Seeing the world, one country at the time

Richmond, Where Great Wine and the Convict Trail Meet

Where else in the world can you combine criminals and great wine in one breath, but in Australia, and more specifically, Richmond Tasmania? Richmond, just outside the capital Hobart, is the best-preserved Georgian village in Australia and lies on the touristy “Convict Trail”, which continues through Bellerive, Sorell, Dunalley, and Eaglehawk Neck to Port Arthur. Richmond was once a key military post and convict station, strategically located between Hobart and the infamous Port Arthur penal settlement. In the mid 1820’s, Richmond was given its name and became one of Lt. Governor Arthur’s police districts; the “gaol”, (pronounced jail, but I love the fact that they still use the original word), the barracks and the courthouse date from this time.

From the early days of the British settlement of Tasmania, Richmond was an important food producing area and grew quickly, until the railroad, new roads and Port Arthur’s Gaol lessened its importance. It hasn’t changed much in the past 130 years and its historic buildings are often still in use. Though they might tell you that convict workmanship lies behind their longevity, their survival is also guaranteed by their continued use. This is the case for the Richmond Bridge, which is Australia’s oldest, the schoolhouse and the jail, even older than famous Port Arthur’s.

Our first night in Richmond, Lars and I headed to the Richmond Arms Hotel, which boasts “seven beers on tap”. It was a quiet venue, though located on Bridge Street in the center of town, and was already shutting down by eight pm, which seems common in Tasmania. Originally named the Commercial hotel, it was renamed in 1972. The Lennox Arms, which stood in its place before, was destroyed by fire. Only the old stable in the car park remains of the original inn and has been renovated to house hotel guests.

The next morning we headed back into town in the gray rain to explore a little. Our first stop was St. Luke’s Anglican church on the edge of town. It was designed by the architect John Lee Archer who designed many of the islands’ early buildings, and built by convicts. Convict teams from Richmond Gaol dragged the stone from a quarry nearby. The church pamphlet claims “convict masons and carpenters did a remarkable job as exemplified by the clock tower and the roof trusses.” Do tell. Tasmanians often boast of their convict history, and Richmond is no exception. Most of the city’s historic buildings were the work of convicts, overseen by English subjects.

The pamphlet also states invitingly “Our doors are open everyday to everyone”, so we walked in. It is an austere church, as Anglican churches tend to be, but nevertheless, welcoming. In the early days, Sunday worship was attended by not only townsfolk and farmers, but also convicts and their guards. James Thompson, the convict responsible for the original timberwork inside the building was granted his freedom as a reward for his work.

Moving on, we arrive at the Old Schoolhouse, now called the Richmond Primary School, just as mothers are driving up and leading their children into the schoolyard to start their day. The sandstone building is so clearly historic that I can’t help but be impressed that it’s still being used for its original purpose. It is the oldest state school in Australia. Designed by John Lee Archer and built in 1834, it was used as a teacher’s residence as well as the schoolhouse. There was something carefree about the children arriving at school, as I imagine it once was in the U.S., before school shootings, metal detectors and violence against teachers.

On our way to our last stop at the famous Richmond Bridge, we pass St. John’s Church, the oldest Catholic church in Australia, built in 1836. I wonder how an island as remote and small as Tasmania has managed to chalk up so many superlatives in a country as big as Australia.

We walk over Richmond Bridge, constructed in 1823 by convicts for the movement of military, police and convicts between Hobart and Port Arthur. These days it carries cars and tourists and below on the grass roam a brood of ducks that tourists are encouraged to feed. Originally named Bigge’s Bridge, it is Australia’s oldest bridge still in use. It was built from sandstone quarried and hauled by handcarts. It is supposedly haunted by several ghosts, including Grover, a cruel flagellator. I’d hate to meet him in the dark.

Richmond Gaol is Australia’s oldest existing and best-preserved colonial jail, built in 1825. The oldest part opened in 1825 and housed not only the prisoners but also the jailer. It was overcrowded, so once the Port Arthur Gaol opened, the worst criminals were transferred there. One of its infamous inmates was convict Ikey Solomon, said to be the model for Dicken’s Fagin. Constructed of local sandstone from a nearby quarry and built by convict labor, it was the local lock up from 1877 to 1928.

The jail opened in the 1940’s as a historic site and visitor attraction. The tourist brochure from the jail boasts “solitary confinement cells (2x1 meters and Totally Dark), Punishment Cell, Chain gangs holding rooms, Flogging yard and privy, Cookhouse with original oven, Men’s and women’s solitary cells and convict holding rooms, Court yard with old English gardens, Special sound effects and Atmosphere beyond description”. I’d say. You get the idea that these are selling points and that they want you to stay. They encourage you to stand in the solitary confinement cells, for “chilling insight into the existence of Van Diemen’s Land’s convicts, bushrangers and aborigines imprisoned here”. Lovely.

It was with trepidation that I entered one cell and closed the door behind me. I don’t suffer from claustrophobia, but it was easy to stand there for a few minutes and say “this isn’t so bad, you can lie down and stand up”. But I knew that I had the option of leaving at any time. They didn’t. And the crimes that put them there were unbelievable in this day and age: public disturbance, drunkenness and swearing. Half of American teenagers and Swedes would be in solitary confinement on a weekly, or even daily basis. Prisons these days just don’t have the capacity to follow that kind of code of law.

The area surrounding Richmond is a rich wine-growing region. We made time for some wine tastings, first at Puddleduck and then Meadowbank Estate. Puddleduck vineyard is run by Darren and Jackie Brown, whose newborn son joined us in the cellar door for our wine tastings as Jackie explained the history of the winery to us and the delicious wines we were tasting. We drank, overlooking the duck pond, which inspired their logo and name.

Happier already, we headed to Meadowbank, which has award winning wines, a cellar door and an art gallery with spectacular views over its autumn-colored vines. It also boasts an award-winning restaurant. Upstairs is their impressive permanent exhibition called “Flawed History of Tasmanian wine”, which combines poetry, colored wooden sculpture and history to tell an animated and witty account of Australia’s oldest wine industry. It’s “an art installation and wine tasting experience unlike any other in the world. It’s intricate, quirky, vibrant, humorous, clever and vinously enlightening. You really have to see it, smell it and taste it for yourself” if you believe the marketing materials. Our host, Richard, was entertaining and gave us the premium tasting for free. I bought several bottles. Kindness goes a long way.

After Richmond we rushed north toward Launceston, and only stopped in Ross long enough to see THEIR convict built bridge with its fancy and unique design, and to make a phone call to Simon, our host in Melbourne. In the main square are the charming old-style post office and the four buildings they call Temptation, Recreation, Salvation and Damnation, also known as the hotel, the town hall, the church and the jail. Heading north we finally stopped to buy Leatherwood honey as only found in Tassie, but the store was closed so I had to pay a fortune for it in the ferry store on our way back across the Bass Strait to mainland Australia.