Ballarat’s Kryal Castle and Sovereign Hill
By the time we reach the castle gate the rain gods are furious and dropping water in slices. Stabby trees lean into the hillside, which is already packed in gloom. We tug luggage from the car, splash shoes in rust-coloured mud, hurl ourselves towards the barely there gatehouse.
Inside, a phone number is held onto what must be the world’s smallest door. I smudge the digits into the screen of my fogged-up mobile. After a muttered conversation, the hinges creak open and we duck into the vaporous castle grounds. Platters of cobble tumble downhill into bluestone battlements, the filmy countryside beyond.
Meet Australia’s only mediaeval theme park: Kryal Castle, just eight kilometres east of Ballarat. Some Victorians might remember it from sticky childhood road trips or, as teenagers, from skeezy, glowstick-littered raves. But since a change in ownership and multimillion-dollar upgrade in 2013 – and narrowly missing one prospective owner’s plan to turn the place into a mediaeval-themed brothel – the castle has turbocharged the novelty factor, hosting not just four-star accommodation but murder mystery nights, jousting tournaments, weddings and interactive zombie nights. The castle is even home to resident world-champion knight Phillip Leitch, who won the prestigious international Tournoi de L’ordre de Saint Michel tournament in France last month. Now the 11-hectare property, established in 1974, is up for sale again, and the owners are expected to make a tidy profit.
“Next time you’ll have come over the weekend, when the park is open,” we’re advised cheerily on check-in. I feign disappointment, flicking away my damp fringe, but really I’m satisfied with my decision to miss the theme park in action.
Sure, at the weekend the castle becomes a place to live out your dreams of knighthood and Hogwarts. But for weekday visitors the empty grounds take on an eerie Miyazaki whimsy, which I appreciate. Wandering around stone mazes, abandoned jousting grounds and napping goats seems a little more peaceful than dodging hordes of children recently inspired by Kryal Castle’s torture museum and dungeon. Building a fire and drinking whisky in the abandoned stone rotunda, or waking to a moat outside your window, is more in the quiet.
Back in Ballarat, they make a good coffee and have some respectable galleries. But it’s also, as I quickly discover, a kind of utopia for anyone who values the nostalgia and kitsch value of historical re-enactments. You’d have to be made from granite not to enjoy the spectacle of redcoats with bayonets marching selfie stick-holding tourists down the street. Because that’s just one of many enjoyments 12 minutes away from Kryal Castle, in the gold rush wonderland of Sovereign Hill. The past lives strong out here.
The living goldmine museum is a tourism institution in Australia, compelling about 450,000 visitors a year to slosh water and pebbles around in pans.
But Sovereign Hill, with more than 60 historically spot-on shops, workshops and buildings, is so much more than goldmining. The industry shown by the artificial town alone is enough to put most nine-to-fivers to shame. If the costumed staff aren’t shaping boiled lollies, building carriage wheels or spinning metal, then they’re cranking the till or showing kids how to dip candles into little pools of rainbow colours.
“You look lost,” I’m told in the candle workshop after staring into space for 10 minutes. But what I’m really trying to do is fit all those antique machines, candles and moulds into my vision – there is just so much to look at.
Watching anything being made is usually enough to tempt me into buying it, so it takes significant mental strength to resist not only the urge to buy lots of candles, but also an exquisite dunny candle holder, or a fine leather hat.
We arrive in the morning, but already there’s a buzz down the lane in the tearooms and a few loiterers around the hotel pub. We dodge a few energetic school groups and try not to buy anything.
Wandering around the small community also comes with a heap of nostalgia. You feel compelled to swap small talk with each store “proprietor”, which brings with it a bit of mourning for a simpler community where everybody, unlike the squawking self-checkout at Coles, knows your name.
Playing up the novelty factor seems to be working for the museum, too. Sovereign Hill has long been picking up the prize ribbons: last year it won best major tourist attraction at both the Qantas Australian Tourism Awards and, for the second year running, the RACV Victorian Tourism Awards, as well as the RACV People’s Choice award for favourite regional experience.
Like Kryal Castle, which has snapped up its own share of awards lately, the goldmining village seems at its best in winter, where smoke lures you from one wood fire to the next along the sandy streets. And it becomes positively magical in July, when Sovereign Hill’s Christmas in July celebrations shower visitors with light projections, fake snow, carols and wafting aromas of yuletide spices.
The winter wonderland is a big part of Ballarat’s ambitious Winterlude festival. Kryal Castle is in on it, too, wrapping up their explosive Knights of Fire program last weekend. Elsewhere there are light installations, hot chocolate walking tours, solstice celebrations and even a beer festival.
But when we visit Sovereign Hill, it’s the bowling alley, with its brooding fireplace and clattering skittles, where everyone lingers a little longer to keep warm. A few tourists clumsily attempt to roll wooden bowling balls towards the end of the hall, but the clever ones stand by the fire, listening to the storekeeper strumming a guitar between questions.
Leaving Ballarat is a bit like emerging from a historically inaccurate but hypnotic dream. In the morning our castle window is all fog, twisted wrought iron and mysterious moat water. A little hungover from whisky and wood smoke, we trudge the damp cobbles towards the gatehouse. Then the door snaps shut behind us; our castle days are over.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 16, 2016 as "History for the taking". Subscribe here.