My research on the Sydney suburb of Ashfield has me on the lookout for parks, historic buildings and a cultural mix. I wonder what else I will find in this historic suburb in Sydney’s Inner West.
In Charlotte Street, the streetscape is like many in the inner west. Above the small shop fronts, signage on the metal awnings has seen better days, and decorative facades remember a different time. One red and white sign is newer than the rest.
I recognise the word “Polski”. The door slides open. That’s all the invitation I need. The Asian man behind the counter laughs when I ask if he speaks Polish, and then rattles off a couple of words. My husband speaks Polish and I recognise “do widzenia” (good bye) and “dziękuję” (thank you).
People come to Ashfield from far afield to buy their Polish groceries. The Polish church is up the road and there’s a Polish doctor nearby. I buy horseradish for my husband and leave smiling. These encounters invigorate me and make my walks worthwhile.
Murals funded by Ashfield Council are different in style from the Street Art of the Perfect Match program in Marrickville, yet they too seem to have deterred people from tagging the walls. A delightful row of small single fronted Queen Anne cottages in Wood Street were built in 1908.
Ashfield Park sculptures
Ashfield Park is spacious with plenty of shade. Beyond a big beautiful fig, is a well-maintained community garden. Nearby, a shiny yellow bicycle intrigues me. A laminated card informs me that the bike is part of a relatively new dockless bike sharing scheme. I’ll have to check out how it works.
I spend some time playing “find the sculpture”. There is an Aboriginal Rainbow Serpent sculpted from the trunk of a felled tree and the figure of Philippine hero Jose Rizal who advocated for reform in the Philippine Colony under Spanish rule. Executed in 1896, he became an icon for the Nationalist movement.
Nearby a monument to “International Mother Language Day”, tells me something new. Celebrated each year on the 21st February this day aims to foster access to education in the learner’s mother tongue.
The war memorial stands proudly where four paths lined with rosemary cross. I crush some leaves between my fingers and inhale the unmistakable scent.
The author of Mary Poppins, P.L. Travers, lived in Ashfield for a time. There is a sculpture of Mary Poppins standing proudly inside the play area. She holds her signature umbrella with parrot head handle and beautifully detailed carpet bag.
The Explorers Park is on the corner of Liverpool Road and Parramatta Road, where many Australian explorers started their journeys. An Aboriginal totem, designed to raise awareness of Aboriginal heritage in Ashfield has an arrow indicating Pemulwuy. He popped up in Parramatta as well as in Addison Road, Marrickville. The connections between suburbs are fascinating.
An arch of wisteria shades the petal covered walkway which runs the length of the narrow park. Metal plaques name the explorers, map their routes and a provide brief history of their discoveries.
The Bottle Brush (Callistemon) is in flower and brightens up the streetscape as I walk to the next point of interest. The sound of heavy digging dominates. Work on the controversial WestConnex is well underway.
A beautiful building, with a domed tower, is now an aged care facility like many of the grand old homes in Ashfield. St John’s Church, built in the 1840s is the oldest authenticated building in the suburb. A worker resting in the shade of the entrance to the church offers to move so that I can take a photo.
Another grand building looks like a church with its four-storey tower. In fact, it is a 10-bedroom Queen Anne style mansion. While a community garden and a “Little Library” create a sense of community, the numerous “report illegal dumping” signs and a few piles of discarded goods indicate a problem.
Boys play ball at Hammond Park on Frederick street where a line of trailers advertise anything from asbestos removal, tree lopping and roofing. They are an eyesore. The building that once housed the Peek Freans (Vita Wheat) factory is now home to a large hardware store. There is no hint of its previous use, but the clock tower added in the 1940s remains.
The Underline Project
It is time to explore the other side of the railway line. When children from St Vincent’s Primary school approached the Council to clean up the underpass in 2008, The Underline Project was born. With many community members contributing, the underpass is now decorated with bright panels which alternate with historic photos representing the past, present and future of the area.
In Hercules Street, I read about Mei Quong Tart, the first Chinese citizen in Ashfield. A bearded man in a panama style hat is sitting nearby. He says “Excuse me, that man you are reading about, my grandfather was his lawyer”. “Tart wasn’t silly”, he tells me. “He didn’t go to the goldfields. He started selling tea and set up Tea shops in Sydney”. I sit down to hear more about Tart and his family who apparently still live in the area.
Liverpool Road has a definite Asian feel. It seems as if most of the shop signs are in Chinese and many of the people around me are of Asian background. Yet the Crocodile Farm Hotel is just like any Aussie pub. Except for one thing. I push the corner door open to find out more. From under the glass floor two bright eyes stare straight at me. They belong to the big fat croc on display in floor of this hotel.
Unfortunately, the Polish Club and its small goods Shop will only open later today. The Exodus Foundation on the grounds of the Uniting Church, is a charity I support for its great work with homeless people. I pass their Loaves and Fishes Restaurant. An older woman is leaving dragging her shopping trolley behind her.
Feeling refreshed after a bite to eat at Wests Ashfield Leagues Club (pretty much like all Leagues clubs), I walk back to Victoria Street and through Allman Park. There, a couple of people are asleep on benches, their belongings in bags besides them. A father supervises his young child pushing his walker across the grass. The beautifully manicured garden has a water fountain (bubbler) feature.
Back in Victoria Street, a honking sound emanates from the fronds of the palm trees lining the road. A closer look reveals nesting Ibises. I pass more grand houses and boys playing cricket on the Trinity Grammar oval. In Yeo Park, the restored rotunda gleams in the sun. It was worth the extra walk.
Returning to the station I pass the Ashfield Reservoir (1914). It has state significance with its riveted steel walls and concrete posts. Pratten Park, a sports oval, has a small sculpture garden showcasing pieces owned by Ashfield Council. One, “Celebrating Nature” was created by the local Men’s Shed.
Another, known as Ashfield’s “Rosetta Stone” welcomes visitors to the area in various languages. Nearby, the grass tennis courts of Thirning Villa (1868) are still in use today.
Final thoughts on Ashfield
After a long day discovering Ashfield in Sydney’s Inner West, I have met interesting people and developed a better appreciation for the suburb. Filled with historic buildings, lovely parks and delightful sculptures, it is worth spending time getting to know Ashfield and surrounds.