Follow the Bucketts Way through the lush Barrington Coast hinterland and you’ll discover the charming country town of Gloucester; the gateway to the spectacular Barrington Tops World Heritage area.
Every time I drive over the Hexham Bridge at the northern end of the M1, I’m immediately transported back to my childhood. Countless basketball tournaments and surfing trips drew my family north over the years. This time I’m in the passenger seat of my friend’s Mazda CX3 in a three-car-convoy with five of my girlfriends. It’s not long before we’re passing the always busy Heatherbrae Pie shop just off the Pacific Motorway. I make a mental note to stop off on the way home for one of their famous fruit pies; apple or cherry, depending what’s in season.
Cruising along the Bucketts Way
The minute we turn off the motorway towards Gloucester, the steady weekender traffic dissipates and monotonous freeway bush scrub opens up to vast paddocks grazed by cattle and enourmous sheds that dwarf their neighbouring farmhouses. The Bucketts Way is a 150-kilometre tourist drive that winds its way through some of the mid-New South Wales coast’s richest agricultural farmland. Sometimes referred to as Thunderbolts Way, the road runs parallel to the 100-year-old North Coast Railway before crossing the Avon River and continuing into the Northern Tablelands. We travel as far as Faulkland and already feel like we’re in the heart of the country, despite being a mere hour-and-a-half from the city of Newcastle.
Longford Farmstay in Gloucester
When we arrive at our accommodation – a farmstay just ten minutes off the main road towards Barrington Tops – we’re greeted by an Akubra-clad farmer who escorts us up the long driveway in his 4×4 buggy. Longford sits atop a gentle hill, overlooking a picturesque landscape of grassy meadows, perfectly uniform rows of crops and a river that forms the natural barrier of the property. A few of us wander inside, noticing the high-spec to which the 100-year-old farm house has been renovated. The two indoor fireplaces and ducted air-conditioning are a welcome sight considering it’s the dead of winter.
Outside, the others are slowly edging towards the fence where a mother cow and her calf are grazing on the ankle-high grass just metres from the house. Our host tells us they’ve recently had 40 new calves come along. We spot them dotted along the landscape from the freshly-painted white fence along the driveway down towards the grassy banks where the Gloucester River snakes away into a thick expanse of bush.
We get the fire going just before the ombre-purple of dusk morphs into a milky black sky. The silence is spoiled only by the crunch of a waterthin with an outrageous cheese-to-cracker ratio and the far off moo of a cow. The country air is intoxicating and we all half joke about packing up and moving out here.
Exploring Barrington Tops National Park
The mountains that loom over the western side of Gloucester are more like a pile of potters offcuts; higdly-pigdly boulders morphed together with thick greenery growing through the cracks. The wonky rock formation belongs to Barrington Tops National Park. That’s where we head the next morning, all geared up for a bushwalk.
The road out to Barrington Tops is one of the most fun I’ve ever driven. It’s mostly sealed (the last 10-kilometres is dirt road) with tight corners cut into the side of the hills. Every crest reveals a new expanse of undulating hills peppered with sheep or cattle. After heavy rainfall in previous weeks, the water crossings (known as fords) were particularly sketchy. I was glad my friend offered up her car for the weekend; I’m sure my Golf would’ve been washed away.
We opt for the Gloucester River Trail; a gentle hour-or-so return walk that dips and winds through the fern and moss-coated gullies. Though the river is always in earshot, it’s not until we reach the end of the trail that we see the crystal clear water flowing over a smooth bed of rocks. Here, an opening in the trees presents the perfect location for an impromtu photo shoot. It’s remarkably warm for August and the sun filters through the tree canopy shooting beams into the glistening river.
Food and drink in Gloucester
Tummies now grumbling, we make a start back towards Gloucester for lunch. The Rounabout Inn looks like the most happening place in town. We find a table in the beer garden, soaking up even more of the intense winter sun and sip on Barrington Blondes while we wait for our food. Shortly after each buzzer goes off, someone returns to the table with something delicious; steak sandwiches oozing relish, chicken schnitzels in their crisy golden crumb cladding and bowls of calimari stacked dangerously high. I initially regret ordering a salad until I taste the sweet and tangy vinagrette that perfectly balances out the dish. I’m happy with my decision (especially since I ordered a huge bowl of beer battered fries with aioli on the side.)
Like many country towns, Gloucester’s town centre is based around a single road. A seemingly disproportionate amount of the storefronts belong to real estate agents. The rest are made up of boutiques, bakeries, take away shops and outdoorsy stores selling everything from camping gear to spare tyres. For coffee, try Roadies Cafe. Want something sweet? Pop into DD’s Little Lolly Shop near the Visitor Information Centre. And for the best pie in town, head to Hebbys Bakery; a beloved family-run outlet just around the corner from Billabong Park.
If you’re in town on the second Saturday of the month, have a wander around the Gloucester Farmers Market. The open-air market is a hive of activity, with visitors and locals perusing the wide array of offerings; locally-bred, grass-fed beef, hand-crafted soaps, infused olive oils, artisan cheeses and the freshest fruit and veg you can get your hands on.
Perfect pitstop in Stroud
Heads clear and lungs full of fresh country air, we make a start back home towards the Central Coast. But first, coffee. Half an hour down the road, we stop in Stroud for fuel – for us and the car. We find a cosy-looking cottage who’s signage promises coffee and cake, but inside we discover there is far more on offer. Part-gift shop, part-providore, The Crepe Myrtle is packed to the rafters with trinkets, homewares and food stuffs. (There’s an entire room dedicated to funky socks!)
After ordering at the counter and choosing something sweet from the cabinet, we head outside to find a gorgeous outdoor area with perfectly-kept garden beds surrounding the “tea rooms,” each one aptly named after the flowers that grow from their surrounding planter boxes. Basking in the sun with coffee and scones on the way, I wonder why I don’t plan trips like these every other weekend.