With vintage treasures and a quirky edge, this old timber town is South West magic.
Margaret River — synonymous with good food, good wine and the good life, and for good reason. Mention the name to someone not from WA and chances are they’ll smile with recognition as images are conjured of wineries, epic surf breaks, pristine beaches and ancient forests.
But mention the name Witchcliffe, and they will probably give you a blank look.
Ten minutes south of the town of Margaret River along Bussell Highway is Witchcliffe. Most people pass through this old timber and dairy farming town on the way to larger destinations such as Augusta. But if you do happen to stop and look around, you’ll find a town that is quite enchanting, if not a little quirky.
Walking down its main street, your first impression may be that this is a town stuck in the past, with quaint but abandoned buildings such as Darnell’s Store and the CWA hall. The wooden chapel that later became the home of Sundance Wholefoods is now a residence, or so I’m told by a man sitting outside the bakery. We get chatting and he jokes that he sees more tractors in town than cars.
Witchy — as the town is lovingly referred to by locals — is home to some wonderful vintage stores, such as Lime Beach Reloved and my personal favourite, The Flying Wardrobe. Step inside this treasure trove and you’ll find plenty of quality bric-a-brac and Australiana.
Back outside, I meet with John Alferink, president of the Margaret River and Districts Historical Society, to learn more about the town. “Witchcliffe was named by the Bussell family who owned a property in the area called Wallcliffe,” he tells me. “They named it after a nearby cave. People thought the overhang in its entrance, near Devil’s Pool, resembled a witch on a broomstick.”
John has with him the key to one of Witchcliffe’s oldest and best-known buildings, the Druid’s Hall. It’s empty inside but wandering around on the jarrah boards is a good chance to view a building typical of the period, its construction comprised purely of local materials. John tells me it was built in 1922, the same year the town was established as a part of WA’s Group Settlement Scheme. Originally used as a store, the hall was acquired in the 1940s by the Druids, a group dedicated to improving the local community.
Fast forward one week and the empty hall is bedecked in bunting and transformed into a hive of activity for the annual Witchcliffe Vintage Fair, now in its sixth year. I find the fair’s organiser, Jo Bee, as busy as her name suggests.
“I’m really happy with the turnout and we’ve been blessed again this year with great weather,” she says. Since 2012 the fair has helped raise money for local cancer support group River Angels.
After bagging myself a few bargains, I run into local couple Peter and Kathryn Ignoti, the owners of the Bellview Shell Museum. Having lived on their dairy farm on the edge of town for most of their lives, the pair first opened the doors of their home to the public in 1981 for people to view the largest known private collection of shells in the Southern Hemisphere — and quite possibly the world.
When I visited the museum earlier in the year, Peter gave me the grand tour. Now in his 70s, Peter started beachcombing as a child and has more than 30,000 marine items from both Australian and international waters filling the cabinets, display tables and walls of the front two rooms of the house.
“With water temperatures rising, numbers of molluscs are decreasing as they are losing their food source and a lot of the shells that you see here can’t be found on beaches anymore,” he told me. “We get conchologists, marine biologists and scientific authors visiting from all over the world.”
I asked him what his favourites were. “Oh, it’s impossible to pick. I used to love the cowries here but then I worked on a book about them for so long that I lost interest in them and started preferring shells with more character, like the angarias. But they’re all unique. Take that palmarosa there,” he said admiringly, pointing to a spiny shell in the next cabinet. “Just look at the fronds on that.”
While Witchcliffe celebrates its past, it also seems on the brink of exciting changes.
Popping up around farm machinery dealerships are businesses that wouldn’t seem out of place in some of Perth’s inner-city suburbs. The recently opened Yardbyrd rivals any cafe that you might find in Leederville. Electric Bikes Margaret River has a shop selling new and converted models, and owner Guy Pathe tells me ebikes are perfect for exploring the Wadandi Track. Formerly known as the Rails to Trails, the old railway line passes through farms, natural bushland and vineyards and makes for a pleasant way to take in the scenery. And then there’s Hardware Creative, a space that includes a gallery, studio and hot-desking for creatives to work and host exhibitions and workshops.
But perhaps the biggest sign of the changing times in Witchcliffe are plans for an eco-village including residential blocks, a village square, community gardens and commercial spaces on the east of town. Currently in the planning process, the village is intended to be a model of sustainability, featuring 100 per cent renewable energy and water self-sufficiency, low-carbon local building materials and organic food production for the community.
Director Mike Hulme says the village is a long-term dream of his and, if the project goes ahead, it will possibly be the first of its kind in the world and a model for future villages.
“We hope to include a creative and IT hub and have already negotiated fibre to the premise, with NBN for all homes and businesses,” he says. “There are plans also for an eco-hotel where people can stay and experience the eco lifestyle for themselves.”
Heading back north on the highway, I can’t help thinking this sleepy little town has a big future ahead. And, of course, there are still all those wonderful wineries, beaches and forests on its doorstep, too. But be warned, if you do stop one day to have a look around, don’t be surprised if you find yourself coming back for more as you fall under Witchy’s spell.
- The Bellview Shell Museum is at 10291 Bussell Highway, Witchcliffe. Opening hours are Friday-Wednesday from 9am–5pm. Entrance fees are $8 for adults and $4 for kids. Phone 9757 6342 for bookings.
- The Witchcliffe Vintage Fair is held annually, usually in November. facebook.com/witchcliffevintagefair
- For more information on the proposed Witchcliffe Ecovillage, visit ecovillage.net.au.