Oatlands Heritage and Bullock Festival

It was a courageous decision by the organisers to schedule this event, which has been running for several years, over a weekend in mid-August, which is in these parts the true depths of winter. Perhaps it is because this is the quietest month for any sort of tourist activity in Tasmania that the date was chosen.

Another courageous decision saw myself and a friend disregard the Bureau of Meteorology’s Warnings to Sheep Graziers and other indications that this might have been a good weekend to stay home and set off on the hour-long drive up the Midlands Highway from Hobart to check it out.

Upon arrival in this historic and picturesque town, located on a windswept plain in the Southern Midlands, we were greeted with chilly winds and passing showers to find there was no problem parking right in the centre of town. Hardy folk were proceeding with the advertised program at various locations around the town, many of them indoors, or at least providing heritage-listed sandstone walls to shelter behind and roaring fires to thaw frozen extremities.

First stop on the day’s tour of the township was the Oatlands History Room, with its displays of chattels and small rooms representing the school, shop, garage, gaol and even the barber shop, as well as a small and very basic cottage on the grounds which would have done little to keep out the drafts for any residents.

I have written previously about Oatlands’ heritage conservation efforts and its gradual resurrection from being a neglected backwater since being bypassed in the 1970s, and I took the chance to revisit several buildings that have recieved a lot of careful attention, including the Supreme Court, Gaol & Military Precinct and Callington Mill. While there are self-guided walks available, illustrated with informative brochures and even key access to some of these buildings, public access and interpretation has been dealt a setback with the closure of the local visitor centre a year or so ago. Plans are afoot to open a distillery adjacent to the Callington Mill, which would provide a thematic focus and visitor services and facilities.

The old gaol house is well worth a visit, partly for the replica of the scaffold where several condemed prisoners took their final step into eternity upon a structure that would now afford a good view of the local swimming pool*, and also for the striking historic wallpaper that has been recreated following extensive and carefully documented research.

*Funding has been announced to construct a new swimming pool at another location in the town, and the prospect of the removal of the old one, which was built over the gaol yard, has local archaeology types quivering with excitement.

We found our way to the Commissariat, which has also been the recepient of some tender conservation work of late, too late to sample any of the bread that was being baked in its historic woodfired oven. A local volunteer told us that health regulations required that the dough be made off-site and brought to the building just for the baking, so a loaf baked on the premises from flour ground at the adjacent mill sounds unfortunately unlikely. This is a pity – it would work well with the distillery and provide a thematic link about the various uses of grain.

Oven in the Commissariat Building at Oatlands
Oven in the Commissariat Building at Oatlands

There is a nod to more recent heritage in the form of topiary around the town. Any Tasmanian of a certain age will have vivid childhood memories of the assorted animals formed from pruned shrubs that dotted the side of the highway for several miles north of Oatlands for many years.

Signs and topiary at Oatlands, Tasmania
Signs and topiary at Oatlands, Tasmania
Oatlands Town Hall
Oatlands Town Hall
Manceys Store, Oatlands, Tasmania
Manceys Store, Oatlands, Tasmania

After visitng numerous historic buildings, most of which contained examples of various handicrafts and artisanal wares of all sorts – jewellers, spinners and weavers, leather workers, a blacksmith – and a chat with members of the local Masonic Lodge, we were feeling hungry, so headed for the TKO Bakery in the main street.

Taking Orders from Kermit at the TKO Bakery, Oatlands
Taking Kermit’s Orders at the TKO Bakery, Oatlands

We were initially mystified by the titular acronym of this modest eatery, which boasts a collection of movie memorabilia with a focus on Errol Flynn and Marilyn Monroe, but which extends to a wild assortment of other gaudy stuff, including the above centerpiece featuring Kermit the Frog. After some reflection we decided that TKO did not refer to any pugilistic tendancies on the part of Mr Flynn, but instead to Taking Kermit’s Orders.

Some of the 'memorabillia' on display at the TKO Bakery, Oatlands
Some of the ‘memorabillia’ on display at the TKO Bakery, Oatlands
Some of the 'memorabillia' on display at the TKO Bakery, Oatlands
Some of the ‘memorabillia’ on display at the TKO Bakery, Oatlands

Crossing the road after lunch,  we were distracted by a great clattering and banging in the main street.

The hullabaloo it transpired was being caused by this handsome traction engine which was taking a trip from a nearby paddock, and was presumably headed to wherever ‘home’ was. Given it had a top speed roughly equivalent to that of a lame tortoise, one hopes that it wasn’t far, as there was soon a line of regular vehicles lined up impatiently behind it.

By this time it was well into the afternoon and another squall was screeching across the plain. Had the weather been better we would have lingered and even headed out for a walk around Lake Dulverton, with its sculptures of semi-submerged cattle.

It was an enjoyable day out, despite the weather. Any opportunity to see inside some of the area’s heritage buildings and get an insight into their conservation should be grabbed, and the addition of assorted steam-driven charabancs and bullock teams added to the experience.

I hope this event continues to grow, and that the distillery and other developments planned for Oatlands will add to the event and to the village, drawing passers-by off the highway to pause and enjoy the town’s many charms.