There are thousands of wonderful gardens in Sydney, but there’s a very special secret one – that’s actually open to everyone. And what a delight it is.
Actually, it’s not that secret – it’s been much talked about and written about and photographed for many years, but when you first catch a glimpse of it tumbling down a steep embankment below an aged and sprawling Moreton Bay fig, it feels like you’ve chanced across a marvellous discovery, just like that one you may have read about as a child.
The garden sits nestled at the foot of Lavender Bay, peering across Sydney Harbour and one of the world’s most beautiful views. Built on public land, it’s the brain child of Wendy Whitely, widow of one of Australia’s most iconic artists, and sits at the base of her Rapunzel-like home overlooking the blue of the water.
Its formation begins with grief: when Brett Whitely died in 1992, Wendy hurled herself into a restorative project and attacked the wild overgrown mess (and state railway-owned) below her home that sat unused except as a dumping ground for rubbish. Without any knowledge of gardening, she began to weed, and rip out, and plan, and gradually transform this derelict space into an oasis. In fact, she did this for over 20 years.
It was an enormous project. No one told her to stop, so she just kept going, even more fervently when her only daughter died some years later and there was more grief to contend with.
It’s the result of many, many hundreds of hours of love and labour, Wendy’s own and those of the gardeners she funds, and now as well a band of willing volunteers who lend their enthusiasm and man (or woman) power.
And it’s a wonderful result.
Wander through the terraced pathways that meander down the hill and you’ll discover little trails and eruptions of colour and moments of whimsy, the connection to art and creativity never far away. A teapot here, a fairy there, an old bike that was discarded years ago – and everywhere paths wandering up and down, revealing little treasures, and generous pockets of shaded space where anyone is welcome to come and sit.
And then there’s that view.
Oh, and look – there’s Wendy herself, hard at work pulling out weeds, conferring with a gardener, then stopping to have a good old natter with the neighbours.
And here’s that view again, this time in the form of a portrait by Brett Whitely of his beloved harbour, now hanging at the Art Gallery of NSW, painted from the exactly the same place, his ‘optical ecstasy’ as he once described it.
I just love that in one of this country’s most coveted locations where only a favoured few could dream to reside, a little corner of tranquillity has been claimed back from neglect to be shared with everyone. That there’s a green space of surprises that’s open to everyone to meander through, to discover, and to relish.
How very Australian.
You can learn more about the garden on its website (https://www.wendyssecretgarden.org.au) or you can buy (or beg or borrow) the book ‘Wendy Whitely and the secret garden’ by Janet Hawley. They have signed copies of those at the local bookstore just up the road from the garden in Lavender Bay.