There’s a secret garden open to all at Lavender Bay on Sydney harbour. You could walk within fifty metres of it, and not know it was there. You must visit it. You will love it. Like every secret garden, it has a fascinating story, waiting to be discovered.
It’s not my first secret garden. Bushwalking with my family in the remoter parts of the Hunter Valley, we discovered several. There was the remnant kitchen garden of an abandoned depression-era shack, stumbled upon without warning. There was a forgotten orchard where, hidden in long grass and blackberry bushes, we found fruit for jam making. There was a tiny family cemetery, overlooking a deep creek, engulfed with honeysuckle, a sweet favourite planted by a bereaved pioneer among the graves of loved ones.
I also discovered secret gardens in childhood stories – like The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett, and Oscar Wilde’s The Selfish Giant. These stories told of the healing and redemptive powers of finding a secret garden and bringing it back to life.
Wendy Whitely’s secret garden at Lavender Bay came into existence as she sought to regain control of her life after the death of her husband, major Australian artist Brett Whitely .
The garden is on steeply sloping, railway-owned land, directly below the house Wendy and Brett had shared. Its views of Sydney harbour are the subject of many of Brett Whitely’s famous paintings. After Brett Whitely’s death, Wendy, in her own words, “obsessively attacked” the then degraded, rubbish-strewn, overgrown vegetation on this large tract of land, with a vision of creating a garden.
Wendy’s approach to her garden was driven by aesthetics, colour, form, beauty and whimsy. The plants are lovely but unremarkable, the structures and features are makeshift and sometimes ad hoc- it is the garden as a whole, and Wendy’s achievement, and the accessibility and generosity, which make this garden a delight and a treasure.
I visited the garden on a sparkling summer day in late December. It was an easy excursion by train from Newcastle, and an ideal break from the frenetic Christmas socialising. The garden is hidden away just a few hundred metres from North Sydney railway station. The railway line forms the boundary between the garden and the harbour.
Zig-zagging pathways have been cut into the steeply sloping hillside, and retaining walls constructed as required.
There’s an eclectic mix of construction materials and techniques.
The plants appear to have been dominantly selected for their foliage, mostly green enlivened by occasional bursts of colour from bright flowers, or red and yellow leaved tropical plants.
The south-facing slope and the spreading canopy provided by venerable Moreton Bay fig trees enable the tropical rainforest-like microclimate to flourish (generous watering is also needed in summer, I suspect). There are palms, huge birdsnest ferns, monsteras, cunjevoi (Alocasia brisbanensis, the Australian native “elephant’s ear”), macrozamias, agaves, brachychitons, cliveas, tree ferns, banana trees and hundreds more plant types.
There are nooks and crannies, secluded pathways, tables and seats inviting the visitor to rest, enjoy the marvellous views, eat a picnic lunch or simply absorb the tranquillity and seclusion in sunlight filtered through myriad leaves high overhead.
Dogs are welcome, and there are water bowls for them, and for the birds.
There are sculptures hidden away, and interesting assemblages and features made from discarded items brought to light in the process of cleaning up the site for construction of the garden.
On the day I visited, many others were there to enjoy Wendy’s secret garden.