A couple’s careful restoration of a country school house is a lesson to us all.
Words Victoria Carey. Photography Pip Farquharson.
With thanks to Caroline and Iain Hayes.
Caroline Hayes can still remember what she was wearing the first time she visited the Old Gundy School House. “It was a pale blue school tunic,” she says, laughing at the memory. “It was a 30th birthday party and everyone had to come dressed in a uniform as if they were going to school.”
The birthday party was for Iain Hayes, who later became her husband, and he had only just moved into the pretty weatherboard school at Gundy in NSW’s Upper Hunter Valley.
Built in 1916 (the 1872 original was destroyed by white ants), the classroom doors were shut for the last time when students finished their lessons in 1991. It meant that the kids of Gundy went further up the road to Belltrees Public School or travelled into Scone for their education. For several years the fate of the little school near the heart of Australia’s thoroughbred capital hung in the balance.
But five years after the closure, a young promising winemaker came along and decided to buy it. Iain Hayes had grown up in Scone, spending his formative childhood years in a house which is now part of Scone Grammar School. “His dad Harry used to joke that Iain had a thing about schools,” explains Caroline, nearly three decades later. “And our daughter Prunella, who finished at Scone Grammar last year, likes to say she had her music lessons in her dad’s old bedroom.”
Iain, who grew up next door to Tyrrell’s Glenbawn Winery, had “jumped the fence as a teenager to ask for a job” and was reluctant to move too far away from his much-loved work. (He spent 27 years at Tyrrell’s, eventually rising to the job of chief winemaker before the vines were ripped out in 2012 after the property’s sale to Segenhoe Horse Stud.)
“Iain was looking for somewhere within 20 minutes drive in case he got called in at night during vintage,” explains Caroline, who grew up in England and had moved to Australia in 1988. “He had been to a Gundy Ball, which is still an annual event here in November, and thought it was a nice community. Then the school came onto the market and he thought it was a unique proposition.”
Sitting on a two-acre block right in the centre of the little village and up the road from the Linga Longa Inn, the property came with “the school building, the teacher’s residence and the weather shed”. and the long drop toilet in the paddock.
But the soaring ceilings and blank canvas of the empty classrooms captured Iain’s imagination and so began a lengthy journey of restoration – and it’s one that isn’t entirely over. The first phase was to make the school rooms liveable, so a new kitchen and bathroom were installed. A weather shed, where school children once sheltered from the rain, was enclosed to create guest quarters and a major extension to the school was done in 2005, adding three bedrooms, a second bathroom and of course, a wine cellar. The most recent project was renovating the next door teacher’s residence in 2021/22.
One of the main challenges the couple faced was finding the right tradespeople.
“Luckily, I did find a man right across the road who had the skills that I needed to fix old timber sash windows and he was able to strip down old doors and windows,” she says. “We also wanted to make it authentic and to give respect to the existing features while trying to stay within the existing footprint of the house. And of course, nothing was level or straight!”
This painstaking work is beginning to reap its rewards. In July the Hayes opened the school to the public as part of the centenary celebrations of the Gundy Soldier’s Memorial Hall. Several former students and even a teacher came to see what the new custodians had done with the school. “It was lovely to have them see what we had done. The teacher had of course lived here for about six years during the 1980s and knew the place very well,” says Caroline.
Clearly community is central to this couple’s lives. When Caroline lifts her head from weeding the vegetables in her garden beds, she can see another building right next door that plays an important role in the community – the Gundy Rural Fire Brigade shed. Today, she’s an active member and Iain was once the captain for several years.
“I love the sense of community we have here – people look out for each other and work together. It could be to raise funds for someone in hardship or to improve our facilities,” she says.
Look in the rear-view mirror as you drive into Gundy, and clouds of dust hover above the road. Mobs of cattle gather around gates waiting for a bale of hay while horses push their heads through fences to pick at patches of feed. These dry brown paddocks are a clue to another important part of Caroline’s work. Until recently, she was the State’s Rural Resilience Program Coordinator with the Department of Primary Industries and now works in farm succession planning.
While Iain’s winemaking days are behind him, you are likely to enjoy a glass of Hunter Valley semillon around the Hayes dinner table. (It’s a variety that figures in another school tale, now part of the family folklore. “Prunella was asked what her favourite drink was when she was at preschool and she said “semillon”! Luckily her teacher knew us well!” exclaims her mother.)
The Australian bush is a far cry from the English landscape of Caroline’s childhood, but in the end this small village has captured her heart.
“I love the bush and I have wonderful walking tracks right from my door. No matter that I often walk the same route, there is always a different perspective dependent upon the weather, the time of day and the season,” she says. “It has been a wonderful place for Prunella to grow up.”
And finally, what’s your advice for others embarking on such a restoration?
“Double your budget and your timeframe”
The Old Gundy School House and Weather Shed are available to rent.
For more information, contact Caroline on telephone (02) 6545 8017; mobile 0427 813 336.
Caroline and Iain Hayes’s Address Book
A few Scone favourites feature on the Hayes’s list plus a special section on local building trades, because after spending the last 27 years renovating, off and on, they are in the know!
Hunt A Book
Well known for their personalised service, this bookshop is right next door to another Scone shopping icon – Potter Macqueen. “They stock a great range of books, puzzles, toys and more and are always happy to order something in for you,” says Caroline.
200 Kelly Street, Scone, NSW. Telephone (02) 6545 9330.
Hunter Belle Cheese
Now owned by the Chesworth family, who were 6th generation dairy farmers in the Hunter, these prize-winning cheesemaker’s products are stocked throughout the Hunter. “I love unhomogenised milk and theirs is the best,” explains Caroline. “We always provide complimentary Hunter Belle milk for our guests. They have a lovely cafe and shop on the northern end of Muswellbrook.”
75 Aberdeen Street (New England Highway), Muswellbrook, NSW. Telephone (02) 6541 5066.
The Linga Longa Inn
This popular pub is an easy walking distance from The Old School House. “They do great food, and we always recommend all of our B&B guests to go there,” says Caroline. And what would she recommend on the menu? “The duck spring rolls!”
2 Riley Street, Gundy, NSW. Telephone (02) 6545 8121.
As the sign out the front of the shop says, “Scone, since 1968”. This retail institution is a must visit and much loved by Caroline. “It’s the perfect place to find a special gift or piece. My purchases over the years range from hand painted lamps to luggage, outdoor mats, baby clothing, doorstops, ornaments, special toiletries and so much more.”
200a Kelly Street, Scone, NSW. Telephone (02) 6545 1858.
With 20,000 olive trees on a property near Denman, Pukara Estate had their first commercial harvest in 2003.
“We love the Novello unfiltered first press when it is bottled each harvest,” says Caroline. “They are my favourite olive oils and they now have a store in Muswellbrook.”
39-43 Bridge Street, Muswellbrook, NSW. Mobile 0427 847 603.
Special Local Knowledge
Builder: Tilse Building Hunter Valley
Steve Tilse and his team worked on the renovation of all the buildings on the site, starting in 1996 and most recently in 2021/22. “They have been instrumental in all that we have done and achieved with the Old School. Having trust in your builder is essential and we have been blessed,” says Caroline.
40 Gundy Road, Scone, NSW. Telephone (02) 6545 1709.
Painter: Daniel Spokes, DPS Painting & Decorating, Scone
“Daniel deserves 5 stars. He and his team meticulously stripped and painted the outside of the Old School House and it looks amazing.”
Mobile 0499 143 108.
Scone Mitre 10
“Frequently visited, especially during renovation times, they have been a wonderful supplier of so many things. Dan has always had lots of patience and advice for my endless questions regarding DIY.”
40-42 Guernsey Street, Scone, NSW. Telephone (02) 6545 2511.
Our editorial director now knows the Gundy Road well after doing several stories in the area over years. "I've always wanted to know more about the old school in Gundy, so it was a delight to speak to Caroline and hear about their restoration journey."
Luckily this Orange-based photographer loves a road trip and spends much of her working life travelling around the country. "I have worked with quite a few winemakers where I live so it was great to meet Iain and hear about a Hunter Valley vintage," she says.