Travel back in time to an era of elegant glamour … then step outside for hiking or mountain biking.
Writer Agatha Christie was an ardent champion of the delights of early 20th century train travel. Her continental train trips and the works they inspired helped add a Grand Tour, E.M Forster glamour to railroad excursions.
But it was the legendary Orient Express, the vehicle for the English author’s most celebrated mystery, Murder on the Orient Express, that really stole her heart. Christie first boarded the luxurious art deco Parisian locomotive in 1928 to travel from London to Istanbul and across the Middle East to Baghdad. She later called it ‘the train of my dreams’.
“All my life I had wanted to go on the Orient Express,’’ she wrote in Agatha Christie, An Autobiography. “When I had travelled to France or Spain or Italy, the Orient Express had often been standing at Calais and I had longed to climb up into it.”
Fast forward to 2020, and today’s homegrown experiences of train travel are probably a far cry from Christie’s mode of bravura. But stay a night in Carriage 343, a meticulously restored train carriage, and you may discover a little of her magic.
Carriage 343 is the lovechild of acclaimed sustainable farmers Katrina and Sam Sparke. The couple and their four children live on Redleaf Farm, 110 hectares near Fitzroy Falls. The Sparkes raise free-range pigs, sheep and cattle, which they supply to some of the Southern Highlands’ and Sydney’s smartest restaurants. With a farming philosophy of ‘nose to tail’, they are also keen up-cyclers, forming alliances with other local producers such as Eden Brewery in Mittagong to use food waste otherwise destined for landfill, to feed their stock.
Katrina is a graphic designer by trade and a multi-tasking dynamo in practice. Carriage 343 is her baby. She discovered the unloved guard’s and passenger carriage four years ago, lying in a junkyard in outer Sydney. Needing to generate off-farm revenue and never one to shy away from a challenge, she had Carriage 343 loaded on to a semi, carried 150km down the road and unloaded with the help of a crane into a top paddock at Redleaf Farm.
Today, this unique accommodation portal is still and beautiful next to state forest on its original wheels and track. Overlooking a towering Scribbly Gum wood, in a clearing metres from the carriage, the Sparkes have built a platform where sits a vintage French bath. It adds a thrilling touch of Australian gothic to the whole scene. Here’s betting Agatha Christie would be straight in.
Inside, the specialness continues. Katrina worked for months to restore and retain as many original features as possible. The carriage is wood panelled and has a beautiful 1890s tin-pressed ceiling. Where necessary, original cedar was replaced ‘‘with a silky oak my father Peter pulled out of the Kangaroo River’’, says Katrina.
The carriage opens on to the living room with original sash and case windows and delicate seashell handles. An Early Kooka stove is gas lit, and the original guard’s fuel stove is fed by precisely sized pieces of firewood, chopped by the Sparkes’ boys to warm the whole carriage. A snug kitchenette is stocked with tea and coffee essentials, and a breakfast basket with granola in ribbon-tied jars, fresh eggs, milk, homemade jam and a loaf of fresh bread awaits new guests. Monogrammed Redleaf Carriage wine glasses sit on shelves ready for a 2015 Unwooded Clare Valley Chardonnay for Redleaf Carriages vintage to be cracked open. Suede armchairs in front of the fire beckon. Fur throws in deep sea jade promise extra warmth.
The original freight van is now the master bedroom. It has Juliette balconies through parcel doors and also antiqued mirror walls. A chandelier and a netted canopy hang over the king size bed, resplendent in white cotton, sheepskin rugs and cosy layers. But think boudoir rather than bedroom; this is one spicy space where the heaving bosoms and swooning passions of some of the mystery queen’s more ornamental characters would be at home.
Move through the carriage into the dining area, where an original table with bench seats covered in fallow deer hide await. Any takers for chess or One-Minute Murder Mysteries? The wide recess leads along to an adult-sized double bunk. also perfect for smaller sleepers. The roof is sloping here like a ship’s cabin and there are remote control candlesticks for those who like to snuggle under the covers and read as the night rolls on.
At the end of the carriage, there is an original guard’s water closet with enamel sink and flushing loo. Take a shower in the large bathroom recess, hung with sumptuous bath sheets and monogrammed robes. Carriage 343 is solar powered and off the grid, so luxuriate under the steaming water and look out on to the scribbly gums, revelling in the au naturel. The sheep won’t mind.
This is a private and beautifully restored getaway. Book with a couple of friends or take the kids and let them explore Redleaf Farm’s creek with its jetty, tyre swing, flying fox and canoe and beautiful waterfall. There are also masses of animals to visit and bushwalking and mountain tracks to explore just outside the door. Or go with the one you love, and spend a day or two taking each other places you’ve never journeyed before.
Suits: City-siders looking for a digital detox. Couples with curious kids. Train enthusiasts. Outdoor bathers. Lovers.
Don’t miss: Try a tipple at Mount Ashby Estate Vineyard, Moss Vale. Buy an original artwork from the Southern Highlands Artisans Collective (The SHAC), Robertson. Breakfast at Burrawang General Store Cafe, Burrawang. Delight in a Portuguese tart from Lucinda’s Pantry, Robertson. Take a bushwalk at nearby Fitzroy Falls.