SIMON AND KATE TOL HAVE GRAND PLANS FOR THEIR SPRAWLING 1830S PROPERTY IN LEXTON VICTORIA.
Simon and Kate Tol have made historic homestead Mount Mitchell in Lexton, Victoria, their family home as well as a successful business.
“We love to sit here and watch the sun set over the Pyrenees.”
RARE IS A PLACE that captures the imagination not only with its beauty but with bucketloads of potential too. Historic Mount Mitchell was such a place for Kate and Simon Tol. When they first visited in 2015 any misgivings about its scale and grandeur were allayed by its charm and tranquillity — and thoughts of what could be. Kate and Simon were living in Geelong and had been looking for a country family home that also had the ingredients for a new business when they saw Mount Mitchell. The pastoral property at Lexton in central west Victoria dates back to settlement in the late 1830s. “We thought, ‘No, we can’t manage that’,” says Kate. “But we’ve always been interested in unique things so we rang the agent and had a look a couple of days later. I remember driving out the driveway and saying to Simon, ‘I don’t know how we’ll do it, but let’s do it!’” The estate’s past is straight from the history books. In 1836 Major Thomas Mitchell, on his exploration south from NSW, gave the most prominent hill his namesake, Mount Mitchell. In his footsteps two years later came Henry Bowman, also from NSW, to take up the original landholding of about 8500 hectares. “Henry Bowman was employed by the government to take up suitable settlement land. He drove 48 merino rams down from Elizabeth Farm in NSW, and brought 28 assigned convicts who became his labourers and shepherds,” says Kate. At the time they bought the house, Simon ran a civil construction business while Kate, a teacher, was head of physical education and health at Geelong College. They had >
three children, Will, now 20, Sophie, 18, and 11-year-old Harry, and the Lexton area, 50 kilometres north-west of Ballarat, was familiar to them — Simon grew up in Ballarat, and it was where Kate, originally from Hamilton in Victoria, met him while she was at university. The family also had a weekender in Moonambel, some 43 kilometres north of Lexton, where they ran crossbred and merino sheep. However, the couple had reached a point when it was time for a change. “We had our children in Geelong, we had a terrific time living there,” says Kate. “But we were ready to do something else; to have another project.” Mount Mitchell homestead sat on a rise at the end of a long entrance drive, surrounded by a high hedge. At the front there were rolling lawns shaded by mature trees and views down to a lake. Overlooking it all was the grand bluestone wing of the house, designed by prominent architect Charles Webb and built in 1861. This part of the house contained the reception rooms, a library and a vast billiard and ballroom that once hosted great house parties. Further wings had been added in 1910. Within the four hectares of gardens there was the crabapple walk, a parterre rose garden and 24 long beds in the kitchen garden. In the outer drive were the original >
CLOCKWISE, FROM TOP LEFT Above the dining table are original billiard table lights that were restored by the previous owner; the kitchen garden is beginning to produce enough for Kate and Simon to sell to restaurants; Ruby the cat explores the kitchen garden; bright alstroemeria make great cutting flowers; anemones grow in the side garden, which is still a work in progress. FACING PAGE The couple freshened up the 1910 kitchen with a coat of Dulux Antique White USA paint. The table was custom-made with red gum from a friend’s property. For stockist details, see page 135.
stables and coach-house, outhouses, cottages for the early managers and gardeners, and beyond that, 320 hectares of farmland. It was spellbinding. Better still, thanks to the previous owner, it was all in excellent repair. “It was derelict when the previous owner Richard Salter took over 34 years before us. The brothers who had lived here were successful farmers, but they slept in a Rolls Royce because it was warm and used to ride bicycles around the farm. There was grain stored in the dining room, and a pump sitting in another room. Richard did a renovation of the buildings and designed and laid out the garden.” For Kate and Simon, a long settlement and the fact that the farmland was already leased out were also bonuses, giving them time to start planning their move and how they would run Mount Mitchell not only as their home, but as a business. Since moving in, the couple have successfully launched into the events market and offer accommodation in their cottages, but they have also invested in the community. They have hosted woolshed dances to fundraise for local causes and Simon is now president of the local Waubra football club. “It’s been wonderful to get to know the local community, and we’ve made some lifelong friendships since being here,” Kate says. “I can’t imagine ever moving back to the city now.” Inside the homestead they have repainted many of the rooms and made the home their own. They use the former ballroom as their dining area. “We live in all the rooms; it’s not a museum, and we don’t want it to be precious.” Kate and Simon both contribute when it comes to upkeep on the property. “Simon helps me in the garden, and I help him when he’s drenching the sheep,” says Kate. The couple grow prime lambs and some of their kitchen garden produce is sold to restaurants such as Craig’s Royal Hotel in Ballarat. First and foremost though, Mount Mitchell is Simon and Kate’s family home and that alone has changed the way they think about things. “We love to sit here and watch the sun set over the Pyrenees,” says Kate, for whom it still feels like a dream come true. “I can’t believe we’re living here. It’s like it’s meant to be and I still pinch myself every day.” For more information, telephone 0400 899 075 or visit mountmitchell.com.au
LEXTON VICTORIA HOME The German burr walnut bedhead in the guest bedroom is one of a pair and belonged to Kate’s grandmother.
Kate, Harry, Boof and Mitch visit the lake, which has trout and yabbies. Harry loves to kayak and swim here. “It’s a lovely spot for pre-dinner drinks in summer,” adds Kate.