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Monday, 10 April 2017

Life in Hyde Park

The easy way to Sydney's Hyde Park is by train.  There are two stations on the city circle that drop you off there: St James station at the northern end, named for the nearby early colonial church (designed by that great convict, forger and architect, Francis Greenway), and Museum station at the southern end, not too far from the Australian Museum.  Any number of buses run along Elizabeth Street past the park.

The pleasant way to get there is to walk.  Hyde Park lies along the eastern side of the main city district, so you can reach it by heading up almost any east-west street in the middle of the city.  If you miss it, you will probably bump into either the open grassed areas of the Domain, or the Royal Botanic Gardens.  Between them, these three open areas make an almost continuous belt of green, penetrating more than a mile from the harbour, up into the CBD.

There are no real times for Hyde Park to be open, and no gates or fences to keep you out, but it may not be the best of places to wander in the middle of the night.  It is not, however, a muggers' paradise like Central Park in New York.  Not yet, anyway...  On the other hand, it would be a shame not to go there at night, for the giant Moreton Bay fig trees are filled with tiny bud lights, making the park a fairyland for young children.  Fairyland with a bite, maybe, for you will often hear the harsh squabbling of the fruit bats as they feast on the figs overhead.

Tawny frogmouth, Middle Head, Sydney.
There are birds as well, ranging from daylight's noisy, pushy gulls and pigeons, to ibis with long curved beaks, prowling the garden beds and spearing the soil in search of worms.  By day, there will be a couple of tawny frogmouths, owl-like birds which imitate dead stumps, sitting motionless somewhere in the park, their disguise betrayed only by the spatter of white droppings beneath their favourite roost.  At night they hunt insects and small mammals, but by day, they remain motionless.

In about 1992, I was working nearby, took a camera into the park in the early morning, at a time when I calculated that the perch would be in sunlight, and took several careful photos.  An old man, one of life's less fortunate beings, wandered past.  He stopped to see what my target was, and said gravely, ‘Excuse me, mate, I think that kookaburra's dead.’  Then he wandered on without waiting for a reply.  Next came one of the gardeners, wanting to know how I had stuck ‘that thing’ up in the tree.  She had been working in the immediate area for a month, and had never noticed the bird on its branch, just three metres up.

The gardeners know all about the other wild life in the park.  There is an active population of possums living there, and the thick leaf litter of the garden beds provides a rich source of invertebrates to stoke a food chain which is also supported by the park's visitors.

The invertebrates have mostly come in with potted plants at various times, and include some rare treasures.  Around that time, I worked at the nearby museum, and we were in the habit of paying serious money to get Peripatus, velvet worms, from Victoria, so we could show these unusual animals to people.

Velvet worms have stubby little legs, and look like the missing links between the worms and the arthropods.  They catch their prey by spitting sticky slime at them, but they look delightful, with a jet-black matte skin.  You can imagine my delight (and the museum accountant's annoyance) when a children's workshop that I was running started to find velvet worms in leaf litter samples from Hyde Park!  Later, we found giant pseudoscorpions, 5 mm in length, and all sorts of other treasures that the passing tourist would never know about.  My friends the gardeners were equally excited when I took part of our catch back to show them what we were getting.

Once upon a time, it was just a race course and a cricket ground, sometimes referred to as ‘the exercising ground’.  By 1816, it was Hyde Park, but even in 1840 it was nothing grand.  Mrs. Charles Meredith called it ‘a park utterly destitute of trees . . . merely a large piece of brown ground fenced in, where is a well of good water, from which most of the houses are supplied by means of water-carts.’
Hyde Park in the 1850s: no trees, but sheep as lawn mowers.

Here, that usually reliable observer was a little off beam.  After the original water supply for Sydney, the Tank Stream, was completely polluted, Busby's Bore was established.  The ‘Bore’ was a long sloping tunnel, running down from swamps in what is now Centennial Park to Hyde Park.  From there, the water ran in wooden above-ground pipes to the corner of Elizabeth and Park Streets, high enough for the water carts to be filled by water pouring from the pipes.

At least one modern guide-book to Sydney tells a sad tale of the convicts toiling away with windlass and bucket, hauling water to the surface, but the whole tunnel was started at the lower end, at ground level, and was always drained on gravity.  The only thing to be hauled out by windlass was the rock spoil from the tunnel, once the tunnel had gone far enough to make it difficult to haul the spoil back to the lower opening.

Water remains a theme throughout the park, with fountains and pools in many places.  The Archibald Fountain at the northern end is a delight when it is running  On a more serious note, the southern end of the park contains a large War Memorial and the Pool of Remembrance, which seems mainly to commemorate fallen leaves and ice cream wrappers.
The Archibald fountain can be fun when the wind blows.
The statue of James Cook at the southern end was set up where he could look down on the harbour, but now the trees have grown, buildings have sprung up, and poor old Cook is more or less landlocked.  Still, the statue can, if viewed from the appropriate angle, cause uncontrolled lewdness and hilarity in most adolescents, due to a most unfortunate telescope.

Hyde Park is largely a passive activity area, although the old men who play chess there are anything but passive, crowing with delight as they capture each other's pieces.  This activity is well worth watching, but be warned: they can be scathing in their response to those who offer advice.  Their version of chess is a no-quarters form of psychological warfare, and no prisoners are taken.

Anybody who walks there often gets to recognise the regulars, like the man with the long pole who goes around putting slices of bread in the trees for the possums, the power-walkers, the dawdlers and the bird-watchers.  The gardeners know the regulars as well, and when a flower bed is cleaned out in the early morning, the flowers are saved in bundles, and handed out to the recognised faces as they trudged along the gravel paths.  In a city of five million people, it is nice to know that there can still be a sense of community like that.

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