Bear’s Castle is a peculiar and mysterious historic building located near Melbourne’s Yan Yean Reservoir. I visited the castle this weekend and found it intriguing.
I’d never heard of Bear’s Castle before, but it is apparently well-known to Whittlesea locals and is listed on both the Victorian Heritage Register and the National Trust’s register of historic buildings. Bear’s Castle is located on land managed by Melbourne Water adjacent to the Yan Yean Reservoir, so is not normally accessible to the public. I attended a tour of the site this weekend and had an opportunity to explore a most remarkable building.
The third year of La Niña has produced very wet weather across Victoria. It was in this context, with flooded townships in Victoria’s north, driving rain and sodden landscapes across Melbourne that I caught the Whittlesea Courthouse tour bus to Yan Yean Reservoir past numerous “road subject to flooding” signs and obvious evidence of recent inundation. The landscape was soggy with threatening clouds overhead, even as the rain stopped. Despite this, we were able to see some of the earliest parts of the reservoir system that enabled Melbourne to grow into the major city that it is today.
The gravel roads leading up to Bear’s Castle were muddy and rough, but somehow our tour bus was able to traverse the terrain and get us there safely. There is a surprising amount of history on this site which I’d never really appreciated before.
Bear’s Castle is named after landowner Thomas Bear who commissioned it around 1846 for reasons that remain shrouded in mystery. Many theories exist, including that it was a joke, a misconstrued instruction, a watch tower, a temporary home and a refuge. I won’t reveal the answer here but our tour guide went through each of these possibilities whilst we sat inside the building and listened attentively.
The exact date of construction is uncertain, but it is believed to be in the 1850’s. The building is modest, occupying a space of just 12 square metres. Bear’s Castle has changed a lot over the years from its original form. Early photographs show turrets and parapets but these were later removed for unknown reasons. The building fell into a period of decay at the turn of the twentieth century and a new roof was constructed over the building. This, in turn, fell into disrepair and started to decay the walls of the building. In the 1970’s, the Melbourne & Metropolitan Board of Works (MMBW, precursor to Melbourne Water) who now owned the land, fixed the roof and decided to clad the building in chicken wire and cement to protect the cob construction. This is how it appears today.
Other details have changed too. The original windows, which can be seen in early photographs, were replaced with wire mesh in the early twentieth century. On the lower floors, this has been replaced again. Timber beams inside the structure have also been replaced to ensure the integrity of the building. The chimney, which was originally clad in stone, has had the upper portion removed to expose the brick inside.
Although the building is two-storey in size, it never had a second floor. Instead there were a series of timber ladders inside that enabled people to climb up onto the roof. These are now long gone.
There is a cramped internal staircase that one can climb to a door frame at the top of the building. Unfortunately I was not allowed to climb the staircase, although I’d have liked to go up and take a look.
When Bear’s Castle was constructed, the area had been stripped of vegetation and the castle stood prominent atop its hill. The forest has now grown back, so the castle now has a secluded, almost eery, feeling. The view over the reservoir and across the district has almost completely disappeared.
The tour of Bear’s Castle was wonderful. Our tour guide was knowledgeable and enthusiastic. Considerable research had been put into understanding the site and its history.
As part of the tour, we were provided with a scrumptious home-made morning tea at the Caretaker’s Cottage.
Melbourne Water have been working to revitalise the area around Bear’s Castle. For more information about its history, have a look at the Up The Creek website. Tours of Bear’s Castle are available from the Whittlesea Court House Visitors’ Information Centre.
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