Grand old dame of Sydney’s parks

View of the original central avenue looking north, photographer unknown, c 1911, before the major reconstruction of Hyde Park, Daniel Solander Library, The Royal Botanic Gardens and Domain Trust

View of the original central avenue looking north, photographer unknown, c 1911, before the major reconstruction of Hyde Park, Daniel Solander Library, The Royal Botanic Gardens and Domain Trust

Hyde Park is Sydney’s most loved and used green space, and has a history going back to the early years of the colonial town of Sydney. However the maturing landscape we admire today really dates from the late 1920s when the city engineer Norman Weekes won a design competition for a much needed upgrade of the park. Weekes’s scheme, as partially implemented, followed formal Beaux Arts compositional principles with its central allee, short cross avenues, sunken parkway at Park Street and radiating pathways. At the time the ‘City Beautiful’ movement was also influencing the design of civic infrastructure and this is evident in the fine sandstone walls, flights of steps, light fittings and fountains through the park.

Today’s massive fig tree avenues and expansive lawns belie the fact that for almost twenty years at the turn of the 20th century most of the western side of Hyde Park had been dug up for the construction of the City Circle underground railway line, which was built using the cut-and-cover technique. This required the excavation of a massive trench through the park, parallel to Elizabeth Street, in which the brick railway tunnels and railway stations were built. Construction dragged on much longer than planned and eventually public outcry forced the government and the council to act – leading to the 1926 design competition and Norman Weekes’s winning scheme.

Weekes emphasized the need for large open sunny lawns, for health and recreation; and favoured the elimination of ornamental flower displays in preference for big plantations of trees. He was excited about the horticultural possibilities of Australian plant species and many of the trees introduced to the park were NSW native species – such as the figs, crows ash, flame tree, lacebark kurrajong and hoop pines.

Aerial view of Hyde Park looking south from the tower of St James Church, 1932, photographer unknown, Daniel Solander Library, The Royal Botanic Gardens and Domain Trust

Aerial view of Hyde Park looking south from the tower of St James Church, 1932, photographer unknown, Daniel Solander Library, The Royal Botanic Gardens and Domain Trust

Weekes’s scheme was gradually muddied by the later introduction of groves of palm trees and much more ornamental shrub and understory planting, as well as the filling up of his grand open lawns with more traditional Gardenesque tree plantations. Successive master plans for the park developed since the 1980s have aimed to reduce these additions. Since the 1990s, tree management has become a significant issue in parks across Sydney generally and Hyde Park has had its share of cultural problems with trees – such as the discovery of Phellinus, a fungus that attacks fig trees, and the gradual over-maturity and senescence of older trees.

Architect Bruce Dellit’s extraordinary ANZAC Memorial building and reflecting pool at the southern end of Hyde Park was not part of Weekes’s park design and its introduction caused considerable controversy in the late 1920s as there was a strongly expressed community view that parks should generally be devoid of extraneous buildings. The growing strength of sentiment around an appropriate memorial to the fallen of the Great War led to the acceptance of the project, which was built through public subscriptions. Dellit’s reserved monumental design for the memorial and sculptor Rayner Hoff’s highly emotive figures and bas reliefs are of such astonishing quality in design and execution that any reservations have long disappeared.

Anzac Memorial, Hyde Park, Sydney, pool of reflection, 1934 Harold Cazneaux.

Anzac Memorial, Hyde Park, Sydney, pool of reflection, 1934 Harold Cazneaux.

The underlying geology and natural soils and drainage of the park are of great interest to landscape architects and horticulturists, as they help to account for the growth and performance of trees in the park, as well as their decline – but maybe that is a topic for another time!

 

Hyde Park mystery structures

There’s a mysterious side to Hyde Park. It starts with the desire paths through the trees – unofficial paths worn into the ground by people taking the same shortcut – follow them instead of the official paths and you might discover some of the park’s mystery structures.

Path to mystery

Path to mystery

These mystery structures are dotted throughout the park, unobtrusive unless you make a special effort to see them. They are utilitarian, yet upon examining them it is hard to know exactly what their function is. Here are just a few of them.

The first two come under the category of “ventilation mysteries”.

Ventilation mystery 1

Ventilation mystery 1

Ventilation mystery 2

Ventilation mystery 2

The next, “mysterious concrete boxes”.

Mystery concrete box 1

Mystery concrete box 1

Mystery concrete box 2

Mystery concrete box 2

I’m sure some people would look at these and know exactly what they are – feel free to explain the mystery if you know!

Hyde Park

At the eastern edge of the city is the green expanse of Hyde Park, perhaps Sydney’s most inviting public space. It is a space of tall fig trees and stretches of lawn, and grand structures like the Archibald Fountain and War Memorial. Whatever the time, day or night, the park is busy with people and full of stories.

Hyde Park is a romantic place. It’s a place for canoodling on the grass at lunchtime with your sweetheart, carving your initials into the trunk of one of the tall fig trees that line the central avenue, or having wedding photos taken as joggers and lunch-hour strollers pass by.

Ash, Kimbo, and the postcode of Mount Druitt, 2770.

Ash, Kimbo, and the postcode of Mount Druitt, 2770.

Wedding photography

Wedding photography

The park benches are host to a series of ever changing scenes, as people talk on the phone, eat lunch, or read or just sit and watch others go by. A busker moves between the benches, offering songs to the people sitting there. He isn’t having much luck – most people refuse, but then a guy asks if he can borrow the busker’s guitar.

The busker hands the guitar over and the guy proceeds to play his girlfriend all the riffs he can remember from when he used to play guitar in high school. He makes a lot of mistakes, but is undeterred. “I mostly play my own stuff!” he says to excuse his wrong notes, as he serenades his girlfriend with the opening bars of Smells Like Teen Spirit. The busker waits patiently for his guitar back, but not before asking the guy what product he uses to style his hair, is it gel? “No, hairspray… desperate times!” the guy replies. He hands back the guitar and he and his girlfriend resume their walk along the central avenue. Once this tree-shaded path was known as Lover’s Walk.

Lover's Walk, 1912. Photo: National Library of Australia. http://www.flickr.com/photos/national_library_of_australia_commons/8446992740/

Lover’s Walk, 1912. Photo: National Library of Australia. http://www.flickr.com/photos/national_library_of_australia_commons/8446992740/

Hyde Park was established as a park in 1810 by Lachlan Macquarie, and since February this year, a tall, bronze Macquarie – the park’s newest statue – has beckoned from the park’s northernmost entrance. Macquarie looks fresh in his newly minted bronze and people stop to debate his sudden appearance at the gateway to the park.

Statue of Major General Lachlan Macquarie, Governor of NSW

Statue of Major General Lachlan Macquarie, Governor of NSW

Statue of William Bede Dalley

Statue of William Bede Dalley

Statue of William Bede Dalley

Statue of William Bede Dalley

On the other side of the garden bed is another of the park’s statues, William Bede Dalley. He could tell the Macquarie statue a story or two, as he’s been there since 1897. Dalley has long been my favourite Sydney city statue, for his dapper frock coat and the legend on the side of his plinth, which reads “Born in this City, August 5th, 1831”. Every time I pass by it I think how I, like Dalley, was also born in this city. Dalley was a politician and a barrister, known for his eloquent speeches, signature frock coat and colourful cravats.

"Thornton's Scent Bottle"

“Thornton’s Scent Bottle”

My other favourite park fixture is the obelisk at the top of Bathurst Street. A copy of Cleopatra’s Needle, the Egyptian obelisk that was relocated to the Victoria Embankment in London, the Sydney version was soon nicknamed “Thornton’s Scent Bottle” after its dedication in 1857. Thornton was the mayor at the time, and “scent bottle” referred to the obelisk’s secret; it was in fact Sydney’s most ornate sewer vent. Gases from the sewerage system escaped from the filagree pyramid on top of the obelisk.

Another of Hyde Park’s secrets is the tunnels that run underneath it, although some of these tunnels are used by thousands of people daily. The tunnels were built in the 1920s, in an engineering project that brought great change to the city and changed the appearance of the park to the configuration we know today.

Construction of Museum Station, 1923. Photo from Powerhouse Museum: http://www.flickr.com/photos/powerhouse_museum/8283775668/

Construction of Museum Station, 1923.
Photo from Powerhouse Museum: http://www.flickr.com/photos/powerhouse_museum/8283775668/

Construction of St James Station, 1923 Photo: Powerhouse Museum http://www.flickr.com/photos/powerhouse_museum/8282686781/

Construction of St James Station, 1923
Photo: Powerhouse Museum http://www.flickr.com/photos/powerhouse_museum/8282686781/

The creation of Museum and St James rail stations converted Hyde Park into a vast construction site before the railway was opened in 1926. St James station was constructed with four platforms, although only two were used, as a plan for an interchange there never came to be. The platforms were connected to tunnels that were, in World War Two, used as air raid shelters. Since then, the tunnels are the domain of urban explorers, the occasional tour, and the tree roots from the Hyde Park fig trees which grow through the cracks in the tunnel walls. One of the tunnels which extends underneath Macquarie Street has filled with water and is known as Lake Saint James.

As exciting as it is to imagine Lake Saint James, most people in the park aren’t thinking about what lies beneath it. People stretch out, sunbaking, they play games of soccer, they watch chess players move the big plastic pieces over the giant chess board near the entrance to St James station. They take photos with the Archibald fountain, with its water-spouting turtles and mythological creatures. The fountain was built in the 1930s to commemorate the relationship between Australia and France in World War one, and it is an elegant, art deco presence in the northern section of the park.

Most of the time the fountain is a backdrop for photos but sometimes people trespass their way into it. It is a surprisingly hot day for autumn and two men have climbed into the fountain and are sitting against one of the statues. It doesn’t last long. Soon a police car arrives and they are ordered to get out, as a crowd quickly gathers to watch the developing drama. The men climb out of the fountain but leave a bottle on the head of the statue.

Bottle on the head of a statue, Archibald Fountain

Bottle on the head of a statue, Archibald Fountain

Fountain invasions must be fairly commonplace, although taken seriously by police: a black car with “Riot Squad” on the side drives up and the fountain invaders are interrogated. For all the people who stand watching, plenty of others go about their business as if nothing is amiss. On the lawn behind the fountain a yoga class continues, groups of school children file past on their way to excursions at the Hyde Park Barracks. A man rides past with three large dogs on a cargo bicycle, and for a moment the park is dominated by this surreal mixture of people and activities.

Three large dogs on a cargo bicycle

Three large dogs on a cargo bicycle

At the foot of a fig tree a woman sits with a sketchpad, drawing. I walk over ask if I can peek at her drawing, wondering if she had included the police cars and the lunchtime yoga class but no, her drawing was as clean and peaceful as a commemorative postcard.

Image from hat-archive on Flickr.

Image from hat-archive on Flickr.