived, however, as Edward died of a heart attack in November of that year and Mary Ann a year later of ‘intemperance’, (which was not surprising as she had ten children to support).
“The house then became the homestead for a series of owners who were sheep graziers — it was abandoned in the 1950s and so had not been lived in for about 40 years when we found it. It was in a very bad state.”
The house was restored according to heritage restoration principles, retaining as much original material as possible and replacing like with like. The house was then furnished with Australian cedar furniture, restored brass beds, old light fittings and many original items that may have been found in a house of that age.
John has collected anything and everything from farm clearing sales that would have been found on a sheep grazing property of the time, ranging from large machinery and vehicles to fence strainers, rabbits traps, blacksmithing gear and so on.
An enchanting garden
While the homestead itself is a charming step back in time, it’s the surrounding garden that elicits gasps from visitors.
Liz’s green thumb and encyclopaedic knowledge of plants saw her transform an open sheep paddock into a lush garden with stone walls, paths, a sunken garden, a pergola as a framework for her planting of roses, irises, a pond and bog garden and a range of native shrubs. Trees she planted 25 years ago are now maturing and include White Cedars, Elms, a Tulip Tree, a Bunya Pine and a Bull Bay Magnolia.
A most unusual find
Then there’s the ‘sculpture park’ — the surrounding hills and valleys of Old Graham dotted with around 70 strategically placed sculptures — the vast majority from Canberra or regional NSW, with 20 created by students from the ANU School of Arts. It’s certainly not what you’d expect to find on a rural property half an hour from the nearest town. So how did it come about?
“We had been keen art collectors for many years and reached the stage where our walls at home were full of paintings, so we drifted into buying some sculptures which we started to take out to Old Graham,” says John.
“There we started to position them around the house garden and in the house paddock. Things slowly got out of control as we bought more and more sculptures.”
The pieces are truly diverse. The ‘Folly’, constructed of six 100-year-old Sydney sandstone columns is a great family favourite with a fantastic view of the valley. A large bronze head by Patricia Lawrence stares out from Pine Hill. The ‘Glockenspiel’ purchased at Sculpture by the Sea creates wonderful chimes whenever the wind blows at the top of the hill. A steel bench with a stylised figure on it called ‘Flaneur’ by well-known Canberra sculptor Michael Le Grand is a great place to have your photo taken.
At the other extreme are nine standing stones, each weighing several tonnes and some standing three metres high, offcuts taken from an old quarry where granite slabs were formerly quarried for cutting into kitchen bench tops and positioned high on a ridge, where the setting sun casts a golden glow.
Unsurprisingly, it’s hard for the couple to name a favourite.
“All of the sculptures are so different that they each have something that appeals about them. Haeli Van Veen’s ‘Beast’ , a two-metre high moose made of driftwood and steel, stands on the horizon and can be seen from the road — it has caused quite a few drivers to do a double take,” says John.
“Rosalind Lemoh’s three-metre high copper ‘Garden Spade’ looks just like a normal spade until somebody stands next to it. Then there is Amy Power’s fibreglass ‘Bambi’ that stares menacingly at you from under the trees. The Labyrinth is a great way to get exercise or to meditate! We could go on and on!”
As a private property, it’s a rare treat to experience Old Graham, but in late October the Bakers will be opening the farm gates in an Open Garden which will give others a glimpse into a property like no other—and a different way of life.
“Old Graham has been our retreat from a busy consulting business in Canberra and has given us a complete change of pace,” says John.
“It has provided us with lots of exercise, a better understanding of the difficulties and rewards of rural life and a chance to make friends in a part of country New South Wales which is far from the world of Canberra, where we still live for more than half of the time.”
Visit the Open Garden
Detailed notes on Sculpture Walks will available, with morning and afternoon tea and lunch catered by Frogmore Community Hall, or you can take a picnic. Liz will also have home made jams for sale, the spoils from Old Graham’s many fruit trees.
Doesn’t a drive in the country sound like a wonderful way to spend a weekend? You never know what you might find…
What: Old Graham Open Garden
When: 10 am to 4:30 pm Saturday 27 and Sunday 28 October 2018. Program here.
Where: 3021 Frogmore Road, Hovells Creek. Located 43km from Cowra and 50km from Boorowa. Detailed directions here.
How much: $7 entry