Talk to a Wollombi local, and they'll tell you, the tiny village is changing. It's been through quite a few eras since its beginnings. From 1826 to 1834 thousands of convicts built the road from Sydney to the Hunter Valley and Wollombi developed around the junction. "Wollombi" is speculated to be from an Aboriginal language meaning "meeting place", or "meeting place of the waters".
The 2016 Census reported Wollombi had fewer than 200 residents, but it has gradually become a popular weekend destination for out-of-towners. Visitors love the natural surrounds, the food and the quirky shops.
The Forge Wollombi, The Twine Collective and The Roadside Gallery are three of the village's unique stores, and all are within a short stroll of each other.
Bhret McIntyre, 65, is a painter and an artist who has lived in Wollombi for nearly 20 years. He's just celebrated the five-year anniversary of his shop full of weird, memorable old things. The Forge Wollombi is unmissable from the road. One of its defining features is the strange objects out front, including the massive mustached, dreadlocked robot, made of what looks to be various strange computer parts.
"This building came up for sale and I happened to buy it. There was a friend of mine, we started talking about opening a shop of old stuff. He had a lot; I had a lot. I was an artist anyway; I was painting art and doing stuff," McIntyre says of how The Forge Wollombi got started.
Eventually he and what would be his business partner, Michael West, opened the shop. McIntyre, who designed the fit-out, does much of the goods hunting. West owns a scrap metal business where he finds more of the larger outdoor pieces.
Originally the building was a forge, a timber slab house and blacksmith workshop from the 1840s. It was one of the first buildings in the village. Over time it has been used as an art gallery and bike shop.
Next to the Forge is the Twine Collective, opposite the village's general store. Kelly Jones is the owner of the nine-year-old shop, named for its organic feel, symbolising roughness and sustainability. For Jones, the store means giving back to the community and other small villages around the world.
Jones has lived in Wollombi for 15 years.
"I started because we're an hour's drive from anywhere," Jones says. "You can't really get gifts in Cessnock, I opened it for the locals and the community; they give a lot. It was a hobby to help them. And then I just loved it. It proved really successful."
She's all about sustainable, ethical and locally-made, from natural fibres to reusable coffee cups to wooden dish scrubbers. She talks to all her suppliers before she brings in someone new, and nothing in her store is bought from suppliers who buy from more suppliers.
"If it's not locally made, it's Australian designed," Jones says.
The store was built in 1842 as the office of Petty Clerk who handled the small claims of the village.
Jones isn't sure of all the specific details but was told that after the 1890s it became a residence and was called the Wollombi Cottage.
The store was most recently owned by Wollombi winemaker Michael Noyce, and when Jones started she only ran half the store. When her neighbour wrapped up her business Jones took over. She bought the building in 2019.
A lovely stroll down the very same Wollombi Road is The Roadside Gallery, a co-operative of works by a variety of 3D artists. It opened in 2020. The building has been there since the 1950s, and it has had many guises. Its housed greyhounds and been used for yoga.
Stephanie Vella is the Roadside's curator/owner. Originally from Melbourne, she moved from Canberra to Wollombi in 2017 with her partner Rodé and their young son. At the time the gallery was collapsing and derelict. They put it high on the agenda to restore it.
They first opened it up to locals to have a "not your average garage sale" for folks to sell pre-loved goods with a percentage going to a local school. It was incredibly popular, and when the director of the Sculpture in the Vineyards (a 20-year-old regional arts festival) approached Vella about using the space as a gallery for the festival, she jumped on the opportunity as a way to transition it to a full-time gallery collective. Now Vella is also the assistant curator for Sculpture in the Vineyards and director of the Laguna Art Show.
"We went to building a collective. We opened our door with six local artists and now are up to 14 local artists and a number of feature artists," Vella says. "Three D works is what we really wanted to specialise in because honestly, what a creative community it is here. I knew it would be overwhelming to open it up to every discipline; we honed in to what we love."
Both Vella and her partner are 3D artists as well. Rodé is a sculptor. When Vella can find the time she makes lightboxes out of vintage glass. In the shop you'll also find a large range: Nic Eames' Cigar Box guitars, Wendy Black's sculptures, Taylah Gillies Earth & Fiddle jewelry, Willem van Zanten's exotic woodworks, Adrian dal Bianco's Mapacho leatherworks and pieces by Stephen Coburn, Nicole de Mestre, Sally Portney, Tim Selwyn, Mark Niglia, Angie Swannel, Diana Boyd, Elisa Krey and Darren Casey (Century Salvage).
McIntyre sees more travellers now visiting his store, many from Sydney. People are drawn to his "weird, unusual, something people don't see" collection. Like his artwork, he reckons the shop is a bit of an art piece. "People have come from all over the world to see the robot. When my father died I used all his electrical stuff and built that as I was painting. He's sitting out the front; everyone loves him,"
"Rod" is for sale for $4500.
You'll also find fake shrunken heads which were inspired from McIntyre's visits to a Sydney shop he visited growing up called Weirdos. He wishes he had a real one, though he speculates they're probably $100,000.
Also in the shop are gloves and dresses from the '40s through to the '70s, jewelry, glasses, instruments, vintage teapots, crystal balls and Dire Straits records. McIntyre's mother's eyeglasses are on display but the one item that's not for sale.
For Jones her customers are local people or day trippers. She also rents a space to Studio Gleaned up the hill; she recommends everyone pay a visit to the off-grid solar eco studio gallery.
Shrunken heads aren't her style but she does stock Jones & Co, an artist who designs painted faces made in Vietnam. Jones can tell you everything about each brand they stock, and her own mother even knits teddy bears for the shop. Jones sells some items on her website too.
Vella on the other hand specifically curates her gallery for in-house shopping. They don't sell items online, although their website and social media do have information on their artists. She's always looking for new artists to stock. She's excited about a new sandstone artist who they're working with from the Southern Highlands.
"It's a destination place and with the movement of pieces and the prolific creation coming from our artists, it'd be a fulltime job to keep uploading art," Vella says. "People have to come here to see what's new."
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