Jinker Tinkering – Part One

As often happens, life gets in the way of one’s agenda and, as a result, work on the vardo hit a hiatus late last December. Then just when I was about to commence the vardo’s interior, the Old Green Jinker (my 1890s two-wheeled horse-drawn daily runabout) decided to self-destruct. It served me well over the years but had reached a point where restoration was no longer practical (figure 1).

Fig. 1. Replaced shafts, missing mudguard, shot tyres and wobbly wheels.

It had long been my intention to build a new brake (a two-wheeler with very long shafts, for breaking horses to harness), but I more urgently required a new jinker – and just like that, the afflatus hit me! “I shall build a dual-purpose jinker-cum-brake!”

There was little worth salvaging from the OGJ other than the spring hangers and three-spring platform which I removed. Then I began exploring materials and tinkering with dimensions. Jinkers are light and manoeuvrable, whilst brakes are necessarily large, strong vehicles capable of withstanding the shenanigans of boisterous young horses learning the ropes. The new cart had to be fairly light, flexible, immensely strong, and with interchangeable short and long shafts. That’s a big ask of any timber. Too big, I felt.

I broke out my trusty abacus and after nutting out a few quick sums, I decided on building the new cart predominantly out of steel. Making the shafts interchangeable would be easier with steel tube than with wood. Therefore, it followed the remainder of the frame should also be of hollow steel sections. The floor, I determined, should be of some hardwood or other to better resist foot wear, and the body should be constructed out of pine for lightness.

I settled on a modern approach to the construction – welding the steel and eschewing traditional coach bolts (where feasible) and square nuts in favour of stainless steel in-hex fasteners and self-locking hex nuts.

My horses range in size from 15.3hh to 17.2hh, so I require a fairly large vehicle. With a new brake in mind, I bought a pair of new 52” wheels at an auction about a year or so ago. Armed with a stick of chalk, I sketched out a brief design on the floor of the ‘shop and began cutting and bending lengths of steel.

The new axle came directly from a trailer parts manufacturer, complete with cable-operated mechanical brakes (I didn’t want to incorporate hydraulics on this build), though the beam is a somewhat hefty 40mm (1-9/16”) solid square bar. I also removed the axle saddles and spring plates from the OGJ’s 1-1/8” (28.6mm) square axle, both of which required modifying to fit the new, thicker axle. The saddles were simply filed until they fitted, but the axle plates necessitated cutting and widening (figures 2 & 3).

Fig. 2. Widened spring plate (reverse).

Fig. 3. Widened spring plate with bolt hole drilled (obverse).

Whilst stripping layers of paint off the old springs, I uncovered the name of their manufacturer (figure 4).

Fig. 4. ‘Goodwin & Co. Birmingham’.

I rummaged around in one of the stables and came across a pair of steps from an old farm cart which I modified to suit this application.

After that it was a simple case of bolting it all together and offering it up to Archie who was utterly nonplussed about the whole thing (figure 5).

Fig. 5. “It fits! I’ll take it.”.

This is a contemporary jinker, so why not adopt a fresh colour scheme (figure 6)?

Fig. 6. Perhaps now, motorists will give me a wide berth! (Photo: Able Assistant)

I also made a pair of clip bars and 270mm (10-5/8”) long clips with which to attach the rear spring pack to the rear crossmember (figure 7).

Fig. 7. Three-spring platform bolted up. (Photo: Able Assistant)

Due to the thicker axle, I also had to make new clip bars and pigtails (figure 8).

Fig.8. New pigtail.

The interchangeable shafts are attached by welded joints secured by pairs of socket screws (figure 9).

Fig. 9. Shaft joiner.

Orson Cart

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A Vardo – Part Five

To reduce the mass and make flipping the ‘unders’ right-side-up somewhat easier, the brakes and running gear were dismantled again and the lock was also removed. I then fixed the 6” x 7/8” tongue and groove floorboards to the summers with cut nails and punched them in well before planing the floor smooth (figure 1). In the process, I made a small, unobtrusive removable panel by which I can withdraw the kingpin that secures the lock in place.

Fig. 1. Baltic pine floor installed.

I spent many hours preparing the stanchions, ribs and other components for the body of the vardo which all required numerous chamfers and mortices and tenons (figure 2).

Fig. 2. All ready for tomorrow!

The awkward first stage of the framework went together with little ado, due in large to Andrew, Jacko and Mikey who I enlisted to man a corner each and simultaneously slide the waist rails, door frame and stanchions etc. into their respective mortices (figure 3).

Fig. 3. The stanchions, door frame and lower side ribs in place.

After that, it was slow but relatively plain sailing, with Mikey, to assemble the remaining framework (figures 4 & 5).

Fig. 4. “Ah… you’re nearly finished.” said someone.  

Fig. 5. “It’s a crèche for a large Irishman.” said someone else.

There are three distinct types of rafters employed in the vardo: the major (full, front and rear rafters), which are constructed from three separate pieces, cut from the solid; the short rafters which prop up the mollicroft, and the mollicroft rafters (figure 6).

Fig. 6. Mollicroft rafters.

After a brief hiatus, Mikey returned to assist with gluing and nailing the lengths of 5-1/4” x 7/16” pine ‘penny boards’ onto the inside of the ribs (figures 7 & 8).

Fig. 7. Checking the level after installing each board.

Fig. 8. The body, fully clad.

I agonised at length during the planning stages of the vardo, whether to opt for a mollicroft or not. I’m not actually that fond of their appearance and I much prefer the cleaner rooflines of those kite vardos without a clerestory (figure 9).

Fig. 9. Thomas Tong ledge vardo, sans mollicroft.

However, at six foot seven inches tall, a raised annex for my head, running the full length of the accommodation, should make camping trips an altogether more painless and enjoyable experience.

The sides of the mollicroft each comprise four ‘lights’ or windows: The centre lights are fixed panes, and the end lights are fitted with awning windows for ventilation. The side frame and awning window construction is unremarkable, simply employing standard joinery. I assembled the mollicroft rafters into the side frames and primed and undercoated the whole ahead of installation (figure 10).

Fig. 10. Mollicroft frame (atop the lock) awaiting Mikey’s next visit.

I also made a little headway with the bed. More on that in a future post.

The total hours involved to-date come to 1,149.


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A Vardo – Part Four

With the wheels completed, I was able to compare their dish, and thereby, offset, in relation to the undercarriage and (proposed) body, and thus establish the lengths of the two axles.

Each axle comprises a pair of stub-axles that are welded into the ends of a length of SHS (square hollow section). Both axles were nicked at their centres, bent to 4° and welded shut, to provide 2° ‘swing’ (negative camber, to you and me) at each wheel.

Contrary to lore, the primary purpose of swing is to ensure a plumb spoke (perpendicular to the ground) as the wheel rotates. Therefore, the spokes and felloes are not subjected to side-loads that could cause damage or catastrophic failure of the wheel. 
Secondly, an obvious benefit of equipping some wagons and carts with deeply dished wheels and large degrees of negative camber, is to accommodate ‘swelled’ bodies and greater payloads (figures 1 & 2).

Fig. 1. Hay wain with swelled body and heavily cambered wheels.

Fig. 2. A junket in a hay wain.

A third, and not immediately obvious advantage of canted wheels is that road dirt and shit is flung away from the vehicle and loquacious passengers with their mouths open.

Axle setting is a complex subject that also includes ‘gather’ (toe-in, in modern parlance) and has implications in the matter of wheels staying put. Gather is necessary to offset the propensity of swing to pull the front wheels outwards. Additionally, the actual bearing point of the axle (with the vehicle moving) is not at the bottom but is slightly ahead of this point. Consequently, the old skeins (huge bolt-on stub-axles), being tapered, caused the wheels to run hard against the nuts – with occasionally, predictable results. The correct amount of gather reversed this tendency, and the wheels on a properly set axle could be made to run against the shoulders of the skeins with minimal friction.

My wheels run on nice big, modern, tapered roller bearings, but even so, with 42” diameter front wheels, toe-in is definitely a necessity.

By bolting skeins to wooden axles, weight and precious iron were saved. When one-piece iron axles became the norm, large carts and wagons continued the traditional appearance by encasing the solid axles (on three sides) in wood. Axle cases are normally made of elm – as are the ones I made for the vardo (figure 3).

Fig. 3. Front and rear axle cases.

The axle cases and wheels were cleaned up and given the regulation quantities of primer and undercoat (figure 4).

Fig, 4. That’s two coats of primer and two of undercoat.

The vardo’s rear wheels sit outside the body for improved stability whilst the front track is narrower to reduce the effort required by the horse to turn the front wheels. Conventional U-bolts secure the rear axle to its springs, but due to the necessity of the front wheels to turn under the body, in conjunction with axle width constraints, the front axle is secured to the front springs with T-bones (figures 5 & 6).

Fig. 5. Embryotic T-bone.

Fig. 6. Fully welded and undercoated T-bone.

Fig. 7. Axles and wheels bolted in place.

Vardo brakes are somewhat unusual in the realm of four-wheelers in that they are activated through the rotation of a hand wheel rather than by applying pressure to a foot pedal or hand lever. The result is ultimately the same: The handwheel turns a screw which pulls a rod that is connected to a lever, welded to the brake arm. The arm then rotates, pressing the brake blocks with their steel shoes onto the rear (rubber) tyres.

The hours involved in the work in this post come to 268.25.

The total hours involved to-date come to 537.5.


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Though not as plentiful as ‘Royal Oak’, ‘Red Lion’ or ‘King’s Arms’ inns and pubs along the highways and byways of England, there still remain a number of inns called ‘The Cock Horse’. Invariably situated at the bottom of a hill, cock-horse inns played an interesting and important role in the history of horse-drawn transport.

Before the canals and railways crisscrossed Britain, in the mid-eighteenth-century and early-nineteenth-century, respectively, travelers and goods were transported by horse-drawn stagecoaches and wagons. The roads were exceedingly poor, and the going was tough meaning travelers required frequent ‘topping up’. The horses also needed to be regularly fed and watered or, in the case of coach horses, replaced with fresh horses every ten to fifteen miles. The horses had a very hard life – no more so than when they encountered a steep hill. As a result, many of the coach inns were strategically located at the foot of great hills from where they hired cock-horses[i] to help draw the passing coaches and wagons up the hills.

The cock-horse was hired with a rider who would either hitch the horse to a spreader (figures 1 & 2), attached to the off-side front corner of a wagon, or put it in traces ahead of a coach’s lead horses (figure 3).

Fig. 1. A spreader attached to the front of a wagon.

Fig. 2. A cock-horse hitched to a spreader.

The White Hart Hotel on Bell Street, in Reigate is possibly the best-known establishment in England with a cock-horse. It was a busy staging point on the journey from London to Brighton, where the famous nineteenth-century cock-horse, Nimrod, worked Reigate Hill.

Fig. 3. Nimrod pulling up in front of The White Hart.

Once the hill was crested, the cock-horse’s rider would dismount at a given point (often a stone marker, similar to a milestone), unhitch the cock-horse and return to the inn yard whence it came (figure 4).

Fig. 4. Outside The White Hart, the cock-horse, left, returning to the stable yard.

Sadly, now a private dwelling, The Cock Horse Inn at Rowington (figure 5), situated on the Old Warwick Road in Warwickshire, used to keep a cock-horse for assisting coaches and wagons up Church Hill.

Fig. 5. The Cock Horse at Rowington.

The fourteenth-century Cock Horse in Detling, near Maidstone in Kent, stands at the foot of the North Downs along The Pilgrims Way, where the inn supplied cock-horses to peregrinate the steep escarpment.

All the cock-horse inns I’ve come across are located at the foot of a hill, with the exception of one. The Steamer (figure 6), in Hertfordshire, sits atop a steep hill on the London Road in Welwyn. The Steamer derives its name from the heavily-sweating horses, which, after helping draw a coach or wagon up the hill on a frosty morning, would stand, steaming in the cold air.

Fig. 6. The Steamer, Welwyn, Hertfordshire.

Fig. 7. Rider upon a cock-horse with traces and spreader slung across the horse’s back in readiness.

And of course, to this day, gypsies and travelers either bring their own cock-horse – or two (figure 8), or, when traveling in groups, borrow the horse from the second vardo in line and so on, and so on.

Fig. 8. Making progress with a cock-horse – and a spare.

Orson Cart

[i] “| (n.) Horse defined by purpose :: draught-horse :: that pulls vehicle :: of specific type (miscellaneous) :: that pulls coach :: uphill.” The Historical Thesaurus of English. 2nd ed. (version 5.0), University of Glasgow, 2022. Web. 26 May 2022. https://ht.ac.uk/category/?id=37967.

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A Vardo – Part Three

My intention was to have the vardo finished by Christmas as I had planned a lengthy, scenic route for her maiden voyage this summer (I live in Australia now, remember?). Alas, though I am fairly well insulated against COVID-19, the same cannot be said for the many suppliers and supply chains I rely on for parts and materials.

Needless to say, progress has been glacial. I had to paint the undercarriage anyway, as some of it would have been inaccessible with a paintbrush once assembled (no spray guns here!). But after weeks and weeks of applying two coats of oil-based primer, two oil-based undercoats and three top coats of oil-based gloss, I was again unemployed.

Rather than sitting around, bemoaning my predicament, I broke my own, self-imposed rules and constructed the basic shafts. I didn’t want to make the shafts until I was ready for them as otherwise, there’s the possibility that they’ll suffer some knocks and damage. Then the shafts received their seven coats of paint (figure 1), before they were moved to another shed out of harm’s way.

Fig. 1. Shafts, base and undercarriage all painted.

After that, I was idle once again, so I built the cratch (the adjustable table/harness storage/luggage rack that attaches to the back of the vardo (figures 2 & 3).

Fig 2. Cratch capacity is adjustable with chains.

Fig. 3. Messmate cratch in-the-white.

The custom leaf springs I ordered in April 2020 were nowhere to be seen due to COVID-19 and a resultant shortage of raw materials. Believing the springs would indeed appear one day, I continued the hunt for a set of original ‘globe’ spring hangers (figure 4).

Fig. 4. Old, cast globe spring hanger.

None were available locally and several contacts in the U.K. also drew blanks. The only solution was fabricated spring hangers. The welds were carefully linished so the whole resembled original castings as closely as possible. The straps of the four hangers for the cradle were additionally bent to the same curvature of the spring beds (figure 5).

Fig. 5. Test fit of a rear spring hanger.

Once I was satisfied with the fit of the hangers, they were removed and underwent two coats of oil-based IRP (Irish racing pink), two oil-based undercoats and three top coats of oil-based gloss.

HUZZAH! The leaf springs arrived! I dismantled the spring packs and cleaned each leaf to remove the oil from the tempering process. Before reassembling the leaves, I took a small artist’s paintbrush and applied a narrow stripe of high-pressure grease between each one. More primer, undercoat and gloss!

Fig. 6. Leaf springs resplendent in IRP.

With everything painted, I enlisted the help of half a dozen able-bodied blokes and put the undercarriage – such as it is – together (figures 7,8 & 9).

Fig. 7. Front cradle spring hanger.

Fig. 8. Rear cradle spring hanger and shackles.

Fig. 9. The weight is mounting!

Not too much paint was chipped whilst installing the heavy springs, but all will be rectified in the final touch-up.

The hours involved in the work in this post come to 268.25.
The total hours involved to-date come to 537.5.


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A Vardo – Part Two

Reading [red-ing] vardos are rigid wooden-bodied living wagons built on a sprung, four-wheeled platform, with the front wheels and springs mounted under the ‘lock’ which revolves on a simple steel ‘fifth wheel’, attached beneath the front of the undercarriage (figures 1 & 2).


Fig. 1. The fundamentals of a Reading vardo.


Fig. 2. Fifth wheel, lock, springs, axle and wheels.

Each wooden component is made from a specific variety of timber depending on its unique requirements. If I were building this late nineteenth-century Reading style vardo back in Britain – the home of the vardo – the choice of timbers would be elementary: Ash (Fraxinus excelsior) for strength and flexibility; oak (Quercus robur) for utmost strength and rigidity; and Scots pine (Pinus sylvestris) for its lightness and relative strength. It’s a little different here in Australia.

In early 2020, Jeremy Clarkson ruffled a few feathers when he wrote Australia was “God’s laboratory”, citing “… some of his more ridiculous ideas. Stuff he came up with when he was drunk. Like those birds that can’t fly and that otter with a beak”. I have a fondness for the be-beaked otter, but I must confess; Australia’s bounteous species of trees produce some challenging timber!

Eucalypts are plentiful in Australia and provide the most abundant milled hardwood primarily employed in the construction and furniture industries. Eucalypts are rife with unsightly gum veins which require filling. Splits and splintering are also a perennial and annoying issue with most eucalypts.

Tasmanian oak refers to any timber from mountain ash (Eucalyptus regnans), messmate (Eucalyptus obliqua) or alpine ash (Eucalyptus delegatensis), when it is sourced from the state of Tasmania. When alpine ash and mountain ash are harvested in the state of Victoria, they are collectively known as Victorian ash. It is said that early settlers named these eucalyptus timbers ‘ash’ and ‘oak’ as they somewhat resembled their European namesakes in both appearance, texture and workability. In my experience, messmate most closely resembles the characteristics of European ash and is my favoured eucalypt for carriage building.

Australia’s primary commercial pine is radiata pine (Pinus radiata) – elsewhere known as Monterey pine – which comes a close second to Scots pine.

Many Australian timbers have been successfully employed in carriage building since early European settlement. The following list of historic carriage building timbers (both native and imported) have been extrapolated from several local books on the subject.

Timber SpeciesModulus of Elasticity (GPa)Modulus of Rupture (MPa)Crushing Strength (MPa)Janka Hardness (kn)Density (kg/m3)
Spotted gum231507511900
Sydney blue gum18140689850
White stringybark17133688.8880
Yellow stringybark17132728.5870
Tas. oak / Vic. ash15119605.7620
European ash*12116536.1700
Scarlet oak*12111571.4735
Pin oak*1296476.7705
Sitka spruce*1170382.3425
English oak*10107465.3700
Scots pine*1083422.4550
Radiata pine1079423.2515

* Imported.

I have a modest amount of Australian grown European ash to hand, but not enough for the entire undercarriage and lock, so it will be supplemented with messmate and stringybark. Everything above, and including the floor will be pine, except for the front and rear burgins which are of messmate (figure 3).


Fig. 3. Messmate burgins alongside messmate six-by-fours (with pattern for the fifth wheel bolsters).


Fig. 4. Rear spring bed laid out, ready for carving.


Fig. 5. Spring bed scalloped and cleaned up.


Fig. 6. Carving the splinter bar.


Fig. 7. Fifth wheel crossmember ready for carving.


Fig. 8. The lock, assembled, primed, and undercoated.


Fig. 9. Halved joints are secured with coach bolts.

I made a makeshift jig with which to build the floor/undercarriage upside down (figure 10).


Fig. 10. Messmate rear crossmember and pine summers (floor joists) temporarily screwed to jig.

When the undercarriage and lock are completed and mated to one another, I will right it all and can then proceed with building the pine accommodation.

Keen eyed readers may have noticed the outside bolt and nut in figure 10 are not perpendicular. This was not a cider or gin event; the outer coachbolts are intentionally angled to clear the row of mortises which will receive the body ribs.

As with the three spring wagon I built, I employ hex nuts during the construction stage for ease and speed as most components necessitate their being added and removed several times. All will eventually be replaced with traditional square nuts prior to painting.

The hours involved in the work in this post come to 269.25.



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A Vardo – Part One

I recall, in years gone by, the chaos every Spring Bank Holiday weekend when swarms of sightseers and picnickers clogged Britain’s roads. In particular, the narrow winding country byways experienced long crawling queues of cars, often extending for many miles. The cause of all this frustrating congestion? A farmer on a tractor was occasionally the culprit, but more usually, it was some family man in his grossly overladen car, towing a wildly swaying caravan at 30 mph with his arm out the window merrily waving everyone by – whether safe to do so or not.

Virtually every road user detested those dawdling caravans. Yet seemingly, with every generation so many men, young and old, take to the road with a caravan as if in some peripatetic trance.

I must admit, I am getting on a bit now and despite the fact I no longer drive a car, I am now gripped with the overwhelming impulsion to go forth in a caravan and torment fellow road users! And they’re really going to love me; I’m building a horse drawn “gypsy caravan” which will have an average speed of just 6 mph!

Gypsies (and other travelling folk) don’t refer to these vehicles as “caravans” and nor do they go on vacation with them: The vardo [vahr-doh], or living wagon, or simply “wagon”, is a house on wheels, and (unlike the one I’m building) is not fair-weather holiday accommodation.

The heyday of the vardo was during the latter half of the nineteenth century and the first decade of the twentieth century. There are two main types of vardo; the canvas-covered bow-tops (figure 1) and the larger flat, tapered-sided wagons known as Boswells, Burtons (figure 2), Duntons (figure 3), Fullers, Leonards, Orton & Spooners, Ridgers & Mays, Thomas (figures 4 & 5), Tongs, Wheelers, and Wrights (figure 6) etc. after some of the numerous manufacturers.

One of the most esteemed and prolific manufacturers of tapered, flat-sided (or “kite” – due to the resemblance of their end elevation) vardos was Dunton and Sons whose works were in Reading [red-ing], in Berkshire. Often the kite vardos manufactured by other makers were also referred to as “Reading” wagons (figures 4, 6, 7 & 10).


Fig. 1. A bow-top ledge vardo (note the ledge at the juncture of the body and canvas).


Fig. 2. A Burton vardo with its trademark twin side windows and almost vertical sides.


Fig. 3. A Dunton Reading living wagon.


Fig. 4. A “Reading” living wagon built by F.J. Thomas.


Fig. 5. F.J. Thomas hub cap.


Fig. 6. A Bill Wright manufactured “Reading” ledge vardo.

Other than the profusion of weight-saving chamfers, early vardos were of relatively plain design and painted externally in a single, often dark colour (figures 3, 7, 8, 9 & 10).


Fig. 7. A family of travellers outside their Reading type vardo.


Fig. 8. A square-top vardo. Gypsies traditionally made and hawked wooden clothes pegs.


Fig. 9. Douglas and Elizabeth Hern at home with their eight children.


Fig. 10. Flower sellers with their Reading type vardo.

Virtually every element of a vardo was chamfered, scalloped, or carved, not primarily for decoration (though it was always neatly and attractively carried out), but to reduce weight wherever possible (a Reading wagon can weigh 1-1/2 tons).

With the advent of travelling circuses and amusement fairs and all the gaudy eye-catching decoration they embraced, many later vardos were similarly painted. The weight saving chamfers etc. lent themselves well to being picked out in contrasting colours and even gold leaf (figures 11 & 12).


Fig. 11. A lavishly decorated early twentieth-century Dunton Reading wagon.


Fig. 12. Intricately detailed Dunton lock (fore carriage).

I don’t favour the ostentatious, so I will be building an early Reading type living wagon with the obligatory weight-saving chamfers and scallops but restrained painted decoration. I chose the Reading for its large diameter rear wheels which makes rolling easier on gravel roads, and its wide track for better stability on rough roads. I also prefer its ribbed, flat-sided construction to that of a bow-top (I feel there’s less chance of me putting a foot out through the side of it when I’m in bed).


Fig. 13. The inspiration for my Reading style wagon.



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The Easter Hunt

If you were to ask the majority of people these days if they were going to participate in a hunt this Easter, they would likely answer in the affirmative whilst licking their lips.

Traditionally, The Easter Hunt was conducted on horseback and the quarry was foxes or stags, not chocolate.

1. Henry Bunbury, The Easter Hunt at Epping Forest.

2. Thomas Rowlandson, Easter Monday or The Cockney Hunt, circa 1807.

Happy Easter to one and all.


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Rural Felicity

… or Love in a Chaise


The Winds were hush’d, the evening clear.
The Prospect fair, no creature near.
When the fond couple in the chaise
Resolved, each mutual wish to please
The kneeling youth his vigour tries,
While o’er his back she lifts her thighs.
The trotting horse the bliss increases
And all is showing love and kisses.
What couple would not take the air
To taste such joys beyond compare.

Happy Valentine’s Day!


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To Newry for Lunch

It’s been too hot of late here in the southeast of Australia for much driving, but I took a friend to lunch at the Newry Hotel before Christmas.

Sourdough was tied to a tree and enjoyed her shady respite while my friend and I partook of a few beverages and some seasonal fare.


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