DOWN THE COBBLED STREETS OF SYDNEY
Join Arwa Janjali in her wanderings, as she discovers Sydney’s past in its hidden laneways and passageways
Istrongly prescribe ‘getting lost’ in order to truly explore a new place. The joy of wandering around aimlessly and stumbling upon the many surprises a place has to offer is unparalleled, especially when compared to reckless sightseeing. So I reached Hyde Park, the oldest public park of Australia (Yes, the British hangover results in Australia having its very own too), and began walking on the street adjacent to the park, towards nowhere. I had decided to discover Sydney’s bustling CBD (Central Business District) on foot.
A ROCKY START
Google Maps said I was at The Rocks, but this didn’t look anything like the historic area that I had read about. Situated alongside the Sydney Harbour, The Rocks had the first colony of convicts, who were transported from Britain as a punishment for their crimes, and who actually built Sydney. Some of the early traces of the past were to be found here, and all I could see was one long street with some restaurants and pubs. Although in Sydney, even the most regular looking eateries from the outside turn out to be heritage sites once you step inside and discover historical titbits...like a preserved staircase or wall from the 18th century. A cosy tea room serving delicious scones with tea, for instance, is converted from a heritage building, which was once a military residence of officers and so on.
I stood in front of a bricked wall, with a mural of a man’s face on it. A group of guys chatted near it and I promptly went up to them to ask about the historical trail I was looking for. They pointed towards a cobbled bylane, which looked deserted, yet inviting. I walked along, the past instantly tumbling out of Sydney’s closet. The lane housed the city’s oldest pub – Fortune of War Hotel – built in 1828 by a former convict Samuel Terry. Retaining its old world charm, it was up and running as I saw people savouring their drinks over conversations. Further down were the remains of the city’s first hospital precinct, which had passageways named ‘Nurses Walk’ and ‘Surgeons Court’ providing information on the hospital’s origins and its workforce. From one of these passageways, a corridor of the now sealed hospital was visible, its weathered bricked walls giving an impression of the place not being very old. After all, Sydney’s history dates back just three centuries.
The lane branched out into several other tiny bylanes, each one unearthing some event, personality and structure from the past. From squeezing myself into the narrowest lane, which talked about shady incidents of drunken debauchery, brothels and unsavoury characters – the trivia pasted on life-size cut-outs of men on the walls – to the eerie presence of a well littered with clothing, fine boning knife, an alcohol still and other possessions of the convict butcher George Cribb (one of the first convicts to have arrived in Sydney) on an archaeological site – The Big Dig. The site is situated in Cribbs Lane (named after its oldest inhabitant). Near it, an installation of a horse stands in a barren area depicting the horse stable that once existed there, along with foundations of houses from the past surrounding the site. As I glance through the displayed sketches, portraying the place that was and giving away stories of people who lived here, there’s a certain inexplicable beauty of the past juxtaposing the present in this area. Some of these lanes are brimming with heritage cafés, pubs and boutiques, all intertwined in a way that if you enter one, you would probably come out in another. It was sheer delight how one little laneway led me to the interiors of a renaissance patisserie tucked into that lane. I came out bang in the middle of tables and chairs, emerging from this seemingly underground tunnel. At first, The Rocks may not give an impression of holding all the history that it does, but as you keep walking along its sandstone ridges and cobblestone surface, Sydney’s past comes alive, most vividly. While the history here is carefully preserved in a number of things… eateries, shops and deserted lanes, The Rocks also has a small house museum – The Susannah Place Museum. I climbed up the stairs of this block consisting of four terrace houses, where about 100 working-class convict families lived between 1844 and 1990. The interiors of these houses had rusted broken sinks, cracked walls, used furniture and crockery of the tenants, standing strong against the test of time. The Rocks is not just all about history and heritage though. It’s got a vibrant, entertaining side to it in the form of its weekend market. The Rocks Markets are a must-have on your weekend planner while in Sydney. For me, it was like revisiting the area in a completely new avatar on a weekend vis-à-vis my historic tour on the weekday. There was a burst of people, who had come together to enjoy homemade delicacies from different countries, handmade jewellery, souvenirs and other art by local artisans, street musicians putting up a show and the works. This is a market
where you will find stalls by family run businesses and hence, you may not find the stuff available here anywhere else in the city. I was spoilt for choice with respect to food. There was our very own gourmet butter chicken meal box being sold by an Indian couple. But I gorged on Turkish Gozlemes, Columbian Arepas and pizzas made out of freshly baked dough, prepared by a lively Italian who danced away while making the pizza bread and making my day at this market.
My tryst with historic laneways continued as I walked around the CBD, stopping at various spots like the breathtaking St Mary’s Cathedral and the Hyde Barracks Museum – another place oozing with convict stories and listed as one of the world’s significant convict sites by World Heritage. Enamoured by the escapade at The Rocks, I had picked up a pamphlet of another historical walking tour from the visitor centre there. This tour was all about the 22 little laneways running through the heart of Sydney’s CBD, but invisible in the regular hustle-bustle of a busy business district. I started off with the tunnel-like Phillip Lane, which took me to a beautiful colonial-style housing scheme that was supposed to be the first example of fashionable living in the city. Called the white Astor apartments, the building is now converted into a commercial complex but still retains its name and original exterior. Walking through the maze of these lanes was a hunt of sorts. With Google Maps not being of much help here, I had to rely completely on the directions given in the pamphlet and in the bargain, I lost track repeatedly, coming back to the same lanes over and over. Yet, it was a fulfilling four hours of discovering some of the city’s last surviving woolstores, the longest laneway (York Lane), the Tank Stream – reminiscent of the freshwater stream, around which Sydney’s settlement came into being. I walked away, zooming past significant venues and brushing shoulders with famous personalities who formed the city’s early political, business and artistic circles. The Rowe Street narrated tales of the European chic era, where the artistic community once assembled in the small shops, galleries and studios that existed here. Although most of these lanes have gone through redevelopment, some of them feature huge pictures of the original buildings and people walking on those very streets in the 1800s, giving you a feel of the architecture and lifestyle then. Lanes like Abercrombie and Angel Place, which now house buildings refurbished as upmarket bars and pubs retain most of their original features...the most distinct one being the countless lamp posts. In the Abercrombie Lane, especially, you can’t miss the fire-damaged walls caused by a fire incident in the past. The atmosphere in these lanes create a fascinating time warp. Sydney’s history undoubtedly lies in its backstreets and passageways. Take the walk.
Local musicians at The Rocks Markets
The Rocks Markets
Souvenirs at The Rocks Markets