Martindale Hall, Clare Valley.

Martindale Hall, Clare Valley.

Lord of the manor Andrew Bain samples wine and heritage at a pair of lovingly preserved mansions.

At Martindale Hall, on the edge of the Clare Valley, it's the literal night at the museum. The day visitors have gone and I'm alone among its 19th-century designs and furnishings.

The tournament-size billiard table, built in 1878, is mine to play. The hand-blocked wallpaper and the main bedroom are mine. Even the library, in which some of the 2500 books date to the 1700s, is mine to read at will.

Anlaby Homestead.

Anlaby Homestead.

By day this mansion is a visitor showpiece, but at night it becomes a private estate for house guests. It's arguably the most famous mansion in South Australia, having figured large in the Peter Weir film Picnic at Hanging Rock, and yet on a wintry Sunday night I have the place to myself. Truly, I am lord of the manor.

Built in 1879 by 21-year-old sheep farmer Edmund Bowman, the Georgian-style home was the centrepiece of a 4500-hectare sheep station. During the 1890 depression, Bowman was forced to sell the property to William Mortlock, the son of a former parliamentarian, and it remained in the Mortlock family until 1950.

The building and its furnishings are virtually unchanged from that date. To enter after a day among the Clare vineyards is like stepping into the unpopulated pages of Pride and Prejudice.

The building closes to public visitors at 4pm and, shortly after, I arrive at my private Martindale fiefdom. A glass of wine awaits me in the drawing room, with the fire stacked ready to light. At the head of the wishbone staircase are 10 guest bedrooms. I'm staying in the so-called Blue Room (named for its blue wallpaper, which dates to the early 20th century), which was the main bedroom for all three owners.

Attached is the original en suite, with sumptuous bath, though guests now use a more modern bathroom down the hall. The adjoining room - the second bedroom - was used as Miranda's bedroom in Picnic at Hanging Rock.

As darkness settles I'm free to roam the building, among treasures of such quality they'd be partitioned away in almost any other museum. The billiard table is said to have been the first in Australia with return chutes for the balls. The library was the private collection of the property's final owner, John Mortlock, and there's 19th-century European art on the walls. The furnishings aren't styled to the period, they are from the period, including the leather sofas and a pier mirror.

In the morning I'm woken by twin alarms: birdsong from among the date palms out front; and the breakfast gong, signalling a meal that will be my own private "picnic at Hanging Rock" ... minus the disappearance.

A short distance away, at the edge of another of South Australia's great wine regions - the Barossa Valley - history beckons again with a stay at Anlaby Homestead, one of the most storied properties in country South Australia.

Located outside the town of Kapunda, Anlaby might not be as perfectly preserved as Martindale but its history is even more detailed.

South Australia's oldest merino stud was settled in 1839, just three years after the founding of Adelaide, 100 kilometres to the south. Once covering almost 650 square kilometres, it employed up to 70 staff, including 14 gardeners.

For more than 130 years the property belonged to the Dutton family, including Henry Hampden Dutton, who was the first person to drive south to north across Australia. The Duttons discovered copper in the area, transforming Kapunda into a town that briefly rivalled Adelaide for importance.

"Really, the Duttons were the equivalent of the Kidmans," says Anlaby owner Andrew Morphett, referring to the 19th-century Australian cattle family. "They were just quieter about it. They were real pioneers, and as a family they were as significant and probably wealthier than the Kidmans. This property is so significant because it's all still intact. It's certainly one of the most significant properties in the state."

In the drizzle of a winter afternoon, arriving at Anlaby is like entering a tiny English village. At the end of a 1.5-kilometre driveway lined with red gums, the homestead comprises about 40 buildings, all carefully ordered according to social merit. The workers' cottages are scattered among trees away from the main homestead, with the manager's residence perched grandly on a hill. The main house has 23 rooms, complete with servants' wing, butler's pantry and a flower room, in which ladies would arrange flowers.

Wrapped around the house are four hectares of ornamental gardens.

"The building was a statement about the family's position," Morphett says. "It really was an English manor."

In the past the property was infrequently accessible to the public - in the English tradition, the Duttons would open the gardens to visitors once a month - but today it's a bed and breakfast with easy access to the Barossa Valley's cellar doors. Guests stay in the Manor House. My room overlooks the slate roof of the stables and the large stable yard, where an original clock tower still ticks away. The three bedrooms, which hire out individually or to groups, are simple and spare - a bed, whitewashed walls, empty fireplaces - befitting their times.

Downstairs, a fire roars in the guest lounge room, where the farmhouse-style furnishings and hunting-scene tapestry are just another step back in time, at a homestead where history feels almost as real and relevant as the bricks. "For most people, a stay here is about discovering history they didn't know about," Morphett says.

"They come expecting a little B&B and discover a whole lot of other stuff."

FAST FACTS

Getting there Private transport is best for accessing both properties. Martindale Hall is 135 kilometres north of Adelaide, near the town of Mintaro. Anlaby Homestead is about 100 kilometres north of Adelaide, near Kapunda.

Staying there Bed and breakfast at Martindale Hall, Sunday to Friday, costs $130 a person; dinner, bed and breakfast costs $260 a person. See martindalehall.com. Rooms at Anlaby cost $160 a night, with all three rooms available for $450. See anlaby.com.au.

 

Andrew Bain travelled courtesy of the South Australian Tourism Commission