Melbourne has personality. It’s accommodating, yet non-conformist, cold, yet warm and it’s the city’s unique qualities – such as trams, pots of beer and a thriving arts scene – that set it apart. However, possibly my favourite part of the city lies by a river, behind a grand silky oak and heritage-listed garden.
Located just over five kilometres from the city centre in the historically working-class suburb of Abbotsford, the convent feels like it could be far away in an English countryside, yet you can walk there from the inner-city ghetto of Collingwood (which I’ve done several times) in a pinch.
It’s a great place to read a book or stroll around the stately 6.8 hectare grounds that comprise farmland, pretty hills and a quaint little gazebo where musicians often toot, strum and have a good whack. However, arguably the real belle of the grounds is Abbotsford Convent itself.
Built over a succession of stages, from 1868 through to 1911, the convent contains examples of medieval French ecclesiastical architecture. To me it looks a bit like Hogwarts and the old deciduous trees that surround it lend it a hauntingly beautiful atmosphere that changes with each visit.
A wander through the interior is no less impressive. Here you’ll find lofty ceilings and long halls, with a feeling that many stories pass you by with each bend. Being a bit of a sticky beak/adventurer, there was always a new spot for me to poke my beak into. On several occasions I found myself in a closet or hall which felt like its action of late had been few and far between.
From 1863 to 1975, the Sisters of the Good Shepherd (an order of the Roman Catholic Church) occupied the site, providing meager accommodation and strict schooling for female orphans. Today Abbotsford Convent is filled with an array of cultural activity, with anything from kendo to reiki, pottery, yoga, dancing and bread making classes lining its halls.
There’s also the fabulous pay-by-donation restaurant Lentil as Anything downstairs, which hosts vegetarian food, old movies and a variety of live music. Then there’s the classical community radio station 3MBS onsite, a Steiner school, a gallery and a bakery.
On the fringes of the grounds lies the Collingwood Children’s Farm, where one can find a pastoral cafe, a farm and veggie plot that’s been thriving since 1979. And if you’re up for an abbey adventure, head towards the back of Abbotsford Convent to a homely little watering hole called Handsome Steve’s.
Here you’ll find Steve, a wise-cracking mad Geelong supporter that serves toasted sandwiches and one beer on tap, all from a poky room attached to a whopping balcony with a splendid view.
A bit of a cultural circus sanctuary in the inner-city, Abbotsford Convent is a place everyone can enjoy, particularly those short on pennies. It’s also the place in Melbourne I miss most of all.