Posted by: mike on Oct 6, 2013

Category:Victorian architectureSacred placesExploring Australia

St Peter's Anglican Cathedral, Armidale, New South Wales

St Peter’s Anglican Cathedral, Armidale, stands just round the corner from its Catholic neighbour.  Though both are Gothic in style, their differences are distinctive.

St Peter’s was designed by John Horbury Hunt (1838-1904), the Canadian-born original architect of Christ Church Cathedral, Newcastle (begun 1869) on the New South Wales coast and Christ Church Cathedral, Grafton (1881).

Hunt favoured brick, an unexpected material for a cathedral, because its relative cheapness ensured that as much as possible could be built with the limited amount of money available.

The first Bishop of Grafton & Armidale, James F Turner, commented, “Our architect has studied carefully to give the church a certain stateliness of character, and therein has succeeded admirably…it is real, honest, and true; and shows what may be done in a material often too little regarded, viz, common brick.”

Hunt used local blue brick sourced from clay on the Saumarez estate, with Uralla granite dressings and a scissor-truss roof.  Building began in 1873 and after two years the first phase was opened.  The vestries and chapter house were added in 1910, and the tower completed in 1938.

I visited Armidale to lecture to the local decorative and fine arts society on Chicago.  Illustrating skyscrapers in that city, I remarked the Mies van der Rohe’s IBM Tower ignores its surroundings while the earlier Wrigley Building is carefully shaped to fit into its geographical context on the bend of a river – very like, I said, the modern annexes to St Peter’s Cathedral, which blend in a neighbourly way with Hunt’s original design.

At the end the gentleman who gave the vote of thanks remarked how pleased he was that I’d mentioned the extensions to St Peter’s Cathedral because he was Tony Deakin, the architect who designed the Parish Hall:

When you address an audience, you never know who’s listening.

Mike Higginbottom's lecture Gothic Down Under:  English architecture in the Antipodes explores the influence of British architects, and British-trained architects, on the design of churches and other buildings in the emerging communities of Australia and New Zealand.

For details, please click here. 

Posted by: mike on Oct 4, 2013

Category:Victorian architectureExploring Australia

St Patrick's Orphanage, Armidale, New South Wales

St Patrick's Orphanage, Armidale, New South Wales

When I lectured to the Armidale Decorative & Fine Arts Society, I was invited to dinner by Les and Libby in their spacious Gothic Revival apartment, part of the former St Patrick’s Orphanage.

This surprisingly late example of Gothic design was built between 1919 and 1921 for the Sisters of Mercy by George Nott, who had previously built Armidale’s Catholic Cathedral of St Mary & St Joseph.

By 1924 there were 120 children at the home, cared for and largely educated by the Sisters.  The regime at St Patrick’s Orphanage was not, it seems, a bed of roses:

The orphanage transferred to two cottages in 1976 and eventually closed in 1984.  The 1921 building stood derelict for some years, and has now found a happier fate as an opulent apartment-block.

There is an image of the building when it was new at

Posted by: mike on Oct 2, 2013

Category:Victorian architectureSacred placesExploring Australia

St Mary & St Joseph's Catholic Cathedral, Armidale, New South Wales

Sited in the midst of the Northern Tablelands above the Hunter Valley, Armidale is a strange city to British eyes:  it has two cathedrals, a university, and a population of less than twenty thousand.  Its oddity to most Australians is that because of its altitude, over 3,000 feet above sea-level, it has seasons, so they call the region “New England”.

Many of the early settlers were Irish, and Catholicism has remained a significant force in the community.

The fine Catholic Cathedral of St Mary & St Joseph was designed by Joseph Ignatius Sheerin (d 1915) & John Francis Hennessy (1853-1924) of Sydney, and built in polychrome brick and Pyrmont sandstone by the Armidale building contractor George Nott in 1911-12.

The Anglican George Nott (1865-1940) owned timber mills and brickworks in the area, and supplied the 1.1 million bricks for the cathedral, the largest project of his career.  Built in a little over twenty months, it cost A£32,000.  Its needle spire, 155 feet high, is a major landmark.

It was one of the last works of the Sheerin & Hennesssy partnership, designers of a series of prestigious Catholic buildings in and around Sydney – the Archbishop’s House (1885) and St Patrick’s Seminary, Manly (1885-1889), St Joseph’s College, Hunters Hill (1884-94), St Vincent’s College, Potts Point (1886), Our Lady of the Sacred Heart Church, Randwick (1888)and the Sacred Heart Monastery, West Kensington, Sydney (1895).

When St Mary & St Joseph’s Cathedral celebrated its centenary, a member of the congregation was George Nott’s daughter, 91-year-old Peggy Becke, wearing the gold chain from the watch that the parishioners presented to her father when the building was completed:

Mike Higginbottom's lecture Gothic Down Under:  English architecture in the Antipodes explores the influence of British architects, and British-trained architects, on the design of churches and other buildings in the emerging communities of Australia and New Zealand.

For details, please click here.

Posted by: mike on Sep 30, 2013

Category:Transports of delightExploring Australia

Armidale Railway Station, New South Wales

Armidale Railway Station, New South Wales, looking towards Brisbane

I was intended to travel from my Newcastle DFAS lecture to the next booking at Scone by car, but my chauffeur was taken ill so I took the train to Muswellbrook (pronounced Mussel-brook), and after I’d lectured at Scone, another train from there up the length of the Hunter Valley.

I wasn’t aware at the time but later discovered that Sandgate station on the way out of Newcastle marks the location of the Sandgate Cemetery Branch, which operated from when the Cemetery opened in 1881 until at least 1933 – (the cemetery website [] – indicates services ran until 1985).

Stations with evocative Geordie names – Wallsend, Hexham – lead to Maitland, the junction where the North Coast Line, built on a shorter route closer to the coast between 1905 and 1932, leaves the older Main North Line.

Maitland is also the base for the elaborate Hunter Valley Steamfest [], which offers an astonishing range of steam-related entertainments, not all of them rail-based, every April.

Even from the road, especially on the New England Highway, the coal and the trains still dominate:  the inexorable coal-trains look a mile long, and at a level crossing you might as well switch off the car-engine and pour yourself a coffee.

Yet the countryside is open and pastoral:  here there is money to be made from horse-breeding and wine-growing.

The station-names become Scottish for a while – Lochinvar, Allandale – and then switch to Co Durham – Greta.  Eventually, after the vast Dartbrook Colliery, the landscape turns rural again and the towns more elegant, with Scots names – Aberdeen and Scone.

From Scone the route continues to climb and the ruling gradient of 1 in 80 becomes 1 in 40 at the approach to the single-track bottleneck Ardglen Tunnel, over a quarter of a mile long, at over 2,300 feet altitude.

The once-a-day CountryLink service to and from Sydney breaks at Werris Creek, still a significant railway junction with a fine station building by John Whitton (1820-1898), Engineer-in-Charge of New South Wales Railway and builder also of the border railway station at Albury.

One portion of the CountryLink train goes takes the Mungindi Line to Moree;  I followed the main route to the present-day end of the line at Armidale.  Past Tamworth the line tends to follow tight river-valleys, until at Uralla it emerges on to the open, empty tableland plain.

Passenger service ends where the line turns sharply north-west at Armidale, at the fine 1882-3 railway station designed by Edmund Lonsdale with cast-ironwork from the New England Foundry at Uralla. 

You can stand at the north end of Armidale Station gazing at the rusting tracks which stretch another 93 miles to the break-of-gauge at Wallangarra.

The line to the border with Queensland was abandoned beyond Tamworth in the late 1980s, though services were restored as far as Armidale in 1993.  The abandoned track and infrastructure remains in place, though it must be decrepit by now.

Queensland Railways’ 3ft-6in-guage services to Wallangarra ceased in 1997, though heritage steam services occasional operate:

Posted by: mike on Jul 28, 2013

Category:Victorian architectureSacred placesExploring Australia

St James' Church, Morpeth, New South Wales

St James' Church, Morpeth, New South Wales

The final church that Phil and Jane Pullin showed me when I stayed with them on my ADFAS tour is a contrast to Edmund Blacket’s other churches in the area.

Whereas St Mary’s, West Maitland and St Peter’s, East Maitland replaced earlier functional buildings, St James’ Church, Morpeth [] is Blacket’s 1860s adaptation of an existing building of 1837-40:  he added the sanctuary and sacristy and designed the font and pulpit.

It was rebuilt by John Horbury Hunt after a fire in 1874:  he raised the nave walls and devised the lightweight hammerbeam roof, but left the tower at its original height so that it now looks undersized.

The organ (1877) is a rarity, one of the few surviving instruments by the Sydney organ-builder William Davison.  St James’ has two fine statues, of St James and the Virgin Mary, by the sculptor Englebert Piccolrauz (b 1942).

All this I would have missed as a tourist.  It makes all the difference to spend time in a foreign country working and receiving the hospitality of people who’ve lived there all their lives.

And in the Hunter Valley coalfield of New South Wales, with its Tyneside place-names, there is a constant reminder to a Brit that Australia is, in many respects, remarkably like home.

Mike Higginbottom's lecture Gothic Down Under:  English architecture in the Antipodes explores the influence of British architects, and British-trained architects, on the design of churches and other buildings in the emerging communities of Australia and New Zealand.

For details, please click here.

Posted by: mike on Jul 26, 2013

Category:Victorian architectureSacred placesExploring Australia

St Peter's Church, East Maitland, New South Wales (exterior)

St Peter's Church, East Maitland, New South Wales (interior)

St Peter’s Church, East Maitland (1875-85) was designed by Edmund Blacket in 1875 and built 1884-6 under the supervision of his son Cyril (1857-1937).  It is more ornate than St Mary’s, West Maitland, but lacks the intended 180-foot-high tower and spire, so that the west wall is blank apart from a clearly temporary doorway.  Another aisled church, built of local sandstone, it has an apsed east end has three traceried windows.  The interior columns are granite capped with Melbourne bluestone basalt.  St Peter’s has a fine Willis organ of 1876, installed in the church in 1886:

In the years after its completion St Peter’s was richly embellished by local benefactors.  The very fine alabaster and marble pulpit by Rhodes of Birmingham dates from 1893;  the reredos is made of Oamuru stone from New Zealand, with red Girotte marble shafts from the Pyrenees and Ashburton marble from England;  the lectern dates from 1897, and the floor was tiled in 1900-4.

Blacket’s tower will presumably never be built, yet St Peter’s is as fine and impressive a Victorian church as any you could find in Britain.

Mike Higginbottom's lecture Gothic Down Under:  English architecture in the Antipodes explores the influence of British architects, and British-trained architects, on the design of churches and other buildings in the emerging communities of Australia and New Zealand.

For details, please click here.

Posted by: mike on Jul 24, 2013

Category:Victorian architectureSacred placesExploring Australia

St Mary's Church, West Maitland, New South Wales

 St Mary’s Church, West Maitland, New South Wales

Phil and Jane Pullin were my final Australian Decorative & Fine Arts Society hosts, when I lectured to the Pokolbin DFAS.  I warmed to them immediately because, when I texted to say I was stuck on a train with no buffet, they greeted me on the platform with a bottle of water and a chicken sandwich.

They were also enormously helpful in filling my free time with visits to a collection of Victorian Gothic churches in around the amalgamated towns of Maitland and Morpeth, which lie at the tidal limit of the River Hunter and became an important junction on the Great Northern Railway between Sydney and Brisbane.

The modern city of Maitland is a good place to see the work of the English-born, self-taught Australian architect Edmund Blacket (1817-1883), who is best known for his St Saviour’s Cathedral, Goulbourn, New South Wales (1884) [], St Andrew’s Cathedral, Sydney (1868), and the Great Hall and Quadrangle of the University of Sydney (1861) [].  He was the mentor of other major nineteenth-century Australian architects such as John Horbury Hunt (1838-1904).  Blacket is regarded as a safe, conformist architect, who seems to have been most comfortable designing small parish churches.  In fact, some of his parish churches are quite grand.

St Mary’s Church, West Maitland (1860-7) is a spacious, gracious, aisled church with twin porches and a tower added in 1880, two years after the church was consecrated.  Built of local Ravensfield stone, its oddity is the undersized west window, which lights the west gallery in which the 1881 Willis organ was placed in 1959:

The plainer, brick sister church, St Paul’s, West Maitland (1858) is also by Edmund Blacket.  Its detached bell tower of 1888 was part of an uncompleted enlargement plan.  It is now deconsecrated:

Mike Higginbottom's lecture Gothic Down Under:  English architecture in the Antipodes explores the influence of British architects, and British-trained architects, on the design of churches and other buildings in the emerging communities of Australia and New Zealand.

For details, please click here.

Posted by: mike on Jun 22, 2013

Category:Victorian architectureSacred placesExploring Australia

Newcastle Cathedral, New South Wales

Cathedral Church of Christ the King, Newcastle, New South Wales

Every major Australian and New Zealand city possesses at least one, usually two, fine cathedrals, many of them started in the Gothic Revival style in the early years of settlement.  Some, such as St Mary’s Roman Catholic Cathedral, Perth and Holy Trinity Cathedral, Auckland, were completed to newer, cheaper, more practical designs;  others such as William Wilkinson Wardell’s magnificent St Patrick’s Cathedral, Melbourne, and St Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney, were eventually completed as the original architect intended.

The Cathedral Church of Christ the King, Newcastle, New South Wales, begun in 1869, is a superb essay in Gothic Revival style by the Canadian-born architect John Horbury Hunt (1838-1904), who designed (among much else) Christ Church Cathedral, Grafton (1881-4), St Peter’s Anglican Cathedral, Armidale (1871) and rebuilt the charming little church of St James, Morpeth after a fire (1874-7) – all three in New South Wales.

The original design by the architects Leonard Terry (1825–1884) and Robert Speechly (1840-1884) proved unworkable, and John Horbury Hunt provided a new design in 1882.  It has the signature of this talented, often controversial architect – an uncompromising choice of materials, in this case brick, and a forthright acceptance of asymmetry.  The building as it stands is not exactly as John Horbury Hunt intended:

Construction stalled in 1893 in a flurry of litigation over contracts and costs, and resumed in 1900 under the supervision of the Sydney architect John Hingeston Buckeridge (1857-1934), so that the nave and crossing could be brought into use in 1902.

Thereafter, a succession of architects progressively extended the building:  Frederick George & A C Castleden designed the Warrior’s Chapel (1924) at the east end, using Buckeridge’s plans, and the nave was completed with a roof unlike Hunt’s intention in 1928.

E C Sara of the practice Castleden & Sara added the Columbarium in 1955.  Eventually, in 1979, the transepts and tower were completed, largely according to Hunt’s intentions, by E C Sara’s son John.

The only omission from the spirit of Hunt’s design was the spire, which is almost certainly for the best, because the Cathedral was damaged in the 1989 earthquake, and the repairs that took place in 1995-1997 were only practicable because of the quality of the original structure:

The result is a magnificent, remarkably harmonious essay in Gothic architecture, completed in the 1970s and rescued in the 1990s.  At the time of its consecration in 1983 it had been in use for eighty years.

I was fortunate to be shown round by Bronwen Orrock, who has inventorised the cathedral’s many treasures, including sixty stained-glass windows by Kempe & Co and one, the Dies Domini window of 1907, by Edward Burne-Jones and Morris & Co.

The font and the bishop’s throne are by William Douglas Caroe (1857-1938);  the pulpit is by the German-born artist Frederick Burnhardt  Menkens (1855-1910);  in the Warriors’ Chapel are fourteen terracotta panels designed by the Doulton ceramicist George Tinworth (1843-1913).

The Cathedral is the parent church of Toc H in Australia and is rich in war memorials, from Gallipoli, Flanders, Singapore, Korea, Malaya and Vietnam.

Newcastle is, perhaps, off the tourist beat, yet Christ Church Cathedral is one of the most memorable buildings I’ve so far seen in this vast and varied country.

The Cathedral website is at

Mike Higginbottom's lecture Gothic Down Under:  English architecture in the Antipodes explores the influence of British architects, and British-trained architects, on the design of churches and other buildings in the emerging communities of Australia and New Zealand.

For details, please click here.

Posted by: mike on Jun 20, 2013

Category:Life-enhancing experiencesExploring Australia

Ocean Baths, Newcastle, New South Wales

Newcastle, New South Wales is a Geordie home-from-home.

The deep-water estuary of the Hunter River was recognised as a source of coal as soon as it was first explored, in 1797.  After it ceased to be a penal settlement in 1822-3, it was colonised primarily by miners from Northumberland and Durham:  it’s slightly unnerving to anyone who knows the north-east England to find that the Australian city has satellites with names such as Gateshead, Hexham, Jesmond, Morpeth, Pelaw, Stockton and Wallsend.

Already exporting the greatest volume of coal of any harbour in the world, Newcastle expects to increase its annual tonnage from 97Mt in 2009-10 to 180Mt by 2013.

Yet the seashore has beaches as fine as any in Great Britain.  Indeed, it’s probably the only place in the world where miners can go surfing at the weekend, if not immediately after work.

As an alternative to surfing, the seashore offers the open-air Ocean Baths (1922) [] and the Merewether Baths (1935) [], where you can swim in a pool with a sea-view to the horizon.

Like its English counterpart, the Australian Newcastle suffered an economic downturn as the traditional manufacturing industries, particularly steel, went into decline at the end of the last century, but in the past decade the Australian port has been boosted by increases in the prices of coal and iron and easy access to Asian markets.

Newcastle has some of Australia’s finest surviving theatre-buildings, the disused Victoria Theatre (1891) [;search=place_name%3Dvictoria%2520theatre%3Bkeyword_PD%3Don%3Bkeyword_SS%3Don%3Bkeyword_PH%3Don%3Blatitude_1dir%3DS%3Blongitude_1dir%3DE%3Blongitude_2dir%3DE%3Blatitude_2dir%3DS%3Bin_region%3Dpart;place_id=100971], the Regent Cinema, Islington (1928) [], presently a hardware store, and the still-functioning Civic Theatre (1929) [].  Newcastle’s historic theatres and cinemas are listed at

Though Newcastle lost some historic buildings in the 1989 earthquake, its most prominent landmark, the Cathedral Church of Christ the King survived.  The Cathedral is such a magnificent building it deserves an article all to itself.

Posted by: mike on Jun 18, 2013

Category:Life-enhancing experiencesExploring Australia

Newcastle, New South Wales

View from Noah's on the Beach, Newcastle, New South Wales

One of the joys of working for the Australian Decorative & Fine Arts Societies, lecturing on one of their three circuits, was the opportunity to travel to ordinary parts of Australia, away from the tourist tracks, and whenever possible – as I did in New Zealand – I took the opportunity to travel surface so that I could see the landscape.

Accordingly, when I lectured to a succession of societies in New South Wales, I travelled twice by rail on the Main North Line from Sydney to Armidale.

This line was the original connection to Queensland, opened between Newcastle and Wallangarra between 1857 and 1888, and then completed south to Sydney in 1889.

The southern section out of Sydney was the most difficult to construct and is the most spectacular. 

Once out of the north Sydney suburbs it shares a route with the freeway, then plunges into the four Boronia Tunnels to Hawkesbury River Station.  From there it disappears into Long Island Tunnel, crosses the thousand-yard Hawkesbury River Bridge (1946, replacing the 1889 original) and immediately enters Mullet Creek Tunnel then skirts the waterside, after Wondabyne Station, into Woy Woy Tunnel, slightly over a mile long.  All the way to Gosford the train provides a constant panorama of the Brisbane Water, alive with boats.

Beyond Gosford the landscape becomes mundane as the line travels through something we no longer have in Britain – an active coalfield.  There are collieries, a power station, a station with the evocative name Sulphide Junction, and another which was originally Windy Creek but was later renamed, by a popular vote of its Welsh miner inhabitants, Cardiff.

Suburban trains from Sydney actually terminate in the city of Newcastle, but I was booked on the once-a-day, more comfortable CountryLink service and disembarked at Broadmeadow, the out-of-town station in the Newcastle suburbs, to meet my Newcastle DFAS hostess Gwen Hamilton.

The Society booked me into the excellent Noah’s-on-the-Beach [], to which one day I’ll return.  The only facility it didn’t offer was free wi-fi, for which I trekked to the Bakehouse, 87-89 Hunter Street.

Posted by: mike on May 7, 2013

Category:Victorian architectureSacred placesExploring Australia

St Paul's Church, Cobbitty, New South Wales

When I lectured to the Camden Decorative & Fine Arts Society, on the south-western outskirts of Sydney, my hostess Nola Tegel insisted on taking me to one of the oldest intact churches in Australia, St Paul’s Church, Cobbitty.

Cobbitty was developed around the pioneer ranch of Rowland and Elizabeth Hassall, missionaries who arrived in Australia in 1798.  Their son, Rev Thomas Hassall (1794-1868), founded the first Sunday School in Australia when he was nineteen years old, was the first Australian-born Anglican priest and became the first rector of Cobbitty in 1827.

He built the Heber Chapel, a simple stone schoolroom dedicated in 1829 to the memory of the much-travelled Rt Rev Reginald Heber (1783-1826), who was Bishop of Calcutta at the time when the whole of Australia was one of its archdeaconries.

Known as the “galloping parson”, Thomas Hassall farmed sheep and acted as magistrate while serving a huge parish:

The later church, a simple Gothic building with a spire, was designed by John Verge (1782-1861), the English-born architect who is best-known for a series of fine villas in the Sydney suburbs, and was at least partly responsible for Elizabeth Bay House (1835-9).

St Paul's Church was completed in 1842.  In the churchyard is the grave of Edward Wise, aged 21, who was struck by lightning while building the steeple.

Recent renovations have revealed, so I’m told, that the unusual shape, with a vestigial sanctuary and broad transepts, results from a decision during construction to extend and reorientate the church.

The church has one of the very few surviving organs by William Davidson (1876):

Thomas Hassall is buried at Cobbitty, and his family are still linked to the parish:  the grandson of his great-great-nephew was christened there in 2011:

Brits used to be sniffy about the lack of history in the former outposts of Empire.  In fact, Cobbity has all the history you’d expect in a traditional English village – buildings going back to the roots of the settlement, fascinating characters, archaeology, and family links back to the Australian equivalent of the Norman Conquest:

Mike Higginbottom's lecture Gothic Down Under:  English architecture in the Antipodes explores the influence of British architects, and British-trained architects, on the design of churches and other buildings in the emerging communities of Australia and New Zealand.

For details, please click here.

Posted by: mike on Apr 1, 2013

Category:Victorian architectureExploring Australia

Yackandandah Hotel, Victoria

Yackandandah Hotel, Victoria

Before I left Albury after my Murray River DFAS lecture, Sally and John took me to Yackandandah for lunch.

It’s a former gold-mining town that now seems to use tourists as a gold-mine.

Though there were settlers here from the 1840s, the discovery of gold in 1852 brought prospectors who based themselves in tiny camps with such names as Staghorn Flat, Allan’s Flat, Osborne’s Flat, Rowdy Flat, Whisky Flat, Bell’s Flat and Hillsborough.

The trading centre, which took the name Yackandandah from the creek that ran down the valley, was laid out in 1856-7 and by the 1860s had a population of 3,000.

The very first pupil on the roll of the state school in 1864 was Isaac Isaacs (1855-1948), who became the first Australian-born Governor General (1931-1936).  He was born in Melbourne:  his father was a tailor who brought his family to Yackandandah in 1859.

We had just enough time to visit the Yackandandah Historical Society & Museum [] which is housed in the Bank of Victoria building (1860) and the adjacent Manager’s House (1856), and to glance at Sam Cunningham’s store and carriage showroom (1850), the Post Office (1863), the Athenaeum (1878), the Yackandandah Hotel and the Yackandandah Motor Garage.

I didn’t have time to follow the Indigo Gold Trail [], or to take Greg Porter’s Karrs Reef Gold Mine Tour [], or to seek out the Cemetery (1859) [].

There’s so much history to be explored, not least in a boom-town that started up in the mid-nineteenth century, and lost its original raison d’être decades ago.

Posted by: mike on Mar 30, 2013

Category:Victorian architectureTransports of delightExploring Australia

Hotel Culcairn, New South Wales

Culcairn Hotel, New South Wales

When Barb Ross showed me the Holbrook Submarine Museum I thought my day out was complete, but there was more to come:  I might have found the submarine – indeed, I could hardly have missed it if I’d been driving the Hume Highway between Sydney and Melbourne – but I’d never have stumbled on the places Barb showed me.

There’s no substitute for exploring a district with someone who’s spent decades of their lives there.

Barb pointed me towards a couple of tall grain silos, which mark the vestigial remains of Holbrook’s railway station, which opened in 1902 and closed in 1975:  When Barb and her husband Malcolm first farmed here their grain was dispatched by rail;  now it goes by road.

We followed the valley westwards, repeatedly crossing the old railway line, on which the track remains intact.  It seems that in Australia abandoned railways are literally abandoned;  in Britain the track and infrastructure were most often ripped up for scrap.

We couldn’t find the little wooden church which had been repainted specially for Barb’s friend’s daughter’s wedding.  It seems someone has removed it.

The Round Hill Hotel [] was closed:  from the 1860s there was a Cobb & Co staging post – the Australian equivalent of Wells Fargo – but the origin of the pub is lost in mists of early New South Wales history.

This was the site of the first of a series of murders by the bushranger Dan “Mad Dog” Morgan (1830-1865):  the memorial to his victim, John McLean (d 1864), is beside the road some distance from the Round Hill homestead.

We followed the branch railway all the way to the junction, Culcairn, which proved to be a historical gem.  I’d travelled along the North East railway line twice and so passed through Culcairn, which was once a significant stopping-place.  It was the junction for Holbrook and for Corowa (opened 1892), another derelict but intact line which also closed in 1975:

Culcairn railway station (1880) retains a single platform and its wooden buildings, including the stationmaster’s house (c1883) which is restored as a museum:  Across the road is the former branch of the London Bank of Australia.  Later in my tour I met a lady who was the daughter of the branch manager and grew up in Culcairn:  she recalled being kept awake at night by the noise of shunting trains, and travelling by rail to boarding school in Sydney.

The Germanic origins of the local community are apparent on Railway Parade in the substantial brick terrace of shops, Scholz’s Buildings (1908), and the Culcairn Hotel (1891, extended 1910):  We looked inside the hotel, and I marvelled at the elegant leaded-light windows which looked something between Art Nouveau and Art Deco.

None of this I would ever have found but for the privilege of being hosted by somebody who knew the place like the back of her hand.

Posted by: mike on Mar 28, 2013

Category:Exploring Australia

Holbrook Submarine Museum, New South Wales

When I lectured to the Murray River Decorative & Fine Arts Society at Albury-Wodonga on the border of New South Wales and Victoria, I was told over dinner about a town with a submarine, up in the Riverina hills.

I was intrigued, and asked my host Barb Ross to take me to the place where she grew up, Holbrook, which was originally called Ten Mile Creek and then Germanton.

Many Australian-German place-names fell out of favour during the First World War, and the inhabitants of Germanton chose to rename their town in tribute to a naval hero, Lt (latterly Commander) Norman Douglas Holbrook, VC (1888-1976), who took an obsolete British submarine under a minefield to torpedo a Turkish battleship in the Dardanelles in 1915.  He was the first submariner to be awarded the Victoria Cross, and the first recipient of the medal in the First World War.

Commander Holbrook took a personal interest in the little town that had taken his name, and after his death his widow, Mrs Gundula Holbrook, presented the council with his Victoria Cross medal.

In tribute to Commander Holbrook the town council raised funds to purchase a decommissioned Oberon-class Australian submarine, HMAS Otway, in 1995.  Mrs Holbrook contributed A$100,000 to bring the outer shell of the vessel above the waterline, and to establish a small park and the Holbrook Submarine Museum [] alongside.

This spectacle has surprised at least one driver of a huge Australian road-train, hammering through the foggy night until his headlights picked out the unmistakable shape of a submarine’s bows, four hundred miles from the ocean.

Maybe this disconcerting moment saved him from jumping the only set of traffic lights on the 847km road between Sydney and Melbourne.

There is a further display about Norman Holbrook at the Woolpack Museum:

Posted by: mike on Mar 26, 2013

Category:Victorian architectureTransports of delightExploring Australia

Albury Railway Station, New South Wales

There was a time when travelling between New South Wales and Victoria involved going through customs.

When the railway lines first reached the Murray River, from Melbourne to the Victoria border-town of Wodonga in 1873 and from Sydney to the New South Wales side at Albury in 1881, there was no rail bridge:  passengers had to transfer by coach.

Even when the rail bridge was completed in 1883, passengers still had to transfer across the platform because the two railways ran to different gauges:  the Victoria North Eastern Railway was built to the Irish broad gauge of 5ft 3in, while the New South Wales Great Southern Railway had the British standard gauge of 4ft 8½in.

The fine station at Albury, designed by the NSW Government Railways’ Chief Engineer, John Whitton (1820-1899), is distinguished by its 1,480-foot covered island platform which allowed inter-state passengers to transfer between the gauges – an experience which astonished Mark Twain:  “…a singular thing, the oddest thing, the strangest thing, the unaccountable marvel that Australia can show, namely the break of gauge at Albury. Think of the paralysis of intellect that gave that idea birth.”

Though the Commonwealth of Australia was constituted in 1901, oversight of transport policy remained with the individual states, and it took until 1962 to complete a standard-gauge through connection between Melbourne and Sydney.

This produced the anomaly of a twin-track railway between Melbourne and Albury operating as two single lines, one of each gauge.

The remaining broad-gauge track on this route was converted to standard gauge between 2008 and 2011.

The state boundary at Albury-Wodonga is practical, yet appeared to me invisible:  the adjacent towns are, after all, both part of the Commonwealth of Australia.  A similar conjunction on the border between Canada and the US state of Vermont is more vexatious:

Posted by: mike on Mar 8, 2013

Category:Transports of delightExploring Australia

Flxible Clipper

I was walking along a street in Launceston, Tasmania, when I came across this strange beast of a bus.

When I got home my friend Doug, who likes buses, helped me to track its provenance.

It’s a Flxible Clipper, an American design dating from 1937 that was imported to Australia in 1947 by Sir Reginald Ansett (1909-1981).

Reg Ansett was an inspired Australian entrepreneur:  he began running buses and taxis between the towns of western Victoria, and then founded Ansett Airways in 1936.  His airline became the basis for investment in hotels and television as well as interests in Diners’ Club and Bic pens.

This particular vehicle is the American original, from which Reg Ansett built a further 105 (or 131, depending on the source,) under licence.  It now belongs to Ken Turnbull, who drove it in the 1950s, bought it in 1974 and restored it to original condition.

There are at least another sixteen Flxible Clippers on the road in Australia, but all the others are converted into motor homes:

They are revered for their durability and speed and their inimitable style.  In the USA they were known as “the DC3 of highway buses”:

A 1951 Australian model figures in this clip:

Flxible, by the way, is pronounced “Flexible”:  the vowel was dropped for trade-mark purposes in 1919.

Posted by: mike on Mar 6, 2013

Category:Sacred placesLife-enhancing experiencesExploring Australia

St John's Anglican Church, Launceston, Tasmania

St John's Anglican Church, Launceston, Tasmania

My only chance to see the scale of Tasmania was a bus-journey from Hobart north to Launceston (pronounced Laun-ces-ton with three syllables) – an enjoyable journey following by road an entirely serviceable railway track that hasn’t seen a passenger train since 1978.

My curiosity was aroused by odd places I’d have stopped at if I’d been in a car – Oatlands, its early-nineteenth-century sandstone buildings constructed by convicts, Callington Mill (1837) the only functioning Lincolnshire windmill in the southern hemisphere [], Perth, which has a dignified octagonal Baptist church and a rather sad locomotive “plinthed”, as the website describes it, in a park:

The Launceston Decorative & Fine Arts Society booked me into the splendidly named Clarion City Park Grand Hotel [] and made sure I didn’t starve:  I like to sample southern-hemisphere fish, so at lunch I ordered gummy and potato salad at Silt @ Seaport [now apparently closed –] and after the lecture I was taken for dinner at a carnivore’s nirvana, the Black Cow Bistro

I liked Launceston, where I had a free morning before flying back to Sydney.  The shopping streets are particularly rich in Art Deco buildings.  My particular favourite building, however, was St John’s Anglican Church, a weird pot-pourri of different building phases – a “Regency Gothic” tower dating back to 1830, the chancel and transepts added according to an unfinished plan by the Huddersfield-born architect Alexander North (1848-1945) between 1901 and 1911, with the nave enlarged, again by Alexander North, in 1937-8.  North’s splendid crossing is spanned by a concrete dome, but the massive central tower remains unbuilt.

At the time I visited St John’s I didn’t realise – there’s no reason why I should – that the organ was first installed by Charles Brindley, organ-builder of my native Sheffield, in 1861:   It seems that Brindley, together with his eventual business-partner, Albert Healey Foster, exported organs to the southern hemisphere on a regular basis.

Mike Higginbottom's lecture Gothic Down Under:  English architecture in the Antipodes explores the influence of British architects, and British-trained architects, on the design of churches and other buildings in the emerging communities of Australia and New Zealand.

For details, please click here.

Posted by: mike on Mar 4, 2013

Category:Victorian architectureSacred placesExploring Australia

St George's Parish Church, Hobart

St George's Parish Church, Hobart, Tasmania

My only visit to Tasmania so far was a whistle-stop affair.  The lecture-tour itinerary I was following meant that I flew into Hobart on Sunday night, lectured there on Monday night, travelled to Launceston on Tuesday to lecture, and left for Sydney on Wednesday morning.

Van Diemen's Land was a bad place to be in the early nineteenth century.  British criminals feared it;  colonial administrators hated it, and the settlers’ activities ultimately exterminated the indigenous population.

It is a beautiful island, and a place to which I must return.

I stayed at Battery Point, on the hill above Sullivans Cove, at the comfortable Battery Point Boutique Accommodation [], and my hosts, Jill and Bill Bale, made sure I saw as much of their city as possible in a short time.

Battery Point and the harbour-front below it, Salamanca Place, reminded me strongly of Whitby, which is plausible because Hobart dates from 1804 and its oldest streets are more Georgian than Victorian.

In the limited time available I needed to check out Hobart's cathedrals for my 'Antipodean Gothic' lecture and publication. 

I’m glad that Bill, my host, insisted on pointing me towards St George’s Parish Church, a superb Greek-revival building of 1836-8, designed by the Irish-born Civil Engineer & Colonial Architect John Lee Archer (1791-1852).  The particularly elegant tower (1840s, based on the Tower of the Winds, Athens) and the imposing Doric porch (1888) were added by the convict-architect James Blackburn (1803-1854), who had been transported for forgery and who at the end of his life designed the first water-supply system for Melbourne.

St Mary’s Cathedral, seat of the Catholic Archbishop of Hobart, is Gothic, imperfectly constructed 1860-6 and re-erected 1876-81.  It has a memorial stained-glass window by John Hardman & Co and a statue of the Virgin and Child, designed by Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin and carved by George Myers.  Three modern stained-glass windows are by the Hungarian-born designer Stephen Moor (1915-2003).  In contrast, the font – of unknown provenance – is thought to be Norman.

St David’s Cathedral, the centre of the Anglican diocese of Tasmania, is an early design of the late-Victorian English architect, George Frederick Bodley (1827-1907).  It replaced an earlier classical parish church of 1823.  St David’s Cathedral was begun in 1868 and the nave was consecrated in 1874.  It took until 1936 to complete:  the chancel, consecrated in 1894, proved unsafe and had to be reconstructed in 1908-9;  the tower, for which the foundation-stone had been laid in 1892, was eventually constructed 1931-6.

I keep finding similar stories in the origins of Australian cities – diligent, determined congregations building churches, designed either by people on the spot who’ve brought their skills across the seas, or by British architects sending out plans that they knew they’d never see built.

Mike Higginbottom's lecture Gothic Down Under:  English architecture in the Antipodes explores the influence of British architects, and British-trained architects, on the design of churches and other buildings in the emerging communities of Australia and New Zealand.

For details, please click here.

Posted by: mike on Jan 18, 2013

Category:Exploring AustraliaCemeteries, Sewerage & Sanitation

Waverley Cemetery, Sydney

Sydney is an attractive city and its finest amenity is its coastline.

Even the deceased can lie within sight of the sea, and for the bereaved, visiting loved ones can be an uplifting experience.

Waverley Cemetery is lies in the south-east of the city, in a suburb called Bronte (sic, without a diaeresis) not far from Bondi Beach on a magnificent cliff-top site.

It’s a classic example of a Victorian commercial cemetery, funded by the sale and maintenance of burial plots, established in 1877.

However, unlike the major British company-cemeteries – Kensal Green, Highgate and the rest – Waverley was established by the local council, backed by the government of New South Wales.

And unlike British municipal cemeteries, it’s financially supported by an independent sinking fund to insulate it from the vagaries of public-authority finances.

As such it continues to provide a service and pay its way:

Posted by: mike on Jan 16, 2013

Category:Victorian architectureTransports of delightExploring AustraliaCemeteries, Sewerage & Sanitation

Site of Cemetery Station No 1, Rookwood Cemetery, Sydney

Site of Cemetery Station No 1, Rookwood Cemetery, Sydney

As your train leaves Sydney Central Station, you may spot on the right-hand side an elaborate Gothic building.  When I last visited in 2011 it was shrouded in scaffolding, which is why I don’t have my own image of it.

This was the Mortuary Station, designed by the Colonial Architect, James Barnett, opened in 1869 and later named Regent Street [].  It was the terminus for funeral trains to Rookwood Cemetery (1868) at Lidcombe to the north of the city, Woronora General Cemetery (1894) at Sutherland to the south-west, and – if Wikipedia is to be believed – Sandgate Cemetery (1881) in Newcastle, a hundred miles up the coast.

Whether the name Rookwood was chosen in reference to the English Brookwood Cemetery is unclear.  Rookwood Cemetery is so vast, nearly 750 acres, that today it has its own bus service.

Originally, funeral trains terminated at the very fine Haslam’s Creek Cemetery Station, otherwise known by a variety of names including Cemetery Station No 1, also by James Barnett (1867):  [ and].

The line was further extended, to Mortuary Terminus (1897), later Cemetery Station No 3, and then to the eventual terminus at Cemetery Station No 4 (1908).  Between Nos 1 and 3, the Roman Catholic Platform, latterly Cemetery Station No 2, was opened in 1901.

The line through Rookwood Cemetery closed in 1948, though its alignment is clearly visible on Google Earth, branching south-east of Lidcombe Station.  The site of Cemetery Station No 1 is in the middle of Necropolis Circuit.

The building itself was badly vandalised and damaged by fire, and was eventually dismantled and transplanted in 1958 to Canberra, where it now serves as All Saints’ Parish Church, Ainslie

In the course of rebuilding the bell-tower was moved to the liturgical south of the building.  It is now fitted with a locomotive bell presented by the Australian Railway Historical Society.

The church has two English stained-glass windows, the War Memorial east window from St Clement’s Parish Church, Newhall, Sheffield, and another from St Margaret’s Church, Bagendon, Gloucestershire.

Posted by: mike on Jan 14, 2013

Category:Transports of delightExploring Australia

Railway Square YHA, Sydney Central Station

On one of my rail trips out of Sydney Central Station during my lecture-tour for the Australian Decorative & Fine Arts Societies, I gazed across the platforms and noticed a group of obviously ancient passenger carriages.  I couldn’t tell from my viewpoint whether they were parked at a couple of platforms or grounded.

They belong to the Railway Square YHA, one of many Sydney bases for backpackers and people visiting a city on a budget.

Its website invites prospective guests to “stay in one of the funky railway carriages on the former Platform Zero or one of the comfy rooms in the historic 1904 main building, now converted into contemporary accommodation.”

It’s apparent from the reviews that it’s a noisy night’s stay – if the other guests don’t disturb you with lively conversation, the trains on the adjacent platforms will.

That said, there are far, far worse places to rest your head in Sydney.

Posted by: mike on Jan 12, 2013

Category:Transports of delightExploring Australia

Central Station approach, Sydney

New South Wales suburban and outer-suburban trains are double-deckers, built to the generous Australian loading-gauge, based on the pre-war French prototype, the Voiture État à deux étages.

The doorways at the end of each carriage lead to a mezzanine level, which is used by passengers with pushchairs or wheeled luggage, and stairs lead up and down to the two central compartments.

It’s an odd sensation to sit so high above rail-level on the top deck, and even odder to sit below-decks with the platform edge skimming the windows.

Double-deck carriages twenty metres long carry nearly 50% more passengers than single-deck rolling stock of equivalent length, saving the huge expense of lengthening station platforms.

To allow for the low-slung centre section, designers had to move as much electrical and mechanical equipment as possible on to the roof above the entrances.

The first of double-deck trailer cars were introduced in 1964, followed by double-deck motor cars four years later.  Interurban double-deck trains, with an additional burden of air-conditioning units, followed in 1970.

Travelling to outer Sydney, with little idea of direction let alone distance, I was anxious to know what level of creature comforts my train would provide.

I quizzed the travel-information officer about on-board lavatories in my best Pommie accent.  He replied, “You’re in the wrong country mate.”

Ask a silly question.

Posted by: mike on Jan 10, 2013

Category:Transports of delightExploring Australia

Wynyard Station, Sydney

In just over four weeks of travelling to give lectures for Australian Decorative & Fine Arts Societies I got lost only once, and that was in the middle of Sydney.

Wynyard Station, on the City Circle, has two exits, and I took the wrong one, so that I had to wander the streets to find a hotel that’s almost next to the other entrance.  C’est la vie.  The travel co-ordinator revised the map for my successor.

I got used to Wynyard Station in my comings and goings, and realised that the building above the platforms is a rather fine piece of Art Deco, with lots of jazzy detail in pale green faience.  Next to the York Street entrance (the one I needed) is a doorway leading to the Department of Railways offices. 

The station was designed by John Bradfield (1867-1943), and opened in 1932, as part of the transport links that served the Sydney Harbour Bridge.  Originally it was a terminus, until the City Loop between Wynyard and St James via Circular Quay was completed in 1956.

The platforms at Wynyard are numbered 3 to 6.  The original platforms 1 and 2 were intended for the unbuilt Northern Beaches line [ – compare with the eventual network:].

As an interim measure the Northern Beaches platforms and approaches were used for the North Shore tram services that crossed the Harbour Bridge.

When the trams were abandoned in 1958 the trackbed over the bridge was adapted to make two further motor-vehicle lanes, and the platforms at Wynyard were used for car-parking.

A 2009 discussion paper proposed to build a Fast North Shore Line [, Attachment 5, page 1] which would reinstate heavy rail on the Harbour Bridge and into the unused platforms at Wynyard.

This alignment could also be used for a long-term plan for a high-speed rail-link between Newcastle, north of Sydney, and Canberra to the south.

What goes around comes around.

There is in fact a complex archaeology of unused or disused rail tunnels under the centre of Sydney. 

There is a faintly fanciful video-clip of the tunnels under St James Station, also on the City Loop, at [], an article from the Sydney Morning Herald that illustrates an uncompleted tunnel, abandoned in 1932, at North Sydney Station across the harbour 5km north of Sydney Central [], and a photo-album of tunnels at Central, Redfern, and North Sydney stations [].

Posted by: mike on Dec 4, 2012

Category:Victorian architectureExploring Australia

former Callan Park Hospital for the Insane, Sydney

One of the ladies who guided me around Sydney’s architectural heritage when I was off-duty from my commitments to Sydney Decorative & Fine Arts Society was Robin, who after showing me Vaucluse House, made an offer I couldn’t refuse:  would I like to see a fine Victorian lunatic asylum?

Callan Park Hospital for the Insane was designed by the Scots-born Colonial Architect for New South Wales, James Barnet (1827-1904), and the Inspector of the Insane, Dr Frederick Norton Manning (1839-1903), to take the overspill of patients from the Gladesville Hospital of the Insane at Bedlam Point, which had opened as the Tarban Creek Lunatic Asylum in 1838.

The Callan Park Hospital opened in 1885 in a grand complex of Neo-classical buildings known as the Kirkbride Block, built around an existing residence, Garry Owen House (c1840), which had been built for the Crown Solicitor and Police Magistrate, John Ryan Brenan.

Dr Manning was a leading figure in the development of enlightened care of the mentally ill.  He aimed to provide treatment, rather than operate what he described as a “'cemetery for diseased intellects”.  He encouraged visitors and battled to beat down the nineteenth-century prejudice against what was still called lunacy.

Callan Park was his first opportunity to design an institution from scratch.  Barnet’s design was based on an English model, the Chartham Down Hospital for the Insane, near Canterbury, Kent.  The complex consists of a series of pavilions and courtyards, with plenty of opportunity for fresh air and changes of environment.  The gardens were designed to have a calming influence by the Director of the Sydney Botanic Gardens, Charles Moore (1820-1905).

The hundreds of cast-iron columns which support the verandas channel rain-water into an underground reservoir, the level of which was indicated by the ball that rises and falls above the central clock tower.

Over the years, Callan Park became under-resourced and overcrowded, and eventually became notoriously outdated.

The mental-health facilities, latterly known as the Rozelle Hospital, left the site in 2008: the Kirkbride complex is leased to the Sydney College of the Arts, part of the University of Sydney, and the grounds are used as a public park.

There is a detailed account of the history of Callan Park at

Posted by: mike on Dec 2, 2012

Category:Exploring Australia

Vaucluse House, Sydney

Vaucluse House, Sydney

William Charles Wentworth (1790-1872) could perhaps be forgiven for having a chip on his shoulder as he made his way in New South Wales society in the early nineteenth century.

His father, D’Arcy Wentworth, was a distant relative of the Wentworths of Wentworth Woodhouse [see Quirks of Fate and Plenty of room for guests]. Irish-born, he trained as a surgeon in London but practised as a highwayman, and so was transported to New South Wales in 1789-90.

On the voyage to Australia D’Arcy Wentworth formed a liaison with Catherine Crowley, who had stolen clothing.  She presented him with a baby son, William, which he accepted even though the birth took place less than nine months after they met.  D'Arcy and Catherine never married.

Nowadays, convict ancestry is a mark of distinction in Australia, but even though D’Arcy Wentworth developed a landed estate in Parramatta, his son was disparaged for his antecedents and his illegitimacy.

William Wentworth studied law in England, then returned to New South Wales where he became a powerful political figure, bitterly opposed to and by the Sydney respectability.

His Sydney residence was Vaucluse House, a neo-Gothic hotchpotch that he purchased in 1827, two years before he got round to marrying his mistress, Sarah, the native-born daughter of convicts.  They had ten children, eight of them in wedlock.

He developed the house piecemeal, using its space and grandeur as a backcloth for popular political celebrations.

After leading the successful campaign for self-determination for New South Wales Wentworth, “the hero of Australia”, retired to England in 1856, where he became a Conservative MP.  On his return to Sydney in 1861 he and his wife found a greater measure of acceptance, and at his death he was accorded a state funeral.  His Australian descendants have continued to take a prominent part in Australian society and politics.

The original estate extended to 515 acres.  Because of the Wentworth connection it was acquired as a public park as early as 1910, and unlike the other prominent harbour-side villas of its period, such as Lindesay House and Elizabeth Bay House, Vaucluse House retains its garden setting and twenty-five acres of planting and natural bush.

For many years the house served as a museum, but since 1981 the New South Wales Historic Houses Trust has followed a plan to return it to its condition during the occupancy of William Charles Wentworth up to 1853.

There is a guide-book to the house, with detailed background on the Wentworth family, at

Posted by: mike on Nov 30, 2012

Category:Exploring Australia

Elizabeth Bay House, Sydney

Elizabeth Bay House, Sydney:  Saloon

The inlet to the west of Darling Point, where Campbell Drummon Riddell built Lindesay House, is Elizabeth Bay.

Here another Scot, Alexander Macleay (1767-1848), obtained a grant of 54 acres of land from Governor Darling in order to lay out an extensive and magnificent garden in 1826.

He eventually began Elizabeth Bay House in 1835, employing the architect John Verge (1782-1861) to design a grand Palladian villa, very unlike the Gothic gloom of Lindesay House.

Macleay was financially incompetent, preoccupied with his interest in entomology.  Indeed, his appointment as Colonial Secretary of New South Wales was dictated by the need to bring his finances under control.

The strategy failed:  he lost his government post in 1837 (though he was later appointed Speaker of the New South Wales Legislative Council in 1843), and the house was only rendered habitable when his more astute son, William Sharp Macleay (1792-1865), retired to Sydney in 1839.

Even so, a severe economic downturn in the colony obliged the Macleays to begin subdividing the estate in 1841, and by 1844 Alexander Macleay’s bills were being directed to his son’s account.  Furniture from Elizabeth Bay House was sold to furnish Government House in central Sydney when it was completed in 1845.

In fact, the elegant exterior of Elizabeth Bay House is unfinished.  John Verge intended a single-storey colonnade to extend around three sides of the building.  The existing portico was added in 1893 because Lady Macleay, the mother of a later owner, James William Macarthur Onslow, feared for the safety of her guests in the morning room, where French windows opened on to a sheer drop where the planned colonnade would have stood.

Nevertheless, Elizabeth Bay House is by all accounts one of the most impressive of Australian nineteenth-century domestic interiors.  Its crowning glory is the oval saloon with its cantilevered staircase, possibly based on Henry Holland’s Carlton House Terrace in London (1811) and reminiscent of James Paine’s Stockeld Park, Yorkshire, of 1757-63.

Alexander Macleay’s estate was repeatedly subdivided for housing development, until only three acres remained in 1882.  Eventually, the house itself was bought by a development company in 1926, and the year after the remaining three acres was itself divided into sixteen lots, only five of which found buyers.

The house was divided into flats in the early 1940s, and remained in multiple use until it became a museum in 1977.  It is now administered by the Historic Houses Trust of New South Wales, restored as far as possible to its condition when the Macleays first moved in.

Here too, as at Lindesay House, you can stand at the front door and gaze across Sydney Harbour, ignoring the modern development all around and imagining the stupendous beauty of the place when Sydney itself was barely fifty years old.

The guidebook to Elizabeth Bay House is at

Posted by: mike on Nov 28, 2012

Category:Exploring Australia

Lindesay House, Sydney

The most distinctive feature of Sydney’s vast harbour is its diversity – a seemingly endless succession of bays and promontories, best viewed from the fleet of ferries that departs in all directions from Circular Quay.

In nineteenth century, before the city extended outwards, the outlying areas of the bay were remote retreats where leading figures of the time built exclusive residences, some of which survive – and some of which remain exclusive.

On Darling Point, in 1834, the Scots-born Campbell Drummond Riddell (1796-1858), Colonial Treasurer of New South Wales, built Lindesay House, one of the first examples in the colony of what Australians now call “domestic Gothic” style, naming it after the Acting Governor, Lieutenant Patrick Lindesay.

After the Riddells left Australia in 1838, a subsequent owner divided the estate into eighteen plots for development, and another Scot, Sir Thomas Mitchell (1792-1855), Surveyor General of New South Wales, bought the house and five of the plots in 1841.  On one of these plots he built another Gothic house, Carthona, which became his residence, and he sold Lindesay on to Sir Charles Nicholson (1808-1903), the first Speaker of the New South Wales Legislative Council and one of the founders of the University of Sydney.

The house passed through a succession of subsequent ownerships until in 1963 the last private owner, Walter Pye, donated it to the National Trust of Australia.

The Trust opens it to the public one afternoon a month.  At other times it is a “much sought-after venue by brides”, though rationed to only twelve major functions a year.

The very perfunctory Lonely Planet review states, “It's rarely open but aside from Nicole Kidman inviting you in for tea, this is probably your best chance to look inside an actual Darling Point mansion.”

I was, therefore, very lucky to have a Sydney DFAS contact, Margaret, who was prepared to give me a personal tour of the house, so I could see how, despite the encroachments of later development, you can still stand on the lawn and gaze across one of the most beautiful harbours in the world.

Details of visiting arrangements for Lindesay House are at

Posted by: mike on Nov 10, 2012

Category:Life-enhancing experiencesExploring Australia

Cadman's Cottage, Sydney

Cadman's Cottage, Sydney

The historic heart of Sydney is the area between Circular Quay and the Harbour Bridge known as The Rocks, because of the soft sandstone ridge on which it stands.

Standing on the harbour front, it was always a rough, disreputable district, and after an outbreak of bubonic plague in 1900 the New South Wales Government took steps to flatten the entire area.  The interruptions of two world wars and the disruption of building the approaches to the Harbour Bridge in the 1920s meant that a substantial number of historic structures survived into the 1960s.

An energetic campaign by a residents’ group in the early 1970s secured the conservation of the Rocks area, and now it is a tourist magnet, especially interesting for the overlays of successive historic periods on the oldest colonised site in the whole of Australia.

Among the places to see is Cadman’s Cottage, named after John Cadman, one of the government coxswains, an English publican transported for stealing a horse.  It dates from 1816 and is the third oldest building in Sydney.

The history of The Rocks is well interpreted in The Rocks Discovery Museum [], set in an 1850s warehouse restored by the National Trust.

What must have been the roughest collection of pubs in Sydney is now a variegated succession of tourist honeypots – the Fortune of War (1828) [], the Lord Nelson (1841) [], the Orient (1844)[] and the Russell Hotel & Wine Bar (1887) [] – among many others.

A good way to start a stay in Sydney is to have dinner in the open air at Circular Quay, watching the ferries come and go, and then to take your pick of the watering-holes along George Street towards the Harbour Bridge.

The big city seems far away, though actually it’s just over the hill.

Posted by: mike on Nov 8, 2012

Category:Life-enhancing experiencesExploring Australia

Museum of Sydney

If you arrive in Sydney and want to understand its history, the best place to start is the Museum of Sydney, a modern complex at the base of a high-rise block immediately south of Circular Quay, designed by Richard Johnson of Denton Corker Marshall and opened in 1995.

It stands on the site of the original Government House, built in 1788 for Governor Arthur Phillip and occupied until 1846.  Some of the foundations and the outline of the building are visible, and within there’s a detailed model and a recreation of part of the façade.

On the forecourt of the Museum is a haunting sculpture by Janet Laurence and Fiona Foley entitled ‘Edge of Trees’, marking the spot where the Gadigal natives must have observed the arrival of the First Fleet of colonists from England.

The three floors of exhibition space tell the story of the early settlers and their relationship with the indigenous population.  There are models of the eleven ships of the First Fleet, and displays about the nine Governors who resided on the site, other important figures in the early history of the city, and a video montage Eora [“people”], by Aboriginal filmmaker Michael Riley, highlighting the life of Sydney people of indigenous descent back to the time of their dreaming.

Details of visiting times, and an online guidebook, are at

Posted by: mike on Sep 24, 2012

Category:Victorian architectureSacred placesExploring Australia

St Andrew's Cathedral, Sydney

St Mary's Cathedral, Sydney

St Andrew's Cathedral (top) and St Mary's Cathedral (above), Sydney

Catholic cathedrals in most Australian cities were deliberately designed to outshine their Anglican neighbours.

In Sydney, Australia’s earliest settlement founded in 1788, the Anglicans were quicker off the mark, and after a couple of false starts completed St Andrew’s Cathedral, which was consecrated in 1868.

The architect, Edmund Thomas Blacket (1817-1883) had a difficult time adapting the existing foundations and part-construction of an earlier project, and produced a modest-sized but imposing composition, with more than a passing resemblance to York Minster.

Sadly, St Andrew’s Cathedral has been compromised more than once.  Because of the noise of Sydney’s trams passing the east end of the cathedral, the entire church was reversed, placing the entrance on the east so that communion was celebrated as far as possible from the tramlines at the west end where the choir had to fight, not the trams, but the acoustics.

When in 1999-2000 the original layout was restored, liturgical considerations required that the old altar had to go.  It was, in addition, riddled with termites.

As a result, the fine reredos designed by John Loughborough Pearson and carved by Thomas Earp was left framing a vacancy.

The seat of the Catholic Archbishop of Sydney is the splendid St Mary’s Cathedral – also the successor to a couple of earlier structures which were successively destroyed by fire.

The foundation stone of St Mary’s was laid in 1868, the year St Andrew’s was consecrated.

The Catholics had the unforeseen advantage, however, of a spacious site on the edge of the built-up city-centre, and they chose as their architect William Wilkinson Wardell (1823-1899), who already had St Patrick’s Cathedral, Melbourne, well under way.

Wardell lived long enough to see St Patrick’s substantially completed, but St Mary’s took much longer.  Work on the nave began in 1913 and was completed in 1928.

Even then, Wardell’s elegant design was truncated, because there were insufficient funds to complete the twin western towers with spires.

Indeed, it seemed unlikely that such expensive luxuries would ever be justified, until an A$5,000,000 grant from the New South Wales Government prompted the ingenious solution of flying in steel frames by helicopter and cladding them in Wondabyne sandstone to match Wardell’s original design and intentions.

St Mary’s Cathedral was topped out, in the literal sense, in August 2000, completing a project that began in 1868.

Mike Higginbottom's lecture Gothic Down Under:  English architecture in the Antipodes explores the influence of British architects, and British-trained architects, on the design of churches and other buildings in the emerging communities of Australia and New Zealand.

For details, please click here.

Posted by: mike on Sep 8, 2012

Category:Transports of delightExploring Australia

Sydney Tramway Museum:  prison tram 948

I had great difficulty persuading anyone to take my admission money when I checked out the Sydney Tramway Museum.  Eventually, a gentleman dressed as a tram conductor, on the second tram I rode, correctly answered my question “Do you think I look like a concession?” and I decided the operation was simply relaxed.

Similarly, when I made my second visit to the deserted refreshment cabin it was another tram driver who actually provided me with a plastic cup, a teabag and a large carton of milk – and a ceramic mug to dispose of the wet teabag.  The whole experience was very relaxed.

Finding the Museum is a matter of deduction.  There’s virtually no signage:  resting trams can be seen from the platform of Loftus railway station, but it requires navigation to find a way into the site.

Two tram-rides are on offer in opposite directions, out-and-back trips where the entertainment at the outer end is watching the crew reverse the trolley poles.

The display hall has a fascinating collection, not always well displayed.  There are welcome invitations to climb aboard some trams, including the Sydney prison tram, 948, which is difficult to photograph because of the photo display boards propped against its sides.  Displays throughout are copious and labelled in detail.

It’s apparent, though, that a significant proportion of the fleet of trams is off limits to visitors.  It’s a pity there isn’t an escorted tour of the workshops and other storage areas where interesting-looking relics in a variety of liveries lurk.

A huge amount of volunteer effort has gone into this well-resourced museum, and further development is afoot behind a fine Victorian façade beside the track.  In time to come, when there are attractions at the termini and high-quality shop and refreshment facilities, the Museum will provide a magnificent day out.

This is the place to learn about Sydney’s complex, interesting and much lamented tram system.  If you’re passionate about steel wheels on steel rails it’s a must.  At present, though, for a simple outing it’s a bit of an effort.

To see the state of Sydney trams that didn't find a home in the museum, see and

Posted by: mike on Sep 6, 2012

Category:Transports of delightExploring Australia

Melbourne Tram 896

The Melbourne attachment to tradition embraces its trams, though the system itself survived partly because it was electrified much later than most.

Melbourne people regard the traditional W-class single-decker as part of the city’s furniture, like Londoners’ attachment to red double-deck buses.

The design dates as far back as 1923, and has been modified repeatedly over the years.  The latest were built in 1956, in time for the Melbourne Olympics.

Street-running trams are ideal for Melbourne’s transport needs, and new, improved vehicles have been introduced up to the present day.

But every time the authorities try to pension off the W-class there is uproar.

When the drivers (“motormen” in Melbourne) complained about the brakes, a media campaign pushed for the brakes to be improved, rather than retire the trams.

Around two hundred cars are in storage, and a much smaller number work the City Circle and a couple of routes where their restricted speed doesn’t conflict with more modern trams, and three are converted for the Colonial Tramcar Restaurant operation.

They are heritage listed, like the San Francisco cable-cars.  Some have been retired to transport museums, and there are several in the USA, but there is now an absolute embargo on exporting them.

Elton John has one in his back garden near Windsor, and Princess Mary and Crown Prince Frederik of Denmark were given one as a wedding present.  (Princess Mary was born and grew up in Tasmania, and worked for a time in Melbourne.)

There’s nothing quite like the Melbourne tram-system, and the operation on the same tracks of the most modern LRTs alongside a ninety-year-old design that won’t retire results from an endearing combination of practicality and public affection.

See and

Posted by: mike on Sep 4, 2012

Category:Transports of delightExploring Australia

Flinders Street Station, Melbourne

Melbourne people are vehement about their traditions.  They don’t take kindly to the prospect of losing time-honoured components of the city’s lifestyle.

Flinders Street Station (opened in 1854, current buildings completed 1910) is a traditional city-centre meeting place.  You meet “under the clocks”, in much the same way that New Yorkers meet at the clock in Grand Central Station.

The clocks are an array of clock-faces above the station’s main entrance, giving the times of imminent departures on the various lines served.

From the 1860s until 1983 a man with a pole moved the clock fingers as each train left to show the following departure time.

One day the clocks at the Flinders Street entrance were taken down ready for the installation of digital displays.

The following day the decision was announced to restore them – such was the public outcry about their removal.

Ever since the clocks that everyone meets under have been computer-controlled;  the man with the pole is long since retired and everybody’s happy.

Posted by: mike on Aug 19, 2012

Category:Victorian architectureSacred placesExploring Australia

St Patrick's Roman Catholic Cathedral, Melbourne

As Australian cities grew up in the second half of the nineteenth century, the Anglicans in each place set about building their cathedral but were often trumped by the Catholics, who were mostly poor Irish settlers escaping the penury and famine of their native land.

Catholic cathedrals in Australia usually stand on top of a hill, and are richly ornate.  Their builders – congregations, priests and architects – went out of their way to state that only the best was good enough for God.

In Melbourne, the Anglican Cathedral, St Paul’s, [see Exporting Gothic Architecture] is particularly fine, yet the Catholic Cathedral, St Patrick’s, is magnificent.  Its spire, 344 feet high, is the highest in Australia.

The architect of St Patrick’s Cathedral was William Wilkinson Wardell (1823-1899), a London-born convert to Catholicism, trained by Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin.

The cathedral was begun in 1858 and consecrated in 1897:  William Wardell was one of the few architects of Gothic cathedrals to see his design substantially completed in his lifetime, though the spires were added in 1939 by Archbishop Daniel Mannix, the politically powerful Irish-Australian who held the see from 1917 until his death at the age of 99 in 1963.

Mannix’s statue by Nigel Boonham (1997) stands outside Wardell’s cathedral, gazing across to Parliament House, symbolising the lengthy struggle to overcome the early disdain towards Irish and Catholic settlers in Australia.

Mike Higginbottom's lecture Gothic Down Under:  English architecture in the Antipodes explores the influence of British architects, and British-trained architects, on the design of churches and other buildings in the emerging communities of Australia and New Zealand.

For details, please click here.

Posted by: mike on Aug 17, 2012

Category:Victorian architectureLife-enhancing experiencesExploring Australia

Melbourne Shot Tower

Apart from eating and drinking my way round Melbourne with Gabe and Dave [Eat your way round St Kilda, Eat your way round central Melbourne and Exploring Melbourne:  Madame Brussels] I’d come to the city to work.  This was the starting point for my lecture tour with the Australian Decorative & Fine Arts Societies [ADFAS:], and as soon as I met my Melbourne host Christine Penfold I knew I was in good hands.

Christine brought to my hotel not only a fat folder of air-, train- and bus-tickets, but also a beautiful bowl of fruit to sustain me.  This told me that I was being looked after, as I had been with the New Zealand Decorative & Fine Art Societies, by warm-hearted, civilised people with imagination and a flair for enjoying life.

ADFAS put me up at the Mercure, Spring Gardens [] which meant that when I wasn’t needed for their programme I could find everything I wanted on the doorstep – food and wi-fi at the Spaghetti Tree [] and a memorable independent bookshop:

The one tourist site I fitted in within my work-schedule was the 165-feet-high Coops Shot Tower (1889) [] spectacularly enclosed in the dome of the Melbourne Central shopping-centre, built in 1991.

Built to manufacture lead shot by dropping molten lead through a copper sieve, it’s not even the tallest shot-tower in Melbourne:  the sister Clifton Hill Shot Tower of 1885, [;295] built by the same Coops family, stands 263 feet high.

I’d never paid any attention to shot towers in the UK, though I knew there was one in Derby that was demolished in 1931-2 to make way for the bus station.

There are remaining examples in Chester (1799) [], Twickenham (late 18th-/early 19th-century) [] and Bristol (1968) []. 

Posted by: mike on Aug 15, 2012

Category:Victorian architectureExploring AustraliaCemeteries, Sewerage & Sanitation

Springthorpe Monument, Booroondara Cemetery, Melbourne

Quite the most astonishing Victorian edifice that Gabe showed me on our trip round suburban Melbourne was the Springthorpe Monument in Booroondara Cemetery, in Kew not far from Villa Alba.

Dr John Springthorpe (1855-1933) erected this tomb in memory of his wife Annie, who died giving birth to their fourth child in 1897 at the age of thirty.  The power of his grief led him to commemorate her in a rich, intense, uplifting memorial.  It cost around A£10,000 – ten times what he spent on his three-storey house and surgery in Collins Street in the city-centre.

Within a massive Greek temple twenty feet square, designed by the architect Harold Desbrowe-Annear (1865-1933), lies an exquisite Carrara marble group by the sculptor Bertram Mackennal (1863-1931) showing the deceased with two angels, one placing a now-lost wreath on her head, the other playing a lyre.

Both these artists were Melbourne natives, though Bertram Mackennal gained prestige for his work in England as well as Australia:  his is the relief of King George V that appeared on British and Empire coinage, medals and postage stamps.  He was also responsible for the tomb of George and Mary Curzon at Kedleston in Derbyshire.

The crowning architectural glory – literally – of this monument is the dome of deep red Tiffany glass, which bathes the statuary in a warm light that is the opposite of funereal.

The tomb is inscribed with a plethora of quotations from the Bible, the classics and from nineteenth-century poetry.  The one omission is Annie Springthorpe’s name.  Instead there is a simple, poignant inscription:

My own true love
Pattern daughter perfect mother and ideal wife
Born on the 26th day of January 1867
Married on the 26th day of January 1887
Buried on the 26th day of January 1897

Professor Pat Jalland, an Australian academic best known in the UK for her fascinating book Death in the Victorian Family (OUP 1996), wrote about the Springthorpe monument in The Age in 2002:, and there is further detail in George Nipper’s contribution to

Further illustrations can be found at

There is a biography of Dr John Springthorpe at

For details of Mike Higginbottom's lecture Victorian Cemeteries, please click here.

Posted by: mike on Aug 13, 2012

Category:Victorian architectureExploring Australia

Villa Alba

My Melbourne friend Gabe and I share an enjoyment of Victorian architecture and photography.  For Gabe, of course, as a Melbourne resident, the adjective “Victorian” has both a historical and a geographical sense.  So Gabe and I spent an afternoon looking at Victorian Victorian architecture.

Without him I wouldn’t have found Villa Alba in the suburb of Kew, the home of William Greenlaw, a Scottish farmer’s son who rose to be general manager of the Colonial Bank of Australasia and in 1883-4 kitted out his wife Anna Maria in opulent splendour overlooking the Yarra River.

He may have designed the structure himself, but he employed the brothers Charles Stewart Paterson (1843-1917) and James Paterson (1853-1929), also Scots, to provide elaborate painted and stencilled colour schemes throughout the house.  Each room had its own theme, with much use of trompe l’oeil including outdoor scenes of Edinburgh and Sydney, Mr & Mrs Greenlaw’s respective birthplaces, scenes from Sir Walter Scott’s novels and, in the boudoir, a tented ceiling.

The furniture by W H Rocke & Co has largely disappeared, and one satinwood cabinet is in the National Gallery of Victoria.  A satinwood overmantel, illustrating scenes from Romeo & Juliet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream has been returned to the house.

When William Greenlaw met the fate of over-confident bankers and was made insolvent in the early 1890s, his home was safely in his wife’s name.  Two years after his death in 1893, she sold up and let the place, and in due course it became a nurse’s home and then a college.  At some point in the 1950s, much of the Pattersons’ decoration was overpainted to “brighten the place up”.

The Villa Alba Museum Inc bought the house and garden in 2004, and is now slowly and surely recovering the lost decorative schemes.  It’s fascinating to see the place in transition, and in time to come it’ll look as glorious as it did in 1884.

For details of the restoration see  A more detailed historical description, which first appeared in Antiques & Collectables for Pleasure & Profit (Spring 2011), is at  The house is illustrated in glorious detail in Russell Winnell’s photostream:

Posted by: mike on Jul 22, 2012

Category:Victorian architectureLife-enhancing experiencesExploring Australia

Melbourne General Cemetery:  Sir Samuel & Lady Gillett monument

Dave is one of the half-dozen brightest people I ever taught.  When I told him that he asked for it in writing.  QED.

I hadn’t seen him for ten years when we met up in Melbourne, where he’s worked for the past few years and is happily settled.

We acted out the Australian dream drinking beer in the sunshine at the Beachcomber at the St Kilda Sea Baths:, and then we hopped on a tram to sample the fleshpots of central Melbourne.

I recall, with diminishing coherence, the Palmz roof bar at the Carlton on Bourke Street [], Penny Blue (in the former Money Order Building next to the GPO) [], before eating at the Golden Monkey [] where Dave’s marital-arts experience came in useful tussling with the Japanese menu.

On a second evening out we drank at the Gin Palace [] where the gents has a set of urinals for use and another for lighting, and ate at Sarti [].

At some point I regaled Dave (who is at heart a Sheffield lad) with the story of Sir Samuel Gillott (1838-1913), a Sheffield lad who emigrated to Melbourne at the age of eighteen, trained as a lawyer and operated as a politician, became Melbourne’s first Lord Mayor and was eventually exposed for his financial dealings with a lady called Caroline Hodgson, who traded as Madame Brussels and ran brothels like banks, with branch operations scattered around the city-centre.

Without a word Dave led me into a strange rooftop bar with artificial grass instead of a carpet and waitresses in maids’ outfits with white ankle socks, where only after I’d ordered St George Ethiopian beer and turned to the menu did I discover the name of the place:

Posted by: mike on Jul 20, 2012

Category:Life-enhancing experiencesExploring Australia

Central Melbourne from Kew

Central Melbourne from Kew

During my weekend’s rest and recuperation in St Kilda, one of my hosts was Gabriel, the guy I’d met on The Ghan on my previous visit to Australia [Exploring Australia 5:  The Ghan].

I took to Gabe immediately when we met because we introduced ourselves as Gabriel and Mike, and he immediately said, “Ah! two archangels!”.  This guy’s sharp, I thought, and then cottoned on that he’s Romanian, and unlike me capable of wit in more than one language.

It fell to Gabe to help me find clean clothes to buy in Melbourne, in the course of which he felt compelled to buy a couple of T-shirts out of a sense of solidarity.  Our salesman was a Botswanan guy called Ojee, with a Singaporean degree studying media in Melbourne as a postgraduate.

Gabe also showed me where to eat:  the French Brasserie [] is architecturally exciting, gastronomically satisfying, and tucked out of sight of Flinders and Exhibitions Streets;  Mecca Bah [], out in the wide-open spaces of Melbourne’s Docklands, is elegant, comfortable Moroccan cuisine with an Australian accent.

Once I was properly clothed, fed and watered, and after we’d drunk white beer on his balcony with a magnificent view across the centre of Melbourne, Gabe gave up his precious time off while his wife Cordelia was at work to show me some fascinating Victorian buildings that I would never have found unassisted.

I’ll describe them in a short while, but first comes an article that could be entitled ‘Drink your way round Melbourne’, but isn’t.

Posted by: mike on Jul 18, 2012

Category:Life-enhancing experiencesExploring Australia

Le Bon Continental Cake Shop

When I first visited Melbourne I decided that on my second visit I would stay in St Kilda, the beach resort twenty minutes away by tram from the Central Business District.

True to his word as ever, Malcolm the genius Co-op travel-agent found me a minimalist suite at the Medina Executive Hotel, St Kilda [], one of a chain of apartment hotels – the sort which provides a kitchen capable of roast Sunday dinner, and a patio big enough to host a dozen people.

All of which was ironic because I arrived there with only my laptop and the clothes I stood up in after Air New Zealand left my luggage in Nelson.

The beauty of St Kilda, even away from the beach, is that you can eat, drink and do most things al fresco.  On my first night I had chicken risotto on the street outside the hotel, and every morning I had breakfast – eggs Benedict and or a big fry-up, with flat white coffee – at 2 Doors Down [], and the only time I ate lunch in the apartment I had a salami sandwich from the baker Daniel Chirico [ (website half-baked, so see the reviews and].

There is, of course, much more to eat in St Kilda:  my earlier explorations are described at Exploring Australia 10: St Kilda.

But the real deal in St Kilda is one or both of the cake shops on Acland Street, Le Bon Continental Cake Shop [] and Monarch Cakes “exquisite since 1934”

The only way to decide between them is to try both.

Posted by: mike on Apr 7, 2012

Category:Victorian architectureExploring Australia

Albert Park, Melbourne, Australia

Albert Park, Melbourne, Australia

Victorian Society study-days are an excellent way of learning about architecture and art from acknowledged experts, and I particularly enjoyed Function and Fantasy:  decorative iron and Victorian architecture at the Art Workers’ Guild on March 24th 2012.

The leader, Paul Dobraszczyk, author of the fascinating book Into the Belly of the Beast (Spire 2009), fielded a high-performance team of specialists on iron-founding, railways, the seaside, prefabricated iron buildings for export and conservation.

From the outset, Paul made it clear that in the Victorian age cast-iron was particularly exciting because it was the first completely new building-material for several hundred years.  There were structural problems involved in using cast- and wrought-iron, many of which were eventually resolved as cheap steel became available towards the end of the nineteenth century.

When we recognise the innovatory qualities of a material we now take for granted it’s easier to understand the sheer exuberance of the Victorians’ use of decorative ironwork in every kind of structure from shop-fronts to fountains, bandstands to urinals.

I was interested to hear David Mitchell, who spoke about Scottish iron-foundries, firmly knock on the head the legend that the decorative ironwork which Australians call “lace” was exported from the UK as ships’ ballast.  No-one in their right mind would use such a material simply as dead weight.

The more likely truth is that the Australians used pig-iron ballast to cast the ironwork which embellished so many of their nineteenth-century houses, pubs and public buildings.

For details of future Victorian Society events, see

Posted by: mike on Jan 19, 2011

Category:Exploring Australia

Melbourne General Cemetery:  Burke & Wills Monument

Monument to Robert O'Hara Burke & William John Wills (d 1861), explorers of the Australian Outback, Melbourne General Cemetery

As I flew out of Australia, wishing there were such things as child-free planes, I started to read Manning Clark's A Short History of Australia (1963;  Penguin 2006), which for its periodic sentences, its allusions to the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer and its finely poised irony deserves the epithet "magisterial".

By reading the historical context I'm slowly beginning to understand a little of what I've seen.  I begin to see how each of the states came to adopt its own attitude to the others, how development was bedevilled by inter-state disagreements, from differing railway gauges up to the vehement present-day disputes about water distribution, how the different "interests" of the emerging nation – colonialists, convicts, settlers, squatters, Protestants and Catholics – set up a network of snobberies that governed politics for generations, how the utter inability to reach out to the Aborigines and the effects of the explicit early twentieth-century policy of "White Australia" are still not fully resolved.

I can't presume to make judgements about any of these matters, but as I become aware of them I see how fascinating this great nation has been and is.

Almost without exception the Australians I met were charming, open, keen to share the delights of their country.  I talked to a man in a coffee shop who came from Dundee, was demobbed from the British Army in Malaya, came to Australia for a couple of years and stayed:  he'd travelled from Brisbane to a sports event in Melbourne on his pensioner's entitlement of four free rail-tickets a year, and was looking forward to a cruise from Fremantle to Plymouth, England, which he said would take the Biblical forty days and forty nights.

Post-1960s multiculturalism now means that people of any ethnicity may be in fact Australian.  An African taxi-driver compared at length the land-use in Western Australia with Kenya and Uganda and the resultant effect on lifestyles.  An Indian lady in a lift described the weather as "muggy", and when I remarked that was an English expression said her grandparents were indeed English.  Oriental hotel receptionists greet you with "G'day".

Over my three weeks' travel I've come to associate the Australian accent with honesty, cheerfulness and an interest in other people.  In my experience, it goes with unabashed eye-contact, straightforwardness and a desire to please.  To me it's inimitable:  at least, I can't work out how to change a simple syllable like "No" into "Niye".

I can't wait to come back.

Posted by: mike on Jan 17, 2011

Category:Exploring Australia

Sydney Opera House

The one building in Sydney that can't be missed is, of course, the Opera House, the youngest of all World Heritage Sites and a world-class icon.  The whole building is a magnificent piece of sculpture, and it houses two astonishing auditoria.  It provides Sydney with a cultural feast all the year round:  on the day I visited I would cheerfully have booked for three of the five productions on offer.  Sydney people tell me that it has a curious quality of drawing people in to performances, and then releasing them at the interval into the stunning setting of the harbour in a way that no other theatre or concert hall in the world can possibly do.

Its story is remarkable.  Planned by the conductor Eugene Goossens, on a location that had previously been of all things a tram-depot, the architectural competition was controversially won by the Danish architect, Jørn Utzon, whose sketchy but inspired design was pulled out of the reject pile by a Finnish judge who recognised its potential.  The penalty of choosing an inspired design based on imprecise drawings was that work started on the foundations before anyone had any idea how to build the superstructure.  Even the great engineer, Ove Arup, eventually despaired, until Jørn Utzon spotted a simple way to conceive and construct the unique geometry of the shapes which people generally refer to as "sails", though to me they look more like shells.  By the time the exterior was completed far behind schedule, with no final specification for the interior and a monumental budget over-run, the New South Wales government lost patience with Jørn Utzon, who resigned.

Once the Opera House was opened in 1973 it was quickly recognised as one of the great, arguably the greatest of modernist buildings of the twentieth century.  At the end of his life, showered with honours, Jørn Utzon was re-employed to update his building, which is today overseen by his son, Jan Utzon.  Jørn Utzon never set foot in Sydney after his resignation, and never saw the completed building except in images.

For all these reasons, and the sheer pleasure of the place, anyone who loves buildings, theatre, music and art really must see the Opera House if they're in Sydney.

That said, I was disappointed by the building tour I went on.  My heart sinks when a guide hands out headsets:  I know that I'm going to be subjected to ambient noise, the sound of doors being unlocked, mutterings and individual, irrelevant conversations.  This particular guide had a habit also of switching off her microphone (to give her voice a rest, she said) and then walking off talking.  She also took us into an undistinguished auditorium, carved out of the basement, to spend a long time asking each of us where we were from:  I could see no purpose to this gratuitous exercise, except that it saved her telling us about the Opera House.  When she asked for questions, someone asked when it was built:  she replied that she'd tell us later, when we'd seen the video.  Later I overheard, through my headset, someone ask her if there was a basic factsheet:  no, she said, but there's a book you can buy in the bookshop for A$20 [about £12.50].

The videos were peculiar.  The footage was excellent and the commentary informative.  I simply couldn't understand why, in a world-class venue with six auditoria and lavish conference facilities, we had to view the first film on a plasma screen while sitting on a flight of stairs, the second projected on to the bare sculptural concrete that the footage described (an interesting art concept but not flattering to the images), and the last two in a bar-area where most of us had to stand.  It felt arbitrary and unwelcoming.

We had the privilege, which alone was worth the price of the tour, of stepping inside both major auditoria, in one of which a lighting check for a touring production was taking place.  Both spaces are unforgettable.  The great shell-shapes (for so I can't help seeing them) provide acoustically efficient, visually spectacular, remarkably intimate spaces in which respectively 2,678 and 1,507 people can watch and listen to the greatest drama and music the world can offer.

Having travelled across the globe to see this place, I felt offended that the tour I was offered did such poor justice to the building and its story.  I appreciate the practical difficulties of herding groups of 30-40 people round a working building (and while I ate lunch on the terrace afterwards I watched at least four other groups set off in succession on the same hike within less than an hour).  I don't see why it's beyond the wit of the Opera House management to offer a clear exposition of the building, its layout, its chronology and its excitement to an audience which includes everyone from casual tourists to knowledgeable students.  After all, Jørn Utzon and Ove Arup eventually found a way to build the place.  Managing guided tours of it should surely be on this side of what Jørn Utzon called "the edge of possibility".

Posted by: mike on Jan 15, 2011

Category:Exploring Australia

Sydney Harbour Bridge

The following day I started my exploration at the magnificent Sydney Central station.  Sydney has varied transport opportunities, most of which I didn't use:  the rail-system appears to be comparable with services out of London Waterloo or Victoria, running double-deck carriages that were developed to avoid lengthening station platforms;  there is a single LRT tram route which trundles through the station forecourt and disappears off the top-left-hand corner of the street map;  there is even a monorail, similar to the one I remember in Butlin's Camp, Skegness, in the 1960s.  There is also the waterborne alternative of the Sydney Ferries, crossing the harbour to outlying districts.

I used the open-top sightseeing tour operated by the same company that runs the tours in London, Edinburgh, Bath and Stratford-upon-Avon (and Malaga, Marrakech and Tallinin for that matter)  As might be expected, their tour is comprehensive and the commentary informative.  The open top deck is, of course, a major advantage for photography.  The disadvantage is that the bus exhaust is at upper-deck level, and having wondered about the black discolouring of the seat cushions when I sat right at the back I found after a while that my eyes stung so much I had to sit downstairs.

There is a competing tour company which runs single-deck coaches on a longer route including crossing and recrossing the Harbour Bridge:  in this case, the opportunities for photography are relatively limited by the roof.

The major snag about either tour is that they run only one way:  I did the entire open-top circuit to get my bearings, and then wasted considerable time riding round to get to places that I later realised were within walking distance.  For speed I could, if I'd had presence of mind and read the map carefully, have got around more quickly on the inner-city free circular bus, route 555.  The result was that in the time available I saw a little of a great deal, and my quality experiences were rationed.

One of these was the Queen Victoria Building, an extremely grand former produce market that after many years of neglect is now a lively shopping centre.  The story goes that its demolition was stalled because of trade-union objections to the vandalism of destroying such a magnificent part of Sydney's heritage.  It fills an entire block but is actually quite narrow:  on the central axis are two entrances with swooping staircases which give close-up views of stained-glass windows that run through two storeys.  It reminded me a little of the Midland Grand Hotel at London St Pancras.

I dawdled productively at the Powerhouse Museum [] built, like the Kelham Island Industrial Museum in Sheffield, into the former tramway power station.  The original industrial buildings, with overhead cranes and other paraphernalia left in place, are huge enough to lose an entire steam-locomotive, a governor's saloon, a signal box and the destination board from Sidney Central Station in one corner.  The place is on the scale of Tate Modern on London's Bankside.  For me, the greatest delight in this superb museum was the Strasbourg Centennial Clock, which tells more time than you'd ever want to know, reproduces exactly the locations of the planets in the solar system, and features on the hour the Twelve Disciples receiving benediction from Christ, with the cock crowing at Peter and Satan keeping a baleful eye on Judas.

Having wasted precious time misusing the bus tour, I was privileged, after meeting some colleagues from the Australian Association of Decorative & Fine Arts Societies, for whom I'm returning to Australia to lecture next year, to be taken from the Opera House across the Botanical Gardens, by Lawrence West, a retired architect who pointed out all manner of interesting buildings on McQuarie Street and Park Street.  Of these, the highlight for me was the interior of St Mary's Roman Catholic Cathedral, a scholarly Gothic design of 1868-1882 by William Wardell, equal in length and grandeur to many of the European originals on which it is modelled.  In comparison, the Anglican cathedral, St Andrew's, is a more modest building of parish-church proportions on a cramped site next to the Town Hall.

Posted by: mike on Jan 13, 2011

Category:Exploring Australia

Bondi Surf Bathers Life-saving Club

Bondi Surf Bathers Life-Saving Club

People make a great fuss about the rivalry between Sydney and Melbourne, but as an interested visitor I can't see what's not to like about either.  It's like knowing two very different siblings, appreciating their qualities and tolerating their differences.

Sydney has the unrivalled advantage among world cities of its commodious and varied harbour, more intriguing than San Francisco, more complex than Hong Kong.  It also has organic growth, having been improvised from the original First Fleet settlement:  there are axial streets in the centre, but the place doesn't have the rigidity of the gridiron plans of Melbourne and Adelaide.

On my first morning in the city, venturing from my hotel downhill towards the station, looking for a laundrette, I felt I could easily be in a British city, negotiating streets that crossed at angles and investigating side-roads with obviously ancient names like "Reservoir Street".  I was staying on the neighbourly Surry Hills (spelt as Jane Austen did), only a short walk from the Central Business District.  It's a borderline backpacker's district, and in due course I found somewhere within walking distance and entirely acceptable to have breakfast, Strawberry X [1a/23 Mary Street, Surry Hills, NSW 2010], and somewhere to have an evening meal, Good Morning Saigon [127 Liverpool Street, Sydney, NSW 2000], and returned to both each day rather than eat my way round Sydney.

A harbour cruise is surely the way first to see Sydney, just as the ferry across the Mersey is the best introduction to Liverpool.  With the blue sky reflected in the water it's idyllic.

I'd made careful advance plans through my travel agent, having missed the Vatican on my first visit to Rome and Alcatraz on my only visit so far to San Francisco:  I was determined not to miss the Sydney highlights.

Locating the Magistic Cruises [] vessel on King's Street Wharf in good time gave me the opportunity to ride the vessel round to the Circular Quay and back, taking photos from an empty deck and being almost first in the queue for the buffet lunch.

When I went back on deck I found a lady with a head-microphone and a Russian accent setting up stall to guide her group.  Gradually the place filled with Russians with beer bottles and loud voices, who spent much of the time photographing each other standing in front of the sites.  When things quietened down I asked her if they were working her hard and she smiled ruefully.  I said it looked like herding cats, and she thanked me for the phrase.

At the end of the cruise I joined an APT city-tour [] in a coach driven by Scott:  I wish I could guide as sharply and precisely as Scott did while driving a bus in heavy traffic.  He took us through the city-centre out to Mrs Macquarie's Chair, carved for a governor's wife on a promontory overlooking the harbour, to Watson's Bay and The Gap overlooking much of the outer harbour, and then to Bondi Beach which is as splendid as you'd expect from any surfing movie.  The tanned and bleached jeunesse d'orée were impressive, but what impressed me most was the history behind them:  standing proudly on the foreshore is the Bondi Surf Bathers Life Saving Club (1907) [], the founding association of technical beach lifesaving.

I'd booked a bridge-climb tour, but I took one look at the Harbour Bridge and decided that there was no way I would climb that thing in such heat.  There is a constant procession up and down the outer girder, and I imagine it's a tremendous buzz to stand at the top, but the tour takes three and a half hours and involves a lot of exposure to the sun.  The breathalyzer test and the long climb I would willingly have dealt with, but for me the clincher was that cameras are understandably not allowed, in case they drop on the traffic, trains and pedestrians below.

The Bridge is of course magnificent:  curiously, the steel structure – the so-called "coathanger" – isn't actually supported by the stone piers;  it's free-standing, and the piers, while supporting the carriageway, provide visual balance to the whole design.  It was designed by Dorman Long, Middlesborough, and much of it was fabricated in Britain:  construction took from 1923 to 1932.  It's interesting to compare it with the Tyne Bridge in Newcastle (1925-1928):  spans – Sydney 503m/Newcastle 161.8m;  height – Sydney 139m/Newcastle 59m;  length – Sydney 1,149m/Newcastle 389m.

Posted by: mike on Jan 11, 2011

Category:Transports of delightExploring Australia

Sydney Central Station

Sydney Central Station

Taking advice from the invaluable The Man in Seat 61 website [], I'd booked an ordinary economy ticket for the train from Melbourne to Sydney.  The Man in Seat 61 points out, and illustrates, that the seating is identical in both economy and first.  My fare, for a twelve-hour journey, was A$110.70 [approximately £70].

Although the incoming train arrived and departed an hour late and lost a further half-hour getting out of the Melbourne suburbs, the on-board service compensated for the genuinely unavoidable delays.  The female train captain made meticulous announcements after every stop about the continuing delay, sometimes as little as seventy-odd minutes but usually ninety.  Each time she apologised, citing a signal failure on the incoming journey and track maintenance "which is necessary for your safety and comfort":  I assume also that our train had lost its path, as railwaymen say, and was fighting against other traffic running to time.  We arrived at Sydney Central at 9.30 pm, exactly twelve hours after our departure from Melbourne.

The buffet car was a dream, with efficient staff and meticulous PA announcements.  The idea of a "Devonshire cream tea" (the complete tea, jam, scones and cream version) as a mid-morning refreshment took a little time to sink in.  Otherwise, decent airline-style cooked meals, interesting orange and poppy-seed cake, reasonable tea and excellent coffee filled the intervals of the day.

This was the most visually interesting journey of my odyssey across Australia.  The landscape was verdant heading east out of the state of Victoria.  We passed Australian backyards, small towns fronting on to the railway tracks and farmyards.  It was noticeable that the sheep stations loaded their stock on to road vehicles, not the railway line as they do in the more remote areas of Western and Southern Australia.

Some stops stood out as landmarks on the journey:  Seymour, clearly a historic railway town with a large steam museum, a town which I thought by the PA announcement was called Manila or Vanilla but turned out to be Benalla, a place with the strange, delightful name Uranquinty and the major settlement, Wagga Wagga, which the locals call "Wogga".  Some railway stations have original or authentic signage at Junee and Moss Vale – "Ladies' Room" and "Telegraph Office".

After Junee the entire character of the journey changes.  The line becomes double track, and crosses the mountains by wiggling up and down hills continuously:  there is hardly a straight stretch for many miles, and often the line ahead is visible at right angles to the direction of travel.  At one point the two tracks diverge wildly, crossing and recrossing at the Bethungra Spiral [see].

This is working rail travel.  Passengers got on and off at each stop, unlike the set-piece Great Southern luxury trains.  The largest and loudest man in Australia helped fellow passengers with their puzzle books, in between phoning his relatives ahead with repetitive news of the delay.  I chatted to a young man from Surrey who was working his way round the world driving combine harvesters in preparation for managing his father's farm on his return to the UK.  Outside the window, train-spotting kangaroos sat by the track, with that odd limp-wristed stance as if they've just finished washing the dishes.

The arrival into Sydney Central, cathedral of the age of steam, is an apt overture to a great city – an engaging contrast with the airy, modern steel and glass of Melbourne Southern Cross.

A nice taxi driver took me on a brief tour of Sydney before depositing me at my hotel, which I discovered the following day is three minutes' walk away.  At that time of night, after twelve hours on a train, I'm more than happy for someone to hump my luggage and drive me around for five minutes for A$8 [about £5].

Posted by: mike on Jan 9, 2011

Category:Victorian architectureExploring Australia

Rippon Lea Mansion fernery

Rippon Lea Mansion, Melbourne, Australia:  fernery

Because I was in Melbourne on my own, I chose to avoid the obvious tourist sites that I might visit with other people, and sought out the quirky places where I wouldn't dream of taking folk who don't share my interests.

I spent half an hour photographing the late nineteenth-century housing around Albert Park, with characteristic filigree cast-iron lace verandas manufactured, so I'm told, from the ballast and scrap of ships that ended their days in Melbourne harbour.  (Another authority told me they were cast in England and brought out as ballast.)

I spent an hour in the Melbourne General Cemetery, a hot and unshady place, where the Necropolis Company has clearly done a roaring trade in narrowing the paths, so that ranks of ostentatious Italian black-marble family tombs stand in front of older, more English monuments, and there is, near the modern funeral chapel, an astonishing grotto in memory of Elvis Presley, inaugurated barely three months after the singer's death in August 1977.

Most enjoyable of all, and prompted by Gabriel, the Victorian aficionado I met on The Ghan, I visited a Victorian Victorian mansion, Rippon Lea, in the southern suburbs [].  (It's disconcerting to English ears that in this part of the world Victorian means located in the state of Victoria.)  If I'd remembered to take my UK National Trust card I could have saved A$12 [about £7.50], but I could hardly begrudge such a delightful Australian National Trust experience, complete with a pot of properly-made tea at the end of the afternoon.

Rippon Lea was the creation of a Melbourne clothing and drapery merchant, Frederick Thomas Sargood, inspired by his English parents' retirement villa in Croydon, South London.  Designed by the Melbourne architect Joseph Reed, who favoured polychrome brickwork, Rippon Lea was begun in 1868 and repeatedly extended as Sargood's family grew.  In style it veers between French and Italian, and is graced with ironwork verandas, including a particularly fine porte-cochère.

The glory of the place is the garden, landscaped, irrigated and drained from unpromising sandy wasteland, with sewage disposal integrated into the provision of fertiliser:  the Australian National Trust aim to restore it to full water-supply self-sufficiency.  The most beguiling feature is the gigantic iron-framed fernery, built to protect and conserve specimens gathered world-wide.

After Sargood's death in 1903, the property was bought by the appropriately named Sir Thomas Bent, described by another Prime Minster of Victoria as "the most brazen, untrustworthy intriguer" ever to sit in the Victorian Parliament.  Bent proceeded to parcel up the Rippon Lea estate for housing development, and used the house only as a venue for political gatherings.

Bent died in 1910, before his syndicate could sell off the entire property, and Rippon Lea was then bought and lived in by a furniture dealer, Benjamin Nathan.  When his daughter Louisa inherited in 1935, she chose to cheer the place up, overpainting the gold-embossed wallpaper and marble columns and fireplaces, adding mirrors to gain light and demolishing Sargood's iron-framed ballroom.  She created a new ballroom which opens on to a Hollywood-style swimming pool and terrace in 1938-9.  After a considerable controversy over an intended government-backed compulsory purchase, it became a National Trust property on Louisa's death in 1972.

As displayed, the house is a palimpsest, based on English models, adapted to the sunny Melbourne climate, designed and built to the highest standards of its day, and then forcefully modernised for a 1930s lifestyle.  Pam, our guide, discussed at length how much is still being discovered about the house and its contents.  Australian history is, as the taxi-driver told me on the way to Alice Springs airport, short but "busy".

Posted by: mike on Jan 7, 2011

Category:Life-enhancing experiencesFun PalacesExploring Australia

St Kilda Pier

St Kilda is lively at night, and laid back by day.  It's so easy to nip down there by tram from the centre of Melbourne that I took to eating breakfast and an evening meal there.  On Sunday morning there is a craft market.  When I return to Melbourne next I'll seriously consider staying in St Kilda rather than in Melbourne itself.

It has three living monuments to the history of entertainment – the Palais Theatre, Luna Park and the St Kilda Pier.

The pier has a chequered history.  The original timber jetty was replaced by the present concrete structure on a slightly different alignment.  The charming and much loved pavilion, known locally as the "kiosk", was destroyed by fire in 2003, and as a result of vehemently expressed public opinion was rebuilt in its original form, with a cool, glass-fronted modern extension behind which houses Little Blue [].  Here you can eat either in air-conditioned comfort or wafted by natural breezes:  I had a restorative risotto, while others around me tucked into Sunday brunch.

Beyond the pier and its kiosk is a breakwater, part of which is fenced off as a wildlife reserve.

I liked The St Kilda Pelican [16 Fitzroy Street, St Kilda, 3182 VIC] for its intriguing wooden veranda with circular openings through which to see and be seen, its relaxed, sunny, morning atmosphere, and its eggs Florentine for breakfast.

There's a plethora of choices for an evening-meal venue at St Kilda Beach.  I stumbled upon The Street Café [] which I enjoyed so much I made a second visit.  This return visit showed that what I thought was pumpkin and lamb soup the first time was in fact pumpkin and lime.  (I still have trouble with Australian vowels.)  The service at The Street Café is highly polished, and it's possible to sit by the window watching the people go past in the evening sun.  Food and entertainment is what the seaside should be about.

Posted by: mike on Jan 5, 2011

Category:Transports of delightLife-enhancing experiencesExploring Australia

Colonial Tramcar Restaurant

The Colonial Tramcar Restaurant [] is a stroke of business genius.  There is no more appropriate place to dine in Melbourne than on a tram.  This popular tradition, dating back to 1983, operates twice nightly, providing a five-course dinner and liberal amounts of alcohol while gliding and occasionally grinding along the streets of central and southern Melbourne to the greatest hits of Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley and Abba.  Irresistible.

There are actually three trams, clearly the same American-style model as the City Circle vehicles, and from the outside they look surprisingly tired, in a dull red-brown livery with lamps missing from the illuminated display above the door.  Inside, however, the two restaurant compartments are a feast of plush curtains and mirrors and extremely comfortable seating in twos and fours:  each of the two compartments seats a total of eighteen.  The maitre d's introductory announcement mentions that the evening takes 3½ hours and that the on-board lavatory is the smallest in the southern hemisphere.

The staff of three that I witnessed at work was the acme of teamwork.  No sooner had the wheels begun to turn than the champagne came round, and as we pottered back and forth, reversing from time to time, they presented a choice of pâté, a choice of entrée (the Australian term for a starter), of which I had duck risotto, and a choice of main course, of which I had an excellent, thick and perfectly cooked steak.  The trams are fitted with stabilisers, and there was – wisely – no thought of soup.

Individual service was leisurely, in keeping with the steady ride through the streets, while the staff worked non-stop to maintain an efficient and apparently effortless service to thirty-six covers.  And all the time the wine, a simple choice of red or white, was poured and poured again.  It was one of those wine-waiter situations where the only way to slow the flow is to keep the glass full.  I forgot.

There's something magical about gliding through the streets, gazing through tinted windows at the ordinary world we customarily inhabit – people waiting at crossings and tram-stops, yellow taxis picking up fares, shop windows, houses.

There was only one discordant moment, somewhere around the University, when the car paused opposite a tram-shelter where there was what in England is called a tramp and in the United States a "derelict", complete with his carrier bags, seated in state.  The tram moved forward to reverse in front of a urinal.

Most of the time we processed back and forth around the centre and out to the beach-resort of St Kilda, which is magical in the evening.  After the main course, the three trams parked up at Albert Park for a cigarette-break, and then dessert (in my case date pudding), coffee and liqueurs were served.  Eventually, in good time, we were returned to our starting point, where a fleet of taxis was lined up waiting.  I sauntered into my hotel thinking I'd quite like a malt whisky, but fortunately the bar was shut.

The following morning I didn't want to move very fast.  At the coffee shop (I'd given up on the hotel breakfast) the barista made a great deal of noise bashing and grinding behind his big machine.  When I walked across to the Southern Cross Station the locomotives were roaring very loudly.  I caught a tram, which shook a great deal, to St Kilda and sat very quietly until I felt better.

The Colonial Restaurant Tram is not cheap, and worth every cent.  But it's a good idea to keep the wineglass full for much of the time.

Posted by: mike on Jan 3, 2011

Category:Transports of delightExploring Australia

Melbourne City Circle

Melbourne largely moves on steel wheels on steel rails.  It's certainly the only city in Australia, and arguably the only one in the world, which still runs a complete, traditional street tramway system.  This isn't an isolated route with heritage overtones, like Blackpool or Adelaide, or even a vestige like Boston or Rome;  this is a full-on, in-yer-face tram system, with 27 routes covering most of the city, running single-deck vehicles of different dates and sizes up to the very latest 21st-century sophisticated models, operating with very cheap fares and some free travel.  Buses, I eventually noticed, are a rarity.

The suburban rail system is also ubiquitous.  There are some places in the city-centre (which the locals call the Central Business District, or CBD, rather like Chicago's Loop) where it's possible – with trams screeching round tight curves and trains rumbling overhead on viaducts – to imagine you're sitting in the midst of someone's gigantic train set.  There is even a compact version of London's Circle Line, circumambulating the CBD sub-surface between five stations.

On Sunday I could travel the entire network – trams, trains and buses if I could find any – for the price of a Sunday Saver ticket, A$3.10 [less than £2];  on Monday the same facility for Zone 1, which extends as far as a visitor would reasonably need, cost A$6.80 [around £4.25].  Notices on the trams and tram stops showed that Christmas Day travel was free of charge, and on New Year's Eve trams ran throughout the night until the New Year's Day timetable began.

One consequence of the plethora of tram tracks is that Melbourne motorists perform a manoeuvre called a "hook turn" to ensure trams have priority at green lights.  To turn right at a tramway crossing (the Australians drive on the left), it's necessary to move into the left-hand lane on the crossing, wait until all traffic has passed by and then make a tight right turn just as the lights change.  I repeatedly saw this operation completed with skill and grace, but I think I'd be a wimp and take three left turns round the block rather than put myself in such a situation.

The ideal way to orientate in Melbourne is by means of the free circular tram service which circumscribes the CBD, following almost exactly the route of the underground line, with a dogleg spur to the Waterfront City on the redeveloped Docklands.  This is operated by distinctive heritage trams, rugged streetcars with an American appearance.  There is a recorded commentary and, unlike visitor tours in many places, trams run in both directions so it's easy to hop backwards and forwards between sites.

The CBD is an elongated oblong:  it's a comfortable stroll across the short axis, but quite a tramp along the long axis from Southern Cross Station to the Parliament House.  The City Circle tram, with its commentary, makes it much easier to visit the city-centre sites, such as the Parliament House of Victoria, the Old Treasury (now the City Museum), the Old Melbourne Gaol and the Victorian Arts Centre.  I used it to visit Melbourne's cathedrals, both impressive, the Anglican St Paul's [see Exporting Pointed Architecture] and the Roman Catholic St Patrick's.

The only place I ate in Melbourne CBD was a delight.  Federici [] is attached to the Princess Theatre, opposite the Parliament House, and offers bistro-style food at all hours [see History's foot-soldiers].  I missed the opportunity to see Jersey Boys at the Princess, because I had a prior engagement with the Colonial Tramcar Restaurant.

Posted by: mike on Jan 1, 2011

Category:Transports of delightExploring Australia

Melbourne Southern Cross Station

Southern Cross Station, Melbourne, Australia

The Adelaide cab-driver pointed out, as he took me to the Parkland rail terminal, that there are quicker ways to Melbourne, but travelling on The Overland, the train that leaves Adelaide at breakfast time and makes it into Melbourne 10½ hours later, was part of my intention of seeing how big Australia is.

I travelled Red Premier class, which provides comfortable seating adjacent to the buffet car and a limited, rather relaxed trolley service.  Food is marginally more generous but no more ambitious than an average British rail company:  there was a customer stampede in late afternoon when the remaining pies were sold off at $2 [around £1.25] each.

The most interesting part of the journey from Adelaide is the first, because threading the line through the Adelaide Hills was clearly an engineering challenge.  The huge American-style rolling stock screeches round tight curves, over viaducts and through tunnels, and there are repeated views of the sea as the line climbs towards its summit at Mount Lofty.  At Mount Lofty station (where, apparently, you can hire self-catering apartments and train-spot to your heart's content –, the line visibly dips down-grade and heads off into endless plains of farmland, the breadbasket of Australia.

For the remaining nine hours of the trip the train coasts through a gentle landscape, sometimes hilly and rather like southern England, often extensive flat plains stretching to the horizon or to distant hills.  There were few visual events on the journey – crossing the Murray River on a high viaduct with the original rail bridge alongside, now used as a road, a few large towns like Ararat and Geelong.

At the start of the journey the train captain encouraged passengers to introduce themselves and talk to each other.  Imagine a British train manager suggesting such a thing!  That would really get the conversation going on the morning commute from East Grinstead.

There was an intermittent commentary, which I imagine was informative.  The commentator was BBC World Service in comparison to The Goons on The Ghan, but he read at breakneck speed, reminding me of the apocryphal Nancy Reagan story, where she was asked if she understood poor people and replied, "Yes, if they speak slowly."

The man in the seat opposite at one point asked if I was bored with the landscape yet.  I said that I was never bored by landscape:  occasionally I dozed off, but I never opened the paperback I'd brought.

At last the train crawls into Melbourne, to the Southern Cross station, a spectacular steel tent draping a curvy roof over the platforms.  Stepping out on to Spencer Street gives an immediate impression of 1950s Glasgow – big, impressive buildings, a grid street plan and trams rattling across right-angled crossings.  The taxi-driver declined my fare, pointing to my hotel which was within sight.

Posted by: mike on Dec 30, 2010

Category:Life-enhancing experiencesExploring Australia

Alice Springs

Alice Springs is seriously hot, heading towards 36°C as I stood in the station yard waiting for the most charming bus driver I have ever met to check in his passengers for the shuttle into town.

The drive between hotels crosses several watercourses:  each of them has all the paraphernalia of bridges, cutwaters and culverts, yet consists entirely of sand, dotted with opportunistic grass and trees, indicating that water is present below the river bed.

Alice Springs people tell of sudden flash floods, the most recent in January 2009, when no rain fell in the town but a storm further north sent so much water that houses in the Casino district had to be sandbagged.  When you ask Alice people about the last time it rained, they tend to mention years, like 2000 and 1988, though in fact a few inches falls each year.  Their idea of a drought appears to be anything up to a decade.

Elsewhere in Australia, farmers and local governments contend with the ironies of the climate:  I repeatedly read newspaper reports of farmers in one place rejoicing because their land was replenished by rainstorms while others desperately wondered how many months they could hold out in the drought;  in different parts of the country, authorities battle with flood disasters whilst elsewhere they squabble over apportioning available supplies.

For a town that didn't exist until the early 1870s and only gained a rail connection in 1929, Alice Springs is extremely proud of its heritage.  There are tours of the Royal Flying Doctor Service [], tracing the origins and development of a quintessentially Australian enterprise, without which much of the remote regions could not have developed, and the Telegraph Station Historical Reserve [], now a historic monument that shows where, how and why the location was first colonised by white settlers:  the original "spring" is actually a waterhole on the Todd River – Alice was in fact the wife of the postmaster-general of South Australia, Sir Charles Todd (1826-1910).

While I was in Alice Springs I bought Doris Blackwell's Alice...on the line (apparently co-written with Douglas Lockwood 1965), an account of growing up there between 1899 and 1908 when her father was officer-in-charge of the telegraph station.  For a reader who has travelled to Alice Springs overland in the comfort of The Ghan and experienced the summer heat there, it starkly focuses the imagination on the conditions endured by the men who laid out and built the telegraph line and the families who came to this desolate and beautiful place to work and live.

On a Tailormade Tours half-day tour with an excellent driver/guide called Graeme, I also visited the Alice Springs Reptile Centre [], and met a two-foot lizard called Fred who ambles about the place getting under people's feet, and drove to the top of ANZAC Hill, the vantage point that reveals the geography of the place, located on a narrow gap in the MacDonnell Range through which the railway and the road penetrate.

In a short stay I left interesting sites unseen, the Museum of Central Australia, the Old Ghan Museum & Heritage Railway, which runs a steam train along a surviving stretch of the narrow-gauge original line, and the National Road Transport Hall of Fame next door, housed in a hall big enough to contain a couple of road-trains and much else.

What I wouldn't have missed, however, was the Outback Ballooning [] dawn flight over the outback, hosted by the inestimable pilot Frans and his driver Ron (apparently they swap roles from time to time).  A balloon flight is worth getting up before dawn for:  it offers time to see the night-sky in desert conditions, all the practical activity of inflating the balloon and, later, squashing it back into its five-foot-high carrier-bag, the eerie silence of drifting above the landscape with absolutely no sensation of vertigo, the entertainment of surprising kangaroos and horses going about their morning business and – since the route and destination are dictated by the wind – such points of local interest as the jail and the oil-refinery.

The champagne breakfast afterwards, a regular ballooning custom, was convivial:  the watermelon, chicken legs and pieces of quiche were washed down with champagne laced with apple and guava juice, a sort of antipodean Bucks Fizz, and the conversation warmed up considerably.  I spent the rest of the morning drinking strong coffee.

There's enough to do in Alice Springs to while away several days:  in future I'd make a point of visiting in winter, when the temperature goes down to a cool 20°C.

Posted by: mike on Dec 28, 2010

Category:Transports of delightExploring Australia

The Ghan

The Ghan backtracks over the route that brings the Indian Pacific into Adelaide, including the section from Tarcoola that the Indian Pacific traverses in darkness.  For someone who watches train-journeys like other people watch movies, this is like watching the last bit of DVD that you missed when you fell asleep – but backwards.

This is the great outback railway, originally opened between Oodnadatta and Alice Springs in 1929, along an alignment that proved prone to flash floods which regularly washed the track away.  Apparently the surveyors never saw any rain in all the time they were planning the route;  the rain only came when it was too late to divert the line.  The idea was always to link Adelaide with Darwin, but in the 1930s this made no financial sense.

In 1980 a new standard-gauge flood-free western route replaced the old narrow-gauge Ghan as far as Alice Springs, and the long-intended link to Darwin, via Katherine, was opened in 2004.

Heading northwards from the suburbs and satellite towns of Adelaide, the line runs through a huge plain of agricultural land – market gardens, crops, the occasional herd of cows, racehorses with coats on to protect them from the sun.  At some point in the past, someone cleared all this acreage to make agriculture possible, probably with no more than horse- and man-power at their disposal.

As the afternoon wore on, and the train glided effortlessly across mile after empty mile, I was aware that this vast landscape was initially explored by nineteenth-century pioneers on horseback, working out what there was and where it led from the vantage point of a saddle.  Before them, this land was the home of the Aboriginal peoples who, according to a self-serving 1938 writer quoted by Bill Bryson, "can withstand all the reverses of nature, fiendish droughts and sweeping floods, horrors of thirst and enforced starvation – but...cannot withstand civilisation."  The conflict between the two ways of life lies heavy still on the national consciousness.

I've now learned, having travelled on both the Indian Pacific and The Ghan, that the "welcome reception" is a compromise between the attraction of a free glass of champagne and the agony of a badly-handled radio mike with feedback.  Throughout the journey, whoever was in control of the on-board PA system wasn't:  announcements and music cut in and out without warning and on at least one occasion photographers were told the train would slow down for a landmark in ten minutes' time and it didn't – leaving people gazing through windows bemused as whatever it was flashed by.

On this journey, though, the bonus was that I happened to meet a couple, Gabriel and Cornelia, with whom I struck up instant rapport.  They were in the midst of moving house between Melbourne and Darwin, using The Ghan as the easiest way of transporting a car full of luggage while the furniture took a slower route by road.  We share an interest in Victorian history (in the chronological, more than just the Australian geographical sense) and photography, and Gabriel promised me a list of things to see in Melbourne, a privilege I couldn't otherwise have hoped for.

There was a brief stop at Port Augusta, where the 1980 Ghan route diverges from the original, ill-advised 1929 alignment.  This prompts me to plan to return some day, to ride the Pichi-Richi Railroad [], which offers a 1¾-hour ride, often steam-hauled, along the original route in vintage 3ft 6in-gauge rolling-stock.

The Pichi-Richi people take the view that the name 'Ghan' derives from a passenger on the inaugural sleeping-car run in 1929 who, at an evening stop, rushed on to the platform to place his prayer-mat in the direction of Mecca:  the Australian crew assumed, it is said, that he was an Afghan.  The Great Southern Railway Company prefers to ascribe the name to the Afghan camel-trains which the railway replaced.

Port Augusta is the "gateway to the Outback":  from there on, the landscape is as arid as the Nullarbor Plain, but more varied.  There are gentle contours, distant mountain ridges, a vast snowy white salt lake, river beds – one, the Finke River, a three-hundred-yard wide channel of bone-dry sand.  The landmarks are minor and far between – a stone marker for the border between South Australia and the Northern Territory, a statue, the Iron Man, commemorating the laying of the millionth sleeper on the 1980 route and, eventually, the MacDonnell Range which marks the location of Alice Springs.

Posted by: mike on Dec 26, 2010

Category:Exploring Australia

Adelaide Rundle Mall

A Day Out (The Pigs) – Horatio, Truffles, Augusta and Oliver – by Marguerite Derricourt
(1999), Rundle Mall, Adelaide

The city of Adelaide is really simple to navigate.  Its original surveyor, Colonel William Light, oriented the gridiron street-plan exactly to the compass points.  The periphery of this area consists of four streets, North, East, South and West Terraces, which face the East, South and West Parklands and the Torrens River.  The axial north-south street is King William Street (that is, William IV, after whose consort the city is named).  In the exact centre is Victoria Square.

In fact, most of the major tourist sites sit on the river-side of North Parade, the Old Parliament House, Parliament House, the Art Gallery of South Australia, the South Australian Museum, the Migration Museum, Ayers Historic House (home of an early prime minister of South Australia) and the Botanical Gardens.  There's enough there to occupy a visitor for a day or two.

Another attraction is to take the tram to Glenelg, Adelaide's beach resort.  This is a second-generation Light Rapid Transit which glides effortlessly through the Australian suburban dream.  A day rider ticket (A$8.30 – just over £5) gives unlimited travel until midnight on all tram, bus and rail services in the city, though in fact anyone needing only to ride between South Terrace and North Terrace in central Adelaide can travel on the tram for free.  Easy.

At the Glenelg end of the line a vintage first-generation tram provides free rides up and down in between the regular services.  Alongside the beach, the shops and the numerous opportunities for food and drink, there is a superb museum in the Town Hall, the Bay Discovery Centre, covering the story of the establishment of the state of South Australia by the first governor, Captain John Hindmarsh, at what was then called Holdfast Bay in 1836, and the subsequent growth of Glenelg as a resort through to the present day.

I spent much of a day in Port Adelaide, where I was underwhelmed by the Maritime Museum, simply because in a small space it seemed to be trying to do too much.  Jamming in the stories of the founding of the port, the shipping, the immigrants, the growth of Port Adelaide as a community, the industrial conflicts, the natural history and something for the children deserved at least as much space as, say the Maritime Museum in Liverpool's Albert Dock.

In contrast, the South Australian National Railway Museum fills two great hangars and a lengthy goods shed with gigantic locomotives and other rolling stock, clearly explains the engineering in layman's terms and narrates the epic sagas of building lines in a medley of gauges from South Australia across the continent and then, mostly, rebuilding them in standard gauge so that people could travel from Sydney to Perth or Adelaide to Darwin without repeatedly changing trains or climbing on board a camel train.

The locomotives are clearly from different stables:  many were Australian built, and others carry builder's plates from Beyer Peacock & Co Ltd of Gorton, Manchester, Metropolitan Vickers of Manchester and Sheffield and the Baldwin Locomotive Works, Philadelphia, USA.  One loco is described as based on a British Great Western design, and – sure enough – it has a copper-capped chimney.

This museum encourages people to climb on some of the locomotive footplates and to step into many of the railway carriages:  these range from the luxurious to the penitential, many without any kind of lavatory provision.  The collection includes some of the rolling stock of the Tea & Sugar train which until 1997 supplied settlements along the Nullabor Plain, complete with a bank and a butcher's van.

In the heat of Port Adelaide in high summer, I was particularly grateful to Eric and Joan Kirkham, friends of an old friend, for taking me to lunch at the Port Dock Brewery Hotel [], where we were given an informative tour of the brewery by the 28-year-old brewery manager, a man I admired for drinking Guinness the last thing before he left Australia, drinking Guinness again in the half-hour he spent in England before arriving in Ireland to drink Guinness again, proving to himself that it really does taste different in the three countries.  We drank refreshing alcoholic ginger beer, and ate kangaroo steaks with a wild plum reduction and Asian vegetables – in effect, green leaves in runny red jam.

In the city-centre, round the corner from Victoria Square, I stumbled upon Stanley's, billed as "the great Aussie Fish Caf [sic]",, where I ate great Aussie fish – a platter of whiting, garfish and barramundi, running from sweet to fishy in that order.  Here is all God's plenty from the southern seas – bugs (giant prawns, served with garlic, chilli or curry sauce, or in their shells topped with garlic butter and bacon), snapper and calamari.

Another night, across the road from Stanley's on Gouger Street, I ate at A Taste of Asia [no website, apparently, but e-mails to], which combines Malaysian food with New Orleans jazz discreetly played in the background.  I tucked into crispy wontons and chilli roast duck, while noting an encouraging proportion of Asian customers, many of whom knew the proprietor and staff and were clearly regulars.  It's always worth eating where the regulars are of the same ethnicity as the food.

Posted by: mike on Dec 22, 2010

Category:Exploring Australia

Nullarbor Plain

Sleeping in Gold Class on the Indian Pacific is possible, but not easy:  the compartment is extremely cramped and, as I found last time I slept on a train, lying down magnifies bumps and twists in the track that are innocuous when sitting or standing.

It was very satisfying, however, to wake up to the sight of the Nullarbor Plain at dawn.  (Nullarbor is from the Latin – literally, no trees.)  The train ambled down the dead-straight track, with various pauses, until late in the afternoon when the train-captain solemnly announced that there was a curve ahead.  The railway itself provides incidents – occasional sidings with loading-bays for sheep, a limestone quarry, various passing-loops in which the Indian Pacific waits for the interminable container freight-trains heading in the opposite direction.

The Nullabor Plain is not monotonous, though it could be hypnotic.  Glancing up from a book every few minutes, it's a surprise to find the landscape constantly varying – more or less vegetation, different colours, different skies.  The only sign of animal life the whole day was a herd of feral camels.  We never once saw a house, except when we stopped for refuelling at Cook (population:  5), once a thriving rail centre housing loco drivers, track-maintenance crews and all the necessary support including a school and a hospital.  When the line was relaid with termite-proof concrete sleepers the need for the community vanished, virtually overnight, and most of the remaining buildings are derelict.

Passengers are encouraged to leave the train for half an hour or more while the water-tanks are replenished, and it's a pity that Cook doesn't have more to offer.  A visitor-centre could interpret the Nullabor, tell the story of the building and operation of the railway, and illustrate the lives of the railway workers and the sudden demise of the working community in 1997, and there are all kinds of commercial opportunities for a place where a couple of hundred fairly affluent people drop by four times a week with nothing to do but spend money.

As it is, there's a tiny souvenir shop, where postcards are A$1.50 [nearly £1] each, and a set of lavatories.  The "ghost town" consists of very few unspectacular buildings and an expanse of vacant plots.  There's nowhere to sit and not much to do.  At present, Cook is a missed opportunity.  That's the most remarkable thing about the place.

In fact, I was eager to get back on the train.  On the Indian Pacific there's every possible comfort, the incredibly hard-working, multi-talented staff are friendly, and you get what you pay for.  Why should I spend money on a can of Coke in a dump that's dedicated to ripping people off?

Posted by: mike on Dec 20, 2010

Category:Transports of delightExploring Australia

The Indian Pacific gold-class bar car

The Indian Pacific is a serious train [].  For me, it's the only way to see how big Australia is.  Starting from Perth at midday Wednesday, it takes nearly two days – two lunches, two dinners, two nights' sleep, and one-and-a-half breakfasts (the latter a doggy-bag before disembarking at Adelaide).  For the even more serious-minded, it continues via Broken Hill to Sydney.

The line from Perth to Adelaide, or more specifically the section from Kalgoorlie to Port Augusta, has major historical significance:  its construction clinched the deal by which Western Australia agreed to join the Commonwealth of Australia in 1900.  Without that deal Western Australia would have remained for the time being a British colony and would, very probably, have achieved independence like New Zealand.  (There was a point in the 1890s when New Zealand considered amalgamating with Australia, but the New Zealanders thought better of it.)

The statistics are awesome – 4,325 kilometres (2,687½ miles) for the full run from Perth to Sydney, crossing two time-zones, including the longest stretch of straight railway track (478 kilometres; 297 miles) in the world.

The train itself is awesome – 29 vehicles, including power cars, crew cars, baggage car and motor-rail vehicles, 771 metres (843 yards) long, 1,375 tonnes, drawn by one extremely powerful diesel locomotive – crawling its way across the endless landscape, much of the time on single track, pausing at passing places to make room for enormous freight trains.

It's not cheap.  The basic version is Red Service – coach-style seating, by the look of it not dissimilar to basic Amtrak, in which people sit for days on end.  You see Red passengers boarding very sensibly carrying pillows.  There are also Red sleeper compartments.  The next version up is Gold Service – your own compartment, loos and showers at the end of the carriage, a comfortable bar car and a quite opulent dining car with all meals included.  There is something called Platinum Service, newly introduced with spare vehicles from the Ghan route:  apparently, the compartments are more roomy, with en-suite facilities.

On board Gold class, the single compartment is, rather like the interior of an airliner, a masterpiece of compact planning.  Even the wash-basin folds away.  The wardrobe, such as it is, is all of three inches wide;  the bed, of course, folds down;  the window-blinds sit within the double-glazed unit, controlled by an ingenious winding handle.  An odd consequence of the layout of the single compartments is that the central corridor is literally sinuous:  it curves from side to side.  Other coaches with double-bunk compartments have the customary layout with the corridor down one side.

There can be no better way to appreciate the vastness and emptiness of this great continent, without going to the lengths of driving for days on end, as Bill Bryson did in researching his excellent book, Down Under (2000).

I sat for the first hour or so, watching the route out through suburban Greater Perth, leaving behind the electric commuter trains, heading into the hills.  I chose to watch our way through an anonymous valley, with an accommodation road snaking alongside the track:  it was a good twenty minutes before I spotted any sign of life – a track-maintenance crew with their pick-up miles from anywhere.

Through a lunchtime glass of beer, an introductory presentation with a free glass of champagne, an interminable wait for second sitting and lunch itself, the landscape gradually opened out, became virtual desert, then became more verdant, hour after hour, mile upon mile.

As the first afternoon wore on, the train occasionally passed vast grain silos, then pastures with surprisingly purposeful-looking sheep, then monotonous low scrub, then patchy woodland.  For anyone used to watching rail journeys in Europe, this is indeed slow-motion travelling, despite the respectable speed of the train.  For hours on end there are no valleys, so no bridges or tunnels, hardly a cutting and never a viaduct.  Where there were cuttings, the rock varied in colour from pale grey to gunmetal to rust;  elsewhere the soil might be mustard or ochre.  That's all there was to look at:  it was oddly restful.

Sometimes the trackside dirt road was punctuated by a gate, with the name of a ranch (which the Australians call a station) hidden beyond the horizon.  The lifestyle out here is a world away from the experience of most Europeans.  In all but the remotest corners of the British Isles, it's a matter of choice not to go window-shopping, not to go the theatre or a big-league sporting event;  in populous regions education, health services, social life, variety is effectively on tap.  Living in rural Australia involves a direct reversal of these expectations.  These people must have particular qualities of self-reliance, initiative, stamina and determination.

The evening ended, after a convivial dinner, with a ludicrous but informative tour of the gold-mining twin towns of Kalgoorlie-Boulder in the middle of the night, peering at nineteenth-century hotels and public buildings, viewing the huge floodlit Superpit on the outskirts of town and examining the remaining, innocuous-looking brothels on Hay Street.  The coach-driver was straight from Central Casting – began each stage of the journey with the expression "Okey-doke", and all of his sentences? Went up at the end? Like they do in Australia?  He knew what he was talking about, and went out of his way to make sure we saw as much as we could in the circumstances.

And so, as they say, to bed...

Posted by: mike on Dec 18, 2010

Category:Exploring Australia

Perth, Australia:  St Mary's RC Cathedral

Perth, Australia:  St Mary's Roman Catholic Cathedral

The first and most striking quality of life in Western Australia is the light.  I did see overcast skies for an hour or two, but for most of the daylight hours Perth glows with sunlight and the blueness of the sky.  It's a place to be cheerful, full of cheerful people.

Perth is one of the remotest cities on earth:  it's actually closer to Singapore than it is to Sydney.  Its population is 1.6 million, and it has the confident air of a community that looks after itself.  To arrive first in Australia, as I have, in this place feels a little like landing in the UK in Norwich, but without the crazy road system and all the people rushing about.  Perth people take their time without being lazy:  they're comfortable and courteous and personable.  I sat in a coffee shop near two uniformed firefighters sitting by the open window taking their break:  in perhaps twenty minutes three passers-by greeted them and shook hands.

Getting acquainted with Perth is easy:  there are three free bus loops, called CATs [Central Area Transit].  After an hour or two of spinning around the streets I was dizzy and disorientated.  At one point I thought I'd seen two cathedrals, and only when I got off the bus did I realise that it was the same building – St Mary's Roman Catholic Cathedral, initially built in straightforward Gothic in the 1860s, and brought up to date in a post-Modern variant design in 2006-9.  (I missed the Anglican cathedral, St George's, which more modest, tucked down a side-street near to the river-front.)

At the river front ferry-terminal there's a strange sculptural building – a combination of sails and a spire – that turned out to be, of all things, a homage to clocks and bells in general, and English change-ringing in particular.  The Swan Bell Tower houses a peal of eighteen bells, twelve of which are a donation from St Martin-in-the-Fields, London, a 26-bell carillon and the Joyce of Whitchurch clock from Ascot Racecourse.  I learnt more about change-ringing from the explanatory video than I'd ever known in England.

Rather than pay a lot of money and spend a lot of time swanning down the Swan River to Fremantle on a ferry, I caught the train, which cost A$3.40 [slightly over £2] and took twenty minutes each way.  Fremantle, which the locals call 'Freo', is entertaining, full of bars and people shouting loudly in a genial manner – rather like Great Yarmouth.  Its main street is awash with fine nineteenth-century facades and feels like the set for a Gold Rush western, and there is a superlative maritime museum that clearly needs half a day at least.  The harbour cafés celebrate fish and chips.

Fremantle has its own CAT free bus-service.  The one I caught also had two Aboriginal guys, one entertaining the passengers with a digeridoo.  A digeridoo on a single-deck bus is impossible to ignore.

I must return to both places.  Between them, they deserve a week.  The only problem is, they're so far away from everywhere.  Which is part of their charm.

Mike Higginbottom's lecture Gothic Down Under:  English architecture in the Antipodes explores the influence of British architects, and British-trained architects, on the design of churches and other buildings in the emerging communities of Australia and New Zealand.

For details, please click here.

Posted by: mike on Sep 13, 2010

Category:Fun PalacesExploring Australia

Melbourne Australia Princess' Theatre

Photo:  Mat Connolley (Matnkat)

Princess' Theatre, Melbourne, Australia

I'm glad I came across the Jason Donovan edition of Who do you think you are? [] because it explored parts of Australia I visited a few months ago.

Jason Donovan was born in the Melbourne suburb of Malvern in 1968, the son of an English father and an Australian mother.  The programme set out to explore his Australian roots, and I was interested to recognise location shots of Melbourne and Sydney, as well as footage of Tasmania and the Blue Mountains which I hope to explore on a future visit.

One of the locations I'd visited was the Princess' Theatre, Melbourne, the one surviving auditorium where Jason's great-grandmother, Eileen Lyons, had performed.  She was a singer who entered show-business at the age of sixteen (a year younger than Jason when he joined the soap-opera Neighbours).  Here in the auditorium-gallery, he was shown contracts, bill matter and an Australian Broadcasting Corporation audition-review dug out of the archives by a local historian.

Elsewhere, he followed his blood-lines to a Tasmanian convict-settlement and, most intriguing of all, to a connection with Dorset-born William Cox (1764-1837) who reached Australia commanding a contingent of transported convicts and went on to engineer the first road from Sydney across the Blue Mountains in 1814-5.

Jason Donovan is therefore descended both from a transported convict, and from a British army officer in charge of transporting convicts.  He's a living example of the Australian claim to be a classless society.

Each step of the way, as in each of these programmes, the subject is assisted by archivists and local historians who have undertaken the spadework of detailed research that threads the story together.

Just as volunteer enthusiasts make possible the living-history museums, historical re-enactments, preserved railways and steam and motor-vehicle rallies that offer the general public weekend entertainment, so the nuts and bolts of local- and family-history research depends on individuals quietly beavering away in their specialist patch, building up a body of knowledge that the rest of us can tap into.

Jason Donovan's realisation of a stronger sense of his Australian identity was made possible because he gained access to detailed information in libraries, archives and the files of people who investigate history for their own interest.

Those of us who explore our local or family history without the benefit of a BBC research team have even more reason to be grateful to the foot-soldiers who catalogue, index and retrieve the minutiae of past lives.

Posted by: mike on Jul 1, 2010

Category:Victorian architectureSacred placesExploring Australia

St Paul's Cathedral, Melbourne

St Paul's Cathedral, Melbourne, Australia

If asked to make a list of what the British Empire exported to the colonies – tangible and intangible items – it's unlikely that most people would, unprompted, include churches with pointed arches, towers and spires.

Wander around any city in a former British colony and it's more than likely you'll encounter a Gothic cathedral.  On my travels I've found examples in Hong Kong, Singapore and every Australian city I visited.  In fact, each of the major Australian cities – Perth, Adelaide, Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane and Hobart – has not one but two Gothic cathedrals, one each for Anglicans and Roman Catholics.

Stepping inside these churches, even in tropical heat, immediately evokes Englishness, whether the denomination is Anglican or Roman Catholic.  The moment you set foot in the particularly splendid Anglican St Paul's Cathedral, Melbourne [], its stripey polychrome stonework is immediately recognisable as the work of William Butterfield, an English architect who never actually saw the place.

I'm intrigued by the way English ideas of architecture and worship were exported virtually intact to the other side of the world.  Several major Victorian architects had a hand in Australian cathedrals:  William Butterfield provided plans for the Anglican cathedrals in Adelaide and Melbourne, and fell out with the sponsors of both;  George Frederick Bodley designed St David's Cathedral, Hobart;  at the end of his life, John Loughborough Pearson, builder of Truro Cathedral, designed the Anglican cathedral in Brisbane, though actual construction was overseen by his son, Frank.

Most other Australian cathedrals were designed by English immigrants:  Edmund Blacket (St Andrew's Cathedral, Perth) was born in Southwark;  Benjamin Backhouse (who built St Stephen's, Brisbane alongside a chapel by A W N Pugin) was born in Ipswich.  William Wardell, designer of two magnificent Roman Catholic cathedrals (Melbourne and Sydney) was British, a friend of A W N Pugin.

I want to know more about the men and women who envisioned, conceived, constructed and paid for these resolutely European places of worship in places that had hardly seen masonry until their lifetimes.

Mike Higginbottom's lecture Gothic Down Under:  English architecture in the Antipodes explores the influence of British architects, and British-trained architects, on the design of churches and other buildings in the emerging communities of Australia and New Zealand.

For details, please click here.

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