It’s pronounced with an accent on the BARR. BARR-a-ba. I’m getting used to it. But I’d been thinking of it – before getting here -- with a rather more biblical tinge.
Getting here, I must admit, was not totally straightforward. I chose, as I always do, to make the journey into northern New South Wales by train. No changes, straight through in six hours to Tamworth, from where one has another hour or so by bus – or kind-hostly car – to reach the town of Barraba (circa 1200 inhabitants). And since Andrew – another friend from much, much younger days – was doing the kind-hostly bit …
All seemed promisingly straightforward, also extremely comfortable. Trains these days seem to have improved vastly. This one had reclining seats with lots of leg room, served hot meals at good prices ... I could have been on the Emirates airline. Except, as far as I know, Emirates planes don’t persistently break down. This train did. ‘Happened to me last week on here, too’ growled a woman near me. ‘It happens all the time’ volunteered someone apparently connected with railways. Which all seemed rather a shame. It also added an hour to the journey and meant one arrived just a tad frazzled.
But there was Andrew on the station – surely taller, but not suitably older than when we last saw each other a quarter of a century ago – and I was able to squelch slightly wearily into his front seat and set out, Destination Barraba.
That was just two and a bit days ago. And so much has happened since then that I feel quite flabbergasted.
I won’t try and take things in order – and actually I’ll draw a veil over evening number one, a rugby club charity do in aid of a medical helicopter to which we bumbled directly on arrival. Exhaustion, wine …. No definitely a veil.
So we’ll start from what counts as Day 1. Saturday.
I am staying at Barraba Station. I won’t attempt to describe it, I’ll just point you in the direction of its website
It’s the remaining 100-acre homeblock of the once vast farm of that name, of rolling hills and paddocks, where Haddon Witten, the current ‘Lord of the Manor’ (an expression which describes him not at all accurately) now grows biodynamic grapes. And if you thing I’m going to try to explain THAT, you’re mistaken. But I think the expression speaks for itself. This is healthy viticulture with a large H.
My connection with Haddon – and the reason for my presence here – is my many-years-ago friendship with his partner of sixteen years’ standing, Andrew Sharp, sometime decidedly successful actor and the son of a dear friend of Ian’s. Andrew and I saw quite a bit of each other for a while back in our respective youths when he was performing and I agenting and casting in the West End of London. After a long ‘no see’ period, we got back in contact when Ian died … and, well, voilà! here I am.
Andrew, I hurriedly add, does not farm nor viticulturise. For he has taken on a project of some enormity. He has bought up one of Barraba’s three pubs – a rather derelict establishment – which he has refurbished to beat the band. He has also changed its name. It is now the Playhouse Hotel. For along with its public rooms (no licence) and a floor of bed-and-breakfast bedrooms set up in the most luxurious style, he has built into the place a 80-seat theatre. If I say that it rather reminds me of the man who built an opera house in the wilds of South America, I would be exaggerating, but wow! Has he truly taken on a challenge. But, well, some people just can.
The Playhouse is, of course, a theatre which takes in intermittent or occasional events, and Sunday 16 September was the occasion of one of these. An entertainment by ancient Australian song specialist and bush-balladeer Warren Fahey. An entertainment, I should say, preceded by a three-course meal prepared in the hotel’s kitchen and served in the hotel’s public rooms. And perhaps I should qualify this by saying ‘a not quite finished hotel’. Builders in Australia are just like builders everywhere else. I should also perhaps clarify ‘an unstaffed hotel’. Well, a hotel staffed by the indefatigable Andrew alone.
Now, when I heard that this event was to take place, that Andrew would doubtless be run off his feet, and the place swarming with guests, I gently suggested that I should arrive in town after the event. Andrew squashed that one promptly… and thus it was that I arrived plumb in the middle of preparations for this ‘festa’!
Thank goodness I did.