Forever in debt to the rapacious canine demands of The Kelpie, the newest member of the mob, I find myself in the weedy gutters of anonymous backstreets being tugged towards the park – any park. With noses snuffling, ears twitching and eyes bright with the expectation of rotting treasure, she and I explore our daily date with dedication…
On a lip of land that juts above a sulky river was once a castellated Victorian Gothic mansion, a queen sporting a regal demeanour over her 130-acre domain. The Warren, so called for the tumbling colonies of rabbits bred on the estate to be hunted, was home to wool merchant and politician Thomas Holt in 1864; a prestigiously leafy estate overlooking the Cooks River, she wore her grandeur as freshly-combed ermine.
Thirty bedrooms, a dining room to seat 50, art gallery, bathing sheds and Turkish baths, and located in the heart of riverside Marrickville, The Warren was a real-estate’s wet dream. Today, little remains, though there is a distinct sense of propriety, of sweeping capes and walking canes, of parasols and rum at dusk, as the bats flit silently by.
The Warren may be long gone, but it still exerts a powerful fascination. Residents, both old and new, often refer to their locality as The Warren, and its presence can be sensed in many ways.
Ferncourt School is built from the stone of The Warren’s demolished stables. On the banks of Cooks River, hidden behind concrete, are the remains of The Warren’s burial vaults, and a large amount of sandstone… has been recycled into retaining walls and kerbs and gutters throughout the suburb.
Two towers, originally piers from the back of the building, stand sentinel on Richardson’s Lookout in Holt’s Crescent in South Marrickville, a spindly curve of street that follows the swell of the river. Cobblestones rumble beneath ancient figs, a memory of a driveway perhaps, and the ghosts of garden paths linger, lined with sandstone flags worn soft with time.
Gazing into the distance you can imagine languid lunches on the lawns, the clip of a sulky bearing well-dressed guests and the breezy air of entitlement.
And while the castle was demolished in 1919 (after hosting an order of Carmelite nuns and an artillery training camp during the First World War), the estate remains closely guarded by its feudal community. Despite the glaring absence of the original mansion, a hollow lost to time, the glory of Holt’s domain is steeped in a run of ageing river queens moored to the sludgy banks of the Cooks River.
With their toes in the damp, mottled faces staring resolutely uphill, the grand dames of Thornley Street would once have been landscaped gardens. In a later incarnations, they were the boom-time beauties, Edwardian weatherboarders and Californian bungalows of the late 1800s, turn of the century and ’20s respectively, sought after seclusion perched high above the banks.
These landlubbers have time sequestered in their dappled flanks, weary memories surging like tidemarks in the rising damp. Paint peels like sunburnt skin, raw patches peeking out from beneath, fly-screened verandahs scratch in the heat, and pastel fibro fades in the glare.
Their captains are invariably polite yet reserved, wary of too much attention. Lola and Luigi, deep in conversation over the fly spray, are happy to pose for a shot, asking; “why you want love? You like us old peoples?” Well, yes. I do. What with your stories and insight, life mapped on your faces like sea charts speckled with salt. Further along, an old fella caresses the tarp tied taut around his late ’80s Mazda; “Got a few of ’em love, great motors. Bloke next door hates ’em, says they is an eyesore. But his whole place is a bit on the nose if y’ask me…”
The bush thrives here, in this slice of suburbia; the river breeds it in swathes along her banks; mangrove roots thick with mud, sandstone cliffs that create shadows of cool, banksia, acacia and mulga ferns, speargrass, she oaks and prickly-leaved paperbarks that line walkways yipping with dogs on leads and kids wobbly on their wheels.
Between the faded faces and gentrified glitz of Thornley Street are cool diving driveways that strip down to the water hundreds of metres below, asbestos afterthoughts – home to tarped cars and garden tools – clinging to them like carbuncles.
It is like looking down an old woman’s gullet, a vaudeville trick that vilifies. Beyond the tidy-town streetscape, straggly ends trail to crippled Colourbond fences that lounge near the water’s muddy flanks, bereft of bilges. Flood marks are a permanent stain, and veggie patches are overrun with natives.
Like decaying paddleboats hauled high on their hitches, the river queens slump slowly into their watery graves, an expression of resigned implacability on their tired faces.
Yet while the river continues to inveigle her prey, inch by sodden inch, The Warren Estate persists with its page-one status in the brochures of local real estates. It is the ever-enduring wet-dream…
The Kelpie and I walk on, the river warbling her sordid siren song…