That's the Spirit: Ash and Lib Walker - Armatree NSW
In a little more than a decade, Ash and Lib Walker have managed to put not only the Armatree Pub but the tiny locality itself on the tourist map, with the popular local watering hole being named the state’s best bush pub two years running. The busy couple has deep local roots and are no strangers to rolling up their sleeves, but Ash says it’s the wider community’s collective refusal to “roll over and play dead” that largely deserves the credit for the district’s remarkable resilience. JEN COWLEY was happy to pull up a stump at the bar for a yarn with the personable publican.
Jen: You and Lib are the owner operators of the Armatree Hotel, you have two young children; you’re a Gilgandra Shire Councillor, you volunteer with the Gulargambone Preschool committee and you’re on the board of the Western Cancer Centre Foundation. You’re a busy bloke. How long have you been here at Armatree?
Ash: I’m Mudgee born and bred, and Lib actually grew up in Warren. We have been at the pub for 13 years this week (in March 2020).
Jen: What prompted a move into owning the Armatree hotel?
Ash: We’d been living in the Northern Territory for about two and a half years and we came back to Mudgee for what we thought would be a couple of months off while we got married and worked on what our next plan was. We thought we should do something for ourselves, and Lib’s father actually grew up not far from here (Armatree) so there was a bit of a connection to the district. Lib still had cousins around this area and from that we looked at the pub and didn’t look at any others to be quite honest. We looked at what others were doing and what they weren’t doing but the only pub we were only ever going to buy at that point in our career was the Armatree Hotel. We could see the potential in it.
Jen: With Lib’s deep roots to the place, it seemed like a natural progression if you were going to buy a pub that Armatree would be the go.
Ash: Yes, there was a bit of family connection here to the district so from that we just thought it was a natural fit. We could see the potential. It had been held by the same husband and wife for 25 years, and we were pretty keen to do some renovating. That’s probably where my skills as a former plumber came in and also being in project management. We knew nothing about pubs, apart from spending a fair bit of time in them.
Jen: What was it about Armatree that showed you the potential in the community?
Ash: Gilgandra and Gulargambone (people) are extremely community-minded and really passionate about their towns. There’s not a divide – everyone’s very much there to help one another and just get things done. That was pretty evident from day one, so we knew we could build on that nucleus of community.
Also, the building itself is this classic, two-storey, double brick hotel with a combination of an upstairs area, a big lawn area and a bit of space to be able to grow. We weren’t going to be hamstrung with what we could do and we thought that if we could take the community along on our journey with us, they would enjoy the ride.
Jen: You’ve managed to immerse yourselves in the wider community as well. Is that important as a publican or is that just something you do?
Ash: There are publicans who I’d say don’t represent our industry well, unfortunately. Publicans always come in for a bit of a bagging for different sorts of things like the fact that we essentially sell a “drug” (alcohol), we have poker machines, gaming and TABs in our venues but I think, as publicans, we are much more than that. We actually provide hospitality. We’re the shoulder to cry on. We do weddings, we do wakes, we see the best and we see the worst in people.
It’s constant, and there’s actually a bit of pressure involved. That’s probably why you see some publicans fail and why they end up on the drink. I think it’s really important to remember at the end of the day that what you are doing is running a small business – you’re employing people and you have to sit back and analyse what you do. That’s what we find pretty important.
Jen: Is that what makes a good community publican: getting to know your community and being that “accidental counsellor”?
Ash: You see people on good days, you see them on bad. It’s funny that we always have the local farmers who come in and joke with me and say, “It doesn’t matter what the weather’s doing you’re still making a quid.” That’s true but it’s hard, constant work, and that’s the nature of the business we’re in, that’s the risk we’ve taken.
Jen: Armatree Hotel has been named Best Bush Pub in NSW two years in a row. What do you think makes the difference?
Ash: I think we run a very different pub to most. We do a lot of events that are not only aimed at our locals, but we bring a lot of tourists into our area. Everything from music events to comedy festivals, to weddings.
It’s always challenging – you have to continually look at how you can reinvent what you do and make sure that every time people come here, they get good experience so they’ll come back – so they go away and tell the story for us.
Ash and Lib Walker, Armatree NSW
Jen: You’ve also helped to put Armatree on the map, which has helped to keep the lights on in town, to a degree. That must be a nice feeling.
Ash: It is pretty exciting. I think sometimes you don’t really try to do that as a conscious thing, but you see people enjoying and engaging and it starts to gain momentum and then suddenly, you have people contacting you about wanting to come and hold events. It’s not really about pushing and promoting it yourself, it’s more about consistent quality which then become self-promoting.
Jen: You’re obviously in the pub business to make a quid, but you and Lib also seem to be conscious of “giving back”.
Ash: Yes, very much so. For instance, it’s a while since our kids were pre-school age, but we’re still happy to get actively involved in getting the Gulargambone pre-school up and running. I read a document one day that was put out by the NSW Government – I think it was called The First 2000 Days – and it was about how important it is for kids to get the first 2000 days of their life right, and that’s possible largely through education and early intervention programs. I thought that was pretty important.
The preschool in Gulargambone has been run out of the church hall and employs about five staff, but every week they have to pack the preschool up on for the weekend in time for mass. We all realised we needed to build a new pre-school, a dedicated premised. Lib was involved with that fundraising committee, and they raised about $200,000. That enabled us to go to government and ask for a grant, which we achieved. Because of my background in project management, I helped out from there on in with the development application, the design of the building and so on – I guess you could say I became project co-ordinator. Now we’re at the construction certificate we’re near just receiving all of our tenders.
I suppose, to sum that up, we’ve been heavily involved because of the importance of education in the community and also because it goes to that heart of Gulargambone’s “can do” attitude.
When Gulargambone people are told they can’t do something, they stand their digs and refuse to roll over – I’ve seen that before in my time here. For instance, they wanted to close the local hospital in Gular and the local community jacked up and said “no” – and then Gular became the first model for a multipurpose health facility in Australia. Gular has a long history of rolling up its sleeves and getting stuff done.
Jen: Is that part of why you love where you live?
Ash: Absolutely. Gular people have this ability to just get on and do it. The old saying is to leave your guns and knives at the door and get things done. We’re not going to fight about what the argument is, we’re just going to get on and get it done. I see that in the Gulargambone community in so many ways. They’ve done it there with the MPS (Multipurpose Services health facility), they’ve done it with 2828 – the community-run café and centre – and we’re now doing it with the preschool which I am involved in.
I see it now, like I’ve been on (Gilgandra Shire) council nearly eight years and there’s no animosity amongst councillors – it’s just about getting in and getting things done. Everyone is singing from the same hymn sheet and working in the same direction. We ask heaps of questions, but we have a very clear strategic direction on where we want to go, so we can go to other tiers of government for support. They come to town and they love seeing what we’ve done already, and they’re happy to back us.
Jen: What do you think are some of the myths about life in a small community, and they don’t come much smaller than Armatree do they?
Ash: I think people get concerned about their comfort zone. They have what I’d call false relationships with, for instance, their local barista on the corner of George and Pitt Streets – I see that all the time in the city – but they don’t relate to other people. Many a time I’ve been walking around in the city or a metropolitan area, and if you say g’day to someone standing next to you at the lights or lined up getting your coffee, they’ll look at you like you’ve got two heads. But if you’re in the bush, and you haven’t waved to someone or engaged with someone, they’re asking questions as to why you’ve got the shits.
Ash and Lib Walker, Armatree NSW
Jen: So, there’s an inclusivity and a friendliness and a humanity to the bush that some folk in the city have lost.
Ash: Exactly. People just in the country are just happy to help out. I’ve had people ring me and say, “Ash, we were coming past the pub and we got a flat tyre in our trailer – we noticed you had a trailer out the back, so we’ve just borrowed the tyre off your trailer so we could get home – we’ll bring it back later this arvo.” And I’ll be, like, “No worries that’s fine.”
People interact, they care, they’re professional. People don’t necessarily want to know your business, but they pick up the phone or they walk into your pub because they not only care about you, but they care about their community and where they live.
The pub is a bit of a hub for that, particularly for those who are isolated on farms – they really need that outlet.
We have blokes who’ll just come in and give you a joke every time they walk in the door. I’m sure that plenty of people sling a bit of shit on each other while they’re here and thank God none of it sticks and no one takes it to heart.
But also the business that’s done in here (in the pub) is quite interesting and I love that. People will ring me and say they’re looking for some particular seed or whatever, and “you don’t know where I could get some, do you?” And I’m often able to wrack my brains a bit and recall a conversation I had last year with so-and-so, and that they were growing that particular crop for the first time, and say, “Why don’t you give them a call?”
So as a publican, you become this font of information. As a country publican it’s one of the very few industries in which you can be all things to all people and it’s meaningful. Obviously, you have to put your filter on a bit and apply the old saying that you should believe half of what you see and nothing of what you hear.
NALAG's 'That's the Spirit' hardcover book features a selection of excerpts from the stories gathered from Western NSW during 2018-2020.