When my friends told me that I could get there by ferry, Gladesville became my next suburban discovery. So here I am, on a sparkling Sydney morning, standing at the bow of a ferry leaving Circular Quay with the wind in my hair.
Huntleys Point Ferry Wharf
I love being out on the water in the fresh air. We pass a huge passenger ship and then speed under the harbour bridge. I recognise the Balmain Foreshore and White Bay terminal from my Balmain discovery. We pass under single arch of The Gladesville Bridge before I alight at the new Huntleys Point Ferry Wharf. Even this close to the city, I am soon surrounded by bush.
Following the path, I pass a football field (with toilet facilities) and check out the skate park. The local community was strongly opposed to the park being built fearing it would attract “the wrong sort”. It’s the only skate park I remember with no graffiti.
The Henley Community Centre looks busy. Perhaps there’s a game of bridge on the go or a meeting of the Sydney Fly Rodders Club (fly fishing for the uninitiated like me). I walk in a vague easterly direction hoping to find a walking path. These wanderings often pay off.
This time I stumble upon the Henley Baths at the end of a small park. Down the stairs, on a narrow ledge next to the water, is a solid picnic table. The water laps against the wall while yachts bob about on their moorings. A very pleasant spot. Leaving the park, I notice a small brass plaque on a rock. It is dedicated to a couple who lived happily next door for many years.
Old Gladesville Hospital
I am a bit lost. The wiggly line on my map of the Parramatta River Walk is not much help. Fortunately, Google Maps helps me find the way to the old Gladesville Hospital. In the yard of a childcare centre, a little boy interrupts his game on bright play equipment to call out ‘hello’. At the entrance to the hospital grounds a sign warns that I enter at my own risk. I idly wonder what dangers await me.
Once The Tarban Creek Lunatic Asylum (then The Hospital for the Insane and later Gladesville Mental Hospital) the hospital was built in 1838-1839. It was thought that the pleasant surroundings would assist with rehabilitation. However, overcrowding and high walled ‘airing yards’ meant no or limited access to said surroundings.
High Stone Wall
The high stone wall is imposing. It’s completion in 1866 meant that patients could wander more freely in the grounds. I reflect on the people who were held here and the miseries they endured. Today the many heritage listed buildings, empty of patients, are used by a range of health and medical organisations.
Two large headstones mark the graves of early superintendents, Dr Frederick Norton Manning (who instituted important reforms to psychiatric care) and Dr Eric Sinclair. Beside them are the more recently added much smaller headstones for a former patient and a friend of the hospital. A drinking fountain (no longer working) also remembers Dr Manning and another superintendent, Dr Blaxland. I smile at the name of the Medical Museum. S.P.A.S.M. (Society for Preservation of the Artefacts of Surgery & Medicine).
Gladesville Art School, is housed in the old sandstone pottery building. There is nothing happening here now, and I follow signs to the Cornucopia Coffee Shop and Nursery (which unfortunately is no longer operating – Oct 2019), admiring the architecture and a tunnel that passes under Victoria Road. Cornucopia is run by MARS Inc, which provides employment and support to people living in the community with mental illness.
After a hearty early lunch, I wend my way to the water where I hope to find a walking trail. The oval with its grassed terraces is familiar. I am sure I have been here before…oh yes…. it was to welcome the Olympic Torch way back in 2000. What an exciting time that was.
The oval overlooks Bedlam Bay. Bedlam in my mind means chaos, pandemonium or mayhem, but in years past, bedlam (originally a contraction of Bethlehem) actually referred to a lunatic asylum. At last I think I have found the Bedlam Bay track that has been eluding me and walk east along the foreshore to the location of a salt water bathing area once used by patients.
But the path soon ends and I walk back to a road, past the fenced off and overgrown Folly and out of the hospital gates. There finally is the start of the Bedlam Bay Walk. It means backtracking albeit on a different path but here goes.
The track is shaded. The leaf litter rustles as lizards skitter out of my way. I am wary of snakes and jump at a louder noise. I stop and look around. Phew, it’s only a brush turkey. Informative signs along the route describe the history of the area. I pass middens and climb pick marked steps shaped by the chained convicts who were building the Great North Road.
I read the story behind the naming of Looking Glass Bay and how a punt once transported people and goods between Bedlam Point and Abbotsford. It’s a quick walk back to the start and to Rock End Cottage, now Banjo Paterson Restaurant.
Now, I am in suburbia, walking the streets of Gladesville. A large loom takes up almost the whole front room of a home. What a peaceful pastime, passing the shuttle back and forth. A wharf catches my eye. Closer inspection reveals that it is a private jetty. The houses here are large and expensive looking. One has a private lift.
A group of young boys are finishing a rowing class. In Glades Bay Park, I follow the Walabu Track, which highlights how the Aboriginal people lived here before the settlers arrived. It is a short, but pleasant shaded walk through mangroves on the edge of the river.
The boardwalk ends with a flight of stairs to Ross St which leads me to Victoria Road for some urban exploration. A car enters the driveway of a unit block and descends out of view via a car lift. No old-fashioned, space consuming ramp for this new building.
As in many areas, the shops on this busy road seem to be struggling. Some are vacant and others have moved to make way for demolition. A guitar shop, a remote controlled door salesroom, a locksmith and even a handmade chocolate shop are interspersed with the usual cheap eats. Building facades are a mixture of old, new and anything in between.
My choice to continue to the traffic lights, instead of making a risky crossing of four busy lanes of traffic, rewards me. In a kind of street front car park is what I can only describe as a VW graveyard. I have a soft spot for VW Beetles. I remember being driven around in one oh so many years ago.
There is one more place on my list. Mercato e Cucina is a delicatessen, grocer, butcher, wine cellar and restaurant all rolled into one. The displays are inviting and it looks like a good place to get Italian produce. A few people are finishing off their lunch, and I leave them to it after a brief look around.
Final Thoughts on Gladesville
Today has been interesting and fun. It has brought back memories. While I arrived by ferry, I am returning to the city by bus. It is quick and efficient and fitting that I end my Gladesville discovery by driving over the Gladesville Bridge.