Rising from the Ashes
In the late 19th and early 20th century, Rupertswood was party central for Melburnian high society, hosting everybody from the Duke and Duchess of York (the future King George V and Queen Mary) to celebrities like Dame Nellie Melba.
Built in 1874 for Sir William Clarke, the first Australian-born baronet, the sprawling Italianate mansion had 50 rooms, incorporated a grandiose 30-metre-high central tower and overlooked 40 hectares of gardens.
The country house, in the Sunbury region outside Melbourne, even had its own railway station.
"The most famous party of all," says general manager Margaret McLelland as she shows me around Rupertswood, now a 10-room boutique hotel, "was on Christmas Eve, 1882.
That was when Clarke, who was president of the Melbourne Cricket Club, hosted the touring English cricket team and the whole Ashes legend was born."
With the Ashes series now under way in Australia and the iconic Boxing Day test beginning on Thursday at the MCG, it's this link that drew me, a cricket tragic, to Rupertswood.
The legend has its origins in England in August 1882, when the Aussies beat England for the first time on British soil. It was a defeat greeted with outrage by the host nation's press, one headline proclaiming the death of English cricket and suggesting that its ashes be taken to Australia.
But if it wasn't for a Christmas lunch at Rupertswood a few months later, that could have been the end of the Ashes legend.
"After lunch, there was a drunken cricket match in the grounds between locals and the English team," says McLelland.
"Nobody kept score but it was agreed that the English won and that evening, their young captain, Ivo Bligh, was presented with an urn, said to contain the ashes of English cricket. It was probably a perfume jar containing the remains of a burnt bail."
That small terracotta urn has become one of the most enduring totems in international sport, presiding over a rivalry dating back 131 years.
During my stay at Rupertswood, the mansion seems to echo with chatter from its Victorian and Edwardian heyday, wafting around its verandahs, up its ornate central staircase and into the guest rooms.
The Ashes were also imbued with the seeds of a simmering romance. Among those involved in the presentation was Florence Morphy, music teacher to the Clarkes' children, with whom Bligh fell in love and married.
With its four-poster beds, period fireplaces and antique furniture, Rupertswood retains a romantic feel and is a popular wedding venue.
The Sunbury region is one of the most unsung in Victoria, possibly because it is close to honeypots like Daylesford and the Macedon Ranges.
But with a landscape shaped by ancient volcanic activity, steep valleys rising and falling at the edge of a vast plain, it is certainly worth exploring.
Several picturesque wineries produce good cooler-climate wines, including shiraz and riesling. Two vineyards close to Rupertswood, Craiglee and Goona Warra, were first planted in the 1860s and offer tastings in historic bluestone cellars. Further afield, Longview Creek enjoys a dramatic setting, its vines stretched out above a small, deep gorge.
Continuing the sporting theme, the nearby Living Legends, at Woodlands Historic Park, offers the chance to meet former champion racehorses like Better Loosen Up, the Australian Horse of the Year 1991 and a handful of Melbourne Cup winners.
On my Saturday morning visit I get up close to 2000 Cup winner Brew.
With Melbourne's attractions just 40 minutes' drive away, I'm also able to enjoy a full day in town before returning to Rupertswood. Having pre-arranged dinner, I sit down to a superb meal then adjourn to the library with a glass of port in front of the fire.
The writer was a guest of Rupertswood and Tourism Victoria.
FIVE MORE TREATS FOR CRICKET TRAGICS
FOR THE FAMILY Attend cricket's "family day" at the MCG, Brunton Avenue, East Melbourne, on Monday, December 23, to meet the Australian and English teams. Entry is free via gate one, 11.30-2pm. See cricketvictoria.com.au.
HIGH TEA Enjoy the McGrath Foundation High Tea and help raise money for breast cancer awareness. Held on the second day of the Test match, it includes champagne and treats as well as Gold admission to the cricket. From noon, Friday, December 27. See mcgrathfoundation.com.au.
TOUR OF GROUND Take a 75-minute tour of the MCG, departing regularly between 10am-3pm (except Christmas Day and major event days such as during the Test match). See mcg.org.au.
MUSEUM VISIT Take in the National Sports Museum, also part of the MCG, to see a talking Shane Warne hologram and the Baggy Green Room. Open 10am-5pm daily (except Christmas Day and major event days), entry is available on a joint ticket, including the MCG tour. See nsm.org.au.
After match Have a beer at the Cricketer's Arms, opposite the MCG, at 327 Punt Road, Richmond. See cricketersarms.com.au.
WHERE Rupertswood Mansion, 3 Macedon Street, Sunbury, Victoria. Phone (03) 9740 5020, see rupertswood.com.au.
HOW MUCH Rooms start at $240 a night including breakfast.
TOP MARKS For historic ambience, the Italianate Victorian architecture and the warm welcome from Scottish general manager Margaret McLelland and her staff.
BLACK MARKS You'll need to rent a car to use it as a base and to visit Melbourne; the mansion is a bit creaky and could do with some TLC.
DON'T MISS The six ornate stained-glass panels, made by Urie and Ferguson in the 1870s, looming large in the entrance hall.
MORE INFORMATION visitvictoria.com.