Visitors avoid Heronswood after January cafe fire

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Harvest time: Heronswood staff get ready for the harvest festival after poor visitor numbers since the January fire. From left, Jamie Alcock, David Weill, Simon West, Talei Kenyon, Michele Gorman, Priscilla Van Den Broek, Ines Balint, Kevin Mankey, Jayne Anderson, Clive Blazey and Andrew Carpenter. Picture: Yanni

Harvest time: Heronswood staff get ready for the harvest festival after poor visitor numbers since the January fire. From left, Jamie Alcock, David Weill, Simon West, Talei Kenyon, Michele Gorman, Priscilla Van Den Broek, Ines Balint, Kevin Mankey, Jayne Anderson, Clive Blazey and Andrew Carpenter. Picture: Yanni

VISITORS are staying away from Dromana’s historic property Heronswood and its Diggers Club following the fire that destroyed the property’s thatched roof cafe on 14 January and threatened nearby homes.

Heronswood erected a semi-permanent marquee to replace the cafe and only about 7 per cent of the gardens sustained fire damage, but visitor numbers have plummeted.

But there is a silver lining as it is hoped Heronswood’s annual harvest festival on 15 and 16 March will kick-start visitations.

Diggers Club education manager Talei Kenyon said the lack of visitors had been “incredibly hard for staff morale” and was “having a devastating effect on income at a time of year when everyone on the peninsula hopes to be busy”.

“It is so hard to fathom why this is happening as, apart from losing the building, the rest of the garden looks magnificent and is untouched. At our pop-up cafe with fabulous views of Port Phillip, visitors are able to dine on the pool lawn, which was previously a private part of the garden,” she said.

Police and CFA officers said the fire that started in the bushy median strip between lanes of the Mornington Peninsula Freeway near Latrobe Parade overpass was deliberately lit.

A CFA spokesman said there were at least two ignition points that started the blaze at about 5.45pm, the first day of a four-day heatwave over 41 degrees, the hottest spell for more than 100 years.

With a strong southerly wind blowing, the fire quickly jumped the freeway and burnt through bushland, setting alight an area known as Wonga Gully between the freeway and Point Nepean Rd.

Heronswood’s cafe with its thatched roof, built in 1996, came under ember attack, caught fire and burnt to the ground despite the efforts of ground crews and a waterbombing helicopter.

Fireys saved the 1870s picturesque neo-Gothic house and its ornamental gardens as well as all homes in the precinct.

A kitchen garden near the cafe was severely da­maged and a 140-year-old Moreton Bay fig tree had 30 per cent of its canopy singed but it protected the house from the fire.

Ms Kenyon said the harvest festival would include free gardening workshops and “tours of the magnificent garden on both Saturday and Sunday lead by gardening experts”.

“Heronswood House will be open to the public giving a rare opportunity for visitors to see through the historic house, which was designed by Edward Latrobe Bateman in the mid-1860s and is listed on the register of National Estate.”

The $3 entry to the house will be collected by Friends of Lospalos to support work in East Timor.

Activities for children will include alpacas, chooks, storytelling and face painting.

Other highlights will include an heirloom tomatoes taste test; the garden shop; peninsula producers selling wines, olives, sweet treats and herbs; a barbecue at the marquee cafe as well as peninsula wine, beer, coffee and cakes.

Ms Kenyon said the gardens “are wearing their summer best with brightly coloured perennial borders in flower, lush parterre vegetable gardens, espaliered fruit trees, and huge trees providing plenty of shade over expansive lawns”.

- Heronswood Harvest Festival, 9am-5pm Saturday 15 and Sunday 16 March, 105 Latrobe Parade, Dromana. Entry: $10 adults, children free of charge. Details: 5984 7321 or www.diggers.com

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