Tasmania's Derwent Valley: One of the Most Beautiful Valleys in the World
By Anabel Dean
Laurelle Grimley fell in love the moment she saw Woodbridge On The Derwent.
‘The Grand Old Dame on the Derwent River’ was built using convict labour in 1825 in the picturesque town of New Norfolk in Tasmania. It was considered to be ‘an admirable residence for a family of the first respectability’ in its youth, but in recent times, suffered terrible neglect as a boarding house with rotting floorboards, rising damp, hazardous plumbing and life-threatening electrics.
Laurelle and John Grimley were Perth property developers who knew a thing or two about house renovation. John checked the foundations and, finding them sound, agreed to his wife’s proposal to save the derelict Georgian mansion located about 40-minutes northwest of Hobart. “It was a big job,” he recalls, “but we found a group of talented local tradespeople who joined us in the epic endeavour.”
Today Woodbridge is the ‘Belle of the Ball’ poised in crisp white petticoats along the New Norfolk riverbank. Every window looks onto gardens or water. There are eight rooms (including two suites) with private outdoor settings, a dining room, a reading room, a ballroom and a spa. How many ice-tinkling drinks must have been shared on the wisteria-covered terrace at twilight? And how many local growers, farmers, fishermen have defined this place through taste over the centuries?
The Grimleys are champions of the local food scene and the kitchens at Woodbridge showcase the flavours that only rolling green pasturelands and a dedicated farming community can create. You would be hard pressed to find a match for the tangy raspberry jam of Mrs Nancy Tubs or the juicy English Leicester lamb cutlets from Fiona Hume’s farm at nearby Gretna.
A few days at Woodbridge and you can just as easily get a taste for the magnificent natural scenery. New Norfolk is a gateway to several World Heritage-listed wilderness areas including the Franklin-Gordon and the South-West. The road out of town leads to the popular Mount Field National Park where the Visitor Information Centre provides details about easy walking trails through enormous fern forests to the three-tiered cascade waterfalls on Russell Falls Creek and beyond.
The town itself is a tourist drawcard: it was settled by Norfolk Island immigrants at the start of the 19th century, making it the third oldest settlement in Australia. St Matthews is Tasmania’s oldest Anglican church and The Bush Inn is thought to be the oldest continually trading pub in Tasmania. In 1924 Dame Nellie Melba is reported to have stood on its balcony and sung to the adoring crowds below. A smattering of antique dealers (some of them quite pricey) along the unpretentious shopping strip sell souvenirs from the colourful past. The wildly eclectic Willow Court Antique Centre, in the old asylum, is a quick route to collector’s insanity and not to be missed if you’re into that sort of thing.
Fanning out from the town, there are hamlets and woolsheds, beer makers — try the artisan Two Metre Tall brewery at Hayes — orchards, berry patches, beekeepers and vineyards, including Derwent Estate at Granton, memorable for its standout Pinot Noir and Riesling. The Salmon Ponds, at Plenty, is the oldest trout hatchery in the southern hemisphere with a quirky little museum and a nice café set, appropriately, amidst shallow ponds and tall trees.
“The Derwent Valley is one of the most beautiful valleys that we’ve seen anywhere in the world,” says Laurelle, “and we’ve travelled all our lives.”
She shares this view with another Woodbridge visitor who is now united in bringing a sense of renewal to the region.
Rodney Dunn trained at Sydney’s famous Tetsuya’s restaurant and came to the Derwent Valley looking for something that was closer to the land. He found it in the hulking ruins of Tasmania’s largest mental hospital in New Norfolk.
An asylum infirmary seems an unlikely setting for The Agrarian Kitchen Eatery but people travel miles to reach this acclaimed two-hatted restaurant. “As a young chef you often think that bigger is better but as you get older, you put your ego aside, and ask what is real,” he says. “It’s all about ingredients. I knew that if I got my ingredients close to harvest then that was where all the good stuff was going to happen.”
The good stuff happened when Dunn moved with his family to establish Tasmania’s first farm-based Agrarian Kitchen Cooking School in Lachlan in 2007. The restaurant opened in June 2017 and, like Woodbridge On The Derwent, it has become a driver in an area plagued by economic and social hardship.
The proximity between patch and plate is possibly the shortest in the country and the limitations of local production inspire creativity. “The hardest time is when you can use everything,” Dunn says. “Anyone can cook with lobster and truffles but it’s harder in the winter when all you’ve got is cabbages and rosemary.”
New Norfolk is the centre of hop-growing and produces most of the hops for Australian breweries. Many of the oast houses used for the processing of the hops congregate around Bushy Park and Bothwell, a hamlet settled by Scots in 1822, where it’s pretty well obligatory to indulge in a time-honoured custom with a small glass. Nant Distillery produces Australia’s only highland single malt whiskey using Tasmanian barley and waters sourced upstream to the Clyde River (fed from a glacial lake in the Tasman Highlands).
Whiskey tasting is a heart-warming end to the day as you drive through the gates of another iconic property. Truffle Lodge, at Gretna, is built on the site of a former trufflerie, one of the first established in Australia. It was all but forgotten when Laurelle and John Grimley discovered it, abandoned, and covered with blackberry. It’s now being nurtured back to life and, in its second season, appears set to become another beacon in the valley.
Truffle Lodge is modelled on an Australian bush camp and sits in the landscape with the lightest of touches but the accommodation is anything but basic. The newly opened luxury canvas campsite offers a therapeutically romantic notion of camping in one of eight huge safari-style soft-furnished tents with ensuite bathrooms (once water tanks) complete with handmade baths. Each tent is connected, with a boardwalk, to the lodge for eating or relaxation and there is ample personal space, even in the company of others.
If you’ve yet to see a platypus in the wild, this is your opportunity to do so. There are plenty of optional activities — kayaking, fly fishing, yoga, scenic helicopter tours — though no pressure to do anything. The focus is on slow hospitality in the pursuit of happiness.
Really though, for a weary traveller, warmed by whiskey, it’s the linens on a super-king bed with a view of tumbling water through open canvas that brings ultimate joy. The experience of waking up to that endless river, with such sweet birdcall, is a bit like falling in love all over again.