Crumbling walls, rotting floorboards and proprietorial locals were among the many challenges this victorian couple had to contend with in their restoration.

It’s been said that on a still night you can still hear softly chinking glasses and the low hum of chatter in the front room of the former Little River Hotel. Built in the 1840s as a rest stop for weary travellers on the Geelong–Melbourne road, this bluestone building has history soaked into its very bones. However, despite its interesting provenance, it was a sad and almost derelict property that greeted Tanya and Craig Fenton at auction in 2006. But the couple, city dwellers who had grown up in the country, have never regretted their decision to purchase the property and tackle such a large heritage renovation project.

“I’ll never forget the day, soon after the auction, when I leaned against the bedroom wall to chat to our builder and the whole wall fell down,” Tanya recalls. “Not long after that, Craig narrowly avoided injury when his leg disappeared through a rotten floorboard. After that run of luck, we did start to wonder what we’d got ourselves into!” But it wasn’t just the practicalities of builders, tradies, bricks and mortar the Fentons had to contend with. “This property is the only one of four pubs still standing in Little River and, unwittingly, we’d bought a local ‘icon’ that was well known and well loved by locals,” Tanya explains. “I think some people were a bit worried by what we might do with this piece of history and they weren’t afraid to drop in with their ideas. But we have always  had the property’s best interests at heart and, after lots of research into heritage renovations, we hope we’ve done justice to this beautiful old place.”

And it’s easy to agree; Tanya and Craig have created a happy medium between restoring the former pub’s rustic charm and creating a comfortable and liveable family home for themselves and their children Ava, three, and Archie, one. But it’s been a hard slog; they’ve undertaken a back-breaking hand excavation of a large cellar full of rubble, removed dirt from under the ruined floorboards, sourced slate for roof repairs and spent hours ridding themselves of various species of vermin.

“The dirt beneath the old floorboards was a particularly difficult job,” Tanya says. “As well as decades of old dirt and debris, the previous owner had kept numerous animals inside the house including a dozen cats and a giant pig called Petal; Petal even had her own room. We had to clear layers of putrid dirt out by hand before we could replace the floor, otherwise the smell would have continued to permeate through the house.”

The full story was originally published in Australian Country issue 15.1. Subscribe to the magazine here.

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Words Emma Sutcliffe
Styling Fiona Newman
Photography Andre Elhay