The gully in which I work is a cleft running east-west into the sandstone cliffs along Sydney’s eastern seaboard. Over millions of years a small creek has cut this cleft about 600 meters back into the sandstone sediments. Between the beach at one end of the gully and a pretty waterfall at the other, the creek, once a series of sandstone rock pools that sang with the sound of water over rock, is now a silent concrete drain.
Prior to European settlement, most of the sandstone landscape hereabouts was clothed in coastal heath. You get some idea of what it once looked like if you wander around the national park at the heads of Botany Bay, ten kilometres south of here – undulating sweeps of low, impenetrable scrub terminating suddenly in yellow cliffs plunging into blue water. The scrub of banksia, acacia, hakea, tea-tree with hard, prickly little leaves, clinging ferociously to thin hungry sandstone soils is kept low by salt winds. However, the cleft provides some protection from those salt-winds, and much of this gully was forested, with the heath restricted to higher ground. Along the floor and lower slopes of the gully, a ribbon of rainforest flourished.
Much of the gully was cleared for a pleasure garden in the 1840s. By the time the area was subdivided for suburban development early in the 20th century, most of the vegetation on the northern slope was gone, replaced by sand dunes. A little later, this entire northern slope became a tip site, where domestic rubbish smoldered acrid smoke for weeks. Then, in the 1970s, several streets of housing demolished for a shopping mall were dumped here, spilling down the hillside, creating a steep slope, 60 degrees in places. A dozen coral trees Erythrina christa-galli, were planted to stabilise the slope. Fallen branches of these trees throw out roots and shoots that become new trees. That dozen is now a forest of over 100 trees. Other than that the hillside was left to weeds for a quarter of a century. It remained one of the rare pieces of Nobody’s Land in one of the most densely populated parts of Australia.
On the far side of the gully, things are very different. The original homestead has been standing on an east facing bluff looking out to sea since the 1840s.
As the local manor house it is a relatively humble though quirky affair – a single story cottage in the picturesque style, with corner turrets, tessellated façade and gothic windows looking out over extensive gardens. These grounds have a long history of neglect, bookended by some enthusiastic gardening. Georgina Lowe, first mistress of Bronte House, expressed her passion for gardening in a letter to her mother-in-law in distant England. ‘I am in the garden all day, and quiet delight in cultivating our place’. Both passion and skill are apparent in the extent of the horticultural accomplishments she notched up in the less than five years she lived here. She supervised creation of the extensive ornamental garden that spilled out from the house, down over the edge of the bluff into the gully, and across a babbling brook. The vegetable garden provided enough to feed the household and supply a produce stall at the Sydney markets. She also proved adept at germinating seeds acquired on Leichhardt’s first expedition into northern Australia, as well as seeds sent by family from England. You’ve got to admire the sheer energy and resourcefulness of such a gardener. I found it a challenge making the biogeographic shift from Melbourne to tichy Sydney garden, let alone coming from England to Australia to set up grand estate and successful market gardens.
Watercolour of Bronte House outlook painted by Georgina Lowe
The woman certainly left her mark on the gully. On the slope opposite me, dropping away from the levelled ground surrounding the house are some very big plants, Morton Bay and Port Jackson figs, giant bamboo Bambusa balepa, some eucalypts and camphor laurel Cinnamomum camphora, all most likely planted by her. Such is the size of these trees, that, although not closely planted, they form an unbroken canopy falling away from the level sunny garden. This dense wall of foliage is home to the numerous birds who hold rowdy choir practice each day at dawn. Along the gully floor and up this northern side where I work, the forest canopy continues, but here composed solely of coral trees on landfill. Unlike the far side, this part of the canopy disappears in winter when the corals drop their deciduous foliage to leave only the namesake bright red flowers. These are favoured by the rainbow lorikeets, the raucous, gaudy chorus line of the sunrise choir. For the rest of the year the upper half of the gully has total canopy cover. The continuous canopy, the cool shady microclimate beneath, and abundant noisy birdlife, give the gully the pleasant ambience of rainforest just a few hundred metres from the beach.
After Mrs Lowe and husband returned to England, the house was purchased by a wool-broking family in whose hands it stayed for a century until acquired by the local council. The manor house and its immediate garden were fenced off and leased out privately. Over the years, while the gully itself was not built on, but the heath-clad high ground was hived off for residential development, the babbling brook became a drain, this northern slope a tip, while garden and gully went to rack and ruin. Only the huge ornamental trees flourished. About the time I migrated here from Melbourne, a minor celebrity in the local arts scene acquired the lease on the house and spent a small fortune restoring the garden to its former glory.