Ask any Aussie in a regional area what the most important structure is and they’ll give you a similar response. It isn’t the police station or the town hall; it’s the pub. The lifeblood of rural towns, the local watering hole is a place where communities come together, small victories are celebrated and bonds are forever cemented over a couple of ice-cold bevvies. So, when the only pub in the regional town of Batlow in New South Wales came under bushfire threat earlier this year, owners Matthew and Linda Rudd weren’t about to let their livelihood go up in flames.
“We were travelling okay at the time, but the town was severely affected by drought and there were issues of whether or not the crops would survive. There was a lot of doubt around town, ” Linda tells Man of Many. “Then on around New Years Eve, we had a family member lose his house. Overnight the fires spread almost 50km and that’s when they started evacuation notices. We knew we weren’t going to be able to save the town and it was time to get out.”
But leaving the town meant saying goodbye to their beloved pub. With no protection to shield the 100-year-old structure from the fast-moving blaze, the husband and wife team set to work. “Being such an old structure, the Batlow Pub has seen a lot and it’s fireproof to a point, but with ember attack, there are timber eves, an timber windows, so it wouldn’t take much to burn,” Matt says.
Working tirelessly, Matt and Linda reinforced the Batlow Pub’s fireproofing in the hopes of surviving the blaze unharmed. As the fires drew closer, however, the pair knew they had to leave. Packing their bags, they said their final goodbyes to the town prepared to evacuate, but something was pulling at Matt. Asking Linda to go on alone and look after her family, the former police officer chose to stay behind and protect the pub. “I knew we had a bit of bush behind us and some strong evacuation routes, so it made sense to me to stay and do something rather than doing nothing,” he says.
“He’s not silly when it comes to protecting himself, but Matt does have a tendency to run towards danger,” Linda says. “He felt very confident that he had a plan and I couldn’t stay because the roads were about to be cut. It was really the last chance to get out, and as I went up the road, the fires started to engulf the vehicle.”
Nervously, Linda escaped the fires, arriving safely at her family home, but her thoughts remained with Matt and the pub. “We had the radios on 24 hours a day to pick up emergency calls,” she says. “We were just sitting in my cousin’s loungeroom listening to updates in case anything had happened in Batlow.”
Amazingly, the fire passed through the town quickly, leaving Matt unharmed and the pub still standing. But the job was just beginning. Returning to their burnt homestead, the Rudd’s set to work on bringing the community together, as all good publicans would. Feeding and caring for those impacted by the fires and the proceeding COVID-19 pandemic, Matt and Linda became the proverbial parents of everyone in Batlow, even as Linda started pulling double duty as a registered nurse at the local hospital.
Months down the track and the Batlow Pub is slowly returning to its former glory. A renovated kitchen, renewed staff and a sense of community that is hard to top, Matt and Linda have pulled the best out of a tough year. Now, the husband and wife team are receiving global recognition. Academy-Award Winning actor and Wild Tukey creative director Matthew McConaughey has hand-picked the Batlow pair as one of the brand’s Local Legends for 2020. Celebrating their incredible sacrifices in the face of tremendous adversity, Wild Turkey and Matthew McConaughey are putting the emphasis back on the people fuelling the regional community.
“It was a truly humbling experience. We never did anything to get any recognition, that’s just the Aussie spirit and way; you get in and do what you’ve got you to do,” Matt says. “When Wild Turkey contacted us, we were in shock for a while, we didn’t think we’d done anything exceptional. We just gave people a place to go, to eat and place to debrief, which we know now is core to keeping up strong mental health.”
True to form, Matt and Linda aren’t asking for much in the new year, just for Aussies to support local businesses in the wake of a difficult 2020. “For us, we just want more people to see small country towns. You’ll be amazed by what it is there, you can still see the effects of fires, but that in itself is an awe-inspiring sight,” Linda says. “We’d just love people to stop in and have a drink.”