Heather Rossiter

Bailed up in Benalla

by Heather Rossiter, 9-10/3/2013 The Weekend Australian / Travel

In Kelly country, on my way to the Victorian goldfields, I was bailed up in Benalla. Not by Ned, though he was there swaggering out of a tapestry by Sydney Nolan on a wall at the Benalla Art Gallery, but by the charm of this country town. I was held for a day when I should have been in Bendigo.

I arrived early one morning just as the local bakeries were setting out their chairs. Restored by coffee and croissant, I crossed a bridge and saw an elegant modern building jutting out towards the lake, the Benalla Art Gallery. Just pop in, I thought, but the collection trapped me.

Laurie Ledger, major donor, obeyed his mother who said, include women artists. Thanks to her Benalla has some memorable works, such as Alice Bale Interior 1906, an enchanting view across a room into a light-filled hallway where a figure waits ... to open a door? to eavesdrop a conversation? Rather killed by its heavy gilded frame, but that was contemporary fashion.

After several hours I felt I'd earned lunch on the gallery's terrace overlooking Lake Benalla. Ecstatic squeals came from two small boys at the next table when Easter eggs arrived with their hot chocolate. Though just as pleased with zucchini fritters topped with poached egg and crème fraiche, smoked salmon and avocado drizzled with fresh lime juice tucked into a rocket salad, I contained my squeals. On the wooden promenade beneath the gallery an elderly couple seemed mesmerized by two model yachts out on the water. The little boats came about, their sails flapped, they trembled, but then the wind filled the canvas and they were away again. The couple relaxed back into their deck chairs.

I stopped to chat as I walked round the lake. The metre-long yachts, the couple's own hand-crafted remote-controlled toys, were in no danger of overturning, their hulls lead-weighted and their keels short to avoid the waterweed. Several skilled Benalla enthusiasts make model yachts to order, tailored to the destined waters.

The art gallery overlooks pretty Lake Benalla

Near the Weary Dunlop Memorial I was almost run down by the squealing boys running off their Easter eggs in the labyrinthine paths of the rose garden. Embedded in roses the bronze sculpture is homage to a boy who grew up in the area, became a pharmacist in the town, enrolled in medicine in Melbourne and was a saviour to Australian prisoners-of-war on the Burma-Thai railway. Sculptor Louis Laumen evokes the suffering of those men.

From the gallery's terrace I had seen a strange construction across the lake but when I crossed the bridge I found a piece of magical fantasy. To say the Benalla Ceramic Mural is a 3D tile-decorated structure is inadequate to describe a wildly playful creation. Imaginative designs in cobalt blue, turquoise, gold and maroon burst from the mostly terracotta surfaces. Snakes slither along ledges, birds wing from the parapet, a baby with legs drawn up lies asleep on its tummy, a little cave at waist height makes me want to be a child again to crawl in and sleep on its flower-patterned floor. I sat in its miniature amphitheatre and wondered what miracle inspired this community work.

Old time dancing is the go in Benalla. Any night of the week you can join a group doing the palais glide, the pride of Erin or a quickstep, even the schottische. Ladies bring a plate, please, and you're welcome, I read in the local paper but I can't stay.

Fishing in Lake Eilden is little more than a cast away and there is of course a Ned Kelly museum since Glenrowan is just up the track. But I come to my senses. Bendigo is calling.

Notes: For made-to-order model yachts, contact Max on (03) 5762 5668 or David on (03) 5762 5963.
Belmont B & B is just off the A300 and near the Benalla Art Gallery.


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