In Bexley North

At the main intersection in Bexley North, traffic snarls by, lurching towards or away from the M5 on-ramp on the far side of the Wolli Creek valley. On one side of the intersection are shops, built in the 1930s, when the East Hills railway station opened and the suburb with its rows of red-brick houses came into being. On the other side is the Bexley North Hotel, a supermarket, and a row of shops with a wide carpark in front of them, hidden behind a screen of trees, lawn, and overgrown garden beds. This, a sign indicates, is Nairn Gardens.

I wasn’t paying Nairn Gardens particular attention, apart from noticing it had a substantial sign for a small, nondescript park, but as I continued on the path through the gardens, something else caught my eye. A round bronze plaque with a colourful insignia on it, on the side of a concrete structure that enclosed a row of benches. From this, I learnt that the Gardens had, in 1966, won second prize in the Sydney Morning Herald Garden Competition. I looked up, across the overgrown rockeries, a tangle of rosemary, foxtail grass, and tall conifers leaning askew, and tried to imagine the prizewinning garden hidden somewhere within it.

In 1966, it was described by the judges thus: “Much thought has been given here, with a rather difficult terrain, to produce a delightful effect which will improve even further as some of the subjects mature”, and further, “Several young poplars form an attractive background to an Olympic torch fountain, while an outstanding soulangiana magnolia and crotalaria added their charm. A well designed rock garden, with rosemary, hebes, dwarf conifers, nandinas, goldfussia, diosmas, mesembryanthemums, sedums, and alpines, gave a great permanency to the display.”

The rocks were still there, in terraced rows leading down from street level, and the rosemary and the conifers had matured into unruliness. Essentially, though, the winning garden had disappeared, apart from the plaques that commemorated the prize. It felt something like coming across a trophy in an op shop, engraved with a name and achievement, but disconnected from its champion.

The fountain had been installed with great fanfare in 1964, in commemoration of Bexley North’s Olympic medallist, the swimmer Robert Windle, who had won gold in that year’s Tokyo Olympics. The fountain had a prominent position on the corner, instantly noticeable to anyone passing by, whose attention would have been captured by the sight of a giant metal tulip, with a curtain of water cascading down from its stem, rising up out of a concrete dome into which slabs of stone were set. I like to imagine that when, in August 1980, The Cure played at the Bexley North Hotel, Robert Smith might have wandered across the carpark to contemplate the fountain’s lonely prominence on the corner.

Nairn Gardens, 1960s//Bayside Libraries

Vanished fountain, unruly garden, the mesembryanthemums long gone. In 1995, the fountain was removed, and replaced by lawn and a row of flagpoles, and the garden’s flowers were replaced by hardier species. I sit on one of the benches and look over a palm tree in a hexagonal concrete planter, set in the cusp of the park benches as an object of contemplation. The wind blows big dry leaves from the plane trees and wisps of trash across the lawn and the path. Occasionally someone comes past, carrying a bunch of Mother’s Day flowers or a bag of shopping back to the carpark. The sky is a bright blue, with big mottled stripes of clouds cutting across it. I sit on the bench in the late-afternoon sun and watch them move and disperse, slowly changing into different shapes altogether.  

18 Comments on “In Bexley North”

  1. sallykj says:

    How sad that the work of one generation is not valued by the next. I came across an equally neglected garden at Haberfield recently – not prize winning ( that I noticed) but named after some now got gotten local luminary.

    • Vanessa Berry says:

      The winner that year was the Memorial Park in Chatswood – which is still in good shape, but I imagine the archives of the SMH garden competition might have many that have disappeared or are hidden.

  2. Another wonderful journey into the palimpsest of the unprepossessing suburban. Thanks Vanessa

  3. Vanessa Berry says:

    Thank you Peter, that is a good description!

  4. Bruce Searle says:

    Grew up in Bexley North Vanessa, or more exactly, Bexley North was ‘my railway station’ from which I would embark on my planned adventures in the CITY. Never gave a thought to
    the garden and was long gone to the inner west by the time The Cure played.

    • Vanessa Berry says:

      Ah, interesting, thanks Bruce – there’s not much documentation of the garden apart from its grand opening… though records suggest the fountain was there until 1995. Even so, I enjoy thinking of The Cure in Bexley North!

  5. Vanessa says:

    Lovely post Vanessa,
    Happy to have been with you at its inception! X

    • Vanessa Berry says:

      It would not have happened without you! Thank you for leading me here – what a thoroughly good day that was.

  6. I could almost be there Thank you Vanessa.

  7. dxnerd86 says:

    I believe that is M. Wayne’s stomping ground, or close to it. I am originally from the St. George area too; it’s nice that it’s getting some love on here. There are actually some ghost signs to be found in the southern suburbs…if you’re a keen explorer. You will need a passport and negative COVID-19 test to visit ‘The Shire’ of course.

    • Vanessa Berry says:

      Yes I thought of Michael as I was looking at the window display for the computing/electronics shop that boasted fax machines and dot matrix printers! I may go south again soon…

      • dxnerd86 says:

        You could visit Scarborough Street, Monterey and do a comparison with the vistas shown in the videoclip for Mental As Anything’s song ‘He’s Just No Good For You’. Hint: there are barely any single storey 1950s/60s dwellings there these days; it was different in 1987 when that song was released. The corner store on Chuter Avenue still exists but is now a pizza cafe. That story is actually right up Michael’s alley but I know you’re a creative writer…

        The clip is here and it’s such a slice of a (lost) Australian suburbia:

      • Vanessa Berry says:

        Ah that’s a great idea! Such a classic mid-suburban street and the video’s a treat.

  8. jim soulios says:

    Another well researched , emotive and descriptive article Vanessa

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