Grand Flaneur Beach

When I first saw it on the map I thought I’d misread it: Grand Flaneur Beach. The beach was on the shore of the lake at the edge of Chipping Norton, the location marked with a green pin with a beach umbrella inside it. It seemed unlikely for a number of reasons, firstly for being a beach far from the ocean, and secondly being named “flâneur” (but without its circumflex accent hat over the ‘a’) a word which brings to mind images of 19th-century Parisian dandies rather than the south western suburbs of Sydney. A flâneur is an urban stroller, someone with no particular place to be, for whom just being out observing is a full occupation. What kind of beach would a flâneur – a grand one at that – give their name to?

The place known as Chipping Norton is an area of land enclosed by Tucoerah/ Georges River, the river that divides Dharug land to the north of the waterway, from Dharawal land to the south. The river curves around, turning back on itself, and at the turn it swells out into a lake, inside which are a number of small islands. The river has flowed for thousands of years, but the lake is only a few decades old. In the mid-twentieth century, the land was extensively mined for sand, and by the 1970s resembled a “bomb-blasted” scene, scarred by the disused pits of the sand mines. A plan was drawn up to flood the area, and transform it to what the Minister for Public Works in 1987 decreed would be “an aquatic wonderland of the west”.

Chipping Norton Lakes and Warwick Farm Racecourse, about 1980. image is from the Heritage collection of Liverpool City Library.

This wonderland was quiet in winter. It was the end of June when I visited, a time when the days were cold and short, leading up to the shortest day of the year. The city was waking up a little from the first wave of the pandemic and a few people were out, but those who were kept their distance from each other. I turned off from the streets of sensible brick suburban houses and into the parkland. Grand Flaneur Beach is marked by a plain, solid road-sign, pegged into the ground on a small clearing amid the lawn that leads down to the lake.

I walked down to the water’s edge, to the strip of sand churned by footprints. I’d read that sometimes bull sharks swim up into the lake to breed, and I imagined I might see a fin above the water, gliding along, although this is a rare event, and there were only ducks to be seen on the surface on this afternoon. The lake was calm, a plain, but peaceful place to be. I sat on the lawn looking over it, pouring out a cup of tea from a thermos. As I put a slice of the lemon cake I’d brought with me onto a plate I heard an unfamiliar sound, and looked up.

The buzz overhead was a light plane flying over, after having taken off from the nearby Bankstown Airport. It had been a while since I’d noticed a plane, it being months into the travel bans, and I sat and watched the plane progress over the blue canvas of the sky until my view of it was blocked by the trees. As I watched the plane, a myna bird hopped up and started to peck at the cake, bold with the experience of many Grand Flaneur Beach picnics.

Why was the beach called this? There was nothing I could detect that solved the mystery. Who was the grand flâneur? Was it me? As much as I liked to think so, the truth was otherwise.

Image: State Library of Victoria.

Grand Flaneur was a horse. A champion stallion, winner of all the major races, including the Melbourne Cup, and unbeaten upon his retirement from racing in 1881. Grand Flaneur was owned by the politician and horse-racing-enthusiast William Long, who established racing stables here, and gave the place its colonial name of Chipping Norton. The stables and racecourse that still operate at Warwick Farm had their beginnings in those days. William Long loved horses and horse-racing, but apparently he did not much like women, and it is said that he didn’t even allow women to come onto this Chipping Norton property that he held by the river.

But, well, there I was. Sitting by the side of an artificial lake, by a beach that is named after a racehorse. I was thinking about being a flâneur, about walking and observing, as the bird pecked at my cake, and another plane buzzed over above. The plane brought me back to thoughts of the pandemic and all that had changed in the months preceding me coming there. As the fear and the changes had taken hold people had asked me how this time would affect my investigations of Sydney. I wondered this too, and I still do. But I know that I’m attracted to quiet, unusual, and underpopulated places, the kind that persist despite the city changing around them, or that are hidden in plain sight, yet are not often given attention. These are the places I go in search of, and even in difficult, restricted times, they are to be found.

 


15 Comments on “Grand Flaneur Beach”

  1. David says:

    Hi Vanessa,

    I absolutely adore your blogs & musings about the ‘otherside’ of Sydney. Your writing show a sharp & observant mind & an amazing willingness to explore the under appreciated & under utilised parts of this great city of Sydney.

    Thank you for keeping me thoroughly entertained.

    • Vanessa Berry says:

      Thanks David – I’m really happy to hear you enjoy my writing, and that it’s entertaining to read about the under-appreciated part of the city that I so love!

  2. Rozanna Lilley says:

    What a fabulous name for a beach! Wonderful stuff

  3. Phillip Leeds says:

    Hello Vanessa, good to read about another interesting part of Sydney. Particularly liked your final paragraph. Stay safe as you explore.

  4. What a fabulous post thankyou.

  5. Thanks for this lovely post! I grew up in Chipping Norton in the 1980’s and have been meaning to go back and have a look at the area you describe – didn’t know that was its name. Thanks for the inspiration. I look forward to some flaneusing:)
    Daniela Giorgi

  6. Lord Fry says:

    It has been years since I been through Chipping Norton. I had two Aunts who lived nearby in in Milperra, but my family firmly orbited around Bankstown. Must go there again soon.

    • Vanessa Berry says:

      The architectural mood seems to be bricks and palm trees… looking forward to your investigations!

      • Lord Fry says:

        Yes. It is very much 80’s project home around there. From a time when a treat for me was my parents taking me to the Masterton display home village in Warwick Farm. That would make for an interesting Mirror Sydney story. I said to Mum I couldn’t stand Masterton and she said to me I used to love going there as a child. I said to Mum that back then they still made buildings that looked like houses and were in proportion to the rest of the street. Now they build ostentatious monuments to wealth (debt) and advertise on the radio to pull your old house down.

  7. Hilary Da Costa says:

    Hello Vanessa. Another lovely place revealed by your ‘flaneuring’! The pandemic has allowed others of your bent, like myself, to discover many formerly hidden gems in our wanderings. Thank you so much, as always, and continue to be safe.

  8. bear says:

    CHIPPY NITTING ROCKS VENESSA !


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