Think of the NSW Southern Highlands and rolling green hills, Devonshire teas and quaint antique shops spring straight to mind. Yes? For most, a dungeon complete with ball and chain is one of the last things you'd think of.
Welcome to Fitzroy Inn in Mittagong. Although living my formative years in nearby Bowral, I'm a bit embarrassed to admit until recently your Akubra-clad columnist had never ventured inside the 1836 Georgian-era sandstone house. You know the old story, you don't realise what's in your backyard until you leave.
From the outside it looks like just about any other millionaire's mansion in the leafy streets of Mittagong, it's only when you step inside and start exploring that you realise the extraordinary history tied up in this historic inn, which now operates as a guesthouse.
I prefer guided tours as you hear all the juicy (usually unprintable!) bits, but the Fitzroy Inn only offers self-guided tours (unless you have a pre-arranged private group), so after slipping my $10 in the honesty boxm and picking up the printed booklet of interpretative notes, I tiptoe into the foyer.
To say the Fitzroy Inn has a potted history would be an understatement. It was built for George and Ann Cutter who seized on the opportunity to open a traveller's inn on the new line of road south from Sydney to Berrima in 1836.
George also had the contract to supply stone to the Berrima Court House and he couldn't resist the temptation to pilfer some (lots!) of the stone meant for the court house for his own inn.
After the inn opened, George's problems with the law continued when he was found guilty of attempted murder of a local and promptly shipped off to Van Diemen's Land for 15 years.
In the interim his wife shacked up with another man and so when George returned all hell broke loose and before long he was facing another attempted murder charge.
Somehow that misdemeanour was smoothed over and George and Ann ended up living nearby while the inn passed through a number of other licensees until it became a school in the late 1800s.
It also operated as Oaklands Guesthouse from 1921-1972 and was left derelict during long periods late last century before being lovingly restored over the past 20 years.
And when I say lovingly, I mean painstakingly lovingly. The stairs that lead from the (now) airy atrium into the basement, due to heavy wear, were turned over to retain their original purpose. Now, that's dedication.
Many items uncovered during the restoration are on display in the house, including a section of the original shingled roof and mortgage documents from Henry Southey who purchased the property back in 1882 to convert it to a school - he paid 8000 pounds. A steal in today's money.
Now while for many architectural aficionados the main level of this home with its smoking room, multiple lounges and private sitting rooms and library is the main attraction, for me it's all about the basement, each room with its own purpose.
The biggest space is the original kitchen, which according to the self-guided notes is "the best example of an early Australian kitchen in Australia". I especially like the bread oven in the wall which curiously doesn't have a chimney. Apparently hot coals would have been carefully removed from the adjacent cast iron stove and placed in this oven to bake damper or bread daily.
If you look up you can just make out a trap door that was used to pass down supplies from above. Apparently it was closed off during the time the building was a school. I can't imagine why.
The pièce de résistance in this room, now used for private parties, is a 2.5-metre-deep water well hand-cut into the shale, a remarkable example of convict masonry and craftmanship. It is likely that a spring was discovered in this spot and so the inn was built around this as a valuable resource. After rain the water becomes murky, but with water movement, the natural spring becomes clear again.
Remember George Cutter's little indiscretion of stealing stones meant for Berrima Court House? Well if you look closely at the stonework in the kitchen, you can see that although he lost the contract he must have kept the stones in the walls already erected. The bottom two-thirds of the walls comprise the thieved Sydney sandstone blocks and above that you can see where he was forced to use smaller, irregularly shaped locally sourced stone.
Deeper into the basement is the cellar, and its hand-turned bars and iron shackles which provide a clue as to its original purpose - designed to hold prisoners on their way from Parramatta to Berrima Gaol. However, they weren't alone in the basement, for the room next door was where the constabulary officers bunked down. The lathe plaster ceiling is in its original form, indicating this accommodation was "upmarket" from the prisoners cells.
If you look closely you might just be able to make out that the floor has been lowered, this was done during restoration work to increase the ceiling height to comply with modern building codes. During the reassembling of the floor, each stone was taken up and marked and put back in its original position. What commitment.
I end up snooping around the basement for over an hour, so in the end am very glad it wasn't a guided tour after all.
Oh, and if there is a finer colonial period basement in our region, I'd love to know.
The insider's guide to Fitzroy Inn
Historic Guesthouse: Now boasting 11 luxurious guest rooms with ensuites, a magnificent conservatory, spacious relaxation rooms and beautiful gardens in a colonial setting. 1 Ferguson Crescent, Mittagong (around a two-hour drive from Canberra). www.fitzroyinn.com.au
Self-guided tours: 9am-3pm, Wednesday-Sunday. $10pp. No need to book.
It's all in a name: Next to the basement kitchen is the old food preparation area complete with iron eye bolts screwed into the floor joists. These were used for hanging beasts and would have been imported because in the 1830s Australia didn't have an iron industry. Australia's first iron works, Mittagong's 'Fitz Roy Iron Works' were established in 1848, and not productive until the mid-1860s, and is how the inn got its current name.
Don't miss: On the wall in the atrium are many old photos of the inn and historic maps of the area. There's one particular map of nearby Camden and surrounds. Curiously, it is orientated with west as the upwards compass point. I haven't seen this before on a map. Are there any cartographers who can shed any light on this oddity?
Look out for: The wear and tear on the step from the billiard room onto the veranda, which is now the atrium, indicates this room (formerly the dining room) was once a major thoroughfare.
Check it out: The doors in the Smoking Room. They have been decorated using a technique called scrimming, which is a brush and comb technique giving the appearance of grained wood, a paint effect common in the Georgian period.
Did You Know? In 1875, during the historic home's years as the Oakland's School, the first public tennis court in Australia was constructed in the grounds. Sadly it's no longer in situ but a new court is nearby.
Forgotten founders: Ann and George Cutter are both buried in unmarked graves. Ann died in 1858 and is buried in Camden cemetery while George died two years later and is buried in Berrima.
CONTACT TIM: Email: email@example.com or Twitter: @TimYowie or write c/- The Canberra Times, 9 Pirie St, Fyshwick.
WHERE IN THE REGION?
Clue: Today's pyramid is one you can actually stay in.
Degree of difficulty: Medium
Last week: Congratulations to Naomi Hill and Daniel Newton of Amaroo, who were first to correctly identify last week's photo as a pyramid at the Empire of Atlantium in Reids Flat.
Located near Boorowa, Atlantium is the closest micronation to Canberra which its eccentric founder, 'His Imperial Majesty, George II, Emperor of Atlantium and First Among Equals', describes as "a unique parallel sovereign state based in New South Wales." Atlantium even has its own currency and stamps. Really!
Check it out at www.atlantium.org. It was Daniel's first entry for some time after Naomi bought him a Canberra Times subscription for his birthday last week. Good timing.
How to enter: Email your guess along with your name and address to firstname.lastname@example.org. The first email sent after 10am, Saturday 30 November, 2019 will win a double pass to Dendy - The Home of Quality Cinema.
"It's amazing just how much wildlife we are attracting with our new birdbath," reports Dylan Jones of Hackett, after snapping this photo of a kangaroo enjoying a drink in his back yard.
The recent hot and dry weather has forced all sorts of critters to venture closer into our suburbs for a drink. If you've taken a photo of thirsty animals in your yard, please send it in. I'll publish a selection in coming weeks.
It seems that Darango, one of those two charming three-year-old coffee-drinking llamas from Collector which recently featured on these pages can also read.
"Since he appeared in your column, he can't stop reading it, he loves it" reports owner Brett Byron.
Oh dear, next Darango will be notifying me of any typos. Oh, and how long will it be before he enters this column's photo quiz? I'm not sure what he'll do if he wins though, as last time I checked llamas weren't allowed in movie cinemas.