Sometimes a little distance is all you need to find your way back home.
Stop to smell the roses
The journey up from the front gates to the homestead at Rosebank is a mini-country drive in itself. The creek ambles alongside the roadway through an avenue of trees that create a canopy of shade along the way.
A symphony of cockatoos provides the soundtrack as the gums make way for well-tended garden beds and manicured lawns.
It’s a path that Will McLachlan has travelled countless times in his life. Rosebank, near Mount Pleasant, was settled by Will’s great-great-great-grandfather George Melrose in 1843. The grand property has remained in his family through the generations, subtly adapting to each era it enters.
George was at the helm for more than 50 years, before his son, Robert Melrose took over from 1896 to 1946. George’s grandson J Stanley Murray was then in charge until 1971, when Will’s father Angus became the head of the property.
In Will’s younger years, the property had a drastically different feel. “It was a traditional old place; much darker and hadn’t been opened up,” Will says. In more recent years, the biggest change has been the removal of walls in a small kitchen to create one large dining, living and kitchen area. The space now exudes classic country comfort, with neutral tones and large bay windows framing an explosion of greenery outside.
Will and his wife Sarah were hesitant to make any radical changes when they moved in last year, instead choosing to tread lightly with modernisation. Their biggest contribution was a bathroom renovation that remained sympathetic to the home.
Next door, another bathroom remains frozen in time, and Will wouldn’t have it any other way. He loves the charm in the original showerhead with exposed pipes and the lead floor. It’s not all for show either, the bath gets used regularly; it even accommodates all 6’4’’ of Will.
The home’s history is on show everywhere, along with the multitude of restrained updates it has received. The original fireplaces stand in nearly every room, including the sitting room, which would have been used as a place to relax after dinner in the home’s heyday.
Will has vague memories of the room being a dark green but his mother, Sylvia, updated it in the mid-’90s with a sunny yellow. “Mum has got a pretty good eye. She’s always done things that have turned a lot of heads, but she gets it right more often than not. It gives it a fresh, more modern feel, without feeling like you’ve gone away from the style of the place.”
Another one of Sylvia’s contributions was sanding and lime-washing the stairs. As soon as she started, Will says she realised the mistake she’d made because it ended up taking a year and a half to complete the project. But it was worth the elbow grease to achieve the caramel-coloured timber beneath.
Ascending the stairs, one of the biggest touches of Will and Sarah’s personalities comes into view. A large-scale amalgamated photograph by Sophia Szilagyi that the couple received as a wedding present sits in an oak frame made with timber from the property. Beside it, a hand-carved rocking horse passed down through Sarah’s family is testament to the horse-loving family she married into.
Coming into a home that already had so much family history, Sarah says having two children in the home has helped her put her own stamp on it. “I had to quietly take down all the photographic portraits of Will and his brothers and replace them with artwork and hope I didn’t offend anyone. Nobody seemed to mind; they said it was my turn to have a go.”
In the main bedroom, the walls have been painted a serene sage tone. “To lay in bed and look out to the palm trees is beautiful,” Sarah says. The room also received new wool loop carpet and the result is a comfortable, slightly modernised space, which remains harmoniously tied to the more historic areas of the home.
The residence isn’t the only thing that has changed over the years. The property was named for its myriad rose bushes, although the expanse of garden beds has almost all been replaced by lawn and trees in intervening years. Sarah is keen to return the home to its roots in that respect and fill the garden with more blooms.
The expanse of the property is more than 2000 hectares, which includes the homestead and several out-buildings. Last year, the couple planted 300 gums all around the estate. “We want to make sure we plant more trees each year for the generations to come,” Will says.
Will left home, bound for boarding school in his early teens, but returned after a marketing stint in Melbourne, where he met Sarah.
Spending time away from the family property cemented Will’s desire to return to the place of happy childhood memories. Being generational farmers, Will says it’s incredibly easy to fall right into a life on the land, but his father has always been an advocate for education. If the boys happened to return to the land, it was entirely their choice.
Rosebank was where he and his three brothers invited primary school friends every weekend. They went water-skiing in the creek when it overflowed and towed people on the back of four-wheelers. All the things Will couldn’t imagine letting his two-and-a-half year-old son Stirling do in coming years.
The opportunity to get up to mischief aside, Rosebank is exactly where Will and Sarah wanted to bring up Stirling, and his younger sister Jemima, nearly a year old.
“It’s something I’d been thinking about for 10 years, but had put off because I wasn’t certain how the detail would work. Then Sarah fell pregnant and I’d just finished a 12-month contract, and that coincided with a long term overseer finishing up here. The timing was right; either do it now or rule it out,” Will says.
Returning home was the right decision for Will, however, it comes with a sense of deja vu. “It feels pretty odd sleeping in your parents’ bedroom and to be 35 and still living at home. But I do love the family connection and the continuation of being here.”
Will was never under any illusion about the work he would be putting into the property. “They’re old bones and I love living in a place that’s had so much life in it before us, but it comes with constant care and a bit of maintenance. You just have to know what you’re in for.”
In Rosebank’s latest iteration, Will and Sarah have comfortably settled into country life. “We’re outdoors and we’re doing things together,” Sarah says. “We’re feeding the pig and helping Will muster sheep and getting into the garden. It’s a really wholesome life, which I always wished for. It can only get better once the kids get bigger and can get more involved.”
But they sit at a crossroads in deciding how to shape it for the future. They want to share the property with the public. The gardens lend themselves to weddings, as the couple themselves personally know, having held theirs at the property in 2015. Friends of the family have also celebrated their nuptials within the grounds.
“So much work goes into it, it’s nice to know people are getting enjoyment out of it.”
However, Will and Sarah themselves still find places to enjoy. “Often just having a picnic on the lawn with friends gives us the most pleasure. It’s so beautiful and it’s fun to be able to explore different parts of the garden with the kids, watching them get muddy and simply enjoy being outside,” Sarah says.
The old cottages would be charming accommodation if renovated. A cooking school would make perfect sense.
A heritage-listed wool shed, built in 1904, is a charming drawcard. In its peak, 27,000 sheep would be shorn inside. It’s stood the test of time and is now a 10-stand electric shed, which can usher through 1500 lambs a day when they really get going.
Will and Sarah now just have to decide what will become of this grand old property in its next era.
“The strongest assets to the place are these beautiful gardens and buildings. The question for Sarah and me is how we make them more accessible, and how we make them an asset for other people to utilise as well.”
This story first appeared in the July 2019 issue of SALIFE Magazine.