The Grande Old Dame of the Hunter - The Convent
She’s one of the grande dames of the Hunter Valley vineyards, an imposing guesthouse with a heritage stretching back to the early 1900's
And as you drive down Halls Road towards The Convent, you’d certainly be forgiven for thinking the magnificent two-storey colonial homestead had stood at the end of its imposing tree-lined driveway for more than a century.But dig a little deeper, and you’ll find that the guests who stay within her 17 lavish rooms aren’t the only ones who have been on a journey.
While these days The Convent is a much loved and award-winning luxury guesthouse and wedding venue in the heart of Pokolbin, the building’s foundation lies 109-years and 500km north-west of the Hunter in the tiny rural town of Coonamble.
The grand timber building was built in 1909 to house a small community of Irish-born Catholic nuns, who had arrived in Coonamble 26 years earlier. The six Sisters had made the difficult journey from Ireland to Australia at the invitation of Bishop James Murray of the Diocese of Maitland, with the goal of setting up the first school run by the Brigidine Order in this country. While the Order soon began establishing schools in other parts of Australia and even in New Zealand, a contingent of sisters remained in Coonamble, with the boarding school continuing to operate until 1980. In the mid-1980s Sydney-based architectural firm Crawfords Architects became aware that The Convent was no longer being used by the Brigidine Sisters and was in danger of being demolished.
Taken on as a joint project by Mike and Suzi O'Connor from Peppers Guest House, media magnate James Fairfax and Hunter Valley restaurateurs Robert and Sally Molines, the building was carefully dismantled ready for its relocation to the Hunter. Project notes recorded by Suzi O’Connor, who is also a noted interior designer, said it was love at first sight for The Convent.
“We went to see it and fell in love!” she wrote. “It was a timber colonial building with wide verandahs, gorgeous windows, magnificent timber staircases and lots of original pressed metal in fabulous condition. “It could be a very special and unique Peppers hotel, so we offered to move it.” Few buildings of this size had ever been relocated long distances, with planning for the move a long and complicated affair.
The first floor of the building was divided into two massive single storey sections, which were transported via large trucks to the Hunter. The sections were so large that a number of small bridges along the route had to be pulled down and rebuilt in order to accommodate the size of the trucks.
The second floor was taken apart completely, with each piece of timber and ever intricate detail carefully numbered and photographed so it could be reassembled perfectly before Suzi went to work styling it ready for guests.
“Using photographs and the numbered pieces, the building was carefully reassembled in the Hunter Valley,” Suzi wrote. “There were 17 beautiful bedrooms all with ensuites, a gorgeous lounge with a massive fireplace, and a sunroom. “The decor was elegant French Provincial incorporating t'oilles, gilded mirrors, old marble consoles and Aubusson rugs on polished timber floors. “The pressed metal was re-used, and the pair of staircases on either side of the lounge were striking. Tapestry cushions on the sofas and masses of fresh flowers completed the look.” A grand reopening was held on October 27, 1991, with a commemorative plaque unveiled thanking the Brigidine Sisters for enabling the building’s restoration to take place.
With the addition of a tennis court, swimming pool and spa with cabana, The Convent complex represented a stunning mix of five-star luxury and historically-significant architectural beauty.The site also included the newly opened Murray Robson Winery owned by Murray and Lynley Robson, and the fine dining experience of Roberts Restaurant, which was created by Robert and Sally Molines in an historic 1876-built ironbark cottage once owned and lived in by the Robsons. A separate main dining room was added in 1995, with the name changed in 2015 to Circa 1876, eight years after the departure of Robert Molines. The Convent has changed hands many times over the years, becoming part of The Tower Estate Group before being purchased by former Newscorp Australia boss and ex-RM Williams chairman Ken Cowley and his family in 2010.
In 2016 the property was placed on the market once again, this time snapped up by the Escarpment Group, who took over both The Convent and Circa 1876 in September that year. The experienced luxury accommodation provider is renowned for its premium boutique collection of properties in the Blue Mountains, including the only five-star hotel in the area (Lilianfels Resort & Spa) and the world famous Hydro Majestic Hotel at Medlow Bath. Escarpment Group director Huong Nguyen said The Convent was a fine addition to their property portfolio. “The Convent and Circa 1876 are icons of the Hunter Valley and are well positioned to optimise the growing interest in regional tourism,” she said. “Both are steeped in history and are symbolic of the vision and passion of the pioneers of hospitality/tourism investments in the Hunter region. “I think its most striking features are the architecture of the Convent building along with its romantic history, its imposing yet graceful stance and the tree-lined driveway to remind you that you are arriving at an iconic guesthouse that was once home to six pioneering nuns. “You can’t replicate such history and its wonderful combination of luxury boutique accommodation and regional fine dining.”
Since taking the reins at the Hunter icon, the Escarpment Group has commenced a “soft refurbishment” of its rooms with new carpets, paint works, lighting, landscaping and gardening. But there is plenty more in store as part of their plans to refresh the wider complex, with both physical projects and exciting new events in the works.“In the next 12 months we plan to upgrade the existing bathrooms, pool/barbecue area and relaxation lounges to facilitate more relaxed pre-function and conference events at The Convent,” Huong said.
“Other activities that we are planning for the next 12-18 months at both The Convent and Circa 1876 include more intimate events for our guests such as degustation dinners accompanied with fine wine and music; and having performers from Australian Opera and SSO classical and various jazz artists perform at Convent."
Also, we are planning to host cooking classes at Circa 1876 with a menu that incorporates the kitchen gardens and embraces executive chef Trent Barrett’s skill in harnessing nature and optimising fresh seasonal produce.” Trent is the latest in a long line of outstanding chefs who have been in command of the kitchens at Circa 1876 and Restaurant Eighty Eight, which is located in The Convent building itself, following in the footsteps of its founder and icon Robert Molines, as well as renowned chef and Restaurant Eighty Eight founder George Francisco.
Trent joined the team at the Pokolbin venues in 2014 as chef de cuisine before taking over the culinary reins in May 2015. Most of the produce is grown on site in their 100 per cent organic garden, with the rest of the ingredients sourced from within a 50km radius of the property.“Circa 1876 offers modern Australian cuisine – combining classical techniques with new influences that showcases the flavours and textures of the region’s finest produce,” Huong said.“Our chef’s paddock-to-plate philosophy is evident in the kitchen gardens and a seasonal menu that uses Australian native herbs and plants.”
Huong said Trent’s focus on creating seasonal-based menus with local ingredients had proven very successful, with the restaurant winning a string of awards and accolades, as well as being awarded an Australian Good Food Guide chef’s hat in 2016. Its most recent accolade came just last month when it was crowned the 2018 NSW Regional Restaurant of the Year and Regional Contemporary Australian Restaurant (formal) at the prestigious Restaurants and Catering Industry Association Australia awards.“People are wanting a truly immersive experience when they travel to regional areas, and that includes a ‘taste’ of the region,” she said.“Our ability to harness the seasons, celebrate local produce and interpret our natural surrounds is essential to offering guests that unique experience, and our Executive Chef Trent does a wonderful job