Rice Bowl Hotel, Whitton

New South Wales, WhittonRice Bowl Hotel, Whitton

48 Benerembah St, Whitton Phone: 02 6955 2881

So anyway you can say a lot of things about Henry Lawson’s poetry and writing but when it came to drinking, the man who famously said that, ‘beer makes you feel the way you ought to feel without beer’, was an unadulterated amateur.

And I mean that in the original meaning of, ‘amateur’.

As anyone who spent school hours declining Latin nouns and conjugating its verbs, both irregular and regular, will be only too painfully aware, Amo amas amat, amamus, amatus amant have given us, ‘amorous’, ‘amiable’ and, well, ‘amateur’, and their meanings all concern love.

An amateur is a lover, and Henry Lawson was a sure lover of drink. It didn’t love him back but it very seldom does.

In 1915 his love was getting a bit, well, dominating and so Jules Archibald, his boss at the Bulletin, went to the NSW Premier, William Holman with an idea.

He convinced the politician to create a new job as publicity and media officer at the fledgling Murrumbidgee Irrigation Area in the Riverine and to give it to Henry Lawson. Oh and to make the office at Leeton.

(You thought ‘jobs for the boys’ was a recent political policy, eh?)

Leeton was the target because the surrounding area had been largely bought from Samuel McCaughey, a trail-blazing farmer, grazier, politician and devout Presbyterian wowser and prohibitionist who’d insisted the place remain free of pubs and wine saloons.

So Henry was shipped off there along with his er, “housekeeper” and installed into a pretty little cottage beside an irrigation ditch.

From day one, he bemoaned the unnatural and unhealthy lack of pubs.

In his “First Impression of Leeton”, he railed that, “We oughter have a pub. It would promote the healthiest kind of good-fellowship….a pub would make the town like a home to many. It would be a haven, and a refuge to many a weary, work-worn, married man caught in a dust storm on his way home.”

(A)ll the things are here that are in most country towns – more;” Lawson later penned from his pulpit,” but lo and behold! The pub is not here, my brethren. And verily I say unto you that a Place is not natural without a Pub….. There has always been a pub, ever since (and before it) a certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho….and I’ll bet the ‘priest’ and the Levite who passed by on the other side were wowsers and prohibitionists.”

But Henry and a slab of mates soon had a workaround! Each Saturday morning a train would pull out of Leeton bound for either Narranderra or Whitton, both just outside the ‘dry’ zone.

This “drunks’ train” would wait there until Sunday evening when it would return with its skint ‘n’ pissed cargo to Leeton and Henry and his mates would endure another dry(ish) five days.

The poet was fond of Narranderra. He called it, “an ungodly town just outside the area” (which I think was praise), but he claimed that maybe the strongest opposition to “our honest agitation for a decent pub” came from Narranderra’s jar exporters of “tangle-foot and smiling-juice.”

If the week’s only train was headed that way, he probably would’ve just crossed the road from the station to the Star Hotel or gone down the main street to the Murrumbidgee Hotel. Both are still standing though the Star, a magnificent building, is currently a workers hostel and in need of TLC and a cash injection.

The Narranderra Railway Station is beautifully restored and worth a visit. The rights of railway travellers to a drink at station refreshment rooms dominated hours of parliamentary debate in the early 1900’s and you can see the windows through which they served the hooch to those in the station carpark.

But it’s likely that whenever he could, Lawson headed instead to Whitton which he preferred. Henry wrote of meeting a ‘blanker’ who’d just signed up for the army and was based in Hay. This fella had come down to Narranderra on a break, but he’d been shouted a ‘..raw and maybe doctored Australian “port wine” (which had) done the business for him”.

Henry gave the recruit a recuperative hit from his flask and told him to head for Whitton where “he’d have plenty of time…to go across the road to the hotel to get a good honest, long beer.”

The Whitton train station has been moved down to Gogeldrie St and is part of the great little town museum. This is a top place and you’d have to be a pure bred fysigunkus to not be interested in some of the stuff they have in there. Go visit!

The original rail tracks have grown over, the passenger trains no longer come. Thirteen of the 14 pubs which existed back then are gone but the one that exists (again) will still give you one (or two) of Henry’s famed ‘good honest, long beers.’

The way I hear it, the previous publican thought that actually getting a licence was just unnecessary city-based red tape beauracracy and for some reason the cops kept busting him for illegal trade. They closed him down and town was without a pub for nine months a couple of years back.

The Rice Bowl Hotel at Whitton was saved by Colin and Cindy, two locals who watched in horror how their town fabric decayed when the pub was closed.

Cindy was born and raised in this tiny town of 350 and had worked in the pub since she was 18. Colin is a recent blown-in of 20 years and together they realised that the town needed the pub, it needed Lawson’s ‘refuge’ and ‘haven’ for the ‘work-worn’ and for the traveller and visitor.

With no pub management experience between them, with Colin working part time as a TAFE instructor and Cindy at the Bank in Leeton, they decided to do their best to save it.

And their best seems to be working. When I ask Colin how it’s all going, he replies with a smile, “It’s still going!”

Not yet able to pay staff wages, they pretty much run it on their own with the midday help from Colin’s dad Max who “pulls beers and yacks with his mates each lunch-time.”

The Rice Bowl doesn’t serve meals which in a town with no restaurant can be a problem. But it has a very large fully equipped kitchen and a bbq in the back beer garden. The thing to do is stock up on some steaks and other makings from the IGA in Griffith or Leeton and cook up your own feast. One night I was there a gang of locals was hungry so Cindy rang the Chinese at Darlington Point with all the orders and then drove down to collect them all. Bunged the cooled ones into the micro in the kitchen! Simple!

The kitchen has a pair of fullsized fridges with freezers large enough to take a dozen Camelbak 3 litre bladders.

There’s also free wifi for drinkers n stayers.

Accommodation consists of four twin rooms, four doubles and one room with a double and a single. The rooms are a standard 40 bucks each but there’s a discount to just 20 bucks (from the usual $30.00) for solivagant riders. All rooms have aircon and a ceiling fan, good hooks for clothes and some basins.

The rooms can get full of fruit picking backpackers when the season is up but across near the old rail line there’s plenty of space to feral camp and if you want cover, you won’t be disturbed if you swag inside the old flour store.

The bathrooms are clean and the hot water good but it takes a freeking age to get from the cistern way out the back.

Riders can use the washing machine and dryer at no charge and if you want to lock up your ride, there’s room for 5 or six bikes in the keg yard beside the pub.

There’s no TAB but there’s pool, a juke box and a trio of pokies. This is a pub where folks gather at the bar and hang in groups, and Colin and Cindy know everyone by name and schooners cost an even 5 bucks.

Tuesday night is Darts whilst Wednesday is Pool Comp night and any night is warm and welcoming.

Leeton’s days of prohibition (see breakout) are long gone and so Lawson’s reasons for coming to Whitton have evaporated, but the Rice Bowl Hotel deserves support and you’ll enjoy your stay.

It rated four helmets and over 300 on our value scale where 100 is good! It ain’t especially beautiful but it’s run by good people who are doing a professional job to welcome amateur riders just like you!

Drop by and enjoy a “good honest long glass” and some truly amateurish hospitality. You’ll soon see why old Henry Lawson called it, “smiling juice”!

Full Disclosure: When I fronted up at the pub, Colin was hoeing into a Cindy risotto and insisted I have some dinner. He’d have to do way more than that to buy me off! My usual thanks to my HR Dept for the continuing inspiration.