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.
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.
The trees are a clue, visible from Clarence Street above the two entrances to the underground parking garage. The trees’ tall, wintery shapes seem to hover, like the buildings around them are dreaming of a forest. Behind them is a wall with peeling paint and sash windows, seven storeys high. The tallest tree reaches almost to its roof.
The entrance to the arcade on this side of the building is a narrow doorway, easily passed by. So too is the entrance to the garden, which has the look of a service corridor, branching off the arcade and its row of typical city small businesses: a barber, a sandwich shop, a newsagency. But if you pass through the doors you are delivered into a courtyard with trees and palms, and a pond into which a stream of water pours.
The trees that were visible from the street below are planted to either side of the garden, and underneath them are benches and paths, enclosing this garden amid the city high-rises. They surround it, so on one side is the back of the office building on York Street, across the road is the concrete stripes of another parking garage, and above is the St Martins Office tower, the building of which the garden is part.
The tower was built in the early 1970s on the block bordered by York, Market and Clarence Streets. Being across from the Queen Victoria building, with its sandstone warmth and elaborate detail, the St Martins tower has a functional, anonymous presence within the contemporary city. At street level, it is easy to walk past it without noticing it as a place it is possible to enter.
When I did, and found the garden, there was no one else there. It was mid-afternoon, and I could hear the city all around, a roar only partially obscured by the rush of running water from the fountain. The traffic on the street below groaned past, and the air conditioning ducts on the side of the building churned in restless interruption. I walked up to the edge of the pond and the carp swum over towards me, hoping for crumbs. They kissed the water’s surface, their bright orange backs looming up.
The sun had slipped behind the buildings already, so the garden was in shadow, but I pulled my coat tight around me and sat for a while, under the trees, listening to the city as the carp clustered, ever-hopeful, in the shallow water below.