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19 January, 2022

End of an era for Armatree Hotel

After nearly 15-years, publicans Ash and Lib Walker will this week hand over the keys to the new owners of the Armatree Hotel. The popular local watering hole was sold late last year to the Sydney-based Murphy Family Hotels.

By Lucie Peart

Armatree Hotel will be officially handed over to new owners, Murphy Family Hotels, this week. Lib, Anna, Neve and Ash Walker are excited about the beginnings of their post-hotel life in the district.

There is a mix of emotions for the outgoing publicans, who bought the Armatree Hotel as novice pub owners in 2007. Then, Mrs Walker was a nurse and Mr Walker a plumber. On one hand the couple are greatly looking forward to spending more time with their two daughters, Anna and Neve, who have grown up around the pub, but they are also feeling the impact of such a huge life change.

The couple have literally lived and breathed the pub for nearly 15-years. After they bought it, they undertook a large renovation of the hotel’s main bar areas and for a time used what is now the downstairs dining room, as a living room. They later lived in the pub’s ‘honeymoon suite’ in the upstairs accommodation before moving to various homes offsite.

Upgrades and renovations have been undertaken at the hotel to expand on the capabilities of the venue – accommodation, undercover beer garden, caravan options, new commercial kitchen, and a new roof.

The couple took what could have easily been a pub, in a tiny locality, falling off the radar into the still currently awarded Australian Hotels Association’s ‘Best Bush Pub’. But it’s not just the tourists that have benefitted from the hotel’s popularity.

While the Armatree Hotel is a fabulous place to sip a schooner with mates, get married or chat about farming, there is a more serious undertone to what the establishment has grown to mean to locals.

The hotel has played a pivotal role in the growth of the surrounding rural community; it’s a place that helps and supports local organisations and family groups, it has promoted tourism to the Gilgandra region, and held many large events – fundraising for community, awareness of social issues and fun events such as live music gigs.

It has fostered many love stories with a few over the bar romances born between backpackers and patrons; and helped ‘newbies’ to the district get to know the lay of the land [such as this editor, who first worked at the pub when I arrived in the district over a decade ago].

Rumour has it nights out at the pub may have also contributed to population growth, but there are no factual studies to confirm or deny this claim.

Most importantly and more seriously, the pub is often the first port of call in a time of crisis.

Upon finishing up at the hotel, the couple have thanked the wider Gilgandra community for its support of the business, and what it has become. “Owning a country pub like Armatree, is like owning the community lounge room; we really do get to celebrate a lot of good times with people from weddings, birthdays, and christenings, to unfortunately the sad times in our community,” said Mr Walker.

“We have been fortunate to be recognised with state awards (Best Push Pub – 2018/19), and more recently to be nominated for Australian Regional Hotel of the Year, which will be decided in Tasmania next month. We’ve had amazing relationships with our staff, local and regional suppliers, and government agencies to deliver programs on mental health, drought support, farming practises, and many other important topics.”

Mr Walker said the last month since announcing the sale in December has been an emotional roller coaster.

“Owning a seven-day a week business, you can work around the clock. Starting early in the mornings for a breakfast meeting for a farming group, through to a 21st birthday party when you don’t finish work until one or 2am. “We’ve had some amazing staff over the years, that have all really supported our vision for what we wanted to turn the pub into; for that we are very grateful,” he said. “We are the only two staff that are stepping out of the business. Our existing 14-person team is staying on, with the recruitment of a further two positions underway. A new chef is coming and a position around event management and administration has been created.” Mr Walker said the new owners, Murphy Family Hotels, are looking to grow and expand their country hotel business. “They are long-term experienced hoteliers with some exciting ideas for Armatree and our district. Lib and I, wish the Murphy family all the best; they have bought into an amazing community. They will have a great time hosting not only the locals but the thousands of visitors each year that come to the hotel,” he said.

While the Walkers are saying goodbye to the pub, they aren’t leaving the district. Mr Walker has been re-elected as deputy mayor of the Gilgandra Shire Council, and they are staying in the Armatree/Gulargambone area. The couple’s primary school-aged daughters are very excited about having their hard-working parents at home seven-nights a week.

The Walkers spent their last working days over the weekend at the hotel. Sunday night finished up with family, friends and pub regulars coming together for one last time to celebrate the achievements of the couple. Local musician Brad Haling also played in the beer garden.

It is with heavy but happy hearts that the community raise a toast to Ash, Lib, Anna and Neve, and wish them all well! See you around!

Armatree Hotel staff celebrated the Walker’s last day on the job on Sunday, January 16, 2022. Back row: Connor Whiteman with assistant managers Renee and Pete Saunders. Front row: Ash Walker with general manager Thomas Lynskey and Lib Walker.

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