Waiters are rushing out plates laden with seasonal produce, the bearded barista is churning out a long list of lattes, and young couples are tucking into plates of freshly baked pastries. There’s an undeniable buzz, a convivial vibe you’re more likely to find in Braddon on a balmy Saturday or the Kingston Foreshore on a sunny Sunday.
However your Akubra-clad columnist isn’t in a trendy suburban enclave, rather, a pub in a small country town, population just 220, just over an hour’s drive from our border. What’s more, it isn’t even peak time, it’s a mid-week morning. After suffering a downturn when bypassed by the Hume Highway in the mid-1990s, Jugiong, located 120 kilometres north-west from Canberra, is experiencing a renaissance and at the forefront of this charge is the revamp of The Sir George – the town’s landmark 1845 pub.
When Kate Hufton and her mum, Liz Prater, bought the iconic watering hole in late 2015 it was run-down, partly boarded-up and had only opened sporadically for the previous decade. However, with Hufton’s business acumen and Prater’s design flair, they’ve transformed The Sir George into much more than a pit stop on the road to the Riverina and beyond, it’s now very much a destination pub. Actually, calling The Sir George a pub is a misnomer. Sure there’s a boutique bar, but there’s also a wisteria-draped pottery shop, an artisan bakery, children’s playground and a farmyard.
Then there’s the restaurant and its not-so-standard pub grub concocted by head chef Nick Williams and his Spanish MIBRASA charcoal oven (one of only 10 in Australia) which ensures the original flavour and texture of ingredients is maintained. Little wonder people are travelling hundreds of kilometres just for a grilled steak.
As enticing as the food and drink scene is here, it’s my penchant for the quirky and the mysterious which draws me places. Here is no exception. In fact, it was a photo of The Sir George’s 166-year-old Cobb & Co stone stables and their narrow slit windows which first lured me here. Regular readers may recall the curious stone structure this column stumbled on near Gunning last year. With angled window slits, some believed it was used aa a fort and ever since I’ve been in search of similar structures in the region.
Unfortunately, close inspection reveals the window slits in the stables at The Sir George, which are currently being converted into luxury accommodation, aren’t angled.
“Oh, they were just to ensure the flow of air,” explains Hufton who notices me getting a little close for comfort to the chief stonemason who is perched precariously atop a ladder.However my quest for curious artefacts doesn’t go unrewarded, for while in digging the foundations Hufton reveals they “uncovered a set of tags from the Cobb & Co days. Apparently the tags went on the horse and the number on the tag was noted in the pub ledger corresponding with the room their owners slept in,” explains Andy Van der Wacht, the renovation project manager who unearthed them. The tags, which now take pride of place on the wall above the bar, aren’t Van der Wacht’s only brush with the past, although his other one is far less tangible. He also claims to have sighted “a ghost … a lady in the window, in broad daylight”.
“It was about 11am one morning during the early days of restoration, there was no one else on the site and I clearly saw the outline of a woman in the window,” he explains, pointing to the top floor of the pub.“There was definitely no one in there, I’m not really a believer [in ghosts] but I don’t know what else it could have been, I can’t explain it”, he says.
For the history buff, another must-see at The Sir George is an adjoining circa-1852 stone cottage.
“We call it ‘Ben Hall Cottage’, an homage to the bushranger who terrorised these parts in the 1860s and who was known regularly to borrow horses from the stables only to return them exhausted after his gang’s night raids,” explains Prater’s partner Kim Gamble. While his official title is ‘customer experience manager’, Gamble also doubles as The Sir George’s sommelier, affineur and vexillologist.
Snooping around this historic watering hole is like a choose-your-own adventure book. One door leads to the billiard room, another to a long room, and the other to the whisky room. Each room has an open fire, stylish furnishing and warm lighting. While walking over the floorboards in the main lounge if you look down you can see through a grill in the floor into a knock-out cellar. Accessible via a small trap door, laden with local wine and with a long wooden table running its full length, it’s tailor-made for King Arthur-style feasts.
Despite their obvious success, Hufton, Prater and their merry team plan to lure even more people to Jugiong and The Sir George with baking classes, wine weekends, stonemason courses and music festivals. They are also hoping to capitalise on the area’s natural features by offering mountain biking on farms and kayaking down the Murrumbidgee from early 2019. Just like Gundagai a bit further south, Jugiong is enjoying a renaissance and at just over an hours’ drive from our border, Canberrans are best placed to take advantage of this.
See you at The Sir George!