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Swings and bypasses

Swings and bypasses
Carcoar's main street before the bypass. Photo courtesy of Carcoar Historical Society.
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Neil Varcoe was a tech executive in Sydney until he bought an old hotel in Carcoar, NSW, population 271. Here’s the third instalment of his monthly column for Galah.

Stone cottages once lined the banks of the Belubula in Carcoar until a series of trucks with bad brakes took them out. Over the years the trucks tore through the colonial buildings, one by one.

These cottages had witnessed horses and carts and Australia's first attempted daylight robbery by members of Ben Hall's gang, but they weren’t designed for trucks navigating the main street’s sharp bend.

Oops. Photo courtesy of Carcoar Historical Society.

Not long after the last cottage fell, the road went silent. A new bypass diverted traffic around the village. It stopped the trucks and it also destroyed the mechanical business of my forebear, Harry Crase — a man I learned of via email when we bought the first hotel in town on a whim.

When I moved to the hotel last winter, you couldn't get a coffee in Carcoar until Thursday. Each morning, I would walk my cattle dog Mate to the main street, only to be greeted by silence at The Village Grocer. One morning, I met Kelly Picarrazi, who was hanging over a white fence. Kelly and her husband Paolo own the destination restaurant Antica Australis, my favourite restaurant in the world.

We talked about our families and shared stories of growing up in the New South Wales central west region. I sheepishly asked if she thought there were ghosts in Carcoar. "Oh yeah," she replied casually, pointing down the street to the homewares store Tomolly. "Two women in aprons stand at the door. I call them The Ladies.” 

Belinda Satterthwaite, the shopkeeper at Tomolly, later told me that Kelly asked her to light a candle because the ghosts liked them, which is why a candle always burns in her window.

From the moment we started on this wild journey, it had a sense of destiny about it. The impossible became typical:

  • Selling our Sydney house for $400,000 above expectations in a cost-of-living crisis
  • Securing an affordable rental in Sydney during a housing crisis
  • Getting a childcare place for our daughter Molly at a moment's notice
  • Finding a builder crazy enough to take on our project

I felt that Carcoar had chosen me, though this isn't something you typically tell someone you just met. But as Kelly and I were talking about ghosts, I mentioned it to her. "Everyone has a story like that," she said. "Carcoar collects people."

I have coal dust in my lungs and motor oil in my veins. My father, Donald James Varcoe, was a miner passionate about motor racing. He worked in the pits at major race meets — Bathurst for the cars and Phillip Island for the bikes. If he wasn't down in the pit, he was in them. He would have liked Uncle Harry.

Henry Varcoe Crase, born on 4 December, 1921, in Wentworthville, western Sydney, was known as "Harry." He operated a mechanical shop in Carcoar, a literal stone's throw from Saltash Farm. Dad and Henry were second cousins. We don't know if they ever met, but I can imagine them squawking like galahs at the front of the shop, their faces slick with greasy grins.

Harry's workshop closed when the bypass diverted traffic around Carcoar in 1975, a move intended to protect the historic buildings. Reduced to local trade, Uncle Harry eventually shut the doors. He and his beloved wife, Connie, had another dream too. They had laid a concrete foundation at the front of the workshop to create a hotel. The same team that built the highway bridges for the bypass cured the pad. But the bypass put an end to that too.

Henry Varcoe Crase in his Carcoar workshop. Photo courtesy of Carcoar Historical Society.

Weeks into the project, I'm trying not to think about ghosts. Mate and I are sleeping in a guest room at the front of the hotel, the manager's apartment being too messy for comfort. I can hear running water. I walk to the ensuite to investigate. Through an open window, the Belubula River murmurs. I return to bed feeling foolish as my phone glows with an email notification.

Hi, I was interested in seeing your purchase on the web. We lived up the road in what is now Hargan's Cottage B&B, owned by Belinda Satterthwaite from Tomolly.

The other exciting thing is Neil's surname, 'Varcoe.' This was my father Harry Crase's middle name. He was named after his mother, Mary Varcoe, who was born in Lithgow like Neil.

We wish you all the best in your move and development of the old Stoke House. Carcoar is a great place to live, and the school has a fine reputation. It will always be a home for us.

Regards, Lyn Crase

Carcoar is preserved in time, the bypass having held the village in place. An action that destroyed one generation's dream created the perfect conditions for another. Were Carcoar not so beautifully protected by the shifting of the highway, I simply would not be here to write a new chapter for our family in the "town that time forgot."

Thanks to the bypass it wasn't the right time for Harry and Connie's hotel dreams, but fifty years later, it might just be the right time for ours.

@neilwrites  @saltash__farm

Newsletter partner: Zetifi

Pioneering Wagga-based connectivity company Zetifi has developed a new vehicle antenna that has a big role to play as regional Australians prepare for the closure of 3G phone networks. The company’s smart antennas are the world’s first vehicle antennas that automatically adapt to the surrounding terrain by switching between high and low gain modes. This innovation promises more reliable phone reception for the thousands of Australians that rely on a signal booster in their vehicle to stay connected.

Neil's project update

RAG status reporting is used in project management to give quick updates via a traffic light system. “Red” means trouble,  “amber” signals that there are bumps in the road, but still on track, and “green” means that everything is going to plan.

If you see green, someone is lying. Please see the May report below. Feel free to run it up the flag pole and touch base with any questions by the end of play today.

RAG Status: Amber

The Project is Delayed

  • We bundled the family into a pressurised tin can and flew to Melbourne for the long weekend to finalise fittings and fixtures with our architect, Flea Slattery from Studio Esteta. Good becomes excellent in the details — and we’ve selected unique touches for Saltash.
  • During the public consultation phase, we were overwhelmed by a tsunami of support for our family and the project, which was humbling. Revisions have been made to the plans to please the two submissions to the council. The requests included minor issues like changes to boundary fencing and more landscaping around the front of the new cabins. The proposal will be passed without a council vote if the complainants accept those changes. We can start building under the capable guidance of Carcoar builder Aaron Howarth and our team of local trades.
  • We’ll host a field day of sorts at Saltash Farm next Wednesday to present our plans to Blayney Councilors. We’ll take them through our plans and answer any questions.
  • We have a big announcement coming soon about Saltash's food and beverage offerings. You can’t serve toasted sandwiches in the Orange Region, unless you're prepared to add relish.

I'll be back in your inbox next month, in the meantime, find me @neilwrites and @saltash__farm

Over and out.