A light switch can’t be that hard to find, can it? Sure it’s an old building, but any electrician worth their salt would locate the bedroom light in or just outside the room, wouldn’t they? But I simply can’t find the switch, anywhere. After searching the walls from floor to ceiling, I resort to getting down on my hands and knees to look under the bed. Nope. Nothing there. Not even a pair of socks left from a previous guest. I even search the canopy on the imposing four-poster bed in case the sparky responsible for this switch had a sense of adventure. Again, no luck.
Convinced the elusive switch must have been inadvertently wired in another room, I flick every switch I can find in the hope that somehow the light above my bed might miraculously turn off.
Luckily, the curtains are pulled or neighbours across the road in Skinner Street, Cook, might think there is some sort of late night disco.
I’m bunking down in arguably the most historic accommodation in Canberra – Rosebud, a slab hut located on Hillview, which is a working cattle and sheep farm in suburban Cook run by Maureen and Maurice Tully. All I want to do is go to sleep, but you can’t sleep in a bed with a light glaring into your face.
My frenzied quest to find the elusive light switch does have one benefit – it enables me to explore every nook and cranny of the hut – from scraps of wallpaper (dated from 1889) stuck on as insulation between the vertical timber slabs to frames of black and white images showcasing the hard pioneer life of those who have slept in here before me. (Candles might have been messy, but you sure didn’t need a switch to turn them off!).
The hut’s inclusions are an eclectic mix of old and new. Adjacent to the open fire is a reverse-cycle airconditioner, under the antique wooden crank phone sit the latest European kitchen appliances and juxtaposed next to the Foxtel remote are a pile of old magazines – dating back to the early 1960s. It’s quirky to say the least, but very comfortable, if only I could turn the light off.
After the best part of half an hour without luck, I contemplate ringing Maureen, my host – who lives in the nearby farm house and gave me her mobile number just in case there were any emergencies. But, not being able to find a light switch is hardly an emergency, is it? Besides, things hadn’t got off on the right foot with Maureen. When booking via email, my reference to Rosebud as a slab hut didn’t go down too well. ‘‘The families would have called them cottages – huts are shelters only used by shepherds seasonally,’’ came back her suitably terse reply.
Built in 1866 by Mark Southwell, the hut, oops ... cottage, was first located at Ginninderra Village and later sold to the Shumacks, who transported it to this site in 1879. Numerous pioneering families have since called Rosebud home, and along with three other historic buildings on Hillview, it has been lived in at various stages by the Tullys and their now grown-up children.
Eventually, while peering out the bedroom window to check on what scurried past (I think it was a fox fleeing my impromptu light show), I stumble on a switch behind the blind and high on the inside of the window frame. I flick it in hope. Bingo! The light goes out.
Outside, the wind is howling and the rain is starting to fall. You’d think a 150-year-old slab cottage would be the last place you’d want to be. But with my doona pulled up and the open fire simmering, to the comforting sound of rain pitter-pattering on the corrugated iron roof, I blissfully drift off to sleep.
Morning breaks to the sound of cows mooing and hens cackling. It’s hard to believe I’m only seven minutes’ drive from the city centre. Breakfast is a do-it- yourself affair with bacon and fresh eggs from the farm to accompany a loaf of bread made to Maureen’s secret recipe.
After brekky I take a wander out the back door. Fields of daffodils shelter beneath a stand of towering pines and farm machinery from bygone eras lie sentinel among the green fields. Beyond on the western horizon, a late season snowfall sits atop the Brindabellas.
Running down the side of Rosebud is a laneway leading to nearby Mt Painter (or Round Hill as Maureen’s family and other pioneer families still refer to it). A sign in the laneway relates the historical significance of Hillview and its buildings – it’s one of only a handful of heritage-listed slab huts (their words not mine!) in the ACT. It also provides a few insights into life in years gone past here including , ‘‘the children remember warming their bare feet in manure on freezing cold mornings while herding cows to the milk shed.’’ And here I was complaining about not finding a light switch.
Before I follow the track up to Mt Painter I bump into Maureen doing her morning rounds. I’m too embarrassed to mention the light switch incident but shows me the old apiary which she has also converted (just last year) into another B&B and also a quirky little building set in the middle of a cottage garden. Its tall, thin shape gives you the sense you are viewing it through one of those mirrors that distort images into odd, gravity-defying shapes. ‘‘That’s the old dairy,’’ says Maureen, who explains, ‘‘they only milked one cow at a time back then.’’
In chatting to Maureen I quickly realise the great pride she takes in preserving her family’s heritage – it’s as if she feels an obligation to look after every old plough, every piece of rough sawn timber and every misplaced light switch for future generations. It’s a refreshing outlook as opposed to the ‘‘develop, develop, develop’’ attitude that many other pastoral properties have succumbed to.
How many cities in Australia can lay claim to a working farm only seven minutes’ drive from the CBD where you can bunk down in a 150-year-old cottage? Forking out good money for accommodation in your own town or city is something most of us reserve for special occasions, but spending a night in Rosebud is a journey back in time that locals will cherish just as much as interstate or overseas visitors.
A word of warning though, don’t forget to take some thick woollen socks, for I’d hate to hear that you got cold feet and had to warm them in the traditional Hillview way.
Rosebud Cottage: Skinner Street, Cook. B&B from $175 per night. More: www.rosebudcottages.com
Tim’s Tip: Got relatives or friends coming to Canberra for Floriade? Instead of squeezing them in the spare room, why not treat them to a night or two at Rosebud Cottage? Their view of Canberra (and yours!) might change somewhat.
Mt Painter walk: Starts at the laneway beside Rosebud Cottage. Only about 20 minutes each way. Watch out for the friendly kookaburra where the track starts to steepen.