The Argus XXVI

Mandy Archibald

Photographer Mandy Archibald on her love for a small-town community.

Words Victoria Carey.

Photography Nicola Sevitt.

It’s very still as we drive up the valley. Clumps of bleached grass stand like statues on each side of the red dirt road and there’s not a breath of air to disturb the early morning calm. Giant gum trees, branches soaring high into the sky, are dotted around the paddocks and cattle, resting in a little dip, gaze inquisitively as the car approaches. I wonder if rain is coming.

“We knew exactly where we wanted to build the house because the cattle used to camp here,” explains Mandy Archibald as we walk around her garden. “They always pick the best spots. We knew as soon as we came here that this was the place for us. It is such a stunning valley and we were so lucky to find it.”

The Archibalds moved to the Pages River Valley on the outskirts of Murrurundi in 2002. The country was in the grips of the Millennium drought when Mandy and her husband Sandy decided to downsize from Fernleigh, their original property near Ellerston in the Upper Hunter. It wasn’t an easy decision to make after 20 odd years on this rich pastoral country. 

“Our children grew up and ran wild in those hills. It was a very special place, but it was 95 kilometres out of Scone and it became increasingly hard to find people to help us,” she says.

On the surface, it was perhaps a surprising decision for Mandy to choose such a remote rural lifestyle in the beginning. Many would have expected the daughter of actors Googie Withers and John McCallum to follow her famous parents into the theatrical world, but a passion for horses was ignited while the family was living at Bayview on Sydney’s Northern Beaches.

“It was the most idyllic childhood, and it was where mum and dad came back to rest. They had the most amazing lives, and I was lucky to have been part of it,” she explains. “And I used to ride in the bush at Ingleside which was nearby.”

The youngest of three children, Mandy was the only one not to go into the theatre or film world. (Her eldest sister Joanna is an actress who lives in London while her Gold Coast-based brother Nicholas is a production designer.)

Instead, she decided to study equine management at Glenormiston Agricultural College in Victoria’s Western District. “I was 20 when I went to ag college and I just loved it,” she tells me as we sit at a long wooden table drinking tea. 

After finishing college Mandy, who had gone to school with Sandy’s sister, went and worked on the Archibald’s family property as a groom. It was a life she already knew she would love after spending many school holidays there.

But Googie, who was one of the leading actresses of her generation, was more accustomed to film sets and the theatres of London’s West End than the Australian bush. She immediately had some practical concerns about her youngest child going bush after marrying Sandy in 1983.

“I remember my mother asked me, ‘Who is going to deliver the milk and where do you take the garbage?” They loved it there, but it was so far out of their comfort zone,” Mandy remembers fondly, bending to pat Bear, a rather stout blue cattle dog who she has often photographed in a series of portraits called the Two Fat Ladies.

It was while living on this property that Mandy made her first creative venture: Fernleigh Yarns. She designed the knitwear label for 15 years but stopped a few years after moving to Murrurundi. “It became too much to do in the end. Things were bad with the drought at that time and Sandy had to commute to Sydney for the next five years to run a business we bought,” she explains. 

“We were very busy and both of us had to step out of our comfort zones. Sandy had to deal with the pressures of working in the city and I had to deal with things at home on the farm. But it was all fine, that was just part of our life.”

The decision to sell and move to a smaller property was made while their two children, Emma and Gus, were still teenagers.

“We still had the same way of life, but instead of calf branding that took us a week, it took us a day,” Mandy says as she describes what her life is like on 1300 acres compared to Fernleigh’s 6000.

Our conversation turns to how high Murrurundi would rank on the Bohemian Index, a measure of creative economy devised by Richard Florida, an American urban studies theorist, to chart the concentration of working artists, musicians, writers, designers and entertainers in particular areas.

“Murrurundi has always had interesting creative people, like Charlotte Drake-Brockman (See ‘The Murrurundi Argus X: A creative life’). She dropped her mobile phone in the studio and all the bits went over the floor — suddenly we had a pirate ship. Such a wonderful imagination,” says Mandy, who is a past president of the Murrurundi Arts and Crafts Council. “No one judges you here — you can be who you really are,” she says. “And I really like that.”

It was a creative environment that gave Mandy the confidence to pick up a camera a few years ago and today she loves to roam the valley, photographing the landscape and local wildlife.

Mandy knows more than most about the interesting people who have called Murrurundi home in the past. For seven years, she had an early morning spot on local journalist Mike Pritchard’s ABC morning radio show. Originally asked to talk about community events, it quickly morphed into a regular history segment called ‘A Peek in the Past”. She was soon spending hours reading The Maitland Mercury on Trove, the National Library of Australian’s online database.

“I did become quite obsessed,” she admits. Bushrangers, snake bites and one particularly intriguing character called Dr Gordon are all part of the town’s rich history.

Working in a Landcare group, the Pages River Warriors, has been another driving passion for Sandy and Mandy over the years.

And there is always that Saturday morning coffee with other locals to look forward to.

“We meet at Fox’s Store to do the quiz from the papers. This started out with about six of us and has now mushroomed upwards to sometimes 15 or more. A couple who came with friends once to the quiz loved it all so much, they went out and bought 10 acres and are now building their forever home in Murrurundi,” she says, clearly delighted at the thought of these new additions to the town.

But one thing is shining through, crystal clear. A strong community means everything to Mandy Archibald and she will be there, every step of the way.

It was to take John McCallum’s 90th birthday to prompt his daughter’s move into photography.

“Dad had this Tibetan spaniel called Tibby who he adored and I decided to draw him as a birthday present. I asked a local artist to teach me and I started taking photographs to use as a reference for my drawings. That is where my photography started,” she says.

Mandy Archibald’s Address Book


“We have an enthusiastic coffee group who meet every morning for about an hour. So, we are very lucky that Murrurundi has a wonderful selection of cafes with good coffee,” says Mandy. “And they all have a point of difference.” Here are a few of the ones she regularly goes to.

Fox’s Store

Medical museum, milk bar, antique shop packed with interesting things that make this the perfect place to while away a few hours. Owned and run by Ray and Judy Hynes. 

45 Haydon Street, Murrurundi NSW

George & Bean

Georgia Snow and her vintage Volkswagen Kombi van is popping up everywhere.

Using Colombian Coffee Co beans, Georgia makes a fantastic flat white and is currently serving coffee, cold drinks and snacks from a beautiful little garden.

Open Monday—Friday, 7am—12:30pm
Cnr of Mayne and Adelaide streets, Murrurundi NSW
Telephone: 0466872254

Life of Pie Murrurundi

Watch out for this bright orange building on Mayne Street as you don’t want to miss this popular bakery. Well known for its excellent pies, the caramel slice is also very hard to say no to.

13 Mayne Street, Murrurundi NSW
Telephone: (02) 5512 9605

Nelliebelle’s Cakes and Bakes

“Our old favourite. We love sitting under a beautiful under a beautiful old bottle brush tree in the back garden that we share with lots of little birds who hop on the table and eat our cream. We are very fond of Margie who owns the cafe and Shelley who makes a great coffee.” 

132 Mayne Street, Murrurundi NSW
Telephone: 0437 144 555.

Take a Break Cafe

“Take a Break has a great outdoor sitting area with a fabulous view of the mountains. It’s also part of the visitor centre so we often have chats with many locals walking by.” 

Shop 1/113 Mayne Street, Murrurundi NSW
Telephone: (02) 6546 6528.

Victoria Carey

“Sometimes you come across a multi-layered story and it’s so good, it’s hard to know what to leave out. This was definitely one of them,” explains our editorial director.

Nicola Sevitt

“As soon as I stepped inside Mandy’s home, I loved her collection of artworks, books, and objects displayed. It was a treasure trove, full of history and stories waiting to be told,” says this photographer.

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