BY JOHN HALL
APPROXIMATELY 160 years ago, a small stone church was built overlooking the Jordan River in Pontville. It stood forlornly on Pony Hill, adjacent to the Old Brighton Road. One day it disappeared in flames.
In no particular order the road had become disused when a new bridge was built further west to connect Hobart with Launceston – that’s the handsome Pontville Bridge that stands today – and the church burned to the ground. To compound the problem of worship, Pontville’s Catholic and Anglican churches were well-attended. And besides, the little Congregational church and its adjacent graveyard had not adequately met the needs of the Pontville community, who had to negotiate a precipitous riverside path from the new main road to worship or tend to the graves.
A new, larger church for Pontville’s Congregationalist community was needed and so a church was built on the southern side of the Jordan River about 20 years after the first church burned down. That church stands today, but no longer is it a place of worship.
It has become an award-winning restaurant, called Twelve Stones.
Why the name? There are two explanations.
According to the Old Testament and in the words of the restaurant’s owners, the Jordan River of Biblical fame was where Joshua set up 12 stones in the middle of the river, exactly where priests carrying the Arc of the Covenant had stood. The Bible celebrated the crossing of that Jordan River into the Promised Land.
Another explanation for the restaurant’s name is that the second Congregational church used some of the original stone from the first church and these blocks, from base to roof-line, were 12 tiers – or stones – deep. The stone blocks would have been carried across the Jordan.
Back to the history. The Congregationalists were first recorded as a religious group in Van Diemens Land in 1822. Australia’s first Congregational church opened in Brisbane Street, Hobart in 1832.
When there was a national amalgamation of the Congregational, Presbyterian and Methodist churches in 1977, the union of the churches resulted in formation of the Claremont Parish of the Uniting Church of Australia, which incorporated churches in the Bagdad, Brighton and Broadmarsh district.
The church was later deconsecrated and sold by the Uniting Church of Australia. It needed a new owner who would satisfy the rules of the Tasmanian Heritage Register.
Six years ago, in stepped the Whelan family, local farmers and property developers. Michael Whelan is a former planning officer for Brighton Council.
The Whelans appointed architects with empathy for the old building. Now the former church, rebadged and superbly restored and extended, bears the name Twelve Stones.
Ian White, the restaurant’s manager, and his wife Tanya, the chef, moved from Brisbane to Tasmania in 2007 after successful careers in Queensland. At one stage, Tanya had been a florist. “You can see it reflected in the dishes she creates,” said Ian. “She’s a very creative lady. She’s conscious of colour on the plate.”
The restaurant’s calling card is: modern Australian cuisine set in elegant historic surrounds.
While Tanya rules the kitchen Ian focuses on the local wines. The restaurant was awarded the Tasmanian Hospitality Industry’s award for the best wine list when it opened in 2015.
“More than 95% of our wine list features Tasmanian wines,” Ian poudly proclaimed.
He promotes the wines of Tea Tree and has on hand copies of The Vineyards of Tea Tree, a booklet recently produced by Brighton Council to highlight the quality of local wines.
Twelve Stones, in the year it opened, also was awarded best breakfast venue by the Tasmanian Hospitality Industry.
The restaurant, with its dramatic blend of historic and modern architecture and in superb landscaped gardens featuring trees planted in the 1800s, is licensed to seat 70 guests.
Twelve Stones currently opens Wednesdays to Sundays for lunch but will be increasing
to seven-day trading in the new year. It is open for breakfasts in the weekend.
Michael Whelan, whose vision has given the former church a new life, said: “In the past the church played a pivotal role as a community meeting place. The church stood as a strong focal point in a sparsely settled population.
“The restaurant continues in this manner to celebrate the building and its history.”