Central Tilba has a busy and very well known main street, where shops, cafés and the famous Dromedary Hotel jostle for space side by side, engaging visitors with the colour and movement of being in a National Trust classified heritage district.
But there is another, very different part of Central Tilba, separated by the Princes Highway. This is the domain of dairy farms, settled in the latter part of the 19th century. These are picture perfect landscapes: velvety green hills stretching to the coast, an occasional valley with a sprinkling of eucalypts and the kind of peace that city folk dream about.
‘Henkley’, a homestead built in the 1870s, sits comfortably here, surrounded by its 256 acres (102 hectares). No longer a dairy farm, instead, once through the front gate, I am greeted by a jostle of leggy Black Angus calves, frolicking along the fence. Their calm mothers stand sensibly in the shade on this hot day. Then it’s past the remains of a post and rail fence, through the timber archway to the circular drive, past the picket fence and a stretch of lawn to the cool verandahs of the house itself.
Greg and Sue Halpin have owned ‘Henkley’ for eleven years, fulfilling Greg’s dream to become a farmer. They both love this place, evident by Sue’s sympathetic choice of fabrics and blend of furnishings, allowing the timber house to show its fine heritage bones.
The first owners of ‘Henkley’ were John Palmer Seccombe and his wife Ellen Gay Bate, of the pioneering Bate family. In about 1900, it was sold to John Caffin, the local butcher, who owned it briefly. Then three generations of the McFaul family were there until 1993, when John Parker, the former editor of the newspaper ‘The Land’ and his wife bought the property, before it came to the current owners.
There are two central 1870-built original rooms with Dutch ceilings at the heart of the house: one now a formal dining room and the other the kitchen. The huge fireplace connects both rooms and other rooms grow organically from this centre. Fifteen Seccombe children once lived here with their parents. The photographer who chronicled life in Tilba, W.H. Corkhill, captured them, solemn-faced and dressed in their Sunday best, in a photo which forms part of Greg and Sue’s small collection of historical photographs.
In the living room is a pressed metal ceiling with lush, sweeping flower patterns, its detail underlined by the simplicity of the furnishings and two deeply comfortable couches. The bedrooms have doors leading to the gardens and the silky timber floors contribute to the atmosphere of space and freedom. The master bedroom has a distant ocean view, but the hallmark of this house is the way the light from room to room shifts and changes with sun and shadows.
The outbuildings are a whole other adventure. There is the bunkhouse, which enabled Greg to invite his old footy team to stay. Next is the now-deserted barn, where the cows were milked. This building holds the memories and in there, we feel the stillness of earlier times. The metal rings remain on the wooden posts and the narrow steep stairs to the feed storage are still strong and firm. There’s a domed vine-covered construction which provided the original water supply, thought to be built to an old Egyptian well design, with the pump still intact, though not working.
There are tales here, of course, some fact, some rumour. One concerns William Seccombe, John’s brother, a keen gambler, who owned the property next door to John and Ellen. It is said he bet – and lost – his property in a card game at The Palace Hotel (which became the Dromedary Hotel in 1948). His neatly fenced gravestone can be seen from beside the bunk room at ‘Henkley’.
This is a well-loved house. John Parker and his wife made sensitive changes: classic tiling in the bathrooms, a claw foot bath and endless timber floors. Kitchen cupboards are fashioned from original floorboards. All have been done with an eye to its heritage classification.
For Greg and Sue, ‘Henkley’ has given them much: a fulfilled ambition for Greg, a warm and welcoming retreat for their friends and family and the pleasure of becoming part of a rich rural community.