As anyone travelling out through the suburban sprawl knows, it can take a long time to leave Sydney. Driving south from the city is to watch the suburbs unravel, until the new estates disappear and are replaced by fields. Finally the city is behind you.
In the days before cheap air fares, travellers to Melbourne faced a 12 hour bus or train journey, or a slightly quicker trip down the Hume Highway in a car. Whichever way you chose, you shared the same experience of the suburbs finally dwindling and a sense that you might just make it out of Sydney after all. On the return journey this feeling was reversed: sighting the factories and new estates of the outermost suburbs was the first tentative sign that Sydney lay ahead. Still an hour or more away was the city itself, with the harbour and its centrepiece, the bridge.
If you ever lifted your sleepy head from against the window of the Firefly express bus after it made its first Sydney stop in Liverpool, however, you might have been fooled into thinking the city had been rearranged in your absence. For outside the window and much before schedule was Sydney’s most recognisable landmark.
Possibly the only one of Australia’s “big things” – apart from the Leyland Brothers’ World replica Uluru at Karuah – to actually be smaller than the original, Sydney’s second harbour bridge is like a sapling growing far from the tree it sprung from. The bridge marks the entrance to the Peter Warren automotive empire. Sydney’s longest running auto “mall”, the Peter Warren compound occupies a 22 acre lot across from the Warwick Farm racecourse. Warwick Farm, with its run down motels, Masterton display home village and horse racing track is at the point in suburban sprawl where everything feels expanded. There is enough space to accommodate warehouses and car yards here, although the neverending traffic of the Hume Highway suggests you pass through, rather than stop. Electronic signs flash up offers to entice you off the road:
GOLD MANSION PACKAGE $50 000!
ALL YOU CAN EAT ALL DAY
The display home village, or steak barn can be seen set back from the road, separated from the highway by the no man’s land of lawn where their flashing signs are moored.
Like the original Harbour Bridge thirty kilometres away, the Warwick Farm version is topped with flags and draped in lights for special occasions. But in a strange inversion the traffic flows not across but underneath it, on a harbour of asphalt. Newer, shinier versions of the cars rushing along the Hume are found on the other side of the bridge, arranged on ramps, bonnets up, salesmen lurking among them.
It is a rainy day when I approach the Warwick Farm Harbour Bridge. It feels wrong to be walking. Eight lanes of cars separate me from the bridge and I watch them stream past, driver after driver clinging onto their steering wheel and squinting into the rain. Then the lights change and a few test drive cars move slowly out from Peter Warren. The drivers pause for me to finish crossing the street and I hurry, feeling vulnerable in the way it is easy to as a pedestrian surrounded on all sides by cars.
At the foot of the bridge I tap a pylon to see what they are made of: bricks that are cold to the touch and, at the top of the structure, covered with a pale green rash of lichen. One pylon has a plaque commemorating the opening of the replica in February 1988, the other a plaque in memory of Peter Warren, the patriarch of the car emporium, who died in 2006.
The idea to have a replica of the harbour bridge at the entrance of his car dealership came to Peter Warren while he was watching the 1987 Manly vs. Canberra NRL grand final at the Sydney Cricket Ground. Before the game, the pre-match entertainment centred around the construction of a replica harbour bridge. Men in bright blue overalls carrying crossbeams raced to construct the bridge, as teenage girls in white bodysuits branded with a purple NSW enthusiastically swung their arms in a dance move that can only be described as the mashed potato. In a orchestrated event worthy of an Olympics opening ceremony in both scope and kitsch, each team in the league was represented on the field with a sign, a flag, and local mascots: Coffs Harbour, for example, had someone dressed as a banana. Behind the horsemen, kids in “I helped make this state great” sweaters, and Julie Anthony singing the national anthem, it was the bridge that caught Warren’s attention. What was going to happen to it after the game? He arranged for it to be relocated to his Warwick Farm car yards for the bicentenary, and it turned out to be so popular and good for business that it became a permanent fixture.
(The bridge first appears at 1:55…)
When the real Sydney Harbour Bridge was opened in 1932 it brought great change to the city. Not only were the north and south sides of the city linked, Sydney now had an iconic engineering marvel to solidify its identity. Even now after thousands of crossings I find it impossible not to look out the window when travelling over it by train. I choose the western side of the upper level of the carriage for the least interrupted view. Looking over the harbour below and what seems to be the whole city spread out around it, I can’t help but feel a sense of wonder.
Growing up in the northern suburbs, the bridge has been a major part of my life; it separated the quiet, homely north from the exciting city and the great unknown network of suburbs to the south. As a child, I would clutch the 20c coin until it grew hot, waiting to pass it over to my mother when we drove through the toll gates on our way into the city. One exceptional journey occurred in a limousine, which had been hired to convey a group of eight year old girls, of which I was one, to see a production of HMS Pinafore in the city. This strange escapade was the birthday party for one of my classmates. The limousine had travelled from her house in St Ives and as it drove us across the bridge, I poked my head up through the open sunroof and stared up at the beams and crossbeams of the arch above me, my friends screaming at my bravado.
The older I became the more frequent were my journeys across the bridge. Once I was across it I felt invisible to the constraints of life in the north. Had I grown up elsewhere perhaps the bridge might not have had such personal significance. Those growing up in the south of Sydney might go years without travelling across the bridge; some might never travel across it at all. Regardless, it holds a great symbolic power for all Sydney residents. Go to Circular Quay any time and you will see people stopped, staring at it, tourists and locals alike.
The Warwick Farm Harbour Bridge is not so much grand as incongruous, a reminder of the city in a place that feels far away from it. The lawns on either side of it have a springy, manicured feel, the kind of grass that is decorative and only walked on by gardeners. On the side of one of the pylons is a square door, just big enough to climb into. It is locked, so I peer in through a crack to see the space inside it, a chasm damp and green with mould. If Warwick Farm were under siege, I thought, this would be a good place to hide.
The pylons of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, which appear such an integral part of the structure, are in fact ornamental. John Bradfield, the engineer responsible for the bridge, thought the arch alone looked too stark, and so the pylons were added for aesthetic reasons, and to convince the public of the bridge’s stability. In the 1930s the south east pylon was opened as a museum, featuring amusements such as a camera obscura, funhouse mirrors, a miniature railway, a “Mother’s Nook” for women to write letters, and a “pashometer” – a machine that rated one’s sex appeal, as well as sightseeing telescopes. After closure during the second world war the pylon museum reopened with even more tourist attractions: a tearoom, the largest existing map of New South Wales, a post office, and a family of white cats that guarded a wishing well at the pylon lookout and had their own merry-go-round.
Today’s pylon display is more museum than amusements gallery, although it displays some of the ephemera from its previous incarnations. One of the hand painted signs must have originally been on the stairs in the post-war pylon museum, its caption “look behind you for the way to the top of the world “.
The bridge was Sydney’s tallest structure until the construction of Australia Square tower in the 1960s, but while it has been superseded in height, climbing it provides a “top of the world” thrill that the sealed environment of an observation deck can’t replicate. Walking under the bridge at the Rocks, hearing the sound of chains above, it is most likely a string of Bridgeclimbers, wearing grey jumpsuits and secured to each other and the railing by a safety chain. Bridgeclimb began as a business in 1998, but before this many people climbed the bridge illegally, so many that in the 1980s there was a guestbook on the summit for people to write messages. Anyone who left a message became a member of the Sydney Harbour Social Climbers Association, a tongue-in-cheek ‘club’ whose code of ethics included such items as “I shall not unplug the beacon at the top of the arch” as well as refraining from vomiting on the traffic below. Climbers were mostly men, some serious explorers and others on drunken adventures. They climbed up through a series of chambers inside the lower archway. Once they reached the summit they had the thrilling experience of looking out across the glittering mantle of electric lights reflected in the night harbour.
The first bridge climbers were the thousands of workers who constructed the bridge in the eight year period from 1925. Working high above the harbour without the safety equipment, the groups of men appear almost casual in photographs, wearing cloth caps and braces. As well as working at a height, many of the construction activities themselves were dangerous, such as working with the rivets. Each rivet was heated until it was white-hot, then tossed to another worker who hammered it in place. Six million rivets hold together the steel arch of the bridge, a structure which now seems so complete it can be difficult to imagine it was constructed by human hands.
The men in blue overalls at the 1987 grand final were paying homage to these workers, as the model bridge itself is a homage to the greater structure. All world landmarks undergo a splintering into millions of representations, captured under snowdomes, , their likeness found on bottle openers, beach towels, and commemorative teacups, or recreated in matchsticks by crafty pensioners. From the 1930s the bridge’s likeness was celebrated in souvenirs and was the focus of sometimes unlikely crafts: in 1933 readers of the Woman’s Weekly could enter their Harbour Bridge themed crocheted tray mats into a competition called “Symphony of Steel”. While the bridge had been constructed by eight years of hard and dangerous labour, the end result was heralded as something more like a symphony than a civic structure, a work of art with great symbolic and emotional power.
Since its faintest beginnings Sydney Harbour Bridge has always existed in multiples. Now suburban harbour bridges are everywhere: on shop signs, in logos and murals, on beach towels hanging up to dry on washing lines. These millions of bridges are tiny hooks that connect the fabric of Sydney together.
At the Warwick Farm Harbour Bridge the rain pours down as I stand watching the cars move through the cycle of traffic lights at the intersection. The rain has turned everything grey and the surface of the road is slick and wet. A few cars turn into Peter Warren and drive in under the bridge, but most continue onwards along the Hume, either drawn towards the city, or escaping from it.