A spinster’s folly

Cloistered, sequestered, filed in time, an ornamental garden is an expression of love, carved into the rich earth only deep care, time and wealth can provide. The verdant yet contained splendour of a planned, pruned, perfected and propagated natural space is designed to pocket emotion as a thief palms a purse, to stall your pace and entice you to lie down beneath the shade of a broad-leaved tree, the velvet scent of year-round blooms syrup on the breeze.

Private gardens were designed to express the power and benevolence of the ruling or upper classes long before public spaces designed for the masses were developed. They were elite. A philanthropic badge for the well-breasted. Still are, in most cases: Tivoli, Versailles, Babylon and Kenroku-en in Japan, all known for their spaciousness and seclusion, artifice and antiquity.

Yaralla is no exception:

Rose arbours, camelia veils, sculpted cycads and canary palms set the bar high, but it is the avenue of mature-leaved brushbox – sentinel shadows akimbo – that steals the show, an entrance that cannot be ignored. Ramrod straight, we are channelled into the heart of another world, a bygone era.

The local dialect for ‘camp’ or ‘home’, Yaralla is a nineteenth-century Italianate mansion set in 37 hectares of land that fringes the Paramatta River at Concord West. It is considered an exceptionally rare and complete example of a large Edwardian private residential estate complete with grotto, spindly towers atop the front door and rural acreage, an anomaly amid the contemporised sprawl of modern cities.

From the crest, the rural idyll unpeels into the amalgam of a red-brick hospital complex, incinerators and frosted glass the destination for the whine of an approaching siren. Across the estate, a distant stripe of water glistens, a mighty river that soothes hot edges. Beyond, though, its farthest edge is cramped with little-box bowers and the whump whump whump of piledrivers, digging deep into old flesh.

The contrast is mesmerising.

Yaralla was built for the only daughter of Thomas Walker – Eadith – who lived here between 1861-1937, cradle to grave. It was her passion, a powerful display of elegance and prosperity. It was a self-sustaining destination where even the horses had plaques, Captain and Baron immortalised in an echoing space, a fox weathervane idling in the calm…

The clock tower and weathervane

Run as a feudal estate, Yaralla had its own power plant, fire station, bakery, laundry and dairy, with two river wharves catering for its bustle of traffic. Eadith had 25 servants and employees living on the estate, including a butler, nine maids, cooks, laundresses, chauffeurs, four gardeners, poultry and dairymen, a housekeeper and an engineer. There were four bulls, eleven cows, horses, hens, ducks and geese, as well as rockeries, fountains, ornamental urns, hothouses, a conservatory, rose gardens, a fresh-water swimming pool with bathhouse, a lavender walk and the infamous grotto.

The dairy

The race


The grotto

With the Secretary betrothed to her ongoing quest for world domination, and my attorney fighting the good fight in the war against right-wing journalism, I have seconded the Gamekeeper, a woman whose intimate knowledge of loquats pays off immediately.

It was her idea, a country jaunt in the heart of the city abreast our trusty steeds (complete with flat cap). From a long line of wild foragers, the Gamekeeper is an excellent partner in crime, notably because she also brought a picnic and tea in a thermos, which proved both fitting and filling and required leisurely repose.

We investigate salt-fringed mangroves, swamp-oak floodplain forests and rare Turpentine stands. Desert fan palms, cycads, agave and aloe strut their oriental stuff around the grotto, while cedars, Kauri pines, Moreton Bay figs, orchids, Himalayan firs, hibiscus, oleanders, camellias, Indian hawthorn and more vie for attention, a riot of colour, scent and sound, their boughs heavy with the raucous chatter of maggies, parrots and cockatoos, fairy-wrens flitting like light on the leaves.

Stands of bamboo shoulder an ancient wharf and a tangled coastal path is pungent with the stench of salt and mud. It is littered with shell middens, rock oysters the size of dinner plates testament to the riches here.

Aside from gulls ‘maaaaaaate-ing’ from a barge on the water, the tchick tchick tchick of the sprinkler is the only other noise, until a high-vis-clad horticultural crew hove into view. Once a high society hub that catered to royalty and rogues, including aviator Ross Smith, who famously landed in the front paddock and shared cucumber sandwiches with Eadith, today it is the gardeners’ domain.

Well, theirs and NSW Health.

Pale peppermint tones beneath the awnings of the main house belie its historic grandeur and lend it a vague sickliness, a pallor that extends to the quietened windows and sticky-backed plastic foyer. A ‘serious sign’ requests beaky eyes not get too close – it’s an easy request to uphold: much of the glamour has seeped away in a sluice of foamy handwash, and today Yaralla’s heart belongs to patients.

Eadith was a benevolent soul, a philanthropist like her father. Aside from the pet cemetery she dug for her dogs, upon her death, Yaralla was donated to the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, to become an outlying convalescence and care unit, its cottages set aside for elderly people in need.  

Eadith was described as fiercely patriotic, loyal to the Empire and ‘a Britisher to the backbone’, despite being born and bred in Australia. Her allegiance is painfully clear in her devotion to the gardens: water is pumped and sprinkled on to the grounds day in, day out. The roses, though not blooming at this time of year, have a team of carers to disperse their needs, OH+S fluorescence a beacon of duty. Post and rail fences are taped up like limbs requiring splints, and the gates have electrical collars as if they might escape.
It is jarring to the eye. That something so beautiful can be so at odds within the broader landscape surprises the Gamekeeper, but the manicured order at Yaralla – flower picking beds, stone carved balustrades and trellises of delicate blooms – sticks out like topiary in the outback. The wild beauty of this land, as it would have been when the estate was built, is subsumed by an order not native to it… herbaceous colonisation if you will. 
And while the ornamentalism on show is captivating – a breathy respite from suburbia and better than anything other than what was – I will always question its place here and its patent need for a team of professionals dedicated to its ongoing convalescence. 







Kyeemagh is an Aboriginal name meaning ‘beautiful dawn’. Thing is, by the time the Tin Lid and I cruise down in the Holden the dawn has long legged it, replaced by a scowling, irritated howler of a day, spring in name only.

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Scorched winds shake the beast, rustling the duco and unnerving the driver, whose hair tangles in the slipstream that burls through the car from five gaping windows. The Tin Lid is staunch in his acceptance of the five horsemen of the apocalypse and their climate-born reign of terror, happy to keep filing forward into the maelstrom in search of The Boat.

It is all about The Boat. His first time at sea; the Cowboy’s first-time first mate and chief bottle-washer. We had sparkling plans that dripped with flat-calm azure seas, a light breeze and palm fronds, open waters and sandy bays. But they are fresh victims of a gale that scours the seas, whipping up sand and spray 500m on shore.

So we find ourselves at Muddy Creek, a shuffle-up of dirty water that snakes lazily along the borders of Kyeemagh and Banksia, beneath the roaring bellies of outbound jets. The Brighton-Le-Sands Amateur Fisherman’s Association is the landmark, the bit we all know for its flash 80s signage:

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It is morose, tired and locked-up tight, a moment caught in time. Notices flap angrily on a squat Besser-brick block, Foreclosed; Until Further Notice; Member’s Only. There is grit in the air, and the putrefying stench of mangroves and diesel. The water is slack, slick with oil and barely supporting its wallowing clinkers…

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But the distance has captured The Boat and the Tin Lid has begun an animalistic wail that is stoppered only when he is delivered into the clutch of his mariner crew:

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As they motor into the tempest with only seedless grapes and ginger beer I wonder idly if a broad-brim-hatted three-year-old could tip the delicate balance in high seas, but am soon distracted by the bones of what was Fishos, one-time thriving cultural hub, albeit with slight scent of fish…

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Empty-eyed and retired, she is like a salty run aground forever, sadly listing back into the creek, silent but for the clack clack of tip turkeys as they squabble over the debris. 

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The boat yard sprouts a little more life, but is the preserve of a wily few with hard-clung-to keys for shiny padlocks that cluster like haemorrhoids around a rusting chain-link fence. And there are signs in abundance, manifestos for the suburban trailer-sailors:

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A chalkboard with a nub of chalk dangling from a strand of twine, its blurry scrawl almost illegible, belies the sense of community it inspires. It is a trip log, where each and every skipper signs-out on departure. If they fail to sign-in on their return it is assumed they are in difficulty on the water and require assistance, and someone will head out to find them.

Of course, this premise relies on any number of factors; that the skipper remembers to sign back in, that the chalkboard isn’t wiped clean by onshore gusts of ocean, and that visiting 50s speedboats reliant solely on broad-brim-hatted children and ginger beer have seen this board and added themselves to it. Oh, and that there is someone there to read it…

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TS Sirius, a utilitarian bunker that adjoins the boatyard offers a skerrick of solace – an Australian Navy Cadet unit right here! Perfect for open-water rescues in cyclonic conditions, reliable, big-boated and undeniably attractive in uniform – but the concrete is moth-eaten, honeycombed out by time. There is no epaulette’d admiral barking orders here, no swarm of sailors to save the day.

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The best I can hope for is a bloke in a tinny, back from an afternoon’s squid fishing, who seems interested only in the sinks:

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In this incongruous place, a concrete wasteland, forgotten yet not forgiven, it seems strange to smell the ripe aromatic tang of oriental greens, yet out the back, beyond a playground that may or may not have been imported from Soviet Russia during the Cold War, is a lush emerald ocean, conical hats bobbing in it like buoys:

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Bok choy, choy sum, on choy and Chinese broccoli vie for light, fat with water and love. The scent of coriander, parsley and mint make my mouth water, despite the festering mangroves, and the rich alluvial soil crumbles seductively beneath my toes. It is no stretch to imagine Muddy Creek as it once was, teeming with life, unencumbered by industrial decay and the social stoush endemic in the economic collapse and involuntary administration of community organisations.

Yet, in this moribund place caught in the thrall of an angry sou’easter, there is a moment of bright, bright joy –  it is written on the face of the Tin Lid as he returns from his first time on the high seas.

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Perhaps this is the ‘beautiful dawn’ Kyeemagh whispers of?