By MICK ROBERTS ©
The pubs of Cairns City, Stratford,
Redlynch and Edmonton
CAIRNS’ pub culture has changed considerably since the mid 1980s when I first ventured to the far northern Queensland city as a young man.
The crowded bars, packed full of mostly transient men – many searching for a better way of life – have mostly disappeared, replaced with cashed-up tourists – many of them Chinese – and retired couples who have made tropical Queensland their home.
There’s people like 59-year-old Paul ‘Slippery’ Woodcock, who as a teenager ventured north to Cairns from the central west region of NSW seeking work, never to return to his hometown of Parkes. On the APP’s road trip to far north Queensland, we chatted to local characters like Slippery, and others who make the pubs in the region uniquely special.
Making Cairns our base, we ventured north along the lonely road to Cooktown, exploring the tablelands through world heritage rainforests to Kuranda, travelling south to the lush farmlands of Atherton. Our road trip took us through the villages of the tropical hinterlands, to the coast and the cane fields of Gordonvale, photographing and sampling the hospitality of a variety of great pubs and publicans along the way.
We start our road trip with a look at Cairns. Though some may disagree, I personally believe there are just five pubs worthy of a visit for traditionalist like myself in Cairns city. We sampled the fair of the Union Jack (Better known locally as The Jack), the Crown, the Grand, Cape York, and Barrier Reef Hotels during our stay in Cairns.
Cairns’ pubs take up prominent corners of the city grid. There is a common denominator between the city’s central hotels in that they are all concrete, designed by a small number of architects, and all of much the same scale and form. By their commonality, broad shaded balconies and spacious bars, they come to define the hotel architecture of North Queensland and the Cairns region in particular.
The pubs we visited all offered meals (with the exception of the Cape York) and all seemed well-conducted, offering all the mod-cons, including pokies and keno for those inclined.
Besides the tropical heat, what warmed my heart most with these architectural gems is many still retained their magnificent ‘long bars’; reminders of the hard drinking days when men lined the counter on foot and stool, clambering for cold beers under large ceiling fans.
My favourite pub during the 1980s was the Central Hotel, now sadly closed and converted to shops. I have fond memories of sitting at its long bar on humid tropical days, taking in the atmosphere of a noisy, packed bar of men and woman from all walks of life. I often wondered where many of them are today… whether they found their dreams, or succeeded in reaching their desires.
Cairns was – and to a degree continues to be – a city where people have escaped to start fresh, and its pubs were often a refuge for those to plan that new chapter in their life – meeting places.
Another lost Cairns’ pub is the Railway Hotel on the northern corner of McLeod and Shields Streets. It closed on November 14 2015. The current building, constructed in 1937, replaced the original pub, which opened in 1886. The Cairns Post reported on March 30 1892:
The Railway Hotel
Cairns has always been famous for hotels, so that, if they had to be classed at Lloyd’s like vessels, they would receive A1 and copper bottomed certificates. In starting a first class hotel in Cairns Mr. George Walton has always kept this idea in view, and although he found it hard work in emulating the big pioneers of the hotel world of Cairns he has succeeded capitally. In the original construction of the Railway Hotel, Mr. George Walton showed what man and money could do, but not content with a roomy and spacious building, this most energetic, and in fact enthusiastic hotel proprietor, must needs add to these already extensive premises. By the addition of a new wing, and now almost completed, the Railway Hotel has no less than 50 rooms, with a verandah, the largest in town, 147 feet long and 16 feet wide. Most of the new bed-rooms are provided with electric bells and are furnished in the same style as the rest of the house, which simply means with bed-steads of brass and tables of cedar, curtains of lace, and upholstery of damask. We cannot refrain from congratulating Cairns on the possession of a citizen so fairly imbuded with the idea of the future of the town as to sink a fortune in hotel building, not only in the town itself but at Myola also. Were there more such as Mr. Walton to take up their all into property in the place, both estate and buildings, the town would feel instantly an impetus towards prosperity. No man can grow rich in a town without helping the town along.
There are at least four pubs in the outlying suburbs of Cairns that I would consider worth a visit. In the north there’s the Red Beret at Redlynch, and the Barron River at Stratford, and to the south are the Grafton Hotel and Hambledon Hotel, both located at Edmonton, and established in 1910. These four pubs are ‘queenslander’ style timber pubs, with wide shady balconies, and plenty of historic charm. I would recommend pub lovers to seek these treasures out for a beer or two while in the region.
Grafton Hotel, Edmonton Qld. Picture: Mick Roberts Collection
The Barron River Hotel is one of the oldest pubs in Cairns being first built as a lodging house in 1887, and then opened as the Stratford Hotel by the Tully family in 1927. It has a long and rich history and is a must for either lunch or dinner, or simply for a refreshing drink on the drive to Kuranda.
The verandah is the perfect place to relax, overlooking cane fields, the old timber mill and the Kuranda Railway. The bar is full of colourful characters, as it has been for over 100 years. With a large range of cold beers and cider on tap, the hotel is a favourite with the locals.
Another much-recommended stop is the Red Beret Hotel, owned by the Hedley Group – a company that has recently bought up a number of hotels in the region, including three in Gordonvale.
Built and licensed as the Redlynch Hotel by Dan Molloy in April 1926, the Red Beret opened opposite the Terminus Hotel, which was destroyed by fire in the 1920s.
Paul ‘Slippery’ Woodcock was enjoying a beer at the bar with his companion, a ‘long-haired jack-russell’, ‘Rosy’ when we called by for a beer.
“I bought Rosy a few months ago from Branwell Station on Cape York,” he said.
“She doesn’t like technology much, and always shies away from mobile phones and cameras, so you better take your photo quickly.”
Slippery moved from Parkes in NSW to Far North Queensland when he was 17 years of age and is now a semi-retired plumber living at Stratford.
“I applied for a job as a rouseabout on a station near Mareeba. I told a few porkies to get the job and have been working as a rouseabout and other jobs in northern Queensland ever since,” the 59-year-old said.
“I love it up here. I love the lay-back lifestyle and the attitude of northern Queenslanders. In saying that though, I’m still a Blues supporter when it comes to the football. It can get pretty tough when the State of Origin is happening, especially at the pub.”
Slippery has seen a few changes over the four decades his lent his elbow on the bar of the Red Beret Hotel.
“The pub’s been modernised over the years since I’ve drank here. But the atmosphere and the basic public bar area hasn’t changed that much, although a lot of the old timers have now gone.”
Slippery recalls when the corner of the pub was spliced-off by the the local council when widening the intersection.
“They discovered the pub’s balcony had been built over the top of the Council’s property. So effectively half the balcony is on the Council’s land, meaning they had to cut the corner off the pub.
“She’s a beaut old pub. There are plenty of good blokes who drink here. She’s what I determine a good local pub.”
On the second part of the APP Far North Queensland Road Trip we report on the two remaining pubs of the sugar mill town of Gordonvale.
Read the story: The disappearing pubs of Gordonvale.
© Copyright Mick Roberts 2019