I expected the biggest decision I would have to make would be between a rump and a T-bone. Perhaps what flavour sauce to top the vanilla ice cream. I never imagined we would have before us twice cooked duck and goat tagine with polenta. I am now reluctant to leave the warmth of our fireside table. I am keen to savour our surprisingly special meal, sip our wine slowly. Not venture out into the cold night to wander around an old lunatic asylum.
To break our journey from Sydney to Melbourne, we are staying at Tanswell’s Hotel in the historic Victorian gold mining town of Beechworth and have discovered that, while the 1850s hotel has typical country pub style accommodation, the restaurant is not your typical country pub restaurant. Realising this won’t be the quick steak and chips dinner I had anticipated, I now regret booking us all on the local ghost tour. The kids by contrast are hyped for it.
Already high on sugar from being let loose in the Beechworth lolly shop this afternoon, they talk it up all during dinner. By the time they have finished main course they have completely psyched themselves up to be scared out of their wits. Especially Lucy, who at 6 is listening saucer eyed and starting to look as white as, well… a ghost! We try to placate her by likening it to the story, “Where the Wild Things Are”. “Ghosts are only in your imagination”, we reassure her, “Just like the monsters in the book.” She still looks dubious.
It is time to go but our rhubarb crumbles are yet to arrive. Apparently they are individually made to order and so take a bit longer. We tell our predicament to our waiter who kindly offers to keep them for us for when we return.
“Oh the ghost tour is great!” he exclaims in a tone leaving us unsure of whether he is being sarcastic or not.
In the end, the ghost tour turns out to be about as scary as going to a day spa at night. As it happens, this is exactly what we are doing. Originally built to incarcerate the insane, mad and wayward, the rooms of the majestic 1850’s hospital are now used to treat the stressed, mad and wealthy. Although we learn a lot about the history of the asylum and the shocking facts about the diagnosis and treatment of mental illness in the 1850’s, our powers of imagination are beyond transforming massage tables into torture racks and the scent of aromatherapy into formaldahyde.
It doesn’t help that it is the Easter long weekend and our large noisy group makes it difficult to conjure up an eerie atmosphere. Nor does it help that our guide is clearly new to her role. We decide to help her out a bit.
Pointing out a large water mark on the ceiling, we suggest it is from the body fluids of inmates left to die in the attic.
“No, that’s water damage from a leak in the roof” she replies in a dead pan voice. “There’s been a lot of rain lately”.
We try again: “Aaaaaaah! A spider!” we cry out when someone sees a large huntsman hanging above us.
“It’s dead” responds the guide in a monotone.
At this point we give up and use our tired 6 year old as an excuse to leave the tour early. As we cross the courtyard to the car, a possum suddenly darts in front and runs up a tree. We scream! It is the scariest thing we have experienced all night.
Happily we return to Tanswell’s Hotel and the warmth of our fireside table. There we find our dessert waiting for us. And it is still hot.