A harbour foreshore walk to Lavender Bay
Milson's Point, 3rd palm tree beside pool
This part of the harbour foreshore was once the domain of the Cammeraygal people, the original inhabitants who fished these productive shores and waterways. That is, until colonial era settlements displaced them, and their population started to dwindle.
I’m Robyn Ravlich, a writer and broadcaster who made Sydney my home over four decades ago. I'm passionate about the lovely harbour and the city's popular icons, seen from an airplane coming into land, or by walking its shores as we're doing today. Before we start this walk, I'd like to honour and pay my respects to the traditional custodians of this land on which we stand, to their elders past and present.
Take a moment to reflect on what you see here from Milson’s Point. The pylon base of the bridge – built of coastal sandstone - is impressive. And as you look under the bridge platform towards Circular Quay you have a wonderful view of the city skyline and the Opera House.
We’ll start our walk by turning away from the bridge with the Milson’s Point ferry jetty on your left and to the right, the North Sydney Olympic pool. It must be the best located pool in the world. It opened in 1936, and was built on the site of the workshops used in constructing the Harbour Bridge. It was the venue for the swimming events of the 1938 Empire Games.
Take a peek through the large windows at the sleek turquoise pool. It's greatly valued for the buoyancy of its treated salt water by champion swimmers who set world records here, notably John and Ilsa Konrads, Dawn Fraser and Shane Gould. My young brother Lee swam the world’s fastest time for an eleven year old here.
Around the windows you can see magical dolphins, frogs and sea-shells in plaster ornamentation that retains the original art deco character of this loved pool.
Keep going now, along this aptly named Olympic Boulevard.
Luna Park Face
Pause here, before the giant face at the entry to Luna Park. It's one of Sydney’s iconic images. This is the eighth face to grace the funfair’s entrance, enticing kids of all ages through its oversized pearly white teeth into the body of enchantment.
It’s based on acclaimed Australian pop artist Martin Sharp’s loving tribute to the merry ‘Old King Cole’ design of Arthur Barton, the resident artist who gave the park its distinctive decorative style for over thirty-five years from its inception. Some of the faces were not so successful in achieving this happy, inviting look and in earlier days the funny face was made of flimsy material - plaster, timber and chicken wire - which deteriorated in the open air. At night the face with its crown and framing art deco towers light up the Sydney sky and are reflected in the harbour, one of its most distinctive and beloved sights with its promise of endless fun.
It’s been said that the first ride of Luna Park was the ferry ride from Circular Quay, but once here you would find the popular rides lining both sides of the famous Midway seen through the entrance. Here you can get a glimpse of the spinning Rotor which pinned you to a wall with centrifugal force – my particular horror - and down the centre is the magical carousel with its gentle ponies.
The amusement park with the best location in the world can again thank the builders of the Harbour Bridge. Once the bridge was built and the workshops no longer needed, an opportunity presented itself for a place of mass entertainment for Sydneysiders. The rides and amusements of an ailing Luna Park were transported from South Australia by sea and installed here, opening to rapturous delight in 1935. Since then, the face with its crown and framing art deco towers have lit up the Sydney sky at night and are reflected in the harbour, one of its most distinctive and beloved sights with its promise of endless fun.
Luna Park occupies a large site, so let’s walk further along its perimeter wall as we make our way from Milson’s Point to Lavender Bay. Just pass the entrance to the left, to walk along the harbour foreshore.
There’s a restaurant and bar at Luna Park now, but in its heyday, the rides were the main attraction. All along the Midway were delights such as Noah’s Ark, Davy Jones Locker with a mermaid and maze of mirrors, the Mystic East, Let’s Duk Sweetie, dodgem cars; then came sideshow alley with its laughing clowns and shooting gallery, the magical boat ride through the River Caves and the scary Ghost Train. Not all those rides remain as the park has opened and closed on various occasions, once over the issues surrounding the noise from the Roller Coaster, but most notably after a fire on the Ghost Train ride in 1979 that tragically counted six children and one adult as its victims. The fire and the loss of innocent lives haunted Sydneysiders, especially artist Martin Sharp who was one of a number of artists who had worked creatively on the restoration of the park’s artwork in the 1970s. With the closure after the fire, the artists helped rally support to keep the site going as Luna Park and not fall prey to commercial re-development.
Harbour view on the boardwalk
We’re taking a few moments here to turn towards the harbour bridge and savour the spectacular view to the city, the Opera House visible through the bridge and the city’s distinctive skyline. You get a very good idea of why the bridge is often called ‘the coat hanger’ with its beautiful span.
As a child I lived in the remote outback, but we visited Sydney on family holidays. With my father at the wheel of our classic 1950s Holden sedan, announcing we would drive over the bridge, I closed my eyes in horror, imagining he would drive us perilously high across the arch. It was some time before I could cross the bridge with open eyes. I came to love this structure that transformed the city forever by when it opened to trains and cars in 1932, unifying its two sides. In my work as a radio broadcaster, I made documentary programs about the making of the Harbour Bridge and the history of Luna Park.
Let's continue along the boardwalk now to our next vantage point. Both icons - the bridge and Luna Park - brought joy and a sense of progress during the depths of the Great Depression, symbolizing the arrival of modernity to Sydney. Construction jobs were welcome in desperate times. The excitement that Sydneysiders felt about the bridge structure climbing into the sky and finally meeting was captured in some brilliant paintings by Grace Cossington-Smith to be seen at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, along with wonderful photographs by Harold Cazneaux.
That excitement continues to this day with daily and nightly bridge climbing tours and its central role in New Year celebrations with fireworks attached all over the span, illuminating the sky and the harbour below in a dazzling display at midnight.
To greet this millennium the display on the span featured the word Eternity, long ago inscribed in chalk in old fashioned copperplate handwriting on Sydney streets by a secretive figure of the night, Mr Eternity. His religious message of eternity became something secular, a one-word poem that’s now another beloved Sydney icon.
Our next brief stopping point is on the boardwalk at the end of the turreted building on your right.
Boardwalk at the end of Crystal Palace
Take a backward glance to see the Crystal Palace building from this angle. It’s one of Luna Park’s most beautifully decorated pavilions, formerly home to bathing beauty contests, brass band concerts and various amusements and rides, the Dodgem cars amongst them. Crystal Palace is heritage listed and in demand for wedding receptions and other functions. But, whilst this historic building is preserved, the harbour front has seen many changes.
Let your gaze sweep around over the water, to where you can see old wharves directly across this western end of the harbour. As you continue now along the boardwalk, I’ll tell you of changes there.
The wharves are the residue of a thriving maritime industry that all-but- disappeared from here with the advent of larger container ships. Now, those wharves have new lives, housing theatre and dance companies, the annual Sydney Writers’ Festival, restaurants and sleek apartments. The sandstone park on the point marks the precinct of Barangaroo on the old industrial wharves that lined the way to Darling Harbour, now a popular entertainment and leisure precinct. During hard times for Sydney’s often militant ‘wharfies’, a sweep of that waterfront was known as ‘the hungry mile’, which they walked looking for jobs. Massive container ships operate elsewhere with more space to disgorge and load their cargoes in highly mechanized, less labour intensive operations.
In the distance you see the mighty pylons of a modern cable bridge, the Anzac Bridge, which spans Blackwattle Bay in the inner western suburbs. The two bridges with their dramatic scale and contrasting designs are both memorable additions to the city skyline.
Pausing at this end of Luna Park you see an exotically decorated building known as Coney Island, named after the original amusement park in New York. It’s the only remaining example of an original 1930s funfair operating in the world. You could spend the whole day in Coney Island experiencing its cheap thrills: once you had a ticket, all the amusements and rides inside were free, including the Joy Wheel, the Barrels of Fun, the Turkey Trot and the giant wooden slides known as the Devil’s Dip – all simple pleasures, giving lots of laughs. Justifiably, Funnyland is its other name. It’s worth a visit to experience the ingenuity of the old fashioned fun machines, now modified to meet modern safety standards. As you now continue along the foreshore look out for the penny arcade slot machines through the windows as I tell you more about it.
Coney Island fell on hard times in the closure of the park following the Ghost Train fire with treasured amusements saved by the artists and Friends of Luna Park action group. It was lovingly restored in the 1990s, principally by local Lavender Bay artist Peter Kingston who worked with Richard Liney, Martin Sharp and other artists to restore and recreate the original artwork of Arthur Barton. ‘Art’, as the artist-in-residence was appropriately known, was a familiar sight throughout his 35 years at Luna Park, dressed in white painter’s overalls with a shirt collar and tie showing at the neck and always wearing a felt hat. He was reluctantly ‘let go’ in involuntary retirement in 1970, aged 81.
As I wandered through Coney Island’s interior making a radio documentary with Peter Kingston, he described Barton’s massive mural of a winter skiing scene replete with monkeys, ducks, clowns and ballerinas as ‘his Sistine Chapel’. It’s no surprise that Peter Kingston and others have sought to honour the legacy of Art Barton as we’ll soon discover.
The bay we’re approaching on this side also had a small but rich maritime past and the boardwalk itself with its sturdy timbers evokes the wharves of former times.
What is new here is the planting of native grasses and shrubs along the pleasant path. It’s wonderful to get a sense of our distinctive Australian bushland in such an urban setting. And it’s a very sympathetic introduction to what lies ahead at the end of the grass-lined path where you see trees and wider plantings in a small reserve known as Art Barton Park, completed and opened in 2007 in honour of Art Barton. Dotted amongst the vegetation we’ll discover miniature bronze sculptures of beloved characters from classic Australian comics and children’s books by authors such as May Gibbs and Norman Lindsay, all in keeping with the spirit of eternal childhood celebrated in Luna Park. Our first stopping point will be just past the large green tree on the lawn area to the right of the path.
A Cup of Tea sculpture by Michael Leunig
We’re now about to experience sculpture by the sea on an intimate scale along this section of the park. Walk up to the garden bed on the right hand side just past the tree to see the first small sculpture tucked in amongst the landscaping of native plants. A Cup of Tea was designed by the whimsical Australian artist and cartoonist Michael Leunig as a poetic monument to the victims of the Ghost Train fire in Luna Park, mourning the loss of innocent lives whilst engaged in childish fun.
This memorial was commissioned by the North Sydney Council in 2006 and cast in bronze by local resident and artist, Peter Kingston. His vision was a major impetus in the establishment of this park, celebrating beloved characters in Australian comics and story books and the legacy of Art Barton.
Let’s move slowly now, looking in amongst the plants on both sides for sculptures.
Over beside the lavender bush on the harbour side you’ll find Ken Dugong by contemporary artist Chris O’Doherty, giving us a glimpse at how Australian artists have continually seen animals, birds and plants as very human characters. Back on the right about 5 metres along you’ll find Splodge, the kangaroo from the children’s book Blinky Bill written by Dorothy Wall. Then, by the water there’s a penguin known as Sam Sawnoff from the children’s book The Magic Pudding, which we’ll discover more about in the next section of this imaginative park.
Let's keep moving now, back on the pathway.
Big Bad Banksia man, bush creature by May Gibbs
Look out for the little bronze sculpture on your right in the garden bed. Stop for a moment when you see it. It's an Australian bush creature from The Adventures of Snugglepot and Cuddlepie, devised by writer and illustrator May Gibbs almost a century ago and known to generations of children.
The hairy Banksia Man is modelled on a gnarled seed cone distinctive to many species of Banksia tree, with follicles for the eyes and mouth. Here the Banksia man sculpture is displayed against the backdrop of a living banksia tree, so that you can see how accurate the resemblance is. The appearance the Big Bad Banksia Man – or even just hearing the name – was enough to bring on squeals of horror and fears of nightmares for most Australian children as he was the villain in the fictional bushland paradise created by Gibbs.
As you now walk further through this bush landscaping, see how the vegetation creates imaginative possibilities for characters and once you reach the raised garden bed look out for another of May Gibbs’s characters on your right, kindly Mr Lizard, who saved the gumnut babies from the predations of nasty Mrs Snake, another of the villains in the story.
Snugglepot and Cuddlepie, bush babies
Stop to look at the small figurines in the garden bed on the right. Snugglepot and Cuddlepie were gumnut babies in May Gibbs’s enchanting children’s books and Bib and Bub comics strips. They were perfectly formed little humanoids modelled in appearance on the gum nuts formed on eucalyptus trees, with their endearing companion Little Raggedy Blossom modelled on ethereal, flowering gum blossom.
May Gibbs’s vivid imagination was inspired by her childhood experiences in the West Australian bush. But over four decades of her adult life were spent close to here in Neutral Bay, where her home Nutcote is now a fascinating museum.
Continuing now along the path, you’ll pass a sculpture of Ginger Meggs, a classic red-haired, mischievous Aussie kid created in the 1920s and still active in Australia’s longest –running comic strip.
This genre of imaginative children’s illustrated fiction even attracted great artists such as Norman Lindsay, a well-known bohemian, cartoonist, writer, sculptor and painter of voluptuous women in pagan settings and a true eccentric.
Magic Pudding sculpture by Norman Lindsay
Pause to examine this sculpture in the garden bed on the right. This strange little creature is the Magic Pudding, created by artist and illustrator Norman Lindsay in his fabulously inventive children’s book of 1918, "The Magic Pudding: Being the Adventures of Bunyip Bluegum and his friends Bill Barnacle and Sam Sawnoff".
The pudding is owned by three friends (a koala, a sailor and a penguin) who must protect it from marauding pudding thieves (a wombat and a possum). Known as the ‘cut and come again pudding’ it magically restores itself into a full pudding no matter how much is eaten, ready to be eaten again. It has a grumpy face - never happy unless it is being devoured - and wears its pudding basin on its head. Turn him upside down and the pudding turns from savoury to sweet
Continue now along the path, imagining how artists and bohemians such as Norman Lindsay, who lived locally for a while, would have favoured this area for its views and once affordable housing within a short ferry ride of the city.
You’ll pass a few more characters from classic Australian children’s book and comic strips, including sculptures of the Larrikin Kookaburra and Felix the Cat.
Luna Park Face by Peter Kingston
Slow down and take a look at another sculpture by local artist Peter Kingston of the memorable face of Luna Park, a character in its own right. Kingston cast all the bronzes in Art Barton Park immortalizing the designs of the other artists.
As we head to another of his original sculptures you’ll pass Boofhead, a cartoon strip anti-hero; then, a mischievous little boy in the form of a cute koala called Blinky Bill.
Hegarty's Ferry by Peter Kingston
The last sculpture invokes Noah’s Ark, a former Luna Park fixture, but it’s a tribute to the small wooden ferries that plied the local waters of the Lavender Bay and North Shore run. It’s a fitting finale to the sculptures in Art Barton Park and turns our thoughts to Lavender Bay itself.
Walk on now, sticking to the water's edge. Note the narrow finger wharf you see projecting into the bay on your left; the words ‘Lavender Bay’ still evident in rusted ironwork just below the roof.
Local residents catching Hegarty’s ferries used the wharf until they ceased operating in 2002, leaving few traces of the traditional wooden craft on the waterways. Follow the sandstone sea-wall on the left, walking across the grass, until we reach our next location, a sign which reveals more of Lavender Bay’s maritime history and its legacy of small boat building and repairs. The bay was isolated by geography from the larger working wharves and shipyards and lacked other transport connections until the Harbour Bridge was built.
Working Harbour sign at Lavender Bay
Stop here to read the sign that conveys some information about Lavender Bay's maritime history. How extraordinary the original Australians and the newcomer convicts and settlers must have found each other’s modes for travelling over water – lightweight, bark fishing canoes in which small fires were often kindled and large ships replete with sails, crews and cargoes of goods and humans. What a strange phenomenon it must have been to see the convict hulk Phoenix moored here in Lavender Bay in the 1820s and 1830s. Lavender Bay takes its name from George Lavender, a senior crewman on the Phoenix.
Crossing the boat ramp, continue on to the end of this foreshore park, Quiberie Park, named after a local indigenous word ‘Gooweebahree’ for fresh water spring.
Today, with small pleasure craft dotted on the water, you can certainly imagine lively maritime activities that thrived all around this half-moon bay and the many small engineering workshops and boat building yards that were located here for the best part of a century, until becoming uneconomical.
Neptune Engineering Slipway, Lavender Bay
The major boatbuilding and engineering yard in Lavender Bay was located here, launching boats from this slipway, the final one in 1989. The slipway and some of the remnant equipment is a visible reminder of a once significant maritime industry and working harbour.
Take the bitumen path now and follow it around in the direction from which you came, walking beside the railway viaduct and keeping it on your left.
Some small boat building continued in sheds under the railway viaduct until 2005, the last lowered into the water by crane.
For a very long time there was a lively mix of housing, maritime industry and seaside leisure facilities along the foreshore. But today, gentrification is very evident all around Lavender Bay, with houses and apartments possessing million-dollar harbour views.
Cavill's Bath plaque on rock face, Lavender Bay
Stop for a minute, to look at the plaque on the rock face. It marks Cavill’s public baths, a swimming enclosure established in the bay in the early 1880s by Frederick Cavill, whose son Dick is believed to have invented the Australian crawl or freestyle in the bay. An additional wooden bathing enclosure was later added to the western side of the wharf with diving towers, showers and change rooms and, although they deteriorated and faced competition from North Sydney Olympic Pool from 1936, they were much loved and survived demolition until the early 1970s.
Now walk onwards, turning left at the last archway under the viaduct, continuing up three flights of steps (59 steps in all). As we head toward our final destination, Wendy’s Secret Garden, I’ll tell you about the garden’s creator, Wendy Whiteley. She’s one of Sydney’s significant cultural figures in her own right, but also widely known as the inspirational muse, model and life partner of the legendary artist, Brett Whitely; although they were to separate some years before his untimely death in 1992, aged 53.
At the height of his creative powers they lived together in a house just up beyond the steps, where he painted many views of Lavender Bay as well as the interiors of the lovely old house, still home to Wendy and her regenerating vision. In the aftermath of his death Wendy absorbed herself in transforming an urban wasteland into a garden of delights. She was initially helped by their daughter Arkie, who then died tragically of cancer in 2001 - and Wendy's garden was a labour of love that honoured both their memories.
From the third landing, look out for some impressive sculptures on the right that mark our final stopping point.
Wendy Whiteley's Secret Garden, sculptures
This is Wendy Whiteley’s secret garden. As you wander in this tranquil haven you’ll see sculptures dotted around, some of them improvised installations from objects found buried in the overgrown vegetation and some by artist friends, such as this impressive sculpture of a large, black marble head by Joel Elenberg, who died of cancer, aged 32, in 1980. Just to the left of Head, is a sculpture by Ian Marr, inscribed with a poetic reference to gardens from Van Morrison’s song "Sweet Thing".
Wendy’s house with its white tower is behind you, overlooking the garden. You might encounter her weeding or planting somewhere along your path, or some of her gardeners. Her near neighbour is artist Peter Kingston, whose works we’ve encountered on our walk. Both have given so much to this local community. Wendy poured her energy, artistic skill and financial resources into work on the garden; her way of creating a beautiful, living Eden - a public space for all to enjoy. Everything is thoughtfully designed and contrived, railings, steps, sitting areas for contemplation and for intimate picnics. For her work on this garden and her contribution to Australian cultural life Wendy Whitely was awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia in 2009.
You'll want to spend some time now in the garden. It's a beautiful spot to wander or to pause for any refreshments you may have brought along. There are a few things you could do now. You could wander up the hill to see some more of the beautiful old houses that grace this neighbourhood, perhaps visiting one of the local cafés. Or you could walk back to explore Coney Island at Luna Park. Further afield, if your interest in the artist Brett Whiteley has been aroused you can find artworks by him at the Art Gallery of New South Wales and at the Brett Whiteley Studio in Surray Hills.
Wander about as you like, and when you’re ready, you may wish to catch the train at nearby North Sydney station or retrace your steps to Milson's Point to connect with bus, train or ferry. I'd highly recommend that you catch a ferry to enjoy the experience of being on the most beautiful harbour in the world.
I've thoroughly enjoyed sharing this quieter, creative shore of Sydney harbour with you away from the hustle and bustle of Circular Quay and Darling Harbour. It began with some very public icons before moving into intimate and magical parks that are off the beaten tourist track. It's my most treasured walk in Sydney and I hope you’ve enjoyed the parks, the art and the very special harbour views. Thank you for joining me and I hope you'll share the experience with others.