Although the inaugural UK Jesters real tennis tour didn’t start officially until Saturday 29 October 2022, that didn’t stop those from the UK who had already arrived and several of the Sydney Jesters heading for the padel courts for a fun evening of mix-in padel and pizza. The padel club has a great set up with four indoor courts and two outdoor and a lovely picnic area where you can bring your own food and booze. There’s a bar with soft drinks and padels available for hire and a really buzzy atmosphere. This was the perfect prelude.
CHAPTER ONE – SYDNEY
Our main hosts in Sydney were Chris Cooper and James Willis. The weather on Saturday morning was beautiful and it saw Tim and Lorrie arrive very early and head – like the rest of us – for the harbour and a day of sailing. Sydney Harbour is divided by a bridge which only opens twice a day so our two boats didn’t get chance to meet up. Robert and Lesley with their host James were given a relaxing and serene tour of Middle Harbour by Brian and Helen Robertson on their boat where the only decisions were which wine to choose with Helen’s delicious seafood buffet. The rest of us sailed with Chris and Claire Cooper on their boat Thankfully, Chris and Claire are very experienced sailors who were happy to do all the work and teach various of us to perform a few simple tasks.
Oli excelled at the wheel, while the rest of us acclimatised to the tilt (which seemed quite extreme to us landlubbers). Jill held a handle very expertly with no idea what to do with it and Minty performed well with ropes. None of us knew our knots, despite Jill and Gareth supposedly having licences to take very big boats out so we left the specialist stuff to Chris and Claire.
That evening we took a train into town for dinner at a very trendy and lively Asian restaurant called Mu Mu. We had a private room which was just as well as quite a few of us are now sufficiently old that we would have struggled with the noise levels in the main restaurant. Tim and Lorrie very sensibly decided that they would go to bed, having managed somehow to cope with a very full on day straight after getting off the plane – a very good decision on their part as those of us who had arrived a day or two earlier were certainly feeling the effects of jet lag by the time we hit the hay that night!
The original plan on Sunday had been a bush walk but this was abandoned in favour of driving out to Bondi Beach to walk along the coastal path to view a fantastic sculpture exhibition. Most of Sydney seemed to have had the same idea but that did not detract from the beauty of the views.
The beach itself thronged with surfers, volleyball players and people playing another game which we didn’t recognise but which seemed to be a cross between volleyball and badminton but with a small ball.
We returned to our cars to head off to the Cheltenham Recreation Club for lunch when a minor disaster struck. Jill put the key in the ignition of Chris Cooper’s Prado and nothing happened other than an ominous ticking noise. The battery was flat.
Everyone else had by then headed off but fortunately we managed to reach Chris and he returned to jumpstart us, a process that would have been easier if (a) Jill had taken her foot off the brake when people were trying to push the Prado and (b) we had been able to find the battery in Claire’s Jaguar. But we overcame those difficulties and headed off for lunch, crossing our fingers that the fuel would last the journey. The gauge was on zero… But luck was on our side.
After a hearty lunch, much tennis was played and some of us learnt to play golf croquet. This turned out to be an intensely strategic and competitive game and various of our party are now determined to carry on playing it.
Then it was back to Chris and Claire Cooper’s house for a feast of a barbecue. The wine flowed, gin and beer were imbibed and we dined on succulent beef and chicken with an array of vibrant salads, all followed by yummy puddings and cheese. The mood was lively and conversation flowed, dogs played and no doubt the neighbours wished the Coopers didn’t have so many friends.
Sadly, there is not currently a real tennis court in Sydney – hence the absence of playing any – as the court there closed several years ago and while the land to build a new court has been earmarked at the Cheltenham Recreation Club, the mammoth task of raising the necessary money to build it still lies ahead. This led to much discussion, particularly around the possibility of also putting in padel courts which would change the economic model significantly. Clearly this was going to be a topic of conversation in Melbourne also. **
As was the cricket but more of that anon.
CHAPTER TWO – MELBOURNE
Miraculously we all made it to the airport on time and on to the plane. Quite a few of us used this as a chance to catch up on a bit of sleep! Our Melbourne hosts were waiting for us by the luggage carousel, ready to whisk us off for an afternoon’s real tennis practice ahead of the following day’s match. The Melbourne Jesters had planned to take us to the Royal Botanic Gardens for a picnic but as the heavens refused to close, the excellent decision was taken to have the picnic in the clubhouse. As we dined and listened to the rain hammering on the roof, those taking the decision certainly felt vindicated.
This was a very big day in Melbourne – the day of the Melbourne Cup. It was also the day of the big UK Jesters vs Melbourne Jesters real tennis match.
As Melbourne has two courts, this could follow the format of 12 doubles matches, and while Robert will be adamant that the result was a draw, others would affirm that the UK Jesters carried the day by 8 matches to 4. But the score really didn’t matter – everybody had such fun. And as soon as the matches were over, we donned our hats to watch the Melbourne Cup and enjoy an absolute feast, cooked by Melbourne Jesters. Oysters and prawns were washed down with champagne before we sat down to Coronation Chicken, an enormous salmon and perfectly cooked beef. Wine of course flowed and we ate and drank like kings. There was a sweepstake for the race and a competition for best hat, as supplied from Lizzie Brown’s millinery collection, which Sophie won.
Totally replete and exhausted we all headed back to our billets to collapse or – for those with strong nerves – to watch the cricket. Suddenly England was back in with a chance.
Padel tennis called again and off we went to the only courts in Melbourne on the banks of the Yarra River. Again quite a few of the Aussie Jesters hadn’t played before or had only played once or twice but – as usual when people try this game – they all came off court full of enthusiasm. It was extremely cold, though!
Minty had booked a court back at the real tennis club so she, Gareth and Oli played with Craig Williams. Meanwhile, Allan Willingham led a very interesting and informative walk around the city to show off its architecture. Tim and Lorrie went on this, as did Freddie, while Jill and Gareth tried to catch up on e mails, Rob and Lesley met up with old friends, Oli and Sophie explored Melbourne to decide if they want to live there and Minty had her nails done.
We then glammed up (as much as you can when most of your luggage comprises racquets and tennis shoes) for dinner at the Melbourne Club, a longstanding landmark in Melbourne and a gentlemen’s club. Dinner was in the library. Before dinner we had chance to visit the old rackets court there which is now used as a function room but which still bears its original distinctive character. There were speeches, toasting David Vaughan and George Limb, and a plaque was handed over and we UK Jesters were presented with beautiful books written by Richard Allen about Victoria and Tasmania, lovely souvenirs of our trip.
CHAPTER THREE – MORNINGTON
No tennis today – it was golf for some and culture for others. We shambled our way through picking up our two vehicles and one headed for 18 holes at the stunning and famous National Golf Club at Cape Schanck very generously hosted by Dick Friend, Tony Poolman and Prue McCahey, while the other went to the Botanic Gardens at Cranbourne. These are very different to the Melbourne Royal Botanic Gardens (not that we had managed to visit those thanks to the rain). They only opened 10 years ago and they showcase the beauty and diversity of Australian landscapes and flora. Jennifer Michelson was a fabulous guide, very knowledgeable and interesting. Even with the rain and chill, we had an excellent time.
From there we travelled down the eastern side of the peninsula to Point Leo for a divine lunch, with the odd glass of chardonnay and/or pinot noir to wash it down and then strolled around the sculpture park that surrounds the restaurant and winery. Many thanks to Jules for organising that – we loved it.
A beautiful drive took us then to Jules’ wine farm, Seaforth and a sumptuous dinner of lamb, rhubarb crumble and almond cake. Much wine was consumed (what a surprise!) and conversation flowed. We were joined by Jill and Phil, (of peony farm fame – see Friday) and by Merrin Mackay.
Most of the party headed out for the spectacular coastal walks around Cape Schanck guided by Dick and Jules, leaving Jill and Gareth behind to sort out some family stuff.
We all met up at Jennifer’s and Rudi’s native bushland property for lunch (enormous platters of pork ribs and chicken and the best pecan pie imaginable), washed down with the odd glass or two. Their house is set in many hectares of bush, full of interesting plants and Rudi led a walk to look for orchids while some of us sat and chatted. From there it was on to Red Hill Peony Estate. This is a real labour of love. Jill Holmes-Smith inherited the land from her grandparents and told us the story of how they had come to live there and how the land had passed in three tranches to her, her sister Jenny (of truffle fame – see below) and a cousin. This apparently is not a good place to grow peonies but Jill is not letting a little thing like that put her off. We saw pictures of husband Phil icing the peonies – which need at least 30 days of frost each year to survive and flower – and learned about the various mistakes they had made when they were starting up.
These clearly had been overcome as the fields of peonies show testament. But they don’t only grow peonies. We wandered round their beautiful estate admiring kitchen gardens, roses and many other plants. Oh, and we also enjoyed their delicious estate Pimms. As usual, the Jesters were drinking. Next stop was at Red Hill Truffles, on the adjoining plot of land. Jenny was away but Jester Mike McAuley, her husband, was there to show us round along with his three dogs. Thomas, the oldest, has gone on strike at 12 years old and no longer wants to hunt truffles but Maddie, who is three, is a very keen and proficient hunter, while the baby (six months old) has yet to be trained. Truffles grow symbiotically with oak and hazelnut trees and Jenny and Mike grow oaks as the cockatoos eat all the hazelnuts.
We walked through the carefully planted trees and Mike found a truffle but it was not yet ripe enough to pick so he buried it again. On our return to the lodge, we were treated to a feast of truffles, with truffled cheese and honey, prawns with truffle aioli and a selection of truffle pizzas. As had become our habit, this was all accompanied by a variety of wines. All provided by Mike with assistance from Suzanne Mason and the wine was courtesy of Howard Mason.
Returning to Dick and Jules’ place, we sat by a roaring fire and Dick introduced people to his favourite Pedro Ximenez sherry.
CHAPTER FOUR – BALLARAT
After our two nights in Mornington, it was time to set off for Ballarat. The road to the ferry along the front beaches had stupendous views across the bay, even though it was a cloudy day. We arrived in Sorrento in such good time we could catch the earlier ferry. Dick optimistically thought we could put our cars on the ferry and go for a coffee back on land but the nice lady on the desk wasn’t having any of that. It would have been a disaster as the ferry would have gone without us – it was leaving 11 minutes later. Our second car also struggled to get on the ferry as our ticket was not a one way one for two cars but a day return for one… luckily Tim’s charm worked on the ticket lady and we were all allowed on. The ferry was very civilised with excellent coffee – everywhere in Australia seems to do coffee very well – and the 40 minute crossing of Port Phillip Bay to Queenscliff was smooth. Ignoring Dick’s suggestions of stopping off in Geelong or looking for wine farms, we made straight for Ballarat and found the real tennis court very easily. The Festival of Tennis was already well under way and lots of familiar faces were in the clubhouse. Here we Brits found ourselves competing with 40 players in teams from MCC, Wanderers, Australian Jesters, Hobart and BTC. The results – do they ever matter? – BTC ran a close second to MCC, followed by the UK Jesters who were squeezed into third place by only a slim margin, with the Wanderers, Hobart and Australian Jesters then finishing in that order.
The day was rounded off with the Festival Dinner, on the court, with an auction of an interesting and eclectic pot pourri of real tennis memorabilia. Freddy’s photographs raised a good amount of money and Oli went home with the very special Wanderers racquet.
The Festival of Tennis continued, concluding at about 5pm with a prize ceremony. The UK Jesters were third, a very nice result, and Robert was awarded a magnum of champagne as the most valued player.
We then headed back to Primavera, a lovely house built by Wayne and Marcia next to their own house. The aim was to eat in the courtyard after drinks and canapes on Wayne and Marcia’s terrace but mid drinks, the heavens opened and despite our hopes that this might be a passing shower, it soon turned into a thunder storm and it was clear we needed to move inside. That did nothing to spoil the evening, though. Marcia had cooked us a great meal and Wayne opened his wine cellar in most generous fashion. Various of us were yet again very glad of LVDY!
In a bid to visit all the real tennis courts of Australia, we headed off to Romsey, throwing Lesley out of the car on the way in Daylesford. Despite the pot holes in the road (it had been very rainy), we arrived safely and headed for the court, where Freddie turned pro and swept the court very efficiently. The owners, David and Tara Cowburn, then appeared, full of apologies as they had forgotten we were coming but they were incredibly hospitable and made us feel very welcome. They had bought the court as part of a development of 22 cottages about a year ago and are busy getting all of this in order, a process that had been slightly derailed a couple of weeks earlier when the building and area where the court is were badly flooded. They already run a very successful business next door putting the bubbles into wine – made by others and by themselves – so this is a new venture for them. A syndicate of Ballarat members had been trying to buy it the court themselves but hadn’t managed to put together a business plan that kept everyone happy.
The court is very unusual, not only having a glass back wall at the hazard end but also – possibly uniquely, having a wooden tambour. It is also somewhat longer than other courts. All of this made it very interesting to play. We brought balls from Ballarat but discovered that they did have some balls (and four racquets) and had recently tried playing at 2am after having dinner on the court. Totally in the spirit of real tennis!
Needless to say we played for a little longer than planned but the first car set off, remembering that we needed to meet up with Lesley who had managed to locate the Wombat Hill Café where we had decided to have lunch and check out when the kitchen was due to close. The heavens opened with a vengeance on the road to Daylesford, cleverly concealing the potholes under a layer of water. A different sort of hazard.
Lunch was most pleasant, the café delightful and Gareth enjoyed his espresso martini greatly.
It was then back to Primavera where Jonathan, Kate and Marcia were preparing a veritable paella feast. This was accompanied by a fabulous wine tasting. We experienced sparkling pinot noir (a Christmas favourite in Australia), a salmon pink rosé, a Semillon, a Chardonnay, various others your author can’t quite remember and rounded things off with a muscat. Tasting notes were provided by Norm Latta of Eastern Peake Wines, Philip Barker and Wayne, and Philip also treated us to a brief history of wine making in Australia, all of which enhanced our enjoyment of the wine greatly.
CHAPTER FIVE – HOBART
Next morning dawned all too early but miraculously we all made it into the vans by 7am to head for the airport and our flight to Tasmania. On arrival we – as usual – headed straight for the real tennis court, where we met organiser Nick Rooke and our other hosts over a sandwich lunch before a practice afternoon on the court.
Dick had organised a brilliant progressive walking dinner and history tour to explore the Battery Point precinct. We started with oysters and champagne at Dick and Julie’s where there was an acknowledgement of country by Jules’s sister, Kate Warner AC, the former and first female Governor of Tasmania, before moving on to Graeme and Suzy Riddoch’s where we tasted their daughters’ three gins (Plan B) and enjoyed crudités. From there we climbed the hill, pausing to look at the semaphore post, to Ian and Biz Ritchard’s for another drink and home made amuse bouches before supping beer and wine at the Shipwrights Arms. Our last stop was at Annie Reed and Michael Calvert’s for more wine and canapés before wending our ways back to our respective hosts. An absolutely excellent evening!
Tournament day. A mix of doubles and singles was played with great enthusiasm and with bisques being employed very effectively. This resulted in a win for the UK Jesters.
In the evening we enjoyed a sumptuous post tournament dinner at the Club, with lamb that had been slow cooked for most of the day and an array of fabulous salads. Much wine was quaffed and cheese consumed before we rolled off to our billets for the night.
Technically the morning was free time for us to relax but needless to say a bunch of us headed back to the Club to play some more real tennis. Others meanwhile explored Hobart or simply chilled ahead of our afternoon activity which was one of the highlights of the trip. Thursday afternoon was undoubtedly one of the tour highlights, hosted by Her Excellency the Honourable Barbara Baker AC, Governor of Tasmania who had invited us to play lawn tennis at Government House. We arrived in our usual chaotic fashion to this grand venue, with its beautiful gardens and headed down to the pavilion and three tennis courts.
While balls were hit, we also enjoyed exploring the gardens and learning something of the history of the property and were entertained to afternoon tea with delicious little cakes, proper cups and saucers and a fridge of cold drinks, enhanced by offerings from Dick’s esky. The afternoon was topped off with a drinks reception at Government House in honour of the tour at which Barbara was made an honorary Jester. She has an amazing sporting CV, having been (among other achievements) both Real Tennis Australian Amateur Ladies Champion and the Australian Open Singles champion.
Our thanks to Merrin Mackay, Barbara’s sister, and Andrew Gould for facilitating our visit. Hobart’s national daily newspaper even referenced our presence at Government House, typo-ing us as the Jetstars!
Off we set on the amazing MONA ferry – a far funkier one than we’d caught from Mornington! We were heading for the Museum of Old and New Art, a museum created by a guy called David Walsh to help him (in his own words) ‘bang above [his] weight’. It’s built into a rock so when you arrive at the jetty you have a climb up to the entrance. The museum then descends back into that rock and it feels as though you’ve entered a different world. One with lots of weird and wacky things in it! After a couple of hours exploring, we met up for an al fresco tapas lunch before heading off to the next venue on this action packed day.
This was the Mount Field National Park, home of Tasmania’s famous tall trees. The swamp gum (eucalyptus) is apparently the tallest flowering plant on earth. These trees have been known to grow to more than 100m and some of the oldest ones would have been there when Abel Tasman first sighted Tasmania in 1642. Next stop was Two Metre Tall, an artisan cider brewing farm where Dick and others barbecued quail and we sampled their wares before heading back to Hobart and settling down for the rest of the evening in one of the harbour bars.
Departure day for all but Freddie. For those of us leaving in the afternoon or evening, there was still chance for one last activity – the Salamanca market. This takes over pretty much all of the roads around the harbour and you can buy almost anything. So this was a great chance to buy last minute souvenirs before we scattered to the four winds with Freddie, Gareth, Jill, Oli and Sophie all heading to Melbourne to watch England win the cricket. (Did we mention the cricket?)
As will be apparent from above, this was the most stupendous, once-in-a-lifetime tour and we are indebted to our Australian hosts for an amazing schedule of events – sporting and social. Many new friends were made and old acquaintances rejuvenated. Our hosts have our heartfelt thanks for everything with special mention to Jonathan Buckley for his masterly delegation to coordinate everything and to our various brilliant and generous local hosts and organisers.
** Post tour update on the Sydney Real Tennis court: Gareth and Jill returned to Sydney two weeks after the tour to see Chris and Claire Cooper and, delight of delights, that very morning they had received confirmation from the NSW grant giving body of the award of a significant grant towards building a real tennis court in Sydney. So hopefully the dream will become reality with a 2024 opening.