For a century, Dame Nellie Melba’s country home north of Melbourne was a mystery hidden behind a vast hedge. In 2014, the public was finally able to peer behind this cypress veil when a restaurant opened on the property and tours of the garden became available. Tours of what is still a family home were also briefly offered last year, and are back for several months in 2017. While there are grander historic homes open to the public, and the post-tour high tea is modest compared to many available elsewhere, A Glimpse of Melba is a rewarding, even unmissable experience for anyone interested in this legendary opera star.
Nellie Melba’s country home. Photos: supplied.
The tour began outside what were once a complex of functional buildings, now transformed into public spaces including the restaurant, shop and cellar door. Di, a warm and enthusiastic tour guide, led our group of 10 inside this complex for an introduction to the woman and her property, which is the Australian home for Melba’s British-based great-grandson. There were the essential facts, such as the diva’s purchase of the property, a former dairy, in 1909, but also information and memorabilia that revealed the great dame as more than a gifted singer and society figure. She was also a canny businesswoman, an energetic, generous fundraiser during WWI, and a suffragette – I was surprised to learn that when she bought a racehorse, Melba had the jockey wear racing silks in suffragette colours, a design on display that’s still used by the family today. A bittersweet aspect of her personal life was behind the name she gave the estate, Coombe.
With a better understanding of our subject, we strolled over to the white house beside a beautiful, spreading oak tree. Di encouraged the group’s juniors to ring the old-fashioned front door bell, one of several instances of involving them during the tour, before we stepped inside. Limited to the entrance foyer, dining room, music room and the soprano’s boudoir, A Glimpse of Melba revealed the unexpectedly restrained taste of a woman who frequented palaces and grand hotels: there was little in the way of ornate carving and moulding, and seating was either comfortable chintz-covered armchairs or Neoclassical simplicity.
Old oak and cottage
Not to say that these rooms were modestly decorated. Beauty, even extravagance, was readily apparent in the moveable objects, and drew on a joyous mishmash of styles. An abundance of Chinoiserie, a Venetian chandelier, Hans Heysen bush landscapes, and an ornate-fan-filled 18th-century French folding screen were among the numerous luxury items. Melba’s monogram also frequently caught the eye, from a fireplace to the silver cutlery, and dozens of framed personalised photographs of famous friends, including Puccini and Queen Alexandria (Edward VII’s wife), also revealed something of an extraordinary life.
From a colonnade that looked over the garden, and the blue-tinged Great Dividing Range beyond, we entered Melba’s boudoir. Apparently her most valuable and spectacular clothes and accessories are now in the National Gallery of Victoria, but a few beautiful items were displayed, and we were able to hold her fox-fur muff – it was a thrill to put one’s hands where Dame Nellie’s had once snuggled. In the en suite bathroom, we even saw her unusually comfortable loo.
Dame Nellie Melba’s music room
Evident throughout the tour, cracked walls were particularly severe in the boudoir, and probably at least partly why Coombe is now opening to the public. Fixing what looks to be serious structural problems will cost a small fortune. The $125 outlay for a 90-minute tour plus high tea is steep, but consider that a chunk of it is going toward the preservation of this priceless cultural heritage.
After the tour, we were shown into the restaurant in Melba’s former garage. The original wooden roof structure, including a clock tower, is handsomely revealed, and an extension with floor-to-ceiling glass creates a contemporary, open space. High tea was a light meal rather than waistline challenge. The three-tier stand of bites included lobster, prawn and chive finger sandwiches, delicate rosewater pannacotta in a fine chocolate cup, and an unremarkable Peach Melba bakewell tartlet. These were accompanied by a flute of the Coombe estate vineyard’s Nellie Melba Blanc de Blanc (a refined sparkling with citrus notes so good I bought a bottle at the cellar door) and choice of quality organic loose leaf tea. The crockery’s distinctive Melba monogram was a nice touch.
While A Glimpse of Melba is less “lavish”, “palatial” and “luxurious” than advertised, it’s certainly a very pleasurable way to spend a few hours, and a genuinely precious chance to connect with a remarkable woman.
A Glimpse of Melba is at 10am and 2pm Wednesday – Saturday through winter 2017.