Beechworth-Chiltern Road


Heaps of heritage

Can you get too much of colonial Australia? Naw! Not when Ned Kelly’s involved.

Have I ever mentioned my theory that every place in Australia not named by Captain Cook was founded to service a gold rush and many of the places the good Captain tagged have had one as well?

Here’s more proof. Both of these towns at the ends of a nice little road up in the north-east of Victoria owe their existence to gold rushes and one is strongly associated with Australia’s greatest folk hero/villain (cross out the one you don’t like) Ned Kelly.

It’s often forgotten that Australia would have had darn few bushrangers if it hadn’t been for the gold discoveries.

“Stand and deliver! Hand over yer – what is it you’ve got in dat wagon, den?”

“Wool, Ned mate. You can see it by the bales.”

“Hand over yer wool, den!”

“Err, Ned, maybe we should rethink that. What are we going to do with a bullock wagon full of wool? For a start, I can’t abide those bloody bullocks and the wool’s really itchy.”

“Oh bugger, back to digging ditches for a living den.”

Fortunately the discovery of mineral wealth doesn’t always happen among desolate scenery at the end of the Earth. In this case, both towns lie in extraordinarily pretty countryside.

Chiltern is surrounded by the last remnants of the box-ironbark forests that once covered most of Victoria up here. It also holds several historic 19th century buildings. Beechworth is even more chocka with heritage. More than 30 of its buildings are listed by the National Trust, including the excellent Tanswell’s Commercial Hotel, of which more later.

The road between Beechworth and Chiltern is not in fact the most spectacular in the area. That crown probably belongs to the Beechworth- Wodonga road through Wooragee, or possibly to the Myrtleford-Yackandandah road. The reason I’m going on about it is that it’s a distinctly neglected alternative and I felt sorry for it.

Some years ago, before the launch of ARR, I did some work for another Australian motorcycle magazine. The magazine was based in Melbourne (oh, all right, it was Australian Motorcycle News) and quite a bit of the motorcycle industry was still based in Sydney at the time.

Moving bikes between the two cities was accomplished by one (or more) being ridden from Melbourne up to Beechworth, while the equivalent number would be ridden down there from Sydney. We would then swap keys and make our way home again.

As you’ve probably worked out, it wasn’t quite that simple in reality.

Because of the distances involved, the Sydney rider or riders would put up at Tanswell’s for the night before starting for home in the morning. This provided an excellent opportunity to sample the pub’s superb steaks, even though you’d mostly have to drink Carlton Draught with your meal – this was before the days of the small breweries, too.

It was not an unpopular assignment.

If I’m not mistaken (and I’m willing to accept that I may be), I discovered the Chiltern road one morning on precisely such a run. With a killer hangover on board I was on my way home via Wodonga from Beechworth and I must have blinked at the complicated corner where the two roads diverge.
The first thing I knew was that the road seemed to straighten out rather prematurely and lack the tighter corners I was expecting. I’d like to be able to say that I worked out that I was on another road entirely from the one I wanted but in fact I was too busy screwing my eyes up against the light and trying to pacify my stomach to do much about it beyond worrying vaguely.

It was only when I reached the Hume Highway (as it was then – there was no freeway yet) without the benefit of having passed through Wodonga that alarm bells started to ring in what passed for my mind.

A careful reading of the conveniently provided signpost soon cleared up the confusion, even though I was disappointed to find that I was 30 kilometres further from Wodonga than I thought I’d be. Still, at least I hadn’t entered another space/time continuum, as I’d been vaguely worried I might have.

I could see that I was also a very short way from a town that turned out to be Chiltern and the thought of the glass of water that might be available there made it worth checking out.

As it happens this was the beginning of a most worthwhile alternative route; I carried on up to Browns Plains, then across the river to Howlong and all the way up to Lockhart and beyond – all roads I’d never sampled before. I never did make it to Wodonga on that ride and you know what: I didn’t care. Nothing against Wodonga, of course!

Chiltern itself was clearly a nice place, too, with a tiny motor museum and that bunch of other historic buildings. Apparently during some weeks the biggest danger in Chiltern is of being run over by a camera trolley as yet another Colonial feature fillum or television show is shot there.

Since then I have travelled the Beechworth-Chiltern road while compos mentis and while it’s true that it lacks the plenitude of corners offered by some alternatives, it is still a very pleasant back road through some cheerful bucolic scenery and with almost no other traffic.

Bloody hell, it can get cold in winter though.

Reading back over what I’ve written above I see that I’ve definitely not provided a fair picture of Beechworth. It’s far more than just a place to swap bikes and eat steaks and get blotto.

Ned Kelly was tried in Beechworth and the jail where he was confined is still in business. It looks pretty colonial but I suspect that the underlying technology has been well and truly modernised. They were working on that even in Ned’s day – the gates were upgraded from wood to iron in case the prisoners decided to get frisky during the trial.

There’s a lot of other stuff, including various drives, some wineries and the well-known Chinese burning towers. Oddly enough I’ve never heard of Chinese people using burning towers for their dead, but that may be a shortcoming in my education rather than a stuff-up by Beechworth’s tourism people.

This is a great part of the world and they even have decent beer now. Next time you swap bikes between Sydney and Melbourne, I recommend you do it in Beechworth – and don’t miss Chiltern.