The historic Royal Oak Hotel in Penola, SA, is under new ownership and remains a hub of this vibrant bush community.

Story + Photos Mark Muller

Mary Harvey smiles as she dextrously wields a knife, happily separating a rich green zucchini from the plant at her feet. She is in the burgeoning vegetable garden outside of Penola, SA, where she and her partner John Rymill are now proud custodians of the historic Royal Oak Hotel. They’ve planted out a large garden on their land south of town with a view to bolstering supplies for the hotel kitchen – taking their commitment to eating, drinking and being local one step further.

John and Mary took on the hotel in August 2018, and are keenly aware of its history and legacy. “The Heyward family had the licence for 70 years before us, and we’re very grateful to be following on from them,” John says. 

The original licence was awarded in 1848 to town-founder Alexander Cameron – a bronze statue of whom stands just outside the beer garden. The first iteration of the Royal Oak was little more than a keg of rum on a stump, with a pannikin on a chain for dispensing the liquor. 

This arrangement was soon improved upon, with the building of a slab hut, which – according to John’s father, local historian Peter Rymill – gave rise to the town’s name, after Cameron took up the title to 80 acres (32.4ha) around his hotel in 1850 and began laying out the private township. 

“In the language of the local Pinchunga Aboriginal people, Pena meant wood and oorla meant house,” Peter writes. “Consequently, as an early translator recorded: ‘Penola: Pena oorla; wooden house, referring to the Royal Oak’.”

The bulk of the beautiful stone building that stands on the corner of Church and Ridddoch streets was built in 1872, and added to over the years. A cosy public bar, lounge bar and large dining rooms downstairs, accommodation and a sweeping balcony upstairs, and a large and shady beer garden are all hallmarks of this fine site. 

This story excerpt is from Issue #132

Outback Magazine: Aug/Sep 2020