Australia has prided itself as a sporting nation, and the spirit of a country town has often been measured by its football club since the days the lads wore long pants on the field and laced up their guernseys. They spawn characters and men with character.
Within the hallowed walls of the Willunga Football Club, the mighty Demons, you see names of club greats like Hendrick “Taffy” Waye, who also drove his horse and cart to town and won a Magarey Medal at Sturt in 1903, Maurie “Spog” Corbett, and even a trainer, William “Chum” Reed.
Follow the names at this club – formed in 1874 and recognised as the second-oldest continuous football club in South Australia behind Port Adelaide – and you see their descendents playing today, as you do from many other old names including George Edwards, Ross Martin and the McDonald brothers.
Deborah Tucker, whose family moved here in 1973, and is highly regarded as a principal in real estate, said it was rare in Australia to have so many five or six generations remaining in a town, let alone a club.
“Willunga is not just a footy club; it is a support mechanism for the town, and a reflection of what we are all about.”
The heritage lines can also be seen in traces in the Old Bush Inn, regarded as the second-oldest licensed hotel in the state, plus the once vibrant slate mines – the first established in South Australia – in 1840 by Welsh and Cornish pioneers. After Melbourne’s Lord Mayor Robert Doyle claimed a few years ago that Adelaide had “so little going for it that it should be shut down”, it could be said that Willunga’s only mistake in its marvelous 175-year history was providing not heavy enough slate for the Melbourne Town Hall roof.
Brushing this aside, Willunga has done so much right. Unlike most towns also bypassed by highways, it has since prospered. It hasn’t been ruined by appalling development because the council has forbidden any chance of housing one day linking it to nearby McLaren Flat and McLaren Vale, and the charming buildings along slate pathways have been amazingly presented and protected by a diligent local National Trust team.
There is St Anne’s Lodge (circa 1850), a private home with slate roofing and flooring in the heart of the town, and Evelyn Cottage, named after Captain Sturt’s brother, Evelyn Pitfield Shirley Sturt, built on Aldinga Road in the 1830s.
“People still hold on to this heritage,” Deborah said. “It is almost a transition of generic pride. It was adventurous types who came here to cut the slate, and it has attracted adventurous, creative types ever since.
“One of the quirky aspects of this town is that Gerry Keyte, who designed seats in the main street with some facing away from the road so we could sit there and marvel at the old buildings.”
The vision in town planning was innovative with builder Ian Collett, now retired, selling smaller than traditional-sized blocks along with the expectation to part-own and work nearly three acres of a shared veggie patch, and insisting on energy efficient homes. It was called Willunga Garden Village, and this was almost 30 years ago, long before low emission became fashionable.
However, the real beauty of Willunga lay in the fact it is just as much a town that lives for the day, and is still made up of people with that amazing spirit, indeed character and creativity. And, for the record, the footy club is still doing fine with the entire recreation and sporting complex, which also accommodates netball, cricket, basketball, tennis, table tennis, plus a RSL sub-branch, the CWA ladies and the Girl Guides under the umbrella of the Willunga Recreation Park.
Amazingly, this complex is owned by the community and ran by local volunteers and not totally reliant on councils as per nearly every other town in this state. The more physically demanding working bees are all blood, sweat and beers – dare we suggest a lot of them – from which fiction becomes fact and legends are born.
Moss Hancock, a life member of the Willunga Recreation Park with more than 30 years involvement, and sits on the executive with seven other much-appreciated volunteers plus club representatives, describes this community asset that was established 140 years ago as unique. “It brings us all together,” he says.
In front on the park on the main stretch is the Show Hall, built in 1890, which also acts as the town’s picture theatre – Cinemallunga.
Again, it’s owned by the community with Brian Dempsey, secretary-treasurer of the Park complex, among the volunteers leading a revival for pictures in the hall while, sadly, other country towns have let their theatre ride into ther sunset with a John Wayne classic.
The hall was given a new roof less than two months ago – predominently local slate, of course – but most of all love and care from townspeople. Upstairs you will discover the old 235mm projectors; it’s like a museum.
“I am passionate about the whole hall and pictures situation,” Brian said. “I have a vision of bringing the community together even more. The cinema has been an outstanding success; everyone in the town loves it.
“I see this as a model for any village with a couple of thousand people that have an historic hall. We have shown a mix of popular films. People dress up, we have live music and encourage local performers. Talented people have also made films about their town and put them on uTube, and they’re really funny.
“We’ve also engaged the local kids to make their own films.”
Deborah described some of the local film gems as fanciful myth in the making and some factual, but definitely all wonderful and an amazingly positive refelction of what Willunga is all about. “They are building another library about our town,” Deborah said.
“There is now a new generation of creative people, and much of this stems from the Willunga Waldorf School where young children are encouraged to make things. We are also proud of the outstanding performances from our great state schools.”
Deborah didn’t hold back with her love and pride for Willunga, including the “magic street names” like St Peters, St Andrews, St Georges and St Judes. “All very British,” she says.
But most of all, Deborah is like most people in this town; she rates it special because of its markets – the Willunga Farmers’ Market every Saturday morning, the monthly Quarry Market, which has been selling plants, homemade produces, old shed tools and what not for 40 years, and the Willunga Artisans’ Market with the creative element coming out again with things like handmade jewelry, clothing and artwork. The Lions Auction is an institute; cars line up for miles, while the CWA teas, cakes and craft stalls are something not to be missed.
However, it’s the Farmers’ Market that has placed Willunga on the national tourism trail having been rated as Australia’s Best Farmers’ Market in 2008. These delightful mornings with hundreds lining the stalls have long been a tourism winner, just as the incredibly-cruel 3km journey up Willunga Hill has drawn television viewers watching cyclists in a leg of the Tour Down Under being consumed by pain.
Phil Liggett, the great cycling commentator, once quipped that the riders didn’t have time to smell the roses, but they should have for Willunga has the perfect micro-climate for growing them, plus almonds and grapes. It is another tourism drawcard, and the home for one of Australia’s best-known producers, Ross Roses.
According to Deborah, people come to Willunga just to smell the roses in the main street. It often leads to a phone call to her Raine & Horne office asking whether she has a cottage on an acre with trees and a flowing creek available, but of course these properties are rare. There is a low turn-around in housing in Willunga because no one wants to leave; why would you?
The median house price has gone from $150K in 2000 to $476K. “Even a humble house is expensive compared with median prices in the City of Onkaparinga,” Deborah said. “There is hardly any vacant land.
“Very few people leave Willunga so the sales are low, but the value of properties that do sell is high.”
People who make those early Monday morning calls to Deborah about their idyllic spot generally find something else they love, but it’s the character of the town’s people that ultimately always wins them over.
“There is this traditional mixture of footy, netball, cricket and basketball ‘local yokels’ along with cerebral, cultural challenging people, and we all live together incredibly harmoniously,” Deborah said. “It never ceases to amazes me.”
It may also surprise outsiders that Charles Arthur, who passed away 21 years ago, is still regarded as one of Willunga’s best-known and most-loved characters. He wasn’t an artist of note, from the wine industry – and they produce some amazing wine here – a philanthropist or even a football great.
One of his best mates, Rob “Barty” Bartel, spoke of how Charles was known for being at the footy oval working the scoreboard for the under 10s and remaining in darkness til the final siren of the main game.
“Charles was well known for loving a beer, alright, but the more he drank the more eloquent he spoke,” Barty said. “But everyone saw past his faults, and we’ve all got them. We just saw a bloke who did so much for others without any fuss, like forever walking his dog Nero and picking up rubbish along the streets because he loved this town so much.
“He gave so many of us a laugh just when we needed it most. You got what you saw in this bloke; it’s what he always thought about this town.”
Barty, and his mates, had a special plaque made to put on Charles’ gravesite on the 21st anniversary of his death next week. And some wonder why Willunga is special and no one wants to leave. “Yeah, I guess we’re a caring bunch at heart,” Barty said. “This is who we are.”