For more than two decades Margaret Bancroft has been opening up her family home to travellers looking for a little slice of traditional country life. The owner and operator of Hunter Valley Horse Riding and Adventures, and Hill Top Country Guesthouse, has spent her entire life in the Hunter, growing up on her family’s farm in Lovedale before moving down the road – and up a mountain – to raise her own family and eventually set up her flourishing tourism businesses.
Passionate about sharing her love for the region’s beautiful bush landscape with others, Margaret took time during the hectic summer holiday season to share a little of her story with Your Hunter Valley Magazine.
Tell us a bit about yourself and your family background?
The property where I live and operate Hunter Valley Horse Riding & Adventures and the Hill Top Country Guesthouse is not where I grew up. I grew up at the original Lovedale property, which is located on Lovedale Road, some 10 kilometres away. My Dad named this property where I grew up Lovedale after the name of the people (Loves) that he purchased it from in the early 1900s.
I purchased the property where I am now back in the 1970s and raised my five children in the house that is now the guesthouse. In the mid-90s after my children had all grown up, I turned the house into the accommodation it is today, which is something I had always wanted to do. Myself, one of my daughters and granddaughter live on the property today.
How long have you lived in the Hunter and how has it changed over the years?
I was born and grew up in Lovedale. The main changes are from the area, Cessnock and the surrounds, going from being numerous coal mining shafts and half a dozen wineries to just one coal mine and numerous vineyards and wineries, restaurants, cheese and chocolate factories, resorts, accommodation places, the largest privately-owned gardens, and regular entertainment.
The roads are improving from all dirt roads to sealed roads, town water and gas lines are going further out. The area has gained two more high schools and retirement villages. Two backward steps were stopping the train line to Cessnock many years ago, and the hospital and medical facilities have decreased instead of increasing. We have lost our picture theatres; there were several in Cessnock.
What are the biggest changes you’ve noticed in the Hunter / Pokolbin?
There are many more people and cars in the area. Pokolbin has sealed roads, with roundabouts and many modern buildings well maintained. The houses in Cessnock are better maintained as well. And now there are more subdivisions and housing estates in outlying areas. Of course we now also have the Hunter Expressway and what took 4 hours to reach Sydney, now takes only 1.5 hours. In addition, Newcastle is now just 45 minutes up the road.
What do you love about living in the Hunter?
The Hunter Valley caters for most people. We have the beaches, mountains, rainforest, farming country, small country towns and if you like the city you have not got far to travel. It takes under two hours to travel to Sydney.
Personally, I love where I live. It’s secluded yet close to everything. It is quiet, so you can hear the birds sing.
I don’t need to have pets because there is an abundance of animals around me all the time. At night you can look up at the sky and see every star clearly. Try doing that in the city!
Tell me about your love of horses - how old were you when you got your first horse and when did this passion develop into a business?
I have always had horses where I have lived, and my parents had horses well before I arrived.
When I was around two years of age, I recall dad buying me a Shetland pony who loved me so much he would walk up the ramp and into the kitchen, much to mum’s horror.
Horses were always kept to help with jobs on the farm, and as beloved pets. When I opened the accommodation, I saw there was a need for more adventure rides in the Hunter Valley, and it seemed only natural to use my love of horses to expand on my business. I established the horse riding business 22 years ago.
What is the best thing about operating Hunter Valley Horse Riding & Adventures?
The best part of the business is seeing the many people coming back from a ride smiling, and laughing having had a great time - for many of the people it has been the first time that they have been on a horse.
Also seeing the children come back year after year, hoping that their favourite pony is still here and that they can go for a ride. They are still happy when they find that they sometimes have retired, but are still able to feed them and pat them.
When did you start operating Hill Top Country Guesthouse and what is so special about the location of your property? Why do you love sharing your family property with others?
The guesthouse was opened 22 years ago. It is located on top of the Molly Morgan Range overlooking the Hunter Valley and Wine Country.
"We have 300 acres with spectacular views and a wildlife sanctuary, which is home to many animals including kangaroos of various species, birds including the spectacular wedge tail eagle, wombats, echidnas, goannas, rabbits and dingoes."
We operate a Devon beef cattle farm, one of the oldest breeds of cattle brought to Australia. We also have sheep, goats, chickens, quail, guinea fowl, geese, guinea pigs and rabbits that are part of our tractor hay ride.
The activities available at Hill Top with Hunter Valley Horse Riding and Adventures are many, including, but not limited to, trail rides, pony rides, sunset rides, picnic rides, marriage proposals and weddings on horseback, tractor hay rides to feed the animals, mountain tours in our ATV, peddle go-karts, wildlife tours, bushwalking, hiking, bird watching and night wildlife tours.
You can stay in the guest house and book the entire house or just a room. There is accommodation for couples and families.
The guesthouse itself is a more relaxed country home style of accommodation. Some rooms have ensuites, and three make use of the two shared bathrooms. The guest house has six rooms with either king, queen or single beds, with sitting rooms, including the billiards room, which has a 10' Eddie Charlton billiards table. There is a piano for the accomplished pianists to enjoy, wide verandahs off most rooms and scenic views at every turn.
Escape the city life and hear the sounds of silence, enjoy the peace and tranquillity, the valley views and the seclusion.
There are three villas at the bottom of the valley that provide space for either a romantic retreat or a family farm experience. The villas are close to the horses and farm animals and have beautiful views across the valley and of the mountain ranges.
The villas can accommodate two to six people and are perfect to book if you are travelling as two families as they are close to each other, but not so close that you don’t have privacy.
Camping is also available. Bring your tent and anything else you need. There is a toilet and shower available if needed. Fires are not permitted on the property unless the tour guides light them as part of the night tours.
Having so much space and beauty around me, how could I not want to share it? People come from all around the world to enjoy a little part of the country in Australia. We are close to Sydney and offer an Australian country experience.