Living in Australia, we have a rich indigenous cultural history dating back many thousands of years. What we don’t have is a long architectural history. The very oldest buildings to be found on the continent are a mere couple of hundred years old. We consider this old and I remember many childhood school holiday daytrips to visit historical buildings in and around my hometown of Sydney.
We often visited The Rocks area of Sydney. Being one of the first settled areas, it contains a treasure trove of old buildings (by Australian standards) and colonial architecture. I remember catching the train into the city and walking around The Rocks with my mother, grandmother, siblings and sometimes cousins. We walked along narrow alleys and laneways, explored museums and played on cannons under the Harbour Bridge after eating our picnic lunch of sandwiches and poppers. In the old Argyle Stores, we watched demonstrations such as making candles and boiled lollies. We were amazed at the tiny rooms in Cadman’s Cottage and couldn’t believe it used to be right on the waterfront. We walked on cobblestone paths and roads, marvelling at how uneven they were. Fascinated by the marks made in stone by convict pickaxes, we wandered through the Argyle Cut and climbed Observatory Hill to enjoy city and harbour views from the bandstand. I developed a love for history in general and for this area in particular and imagined myself travelling back in time and living there many years before. I dreamed forward in time too, of one day owning one of the old terrace houses.
My imagination was further kindled when I read Ruth Park’s novel Playing Beatie Bow. Set in The Rocks, Abigail suddenly finds herself transported back in time over a hundred years and is faced with a very different world to the one she is used to. It had everything my young self wanted in a book – mystery, romance, time travel, history, adventure and all set in a location I was familiar with. How could I not love it? Many years later, I had the privilege to introduce a high school class to this favourite of mine. After studying the text and viewing the movie, we got to visit the location! Although commercial tours were available, they did not fit our students’ budgets, so I prepared my own excursion to The Rocks to retrace the steps of characters from the book. I carefully researched and planned a walking tour through my beloved Rocks, stopping at key points along the way to read excerpts from the novel. We walked along streets and found buildings named in the book and even the least engaged students were excited.
As a young adult, I often visited The Rocks, mainly at night for dinners or drinks in the many pubs and restaurants. It was a trendy place to be and we kept returning to our favourites.
Revisiting The Rocks for a weekend getaway late last year, I again loved wandering the streets and soaking up the history, once again allowing my imagination to get the better of me. I discovered The Big Dig Archaeology Education Centre. The excavations have excellent interpretive signboards with maps, photos and descriptions to help immerse you in the experience. We explored The Rocks Discovery Museum where I loved exploring the artefacts found in the area. I spent a wonderful couple of hours soaking up the personal histories of the area with a guided tour of the Susannah Place Museum. I really could imagine myself back in time as I sat in the tiny kitchen of one of the houses and listened to stories of the families who lived there over several generations. This was my sort of tour – fascinating, personal stories bringing history to life.
We spent an entire morning walking around the area and into Barangaroo, taking our time, with no real plans, simply walking and taking in the scenery. As we took the time to notice details, we discovered this wonderful wall.
The variation in size, texture and materials in such a small area fascinated me. The rough convict-hewn sandstone blocks contrast dramatically with dynamite-blasted sections, both of which are poor neighbours when compared to the carefully shaped sandstone blocks on the right. Even the bricks are not uniform, with considerable variations in both colour and shape. This wall is architectural history, containing elements which have been built and rebuilt over a period of time. I don’t know its’ story, but it certainly had me wondering about those who made it and those who have walked past over the many years it has been standing.
This wall, like history itself, a real teaser, leaving you wanting more.
It grabs your attention, reels you in and makes you wonder.
Isn’t that the beauty of history?