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ABC News
ABC News
Ian Kenins

The historic Tasmanian town of Westbury is undergoing something of a renewal. And everyone has an opinion

In Melbourne, Sydney, or Hobart, a new retro wine bar wouldn't raise an eyebrow. But in the historic town of Westbury, it's brought strangers together.

The small shop at 45 William Street, Westbury, in northern Tasmania has had many lives.

It first opened as a drapery store in 1874, and since then it’s been a beauty parlour, an accountant’s office, a coffee house, a respite centre, and even a library.

But its new use — and its new owner — typifies a change that is taking place in this historic town.

In November last year, the store re-opened as the Love Lucy Boots wine bar, trading from late afternoon into the evening.

But the proprietor, caffeine connoisseur Lucy Fleming — "I love it when people tell me they’re coffee snobs, it brings me such joy" — wasn’t impressed with the coffee being served in town. Soon she began opening her doors in the mornings, to double up as a takeaway cafe.

As is customary in country towns, word quickly spread. During the quiet Christmas and New Year period, when most of Westbury’s other cafes were shut, waiting customers sat on the milk crates and cushions Fleming strategically places on the footpath.

And, she happily noticed, they began having conversations, even with locals they’d never encountered.

Those who came for the wine, cheese and prosciutto platters in the evenings also found themselves in close contact with other diners — all part of Fleming’s plan for the town of about 2,270 residents.

“What I’m now experiencing ... is all the interesting characters and personalities coming out of the woodwork,” Fleming says.

“One of my customers said to me, ‘Lucy, where have all these people been living? I can’t believe I’ve never met them before’.”

The thoughtful, and intimate, seating arrangements stem from Fleming’s previous career as a social worker, trying to mend or build relationships.

“It’s not about the wine. It’s not about the cheese. It’s actually about community and connection,” Fleming says.

Wine, food, coffee and treats are what the business sells but its most saleable commodity is Fleming’s personality, which is infused into every transaction as she mixes her roles of barista, waitress and cook with that of a kind aunt, neighbour or friend.

“With my last business [an even smaller cafe she ran for four years in Wollongong, NSW] it wasn’t about the money, it was about the people and the experience.

“If you build that then the money comes.”

The small town balance

For a town that claims to be Tasmania's most English-like, most of Westbury's charm is hidden from view.

It takes a turnoff to find the historic cottages, shops, churches, and the delightful village green — which is definitely not a park according to croquet-playing locals.

Beyond this zone, Westbury looks like any other country town in Australia. Much of the population — which has almost doubled over the past two decades — lives in the less historic streets to the east.

The town has most of the medical and social services required for an ageing demographic. There's an old pub on the main street but its delightful facade isn't matched by the interior and many older locals prefer a tipple at the RSL.

Life in rural towns is a delicate balance. Shops are often run by local residents who compete in a small market, and where someone eats out, buys their groceries from or gets their hair cut can either cement friendships or break them.

So, any new business can be a source of anxiety and suspicion.

Especially if the proprietor is a tree-changer, or a woman, or a single woman.

And especially if she is all of the above.

Since opening Love Lucy Boots — the name derives from a T-shirt Fleming once saw — the perennial wearer of Doc Martins says, "Everyone feels, 'Oh, you're just another mainlander who's going to leave after a few years'."

For the record, Fleming's family are all Tasmanian born, Lucy in nearby Launceston. They then moved 27 kilometres north to Lilydale before her father's career as an industrial chemist took the family to Brisbane and later Wollongong. Now 45, Fleming says it was always her intention to return home: "I will be in Tasmania for the rest of my life."

Fleming says William Street had long been quiet before she purchased the premises 14 months ago and, "people are still getting their heads around there being a wine bar and are asking, 'Does Westbury even need a wine bar?'”.

Others question the need for one so chic. "Another local wanted to know how much a glass of wine would cost," Fleming says.

"When I told him $10 to $15 dollars he said, 'A few of us have been talking and here's what we think you should do: go to Dan Murphy's [in Launceston], buy some $10 bottles of wine and you can sell those for $5 a glass. That's how you'll get business'."

Further compounding the suspicion surrounding Fleming is that she arrived in Westbury with her father, Steven, who later bought the town's oldest house, the 1828-built Dexter's Cottage.

The two have always been exceptionally close, their bond strengthened by two traumatic events.

In 2007 Steven's wife, Anne, was diagnosed with a second bout of breast cancer that became terminal. At the time Lucy was living in London, "with a great job, a great life and seeing someone great — that was my sliding doors moment". The youngest of four siblings returned to Wollongong to help care for her ailing mother who told her, "you go look after your father".

Which she did, helping her dad with those domestic chores many older married men have seen no reason to learn. "So did I fill a void? Absolutely," says Fleming who, likewise, depends upon her father for so much.

Ten years after her mother's passing, Lucy would lean on her dad, and siblings, a lot more when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. After a year of "chemo and radiation and all that fun stuff", Lucy finished treatment in February 2017 and, with handyman help from her father, opened the Brown Sugar cafe in Wollongong just six months later.

The two have also travelled together and Steve once again helped Lucy with much of the grunt work to refurbish her Westbury store. In return, the gregarious 73-year-old wine bar fixture says, "I'm living the dream. I get to drink coffee in the morning and talk to people, and drink wine in the evenings and talk to people."

Fleming says her wine bar and cafe is attracting a younger demographic, "which is cool, something like a main street of Melbourne [but] in my town".

So far, her customers are appreciative.

"This is like-minded people getting together and that's something the town's never had offered," says tattoo artist and drinker of two morning espressos, Chris White, another tree-changer enjoying life in Westbury.

"I need to be near people but I know what cities breed and I don't like it. In smaller numbers, you can find better people."

Ian and Ashta Whiting, who moved to Westbury from NSW several months ago, also love the casual atmosphere of the wine bar.

The couple feel so at home there that after a few evening drinks, they'll duck out for a swim in the nearby Meander River and then return for a few more.

"This is a metaphysical space that's so embracing," Ashta says.

"There are so many people I've found [here] who've moved from elsewhere in Australia."

A town in boom

Fleming is the latest of several entrepreneurs to have set up shop in Westbury in recent years. In December 2020, Olivia Reader left her career as an advertising salesperson to open Little Marney's, selling garden sculptures, benches, bird baths and other Tasmanian-made gifts.

Shantelle White moved from Launceston to Westbury with her husband Chris and established her Laneway Flowers business.

Most distinctive is the red and white striped caravan that parks on Meander Valley Road, the town's thoroughfare, near the six-metre-high cricket stumps that form the entrance to the sports oval.

"It's high visibility here," says Rebecca Doyle, the barber and owner of Bex Blades & Beards.

"Plus, there's the amenities nearby, and lots of tourists stop here to take a photo of the big cricket stumps.

"And at least once a week, and sometimes two or three times a week, someone who stops thinking this a coffee van ends up getting their hair cut instead."

The old rural supplies store has new owners in Jake and Genevieve Slater, as does the grand 1833-built mansion, Fitzpatrick's Inn, that Nigel and Rebecca Soames purchased for use as a holiday home.

Recently, however, the couple from Braidwood in NSW have begun letting out some rooms and have plans to reopen the impressive front bar as a whiskey house.

In between the pub and Pearn's Steam World — Westbury's major tourist attraction with two huge sheds crammed with vintage machinery — is a photography gallery belonging to John Temple.

When Temple opened his gallery of Australian landscapes in 2002 there were a lot more tourist attractions in town, so he welcomes any new venture like Fleming's with a warning: "New businesses bring a vitality but they ebb and flow," he says.

"It's very tiring running a business for 20 years, so quite often they sell out and the business evolves into something else, or sometimes it sadly fails and the building lies dormant until it gets a new lease of life."

Temple says Westbury businesses and the Meander Valley Council, of which he is an elected representative, aren't sufficiently interested in marketing. "No one is taking responsibility for it," he says.

The council has no tourism development officer and has just one tourism information centre at Deloraine — 17 kilometres away. "That's like putting a tourism information centre in Alice Springs," Temple says, "It's right in the middle but they should be put at the gateways to your municipality."

Recently, Temple asked Fleming to "put some energy into revising a 20-year-old idea that was Westbury Working Together, which was all the businesses promoting the town". If other businesses embrace the concept, Temple would then ask for council support.

Fleming believes having businesses — especially "fresh ones" — collaborate is "always good".

"I think the new generation in Westbury will come through," she says.

"What I see here [in the wine bar], there's a different vibrancy. What I'm getting in here are the creatives, the artists, the people who say, 'things in Westbury could be different'. I think there's a start of something."


Words and photography: Ian Kenins

Production: Maani Truu

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