LEARMONTH could quite possibly be the gem of the Ballarat region.
Sitting on the shores of Lake Learmonth with a picturesque backdrop of rolling, volcanic green hills, the tiny tourist town offers something for everyone.
Named after the Learmonth brothers, who established the 26,000 acre Ercildoune sheep run in the area in the 1830s, Learmonth is one of the oldest towns in the region, tracing its origins back to 1837.
Watersports are the key driver of tourism in the area, with the road around the lake often bumper-to-bumper with cars on summer weekends, as people come to waterski, sail, fish, swim and picnic.
However, Learmonth is also home to some of the Ballarat region’s most significant historic sites.
The town’s Stag Hotel, which continues to operate to this day, is the area’s second oldest hotel behind Craig’s Royal Hotel and it was once a thriving agricultural hub, which boasted all manner of industry.
It was the civic centre of the Ballarat Shire before it merged with the Ballarat City Council in the local government amalgamations of the 1990s.
Like many formerly thriving farming communities however, the town’s fortunes dwindled in the late 20th century and suffered a further blow when the lake dried up due to the chronic drought conditions of the last decade.
The rains of 2010 quickly filled the lake however, bringing tourists back to the town and with it, a renewed sense of optimism.
The relatively new Cafe 321 overlooks the lake and has quickly established a reputation as an epicurean destination that attracts many visitors.
Bill Shillito moved to Learmonth nearly 25 years ago and has since become heavily involved in the local bowls club, as well as running the Stag Hotel for a number of years.
“It is a terrific place and there are terrific people here,” he said.
He said the town suffered through the drought, with businesses in particular doing it hard and the local garage having to close.
“It never died like everyone reckoned it was going to but there’s a lot of people around, a lot of activity, a lot of fishing,” he said.
“The fish are good in the lake again and it’s just a joy to be around.”
Learmonth, despite its size, is also a somewhat heavy hitter in the Central Highlands Football League.
It is one of the few regional Victorian clubs to have flood lighting at their home ground and has secured the services of former AFL coach John Northey for the coming season.
Mr Shillito said there was something special about Learmonth and could not envisage himself ever leaving.
“Only when they put me in a box, that’s the only time I’ll be leaving,” he said.
Municipality: City of Ballarat
First settled: 1837
Main industries: Grain, sheep and potato farming, tourism
Claim to fame: Thomas Bath, the founder of Ballarat’s first licensed establishment, the current Craig’s Royal Hotel, instigated the establishment of Lake Learmonth so he could irrigate from it.
Five fast facts
1. Learmonth derives its name from the Learmonth brothers, Scots who established the 26,000 plus sheep grazing run Ercildoune and its renowned Ercildoune Homestead near Burrumbeet.
2. Learmonth was once a local government hub, as the civic centre of the Shire of Ballarat. The municipality was merged with the City of Ballarat in the local government amalgamations of the 1990s.
3. Unlike many other towns in the Ballarat region, Learmonth does not owe its origins to gold mining. It was a crossroads for miners travelling between the Ballarat, Avoca, Fiery Creek and Clunes diggings but its rich, volcanic soil quickly ensured its place as an agricultural centre.
4. Lake Learmonth was initially a swamp and was expanded at the behest of Ballarat hotelier Thomas Bath, so he could irrigate his farmland. The first boat regatta was held on the lake in 1858 and it was originally intended as the site of the 1956 Olympic rowing, which was eventually held on Lake Wendouree.
5. The town’s recreation reserve is one of the few regional Victorian footy grounds to boast flood lighting.
Five things to do
1. Watersports. Learmonth is a mecca for watersports enthusiasts, from waterskiing, to fishing, sailing and swimming.
2. Take a day to learn with the Learmonth Heritage Walk. The town was established in 1837, making it one of the oldest in the Ballarat region. Learmonth Heritage Walk brochures are available all over town and feature historical information of 36 notable former sites, from chaff mills to blacksmiths, undertakers, the court house and churches.
3. Enjoy a meal at the Stag Hotel, the second oldest licensed venue in the Ballarat region after Craig’s Hotel. Established in 1854, the hotel is open for lunch and dinner seven days each week.
4. Enjoy a coffee or locally made cider with some local produce at Cafe 321. Overlooking Lake Learmonth, Cafe 321 has quickly established itself as one of the region’s must visit epicurean centres. People flock to the cafe for its coffee and provedore selection, while its cider is produced from apples grown just 2.5km away.
5. Taste some local wine. Eastern Peake Vineyard is just five minutes from Learmonth and has a cellar door open seven days. It also offers special events, such as this Friday’s outdoor screening of Dirty Dancing.