Jan Harper

Our COVID-19 Travel Diary

“Exercise” was a great gift during the Pandemic, and Brian and I, both in our late 80s, grasped it with both hands (or rather, both feet).  We early decided to pretend we were Melbourne tourists, so each morning we left the house with our walking sticks and focussed on a different garden, park or trail, starting with those nearest home – Catani Gardens, St Vincent Gardens and Westgate Park – then further afield as restrictions allowed. We avoided sporting fields, playgrounds and shared bike paths.

On our return each day I would Google the garden for its history and associated art works, find an apt quotation or historic picture, print my photos, sketch or paint, maybe of masked walkers or astonishing tree roots, and write about what had impressed us – perhaps the garden design, the vegetation and birdlife, or the people and dogs we saw or spoke to. Sixty walks produced 60 double-page spreads in our “Covid-19 Travel Diary”.

The variety of parks and gardens we visited was remarkable, everything from botanic gardens to foreshore trails, from lake reserves to native grasslands. A park like Fawkner featured avenues of trees; a garden like Maranoa was ablaze with Australian plants;  and a garden like Alexandra in Kew represented the “Gardenesque” aesthetic in a “pocket” setting.

Which were my favourites?

For lush garden beds flowering in winter, the National Trust properties, Como and Rippon Lea were the leaders.

Small gardens in the heart of busy suburbs, like the Hedgeley Dene Gardens in Malvern or the Victoria Gardens in Prahran, gave a wonderful feeling of enclosure from their surroundings.

The parks and gardens in the West of Melbourne – Footscray Gardens, or Cherry Lake in Altona – were special partly because the other walkers were so friendly.

For features like fountains and sculptures, Queen Victoria Gardens and Carlton Gardens would have to be on the short list.

The extensive lakes, particularly in the northern suburbs, were distinct both for their birdlife and for the reflection of light and beauty that still water provides.

Unspoilt was Gresswell Forest Nature Reserve in McLeod –  70 hectares of bush and birds, previously enjoyed by patients at Mont Park Mental Hospital, including “shell-shocked” soldiers after World War I.

The Iramoo Wildflower Grasslands in Cairnlea, an example of several grasslands in the Western suburbs, was a real surprize.

And the St Kilda/Elwood foreshore hit the jackpot for beautiful trails.

The origins of this range of parks and gardens were of great interest. The large public parks and gardens that encircle Melbourne were reserved by Governor La Trobe in the early 1850s to establish a ring of green around the city, and we are ever grateful for that.

The suburban Botanic Gardens in St Kilda and Williamstown, with their intricate walking paths that invited a stroll, were established in the mid 19th century and had generous help from Baron von Mueller, who supplied most of the trees that are now magnificently huge.

Many of the smaller gardens in the suburbs started their lives, following Aboriginal use, in private European hands, often for farming, and were either donated by owners or purchased by municipal authorities, who have developed and maintained them. One example is Landcox Park in Brighton East, bought as a farming estate in 1841 by Henry Dendy, later Premier of Victoria, and J.B. Were, a portion of which was sold to Brighton Council in 1905.

Others replaced industrial uses. Gasworks Arts Park in Albert Park followed the decommissioning of a gas plant, Karkarook Park in Heatherton had been mined for sand, and Alma Park in St Kilda East was used as a loam deposit and a depot for road metal.

More recent parks and gardens were often reclaimed from rubbish dumps. Westgate Park at Fisherman’s Bend was said in 1970 to be “scrofulous scenery indeed – dead water, swamp, sick factories, dead wood, wretched refineries, wheezing chimneys, institutional putrefaction,” (Age). Then there is Cruikshank Park, in Yarraville, which had been surrounded by noxious industries – meat processing works, glue industries and tanneries. The skyline of Cherry Lake in Altona still displays dozens of industrial chimney stacks.

Many feature lakes and wetlands. The beautiful grotesque pond, grotto and fountain in the Malvern Gardens was a natural spring. Some lakes, such as Coburg Lake Reserve, Newport Lakes and Darebin Parklands, had been quarries that were exhausted and allowed to fill with water. Some, such as the wetlands at Royal Park, use aquatic plants and weeds to absorb and clean stormwater runoff. Others, like Albert Park and Cherry Lake in Altona, were used for flood retention.

A number of parks and gardens rely on “Friends” groups for voluntary labour. Sadly their activities were cancelled during the Covid19 restrictions, leaving their charges a little neglected. As we walked in these, we averted our eyes from the weeds that had begun running away.

I feel particular gratitude to the 19th Century garden designers, like Carlo Catani, William Sangster and Thomas Pockett, and for later ones like Edna Walling, for creating the foundations on which so many of our gardens rest today, and to the curators and gardeners who add to and maintain them.

Being autumn and winter, I focussed particularly on the trees  – their trunks, their leaves and their fruit. I blessed those who had carefully labelled them. This was to be expected in botanical gardens, but much appreciated in the small but lovely Kamesburgh Gardens in Brighton and the suburban Hopetoun Gardens in Elsternwick. The labelling allowed me to learn about the tree’s habits and origins (some from exotic locations). The Morton Bay Figs, with their massive convoluted trunks, stole my heart.

And every day our legs got stronger.

Jan Harper

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