A place to mourn (and other joys)

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One of the worst kept secrets in Sydney, Wendy Whiteley’s secret garden is mesmerising. It is a realm invested with emotion, joy tinged with grief, peace rippling with agitation, and introspection duelling with extroversion.

It is a remembrance space, where memories swirl and glisten, tears that roll tenderly across the garden’s skin, an unearthly realm wholly of the earth and its fecund beauty.

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Autumn carousels at the edges, adorned in gold. The light filtering through is inlaid with iridescence, a sharp glint of dew prickles the retina, and the smell is gothically pungent, a damp stew of rich earth, rotting bodies and the skeletons of leaves.

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For over 20 years, Wendy Whitely has toiled here, divesting her grief into a florescence of love. Neglected and forlorn during the years she and husband Brett Whiteley lived in Lavender Bay, the garden was ripped, torn, trampled and scoured into existence following his death…

“In the weeks that followed Brett’s death in 1992, Wendy’s grief-stricken need to regain some control in her life, to clean up a mess that she could clean up, found her obsessively attacking the piles of overgrown rubbish on the large land-filled valley of unused railway land at the foot of her house. Wendy hurled herself into the site, hacking away at lantana, blackberry vines and privet, clearing up dumped bottles, rusty refrigerators, rotting mattresses, labouring till she was too exhausted to think or feel, then collapsing into sleep each night.”

wendyssecretgarden.org.au

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She has created a sanctuary, a healing place still raw with sorry business yet innately peaceful. Perhaps that is why people are so attracted to it, for while the foliage is exquisite, the shrubs bushy and the tall trees sentinel in their guard, there is something else here, a sense of cathartic release, a sense of pure peace.

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I didn’t realise it at the time, but I suspect subconsciously it’s why I invited The Gamekeeper…

Who is quite beside herself.

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She is communing with nature, a fleshy native among exotic orientals and indigenous stalwarts, a panoply of lush vegetation: Port Jackson figs, bamboo stands, camphor laurels, Bangalow Palms, a Moreton Bay fig that seems to swells perceptibly each time you gaze at it…
native ginger,
Acacia,
bananas,
bromeliads,
ferns,
vine-strung masts that carry a canopy of green,
and Dr Seuss trees…
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Winding gullies peel from Wendy’s elegant home at road level, scuttling fast and steep into the depths. Carved wooden handrails are a serpentine guide to bark-lined paths, the garden absorbing you as light is extinguished by dark. In the dampness near the water’s edge, a wagtail flits impatiently, its legacy as a harbinger of gossip and bad news distilled, here, into vague disquiet.

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The bird’s flitting message is poignantly clear, though. This is goodbye, the separation of a long-limbed friendship by distance. The Gamekeeper is relocating, escaping the emerald city for greener pastures.

With change comes melancholy – rakishly astride anticipation – and mourning for what will be lost. But in this sacred space, invested as it is with spirit and soul (and the ashes of Brett and their daughter, Arkie), I sense the joy in change, the possibility and expectation of what comes next.
Rubbled with white goods, tangled, feral in form and choked by lantana, the garden was cultivated into what it is by grief, yet at its heart, what it conveys is hope and refuge, which is what every traveller needs.
That and a hip flask…

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Safe travels my friend.

 

“Why do you go away? So that you can come back. So that you can see the place you came from with new eyes and extra colours. And the people there see you differently, too. Coming back to where you started is not the same as never leaving.”

A Hat Full of Sky, Terry Pratchett

 

 

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.