Living Postcard

The train emerges from the tunnel towards Circular Quay station and the darkness outside the windows is replaced by a long, thin panorama, a horizontal slice of sky and water bracketed by the Harbour Bridge and Opera House. It’s a living postcard, animated by the ferries and the clouds, watched by those waiting on the platform. People lean against the glass barriers to take photos of the harbour, or just gaze out, watching the ever-moving scene in front of them.

I join the throng clogging the top of the steps that lead down to the concourse. I hang back, not in a hurry, and wait until I’m the last to descend. As I walk down, I look above the stairs to where, set high up into the wall, there are ornamental grilles decorated by bronze fish. They have a stranded look to them, a little bit dusty, but with their rainbow sheen still visible.

I always look for them, one of the few decorative features of this station which, since its opening in 1956, has been relentlessly condemned as ugly, interrupting the view of the harbour from the city, and the city from the harbour. The construction of the station and the Cahill Expressway above it was a drawn out and unpopular process. Things came to a head at the 1958 opening of the Cahill Expressway, when despite the premier’s announcement that this was “a striking symbol of Sydney’s growth and maturity”, things did not go as planned.

Sydney Morning Herald, March 25, 1958

If Circular Quay station is maligned, the Cahill Expressway is even more so. The railway line and the road above it forms a thick line that cuts across the view, as if it’s a low, wide belt keeping the city in check. There has often been talk of the expressway’s demolition: in 1994 Prime Minister Paul Keating even offered the NSW state government the funds to remove it. Yet it remains, visually intrusive, loved by no one, but not entirely without allure. A side-effect of maligned places is that people avoid them, which can, sometimes, twist their atmosphere into something unusual and interesting.

The Cahill Walk is a good example of this. To get to it I move quickly along the Circular Quay promenade, past people munching through pancakes at City Extra and passengers coming off the Manly ferry. Details flash up: a man wearing a t-shirt that says “winter is not coming”; the round bronze discs set into the pavement that commemorate famous writers. I step over A.D. Hope, Barry Humphries, and Kenneth Slessor, until I’m at a grove of palm trees hemmed in by concrete, that surround a glass elevator clamped to the side of the railway line and road above.

I press the elevator call button and soon the doors open in front of me, puffing out a cold, air-conditioned breath in welcome. I step inside, the doors seal me in, and the noise of the quay recedes. I’m inside a bubble, ascending, above the tops of the palm trees now, the view of the Harbour Bridge coming clear the higher up the lift rises.

At the top, the doors behind me open and I turn to face the four lanes of traffic on the expressway. A long, concrete walkway extends beside it like a grey ribbon.

Never, in all the times I’ve been up here, has there been many other people here. It’s one day of popularity is New Year’s Eve: a ballot operates for tickets to watch the fireworks from here. At other times, you might very well have it to yourself. This morning there’s almost no one else but me, apart from an occasional runner jogging by. It’s only a slight change of perspective from the Quay below, but has a completely different mood. If it weren’t for the incessant traffic, and the way the path trembles underfoot when heavy vehicles go by, it would be a tranquil, pleasurable place to be, rather than the exposed and sometimes slightly eerie experience it is to walk here.

The traffic speeds by, having just come off the Harbour Bridge. I watch the intent expressions of people behind the wheels of their cars, notice a man on his motorbike singing as he rides along, and feel the path shudder when a demolition truck goes by, the word CHOMP in orange across the front. On the other side is Warrane, the bay dominated by a gargantuan cruise ship with a steaming funnel like a kettle just come off the boil. The poisonous smell of the diesel fuel drifts across. On the front of the cruise ship is a man in overalls, tethered to a railing above, holding a paint roller on a stick, repainting the ship’s nose. The expanse of fresh white paint follows him as he moves slowly along.

Walking up here, alongside the expressway, is to have a feeling of floating mid-air, looking into the thicket of city buildings to one side and the harbour’s expanse on the other.

Below where I am on the Cahill Walk, the crowds of Circular Quay mill and disperse. Up here I’m alone, with traffic and jackhammering and construction noise filling the air as I look towards the building sites on the city’s edge. Behind them are dozens of office buildings, thousands of windows, each framing a view of the harbour. Anyone looking out of them at this moment would be moving their eyes over the same scene as me, watching the harbour, the ferries, the shifting clouds, that familiar scene, slowly changing. 


Thank you dear readers for following Mirror Sydney in 2018, a busy year for me, with the book out in the world. It was a delight to meet some of you when I had launches and talks, and I look forward to more in 2019.


25 Comments on “Living Postcard”

  1. Gregory McBean says:

    A lovely piece of writing; just as you say re the Cahill Expressway walkway; such a contrast to walking around Circular Key crowd wise.

  2. Phillip Leeds says:

    Thank you for all your posts. Always a pleasant surprise to see them in my inbox in the morning and always an excellent read. Congratulations on the book, too. I really enjoyed it.

  3. Thank you Vanessa. It is always a thrill to read your posts, as a b.1956 person, I really appreciate your eye for detail and the ‘lucky dip’ of places you explore. The book is great ~ a treasure.

  4. jim soulios says:

    THANKYOU Vanessa for all your interesting posts . Enjoy and look forward to each and every one with great joy and some nostalgic sentiment. Have been made aware , visited or known of the sites you have posted and curious to the background which you have brilliantly described and documented , sometimes feel as transported back in time to be part of that era . THANKYOU again for your posts and wishing you a very merry christmas and a happy , prosperous and healthy new year . kind regards and cheers , jim

    • Vanessa Berry says:

      Thanks Jim, I’m so happy to hear you enjoy these stories, they’re a real pleasure to write. Best wishes for the festive season and new year to you too.

  5. John Tipper says:

    I’m shocked to admit that I’ve never walked along the Cahill Expressway. Thanks for your as always entertaining article, Vanessa. I don’t follow any other writers, being tied up with too many interests. Your posts are always the most welcome arrival. They remind me of Saturday arvos back in the 1960s and 70s spent exploring pedestrian tunnels and arcades around the city railway and the bridge, generally after visiting our favourite toy shops and secondhand bookshops, all now long gone, but not forgotten. Long may you continue to write. Best wishes for Christmas and the New Year.

    • Vanessa Berry says:

      Thanks John, I do love to think about days of secondhand bookstore visits in the 1960s and 70s: I often wish I had a time machine! I’m so glad you enjoy the blog, and I will indeed be back with more stories next year and onwards.

      • Amy R says:

        The second hand bookshops of the 60s and 70s were very wonderful. I was lucky to have my introductions to these places made more personal, as my Dad knew Bob Gould and my cousin knew the Higgs family in George Street in the city. So these shops were special for as long as they lasted, and visited as often as possible. These treasure troves were a time machine in themselves, stimulating eyes, touch and smell ! It really is the smell of a well tended garden of old books and magazines that provided the extra thrill. Best wishes for 2019 and more fascinating reads !

  6. sallykj says:

    Thanks for the eye-opener. I have often walked across the bridge, but never done this. Best wishes for Christmas and the New Year.

  7. Robyn says:

    Thank you Vanessa it’s been enjoyable following your blog this year

  8. Hilary Da Costa says:

    Dear Vanessa, thank you for your fascinating blogs in 2018. I find them very exciting and stimulating, especially as I like to do similar things to you in seeking out ‘ the less worn paths’, especially the historical ones. It is always a thrill to see you write about places I have walked and observed. Your book too is a delight. Looking forward to 2019! Thanks again, Hilary

  9. Magnus says:

    I once worked in the building draped in blue in the last picture, now being torn down to be replaced by (sigh) luxury apartments and a hotel. It’s 182 George St, and used to be the headquarters of Advance Bank, which was unfortunately taken over by St.George. Behind it, also occupied by Advance Bank, and where I also worked, was 33 Pitt St, now just a hole in the ground.

    I live overseas now and make it back to Sydney every six months or so. Just the other day I was walking around my old favourite places in the city, and sadly discovered first-hand the fate of the buildings where I once worked. Had I not been here in Sydney right now I would have found this out from the picture on your blog!

    • Vanessa Berry says:

      Thanks Magnus, yes it’s all such a mess in that part of Sydney at the moment, with the big demolitions going on. Hopefully there’s a few favourite places left, and I’m happy to hear Mirror Sydney is a connection to the city for you! Enjoy your time in Sydney this summer.

  10. John Low says:

    I grew up just over the harbour in North Sydney and was just beginning high school when the Cahill Expressway opened. I don’t remember being much interested in its opening at the time or even conscious of the controversy. It did, however, become a visual constant over the following decade or so as I travelled across the bridge or by ferry into the city for shopping etc. or on my way to Sydney Uni. But, you know, I can’t recall ever walking it as you did! I really must do so when I’m next in Sydney (I now live west of the Blue Mountains). Many thanks for this post and all the others over the past year, since I began visiting after receiving your wonderful book last Christmas. ‘Mirror Sydney’ and John Rogers’ London blog ‘The Lost Byway’ have become my favourite walking blogs. Best wishes for Christmas and the New Year and I look forward to many more of your adventures in the hidden and overlooked parts of Sydney in 2019.

    • Vanessa Berry says:

      Thanks John, best wishes for the festive season to you, too, and thank you for your kind words about Mirror Sydney. Yes the Cahill Walk is certainly an oddity, even more so as the roadway’s so visually dominant. Enjoy investigating it!

  11. Ah ha! I have made note of the elevator to the Cahill Expressway as I don’t enjoy the humidity and like to know where the air-conditioning is when visiting Sydney. Something like a glass, air-conditioned elevator can be a useful spot to take a break from the muggy atmosphere I find.

    • Vanessa Berry says:

      Brief respite! I guess the elevator would be unbearably hot without it, but it did strike me as surprising the first time I stepped into its cool embrace.

      • Being the sort with no shame I’d happily take a folding chair with me so I can take mini-breaks in places like this. I don’t imagine the elevator is so busy that I couldn’t chill for 15 minutes.

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