Saturday, 10 September 2011

Day 7: Obsolesence, St James' Church and Manly

Not far from the Sydney Opera House, on the edge of the Royal Botanic Gardens are some scattered stones. I saw them first during the bus tour, thinking they looked like gravestones but that the location was too unusual for there to be a small patch of graves, not to mention the layout irregular. And so I decided to take a closer look when next in the area.

It turns out something a little more esoteric is in place. The stones appear to be from an old building, and seem to have been deliberately placed, sometimes embedded into the ground, to give the impression of ruins. One stone is a plaque and reads "This building was opened by her Excellency Lady Stonehaven 1926" and a little probing reveals that Lady Stonehaven was the wife of the Governor-General of Australia during that time.

So the ruins may well be genuine, or at least genuine stones from an old building. With the exception of one: a stone television with the word "obsolescence" written on it.

In the absence of any explanation as to what it is, this stone TV appears to be the only clue (even the internet doesn't offer anything), and so I guess that it is some permanent art installation using the most notable pieces of a dismantled building. It's certainly unusual, a somewhat enigmatic display of stones that aren't marked or signposted and quite easy to just pass by, but are quite evocative of ancient buried ruins, even if they have been deliberately placed.

Along the same road, which begins at the Sydney Opera House, is Hyde Park. I visited it again earlier today, with the sun shining, to find it full of tourists taking photos of each other at a fountain, as well as a youthful brass band and drummer playing, and a large open-aired chess game with lots of homeless people shouting at each other. Just off Hyde Park is St James' Church, an Anglican church and the oldest church in Sydney (a tiny croft-like church built by Scots in the town of Ebenezer, about 50 miles north of Sydney, takes the title of oldest in Australia, built in 1809). I had decided to specially seek it out as it featured in a BBC series and book called "Around The World In 80 Treasures" in which art historian and television presenter Dan Cruikshank did a tour of the world to witness the world's 80 best treasures. Although it didn't just focus on monumental buildings, and featured such cultural items as the samurai sword and the Volkswagen Beetle, there was a definite overlap and similarity with what I'm doing. For Sydney he eschewed the more conventional choices of the Harbour Bridge and Opera House, and chose St James' Church, citing its peaceful atmosphere and intimate beauty.

And these are two things I would definitely agree with. Although dwarfed by the nearby St. Mary's Cathedral, and the many skyscrapers that lie next to it, it is a pretty church nestled in the very heart of Sydney. It is pretty on the outside, but on the inside it is absolutely immaculate. Wonderfully maintained, it is a joy to slowly walk around, looking at the many plaques on the wall, and the glorious, almost abstract, stained-glass art of the small sanctuary on the side. I was lucky enough to find a time when I was the only person there, so just sat a while absorbing the silence. I am entirely irreligious, but am nonetheless a big admirer of religious buildings (they take up a very significant percentage of all the Wonders I am visiting), and in the case of Christian churches, enjoy the peace and calm they emanate. A divine tranquility, a more religious person might say.

After St James' Church, I decided to go on a walk along the coast of Manly, a scenic suburb of Sydney, most easily reached by ferry.

It was wonderful, and I would go as far as to say that any visitor to Sydney should make this the very first thing to do. They should arrive at Spit Bridge, about six miles from Manly, and walk the beautiful coastal route along beaches, wooded paths, under overhanging rocks and with glorious vistas of Sydney's islands and peninsulas, with the sea packed full of yachts and ferries. It's a beautiful stretch of coast and really shows off Sydney, highlighting how the city really has been built across peninsular dollops and blobs.

But the real reason I would recommend visitors begin this way is because upon finishing the walk - the Manly Scenic Walk it is called - they would then take the ferry to Circular Quay in the middle of Sydney, and get what I would imagine is the perfect introduction to the Sydney Opera House and Harbour Bridge. It's a half hour boat journey and finishes by sailing around the Opera House with the Harbour Bridge looming ahead, and is a spectacular way to first encounter the Opera House.

Although I've still not formally visited the Sydney Opera House, preferring to wait until Burness arrives until I begin forming my opinion, it already has been a feature of most of my days. Whether I'm in a shopping centre in Bondi with a view across the city centre, or simply walking near the harbour with it suddenly appearing in view, or even just seeing it in the numerous posters and postcards in which it obviously features, it is all-present. Already I can see that it defines Sydney. Daily it seems to tease me, giving me glances from various directions and perspectives, and I'm greatly looking forward to finally and properly seeing it, not to mention going on the tour and seeing a performance there.

All of which is coming up soon, as Burness - thus my alcoholic travel partner for the next eight months - arrives tomorrow.

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