Growing up in the Southern Highlands town of Bowral, on the way to school I'd often pass the majestic entrance to Retford Park. I'd heard rumours that the mansion boasted a castle-like tower but unfortunately, with the estate's inner sanctum surrounded by a cloak of towering pine trees, I could never see beyond the driveway.
When about 10 years old, I remember mum telling me "some rich businessman from Sydney lives there", and by high school I was well aware "that man" was in fact James Fairfax of the famous newspaper empire his great-great-grandfather had created in 1841.
For years after moving to Canberra, on return visits to my home town, I'd often walk the hills around Bowral hoping to sneak a voyeuristic peek of the mansion, but to no avail.
I'd all but given up, when shortly prior to his death in January 2017, a very generous James Fairfax bestowed Retford Park to the National Trust of Australia (NSW). Valued at around $20 million, not surprisingly it was the largest gift in the Trust's history.
The Trust wasted no time in honouring James' pledge for his country estate "to be preserved for the enjoyment and benefit of future generations", and now hosts a diverse range of events from art exhibitions in the Round Yard to concerts in its sprawling park-like gardens. They also offer behind-the-scenes tours of the estate, one of which I recently was lucky enough to secure a spot on.
Driving up the driveway it feels a bit like an 18-year-old's first legal visit to a pub. Will it be all its stacked up to be?
I don't have to wait long to find out. A short stroll under a rustic arbour resplendent in autumn colours and past a 130-year-old bunya tree, and there it is, the grand facade of Retford Park's two-storey Italianate revival-style mansion, complete with a knock-out tower. Wow!
Our guide explains that after James bought Retford Park in 1964, "with the help of renowned interior designer Leslie Walford", he transformed the former agricultural homestead "into the ultimate gentleman's residence".
"The first change was the colour from a cowpat yellow into this pinky peach," further explains my guide as we strap on overshoes (can't have the carpet getting dirty) and tip-toe into the Welcome Hall where every piece of furniture is of remarkable provenance. These include the marble fireplace handcrafted by legendary Italian craftsman Pietro Bossi in 1790 and an oak sideboard which my guide reveals "dates back to the time of King Henry VIII". Geez, it makes the antiques peddled in the main street of Bowral appear contemporary.
Next is the sun-filled sitting room, which, with a Eugene von Guerard hanging on one wall and a Russell Drysdale above the fireplace, is like entering a private art gallery. There's also a stately mahogany breakfront bookcase, which I swiftly step back from when my guide declares it "as a 1760 Thomas Chippendale, recently valued at $1 million." Heck.
It's soon clear that away from controlling a media dynasty, James was a man of refined taste who enjoyed the company of artists including the likes of Sidney Nolan and Donald Friend. Nowhere is this more obvious than in dining room, a kaleidoscope of colour with two floor-to-ceiling Friend murals, one a candid interpretation of life in 1970s Australia, with a special focus on the Sydney's eastern suburbs. If you are easily offended, don't let your gaze linger too long on his portrayal of Kings Cross.
A lady on my tour asks why the spoons set on the 17th century refectory-style table are so big. "You can never have too much dessert," muses our guide, adding that James would occasional take his set of handmade Italian crockery featuring the facade of Retford Park to Stanbridge Mill, his former retreat in Dorset, "for special dinner parties". I can only imagine how much bubble wrap he must have used.
Up the grand staircase are the bedrooms and library, each with its own chic colour scheme. These include a guest room reserved for his mum, where exquisite blue fabric was expertly battened onto walls by French craftsmen, and the 'Green Room' where James convalesced when recovering from several heart attacks which curtailed his travel in later life.
However, without doubt, the pièce de résistance is the tower, the enclosed top of which boasts a day bed and windows overlooking James' favourite follies including his emu run.
From this elevated eyrie, you can also catch a glimpse of the very stylish pool, which was designed by Guildford Bell in 1969 and is a bold statement of modernism. You can only imagine sipping drinks in the pavilion after taking a dip in the pool on a balmy summer's afternoon. Divine!
One of the garden's most unique 'rooms' is a secret grotto, where behind a stone balustrade many of James' dogs are buried, each marked with tiny headstones. During my visit, in the dappled afternoon light I notice a slightly bigger stone, carved with the words "James Oswald Fairfax AC 1933 - 2017". It couldn't be, could it?
Current manager of the property, Scott Pollock, later confirms my hunch. "James requested his ashes be buried alongside his beloved dogs," he reveals. "There's even a spot reserved for Selene, a Rhodesian ridgeback who survived James and remains a much-loved resident of Retford Park."
There are few places in our region where experience exceeds expectation and reputation. Retford Park is one such place. Thankfully I won't have to wait another 35 years until my next visit - there's an Open Garden next weekend.
Retford Park: Retford Park hosts numerous events, including theatre, exhibitions, a Dog's Day Out (Really!) and even special dinners. 1325 Old South Road, Bowral (a two-hour drive north-east from Civic). Phone 4861 1933 or see nationaltrust.org.au/places/retford-park/
Open Gardens: The gardens are open on the first weekend of each month from 10am to 4pm. Adults: $15. Tours of the house are available on the Open Garden weekends in February, May, August and September. Bookings are essential. Adults $25.
Don't miss: Retford Park's head gardener Rick Shepherd has taken the 'Garden Room' concept to the next level by creating a 'room' complete with a living couch.
Watery wonder: At one end of the park-like gardens is the Millennium Canal, built to mark the year 2000. When the wind isn't blowing, the water mirrors the deciduous trees planted alongside. A photographer's delight.
Look out for: Portraits of James Fairfax hanging in the house. The 1985 Bryan Westwood portrait of James was intended to hang in the John Fairfax & Sons Ltd boardroom in Sydney where James was chairman from 1977. However, following a disastrous take-over attempt by his half-brother Warwick which sent the company bankrupt, James resigned in 1987 so it never made it to the boardroom. In the stairwell is a 2.5-metre-high portrait of James with two of his dogs painted by John Wonnacott who painted this shortly after being commissioned to paint the royal family in 2000.
Best time to visit: Each season has its own charm. On the June open day you might be lucky enough to catch the last of the autumn splendour. Alternatively, plan ahead for spring or when the gardens are picture-perfect for a picnic.
Did You Know? James Fairfax supported some 350 charities and was an incredibly generous benefactor of the arts, gifting more than $30 million of European old master paintings to the Art Gallery of NSW along with many colonial paintings to the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra.
- Contact Tim: Email: email@example.com or Twitter: @TimYowie or write c/- The Canberra Times, 9 Pirie St, Fyshwick.
Where in Canberra?
Clue: RIP Enrico
Degree of difficulty: Medium - Hard
Last week: Congratulations to Dan Leslie of Curtin who was the first reader to correctly identify last week's photo as the platypus sculpture at the Platypus Lookout, in the Sanctuary at Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve. "My wife and I have spent hours there, when the platypus are active it is practically addictive - just when we're ready to leave another one will pop up close by and then we get drawn back in," reveals Dan.
Dan just beat Ern Berry of Stirling, Chris Fitzgerald of Downer and Gwenyth Bray of Belconnen to the prize. Gwenyth reports she recently noticed the sculpture, a tribute to long-serving Tidbinbilla volunteer Shona Chisholm, "while showing a friend from New Zealand our wildlife".
Did You Know? Platypus forage under water, eyes closed, detecting the muscle contractions of shrimp, worms and larvae with their bill.
How to enter: Email your guess along with your name and address to firstname.lastname@example.org. The first email sent after 10am, Saturday May 25, 2019 will win a double pass to Dendy - The Home of Quality Cinema.
While recently stepping-out along the 426km Hume and Hovell walking track which allows intrepid hikers to rediscover part of the route that explorers Hamilton Hume and William Hovell took on their expedition to Port Phillip in 1824, Jonathan Miller of Curtin took this snap of Big Budginigi Hill, about 15km north-east of Albury.
"It must surely be mainland Australia's only active volcano," muses Jonathan referring to the cloud formation which resembles smoke and ash billowing from its summit.
For the record, the walking track starts at Cooma Cottage, Hamilton Hume's former home on the outskirts of Yass and finishes at the Hovell Tree on the banks of the Murray River in Albury. More information: humeandhovelltrack.com.au