As Hunter’s Hill on Sydney’s lower North Shore, is one of the more affluent suburbs of Sydney, I’m expecting fine homes and leafy gardens when walking through this old and historic suburb.
Before Hunter’s Hill – Woolwich
To reach Hunter’s Hill from Woolwich Wharf, I must first walk through Woolwich, a small suburb located at the tip of the peninsula where the waters of the Lane Cove and Parramatta Rivers meet. Then, I’ll explore the ‘more expensive’ peninsula of Hunter’s Hill, leaving the non-peninsula section for another day.
Already, I’m a bit disoriented, confusing my limited local knowledge (having lived in nearby Lane Cove for many years) with what I remember from briefly scanning my notes. A man and woman walk towards me beating a fast pace. Apologetically, I stop them to ask directions. Having cleared up my confusion, they stride off. Apparently, I’m looking for the ‘Goat Paddock’ which isn’t far at all.
It soon becomes apparent that what in the past were simple sandstone cottages are now large luxurious mansions, but vestiges of the original homes remain. A metal conical roof over a small alcove, stone walls and some weatherboard features.
In the 1840s, before becoming prosperous, the area was a haven for bushrangers and today the obviously wealthy residents still seem nervous of intruders. Homes stand safely behind walls and hedges, their driveway entrances protected by electric gates and security cameras.
Identifying Heritage Homes in Hunter’s Hill
Blue enamel plaques with white numbers identify three consecutive houses, but I can’t find an explanation anywhere. There is also a round bronze plaque embedded in the pavement on The Point Road, explaining that ex-convict, Samuel Onions was granted land here in 1835.
Seventy of these plaques identify places of historic interest throughout Hunter’s Hill. To find all 70, I would need to walk the six Hunter’s Hill Heritage Walks. Instead, I’ll follow my own route which combines sections of these walks.
Some homes have a rectangular brass name plate fixed to the gatepost indicating the approximate date of construction. These enamel numbers, brass plaques and name plates all point to the wealth of heritage in Hunter’s Hill.
Taking the path through the Goat Paddock, I stop and read on an information panel how labourers took four years to carve Woolwich Dock out of the sandstone. Then I continue winding my way down to Woolwich Dock to inspect this amazing achievement.
Today is Monday, and there is plenty happening at the dock. Men don wetsuits and prepare their gear for ‘underwater boat maintenance’. A dry dock crane moves into position. As instructed, I keep to the path.
Towards the back of the dock, I see what appears to be the rusted rotting hull of an old boat. A man, whose weathered features and nautical cap mark him as a boatie, asks if I know what I am looking at.
He explains that it is in fact the gate used for closing off the dock. Called a caisson, it sank when the compartments were filled with water thus blocking the entrance to the dock.
Men working on the long mast of a nearby racing yacht tell me that it stands 45m tall. Once in position, it will clear the Harbour Bridge by five metres.
The crane driver manoeuvres his cumbersome vehicle into position, having hoisted the yacht ‘Smuggler’ out of the water.
My sailor man sits in the sun on the deck of The Deckhouse reading his paper and enjoying his morning coffee, his dog tied up nearby.
The walking track continues around Clarke’s Point with views to the Harbour Bridge and across to Cockatoo Island which was once a penal colony. Only one convict imprisoned on Cockatoo Island escaped. He was Fred Ward who in 1863 swam to the mainland and later became known as the bushranger Captain Thunderbolt, shot by police in 1870.
Two artists stand at their easels, back to the water painting the bush scene in front of them. A fisherman baits his line and a couple with a thermos drink tea while enjoying the view.
Away from the parkland now, a ‘W’ carved into the sandstone above a front door intrigues me. The name ‘Woodstock’ crafted into the tall open metal driveway gate provides further information. Substantially altered and added to, the centre section of ‘Woodstock’ is the oldest surviving house in Hunter’s Hill.
Following the bush track through Kelly’s Bush, which forms part of the Great North Walk I listen to the birds twittering in the scrub. Kelly’s Bush is yet another victory for community action (in this case, The Battlers for Kelly’s Bush), Jack Mundey and the Builder’s Labourers Federation and other Unions.
After “The Battlers” (whose determined action came to nought) contacted the Unions in 1970, Green Bans resulted in the developer (A.V. Jennings) backing down and the bushland later being purchased by the State Government for Open Land.
Hunter’s Hill Proper
Outside one home, a sign advertises “Heritage Restoration and Stone Mason”. With around 500 heritage sites in Hunter’s Hill, these skills must be in high demand.
Garden services mow lawns and clear paths of autumn leaves. Builders work on renovations and a group of painters sit on the sidewalk eating their lunch. One greets me with a “Happy Monday”.
In Wybalena Road, smaller homes reside alongside mansions. A sign advertises a five-bedroom, three-bathroom house for sale. My little two-bedroom cottage would fit in the garage.
The shopfront of the sandstone “Post Office Cottage” stands empty. An old sign for Carey Cottage Restaurant hangs on a side wall. I ate there years ago, but the restaurant has closed. Now a family home, some of the original cottage (C1860) remains.
Sandstone garden walls are everywhere in Hunter’s Hill. Many have wide bases, probably contributing to their longevity, having been built over a hundred years ago. Some bear the marks of having been hewn by hand.
The French Village
Historic Garibaldi Inn was, like other sandstone houses in the area, built from local sandstone. Garibaldi Village Square adjoining the old Inn looks like a good spot to stop for lunch. Service is slow at the French named café, but my baguette is tasty.
In the mid-1800s, two French brothers, Didier and Jules Joubert, bought up much of the land on the peninsula, subdividing it in such a way that properties had water views with a central road running the length of the peninsula. For a time, Hunter’s Hill was known as the French Village.
Italian and French stonemasons built many of the sandstone villas seen around Hunter’s Hill today. I walk past another simple rectangular sandstone home (with a large sympathetic extension behind it) which served as the Post Office from 1879 until the larger Post Office building over the road was opened in 1891.
Checking my map, notice that Ellesmere Mansion is nearby and take a look. This grand sandstone building has seven chimneys. Research reveals that the mansion, now called Ellesmere Estate, has been divided into eight properties.
Hunter’s Hill Public School, besides being one of the oldest schools in Sydney has another claim to fame. A friend of mine taught Cate Blanchett’s children here. Many celebrities and politicians have made Hunter’s Hill their home over the years.
After noting the ‘Dangerous Dog’ sign, I see the personalised car rego. The fish baron “DECOSTI” either lives in this large home with lacy ironwork and views to Barangaroo, or he’s just visiting.
Having read about the long steep flight of stairs to Ferdinand Reserve, hugging the Lane Cove River shoreline, I decide to check it out. There’s not much there – a dilapidated boat shed with warnings not to enter, an old white boat seat on a rusted pedestal and that’s about all. It wasn’t worth the effort.
Away from the central road running the length of the peninsula, the only traffic is local traffic. It’s quiet and peaceful. That is, until the “Dong! Dong! Dong!” and repeated announcement “All Clear! All Clear! All Clear! Please proceed to the second field.” blares out from what must be a fire drill test at the local high school. The announcement continues to disrupt the peace for at least five long minutes.
I can’t see ‘Innisfree’ located as it is behind closed gates set in a fine stone wall are closed. Behind these walls, the proclamation of Hunter’s Hill as a municipality was read to residents in 1861.
A brass plate outside Passy House, a large home behind a high wall, prompts me to find out more about the house. Considerably altered since the French Consul to Sydney lived there in 1855–56, more recently it was owned (and may still be) by Eddie Obeid and his wife.
I’ve only Scratched the Surface of Hunter’s Hill
All that remains is to walk back to the ferry and reflect on what I’ve seen and learnt. Arriving by ferry, I’ve observed the working dock at Woolwich and discovered heritage and history in Hunter’s Hill. This post only scratches the surface. Perhaps it will encourage you to explore Hunter’s Hill further.