Along the Birregurra Heritage Walk

Wednesday 14 April 2021. Birregurra is an agreeable Western District township of around 900 people, situated a couple of kilometres south of the Princes Highway between Winchelsea and Colac. The town was originally known as Bowden’s Point, after a certain Captain Bowden, who lent his name to the hill in the south of town, then as Birregurra-on-the-Barwon, following a relocation from the seasonal Birregurra Creek to the Barwon River. A former timber town, and still with a working mill (complete with smokestack), Birregurra these days has a mildly artsy Otways-hinterland vibe, being a mere 40 kilometres from Lorne. The town boasts a particularly attractive golf course, which flows from the heights of Bowden’s hill down to the river. Birregurra is perhaps best known as the home of globally renowned restaurant Brae.

We visited today, braving inclement weather, to undertake the interesting Birregurra Heritage Walk, a relaxed stroll from the public park on Strachan Street, past Birregurra’s historic churches, up Bowden’s hill and then along it, and back again via the golf course and the river.

The walk is now branded the Birregurra Heritage Trail and divided into colour-coded sections according to level of difficulty, somewhat needlessly complicating it. It’s not particularly difficult; Beal Street up Bowden’s hill has a moderate gradient, and then there’s a bit of scrambling from the upper golf course down to the river. The ‘trail’ covers the same stops as the ‘walk’ but in a different order, as reflected in the information panels encountered along the way. We used the original brochure for our walk, and it is this that I refer to in my post.

We began with lunch at the Birregurra Public Park, the first stop on the walk. Under the rotunda we were handily sheltered from the showers blowing across intermittently. After a leisurely picnic we set out along the path through the park to Beal Street, where the walk proper begins.

The second stop is the former Methodist Church, now a private residence, on the corner of Beal and Jenner Streets. Built as a Wesleyan chapel in 1863, the structure possibly incorporates timber from the Buntingdale Aboriginal Mission. Sited on the Barwon River on the southeastern slope of Bowden’s hill, Buntingdale was one of the first Aboriginal missions in Port Phillip District. The mission was established in 1839 and closed down in 1851, having failed both in its ‘mission’ and in its endeavour to earn income by letting out land for sheep grazing (in which enterprise Captain Bowden was an overseer).

Leaving the ex-Methodist Church, we proceeded along Jenner Street to the third stop, the ex-McLennan Memorial Uniting Church. The original Presbyterian Church was built in bluestone in 1865, while the present building, in red brick, dates from 1908. It was known as the McLennan Memorial Presbyterian Church until 1970 (in which year the Presbyterian and Methodist churches of the Birregurra circuit combined to form a Uniting Church). The building was sold in February 2020; I am unaware when the church ceased holding services. Note the cairn in the grounds holding a plaque commemorating the founding of the Buntingdale Aboriginal Mission.

(Former) McLennan Memorial Uniting Church

At the end of Jenner Street we turned right onto a pretty planted pathway, which runs along a ridge overlooking the Barwon River flats and leads to Skene Street. Here we turned right again and came to the fourth stop on the walk, St. Peter’s Roman Catholic Church.

Planted pathway between Jenner and Skene Streets

St. Peter’s Roman Catholic Church is a handsome red-brick building opened in 1907, replacing an earlier timber structure dating from 1864. It is rather more attractive than its austere (former) Uniting Church counterpart; the tower lends architectural interest and the large stained-glass window at the front is impressive. It is described in the walk brochure as being “a fine example of Federation architecture.”

St. Peter’s Roman Catholic Church from the grounds of the former McLennan Memorial Uniting Church

We continued along Skene Street, turned left onto Beal Street (passing Birregurra Primary School, stop five on the walk) and then left onto Sladen Street. Just on our right, occupying a large allotment on the corner of Sladen Street and Park Lane, was stop six, by far the finest of Birregurra’s churches, the Anglican Christ Church. Built in bluestone and opened in 1871 (with the bell tower and spire following in 1890), the magnificent Christ Church sits proudly upon its elevated corner allotment. It is said that the architect, Leonard Terry, was influenced by Gothic and Norman styles. In the church grounds lies a labyrinth, while in the church itself can be seen the brass bell from the Buntingdale Aboriginal Mission.

We now turned right onto Park Lane, which, like the pathway between Jenner and Skene Streets, commands sweeping views over the river flats towards the distant eastern Otways. Here, next to the church, lies the seventh stop, the Christ Church Vicarage. The vicarage, dating from 1867 and now a private residence, is a “rare example of Gothic domestic building in rural Victoria,” according to the walk brochure. It certainly is a very attractive property and has a lovely cottage garden.

As we left the vicarage behind we could see immediately ahead of us at the end of Park Lane the entrance to the Birregurra Golf Club, stop eight on our walk map, founded in 1913. The club’s picturesque nine-hole course occupies the site of the original Birregurra Public Park on Bowden’s hill as well as that of the old recreation reserve on the Barwon River, a topographically challenging layout that produces such holes as the infamous second, ‘Niagara’ (more on this later).

Golf club entrance at the end of Park Lane

We now followed the perimeter of the golf course. From the end of Park Lane we walked through a spit of public land (Park Lane being a cul-de-sac) to Hopkins Street (another cul-de-sac), then turned left onto Beal Street to begin our ascent to Bowden Street and the top of the golf course. This time we left out the otherwise worthwhile detour along Murrell and Strachan Streets to stop nine, the Mt Gellibrand viewing point, from where one has an excellent view of the flattened volcanic hill, which lies about 15 kilometres to the north of town.

Walking up Beal Street to Bowden Street

Upon reaching Bowden Street we turned left and soon arrived at stop ten, View of Birregurra Township. From here, where a rotunda was once located, one looks straight down the middle fairway of the golf course towards the Christ Church Vicarage, with Christ Church behind. This fairway was formerly a promenade through Birregurra Public Park. On Saturday afternoons, states the brochure, “townsfolk in horse-drawn gigs and buggies would parade up what is now the middle fairway to listen to a brass band playing in the rotunda.” Despite the name of this stop, it is challenging to see much else of the township.

Looking down the middle fairway from Bowden Street towards the vicarage and Christ Church

We continued along Bowden Street a short way then entered the golf course and proceeded to stop eleven, Otways View. Here, at the tee box that begins the testing second hole, which is known as ‘Niagara’ due to the precipitous drop between the tee, set high on Bowden’s hill, and the green, lying alongside the Barwon River forty metres below, we sought refuge from a heavy rain shower in a kind of bus shelter. And we did indeed enjoy a splendid view of the lovely green hills of the Otways as well as extensive views of the Barwon River flats, all fields, cows and haybales.

Overlooking the green of ‘Niagara’, the precipitous second hole

The rain was over and the sun broke through as we descended from Niagara’s vertiginous tee to the riverside green via a zigzagging path. We ambled alongside the river, heading back now towards the start of the walk, playing umbrella golf and enjoying the sun. I neglected to note stop twelve, the Old Cricket Ground, but we must have walked close to it or even over it.

Just before leaving the swathe of riverside green for Jenner Street and the end of our walk, we paused at stop thirteen, a scenic spot on the Barwon River, which until now had been more or less occluded from view by the dense line of trees following its course. Expansive views across the fields beyond were our reward.

Barwon River opposite the end of Jenner Street

We now entered Jenner Street, crossed Beal Street and arrived back at the public park. Had we continued alongside the river on Barwon Street, then turned left into Main Street and thence to the public park, we would have completed the circuit with four more stops. I’m not sure why we didn’t; perhaps we left some for next time. But no matter. It had been a brilliant walk and a top day out.

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