Food Safari 15: Colly bowlo

The place where I grew up in northern England was home to about 2,500 people, seven pubs and The Club. The pubs were all of a type: open fires, dartboards, lots of singing. It was the 1970s but, apart from the funny haircuts and decimal currency, a body from the 1870s would have felt totally at home.

The Club was different. It was attached to the shoe factory where my mam worked, as did everyone else’s mam. There were only two reasons why young folk went to The Club: (a) all the pubs were shut; or (b) there was a “do” on – a wedding reception, a birthday, a wake. There would be sandwiches in summer and, in winter, pie and peas or hotpot with slabs of black pudding.

I’m not much of a club person and each time I went through the doors of The Club I felt like I’d surrendered a little of my soul. The vampire glare of the strip lights, the dull chug of the fruit machine swallowing another pensioner’s loose change, the curling carpet tiles and sticky lino.

But clubs are where the teachers’ union holds its meetings, and so on Thursday I found myself and the rest of the Lightning Ridge branch driving down the corrugated dirt road to Colly. It was my idea, taking the back road, because it’s about 20 minutes faster than going the long way via the bitumen. Unfortunately this time-saving venture was not well received by the branch secretary  who sat – rattled, deafened and grim-faced – in the back of my Subaru “shit box”, occasionally barking “What?” and “I can’t bloody well hear you back here!” Oops.

[Photo taken from the Colly Club’s Facebook page.]

The inside of the club looked like a bazillion clubs the world over. Kino scrolling away in the background, Thursday night football on the (not so big) screen.

To the left was a dance area and stage and, oh lovely!, and old pianner at the side, next to the faded picture of a youthful QE II.

The Colly Club’s proper name is something like the Collarenebri War Memorial Bowling Club. There are several honour rolls to those who served in various conflicts. So many of them. Colly must have been quite the place back in the day.

Or maybe never. This 7-minute video by rail enthusiast IDU Curiosity tells the story of how Colly was dudded by Walgett over a century ago. The two towns were growing at similar rates, but there was a race on to see who could get the critical rail infrastructure first. Due to financial finagling, Colly’s railhead stopped nine miles short of town, while Walgett’s made it all the way in. Which is one of the reasons why Colly fell into decrepitude while Walgett went on to become the wealthy, bustling and successful metropolis that it is today.

The honour board stood in stark contrast to the awards cabinet. I’m guessing Colly hasn’t produced too many champion bowlers in recent years. Or maybe they were being polished?


We went to the meeting place, a glassed-off area next to the dance hall. It was hard to imagine exactly what this glassed off area would be used for; it was long and narrow so we were strung out like peas in a pod. But it did have the world’s funkiest seating.

The good folk at the Colly Club had opened up the kitchen just for us. They even brought out little pizzas while we settled and got the meeting under way.

Being the designated minutes-taker I deemed it necessary to have something substantial to see me through so I went for the lamb cutlets. They came with mash, chips and vegetables.

I wonder if the cutlets came from the Colly Butcher? I want to go there and blog about it one day as the butcher in Colly is legendary. At Christmas it produces eight trillion hams that get shipped out all over the Western Slopes. Why Colly should happen to have a globally famous butcher is beyond me, but they’re doing something right. The cutlets were grand.

As you can see from the picture above, the general colour scheme of the food was, like the club itself, brown and yellow. B went for the mixed grill. It would have nobbled me but he has a big frame and tackled it manfully. (This picture is deceptive. It was frighteningly bottomless: there were at least 3 metric tonnes of meat concealed beneath that steak. Each time he ate something, two new pieces of something else magically took its place.)

The most difficult blog posts to write are those about things like lamb cutlets at Colly bowlo. What am I trying to do or say, and why? I can be a rude and tactless person at time. I take pictures of things with my phone because they frame themselves and I feel compelled to capture them, but a picture like the one below can come across as some snarky piss-take.

Yes, it does make me smile. And ache at the same time. The honour board, the empty trophy cabinet, the Kino scrolling ever onwards like time itself regardless of those who come and go before it.

The Club in my home town, the one by the shoe factory, makes me heavy and warm at the same time in the same way. Is The Club my first port of call when I go back to Cumbria? No, it’s not even second or fifth or ninety-ninth. But I’ve made dozens of memories beneath its strip lights. It’s where we had the do after mam’s funeral, and dad’s too. A stranger would wander in there in see nothing but the vinyl chairs and curling carpet tiles and neglected honour board.

The Colly Club mightn’t be all it once was, when the keys on the piano were being hammered and the dance floor was full of the men and women whose now forgotten names appear on the honour board. But I was welcomed warmly there, and treated with the cheerful, egalitarian respect so rare in the modern world but so common in these parts. I’d gladly eat there again.

But, at the secretary’s silent insistence, I did take the bitumen route home.

Grawin Show

Each morning a bus arrives at Lightning Ridge Central School from a place called the Grawin. A load of kids get off, spend the day at the school, and in the afternoon they pile back on and head home.

People spoke to me about the Grawin as though it were some crazy Wild West town; like the Ridge but back in the Fifties, before the Gumment got involved and throttled the fun out of life. I wanted to go to the Grawin and see it for myself but at the same time didn’t want to look like the rubber-necking tourist that I would be, swaggering around and perving at the yokels. This weekend the Grawin Show announced its presence at the famous Club in the Scrub and so I finally had a legit reason to rubber-neck to my heart’s content.

The Sunday morning of the show was a gorgeous spring day. I headed south on the Castlereagh before turning west for Cumborah. The country round here is flat: semi-permanent swamps that only ever really fill up when it buckets down in Queensland. The road to Cumborah took me past huge open pastures on which vast flocks of feral goats skittered around the verge.

goats

The place is verdant at the moment, and the goats, pigs, cats and dogs must be breeding like crazy. God help the poor sheep that stared out at me from beneath their heavy woollen coats.

Cumborah

The topography changed as I left Cumborah. As I headed upwards the soil colour became the same deep red as the sand in central Australia; cypress pines took over from the floodplain vegetation, and thick blankets of yellow-flowered cassias edged the roadway. It was absolutely beautiful.

cumborah roadside

Higher still I climbed, until the soil became paler and the vegetation scrubbier. By the time I was off the blacktop and near the Club in the Scrub, the venue for the show, the soil was a sun-glaring limestone white and the road a mixture of suspension-jarring potholes and washouts.

But that hadn’t stopped the show-goers. It was a proper show, with an ice-cream van and a pop-the-balloon and even those creepy clown things.

creepy clown game

There was an Ugly Man competition and a Guess The Weight Of The Bull competition and Catch The Pig competition, but much as I wanted to see these freak shows I felt beholden to pay my dues at the heart of any rural show: the craft section.

There was a classic set of crocheted blankies in the pub’s back room.

show blankies

There were sets of six eggs and plates of scones and vegetables. Not your ordinary vegetables, mind, but GIANT Grawin vegetables.

pumpkin

And, of course, vegetables dressed up in clothes!

best dressed veggies

It reminded me of every show I’d ever been to, from the late-summer shows of my Lakeland childhood to the frazzled Mother’s Day plate of the Alice Springs Show. It was great to see but, having seen it, I really wanted to have a look at the ugly men of the Grawin.

I headed out, grabbed a works burger and XXXX Gold and strolled around. Ugly men were ten a penny but they seemed to be between competitive rounds. Perhaps there was no formal competition; perhaps we were supposed to pick out our own favourite ugly man and pin a rosette on him. It was hard to pick one particularly ugly man among so many and so, being a stranger in town, I chose caution and did not pick any.

heavy bull

Beyond the bull (which did look very very heavy) was an area of star pickets and chook wire. Some signal went out, maybe like a dog whistle or something beyond my hearing, but within seconds the place was teeming with barefoot Grawin waifs. And … a man with a pig!

pig chase 1

I’ve got to say that there are very few funnier things than a Catch The Pig competition. I’m sure that PETA or the RSPCA would contradict me on this but, by jimminy, it does bring out the olden-times person in me. I may well have chased the odd show-pig in my own halcyon youth, and as I clutched my warming stubbie I felt a pang of nostalgia mixed with a heady warmth that, in some parts of the world – even hipster, First World Australia, with its teeny-tiny biodynamic coffees and ever-expanding megamalls – a kid could still get barefoot in the dirt and freak the bejaysus out of pig.

pig chase 2

There was a hundred dollar prize too. Bloody hell!

pig chase 3

Of course the pig made quick work of the chook wire fence and went bolting into the bush, with two score howling Grawin kids in hot pursuit. (I heard at school, next day, that two Year 7s had pried it out from beneath a Hilux.)

I did another turn of the stalls: automotive parts, Aboriginal artefacts, $2 socks, Ugg boots, Jehovahs Witnesses selling the Watchtower. It was time to move on.

There’s a loop road around the Grawin so I headed towards the war memorial. It’s another landmark I’ve been told of but had yet to see firsthand so I bounced and thumped along past Jim’s Corner.

Jims corner

The memorial is quite a surprise. There are plaques to diggers past and present, to Aboriginal servicemen, to Vietnam Vets, to those who served from 1914 to (poignantly) no date, just an open line to allow for the conflicts that will take the barefoot Grawin children of the future.

war memorial

Next to the war memorial is another famous Grawin landmark: Nashys Thong Tree. I have absolutely no idea who Nashy is, or what the significance of the tree. It’s just a Grawin Thing.

Nashys thong tree

I pulled into the next pub along the track, Sheepyard. The previous night there’d been a Mexican fiesta and the place had the feel of a taverna where vast quantities of burritos and cerveza had been consumed. Next to the verandah, a huge wooden stump – the remains of a great night-time conflagration – smouldered in the afternoon sun. Sparkly decorations sagged from the rafters; a crocheted poncho hung limply from a fence post. The few folk by the bar had the slightly stunned look of people who’d been hit by a heavy bull. I finished another Gold, quietly humming that Marty Robbins song in my head, then kicked the Kwaka into life and headed off again.

Sheepyard

The loop took me past the wonderfully named Grumblebum Lane and towards the famous Glengarry Hilton.

Grumblebum

But by that time it was getting on, and I’d reached my two-beer limit. I hit the blacktop, descended through the white limestone to the pale salmon-pink and the red soil until I met the black soil of the flood plain.

Thick stands of canola hugged the roadside, causing me to slow down. The last thing I needed was to hit a tusker or a billy goat dashing stupidly out of the vegetation.

road home

I was home by 4.30, in time to watch the Knights get thumped by the Rabbitohs on the telly. It was a thoroughly satisfying afternoon. The Grawin is indeed the Wild West of yore but it’s also its own community, a place with an obviously powerful sense of its place in the world.

Long live the Grawin!