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.
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/
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 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”
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 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
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
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.