The Sports Desk cannot confirm that the crumbly corners of Nelson Lodge had anything whatsoever to do with the Lord Vice Admiral himself and more is the pity. However, its stoic bulk, lodged like fat in an artery on the brim of Unwins Bridge Road in Tempe, certainly lends itself to the comparison. With its bits tucked into well-made sleeves, proud demeanour, and wearing unconventionality with precocious flair, it is a handsome place.
It is detailed in countless real estate ads as having “hallmark period details and original colour palette, traditionally large rooms featuring soaring ceilings, four self-contained dwellings, huge rustic kitchen, functioning bathrooms, vast storage area/cellar, ante-rooms, versatile outbuildings, carriage shed, leafy established gardens and ample off street parking”.
Nowhere does it mention stone flags worn smooth and cursive by centuries of feet, the green-gold speckle of patina’d age, a ripple of cobbles beneath ancient tread, verdant forests or an abiding sense of soul.
Born in an era of bushrangers and boatmen, clay quarries and iron gangs, Nelson Lodge was built in 1858 by the owner of the Lord Nelson pub. Next to its salacious sister The Hero of Waterloo, known for its rum smuggling and shanghai-ing (the forced indenture of unwary drinkers into the Australian Navy, their bloodshot eyes missing the coin dropped into the foam of their ale, the mark of the newly recruited sailor), the Lord Nelson is positively pious, Sydney’s oldest continuously licensed hotel.
I wonder if the Lodge is as pious…
Built as a travellers’ resting place – a highway lodge – the sandstone skeleton resembles a motel – all beds and baths and connecting hallways. There is no cosy hearth in the heart of the building, no shared space or communal living, save for the kitchen, sheathed as it is in cobwebbed curiosity. Dust bunnies with the fortitude of enraged wildebeest inhabit the cracks, the paint is intent on furtive escape and the central hallway, with its soaring ceilings and scalded-skin-tone palette, channels a fearsome breeze.
Today, an age from then, smooth-as-skin cedar boards echo footprints and laughter, smoke from a brazier tangles in the air and cool respite from an intense summer sun slinks in darkened corners, an invitation so seductive the gathering of people I am here with shifts and sighs within the space like a restless wind, from cool corner to burning bright and back again.
This was no gentleman’s home, no free-settler’s landed pile or exclamation of standing. Neither was it bawdily designed to slake the thirst of the road, with ale, smoke and grease the domain of the kitchen. The Lodge was akin to a colonial motel or staging post, to offer succour from the jarring of the road, where horses could be stabled and travellers revive their delicate sensibilities in “one of four separate suites, six bedrooms and seven bathrooms”.
But that’s not to say there wasn’t a good time to be had – these bones have jangled in joy, broad balconies brimming with revellry, glasses clinking, meat roasting and voices threading through the air… And as then, so today, chatter fills the spaces that time has germinated, a rich song of words and laughter that brings the Lodge to life once more.