Surry Hills, Sydney…A Sense of Place.

After arriving at Central Station, I walked through the maze of underground pedestrian tunnels taking me from Country Trains through to Elizabeth Street, where I finally set foot in Surry Hills.

There are so many incredibly ecclectic nooks and crannies in Surry Hills and what I really love about the place is just setting out and wandering around camera and notebook in hand, pen and imagination at the ready.

That said, on my previous trips, I have had a map because I was busy trying to retrace my family’s footsteps through Surry Hills and was definitely a woman on a mission. Today, I’m just wanting to unwind.

When I last visited Surry Hills, I stumbled into a fabulous vegan cafe apparently called Me & Art. However, I knew it as “the Vegan Mary” because there was a painting of the Vegan Mary out the front and while not intending any disrespect, I found it pretty funny and I love, I mean I really love a bit of quirkiness. I guess it was all this artwork which drew me into a vegan cafe because I’m not even vegetarian.

The Front of the Cafe.

The Front of the Cafe.

I am not always good at stepping out of my comfort zone with food, mainly because I don’t want to waste money and I hate wasting good money on food I don’t like…especially when I’d a good cook.

Almost Heaven: Coconut Chai Latte.

Almost Heaven: Coconut Chai Latte.

However, I must have been feeling rather adventurous because I stepped right out there well beyond the familiarity of my much love but very safe cappuccino and ordered a Coconut Chai Latte. This turned out to be so much more than just a drink. I felt like I was skydiving through fluffy, coconut clouds as I made my way through the drink. It truly was extremely divine and utterly unforgettable…as was the cafe itself.

So, here I am on a previous visit:

Enjoying my Coconut Chai Latte at the “Vegan Mary”. The fashion mags were for my daughter. These days, I wouldn’t know fashion if it bit me on the nose!

However, unlike my Dad who only has to visit a place once to find his way back, I am rather geographically challenged and while you’d have to say that Albion Street is pretty hard to miss, I somehow turned left instead of the usual right coming out of the station and veered off into Devonshire Street, having lunch at the Sly Cafe instead.

So why does someone who lives and breathes the beach end up escaping to Sydney’s urban Surry Hills, which is so cluttered with terraces that you’re lucky to have a backyard the size of a pocket handkerchief. Moreover, these days that’s a very expensive pocket handkerchief indeed!

Many, many moons ago in my life before marriage, mortgage kids and responsibility, I rented an assortment of terrace houses in the city in places like Chippendale, Glebe, Broadway both while I was an Arts student at Sydney University and also once I started working in the city. Although I never lived in Surry Hills, at times my local supermarket was there and turning back the clock about 20 years, I remember it as a rather grungy, rough sort of area, although the tide was starting to turn as “the yuppies” who’d been doing their thing in neighbouring Paddington, were moving in. Back then there was a mix of Victorian terraces and industrial complexes and Surry Hills has long been home to the rag trade.

The J Curtin Truck with my Great Grandfather and Grandfather.

The J Curtin Truck with my Great Grandfather and Grandfather.

My Dad’s side of the family, the Curtin’s, lived around Surry Hills and Paddington from the 1850s through to around 1930’s and had a stove making business at 90 Fitzroy Street until around the mid 1940s. Researching my family history, I found myself being drawn deeper and deeper into the history of the Irish who lived and breathed in those narrow, crooked and overcrowded streets and found myself constructing a very strong sense of place in our family history.

90 Fitzroy Street today.

90 Fitzroy Street today.

This was largely fueled by Ruth Park’s trilogy about the Darcy family who lived at Twelve-and-a-Half Plymouth Street. The first book in the series, The Harp in the South was published in 1948. The book is rich with descriptions of Surry Hills and she really leaves you with a sense of living and breathing the lives on those streets:

“The hills are full of Irish people. When their grandfathers and great-grand fathers arrived in Sydney they went naturally to Shanty Town, not because they were dirty or lazy, though many of them were that, but because they were poor. And where there are poor you will find landlords who build tenements; cramming two on a piece of land no bigger than a pocket handkerchief, and letting them for the rent of four. In the squalid, mazy streets of sandstone double-decker houses, each with its little balcony edged ‘with rusty iron lace, and its door opening on to the street, or four ^square feet of “front,” every second name is an Irish one. There are Brodies, and Caseys and Murphys “and O’Briens, and down by the corner are Casement and Grogan and Kell, and, although here and there you find a Simich, or a Siciliano, or a Jewish shopkeeper, or a Chinese laundryman, most are, Irish.”

Irish Signs at the Porterhouse Pub, Surry Hills.

Irish Signs at the Porterhouse Pub, Surry Hills.

Although I did find a great Irish pub on one trip, contemporary Surry Hills is very cosmopolitian, ecclectic and multi-cultural.

Returning to Surry Hills after something like a 20 year gap, it was familiar yet different. More village-like than I recalled. I noticed many people out walking their dogs. Dogs which looked very well-kept… pampered designer pooches rather than the rough and ready mutts which used to roam those streets.

However, what struck me most was the trees. Urban, somewhat grungy Surry Hills has been transformed into an urban village with a green canopy. Towering paperbark trees thrive beside the terraces and I could even hear the squawks of rainbow lorrikeets among the leaves. For me, this somehow gave Surry Hills a sleepiness, an incredible beauty and it was a fabulous testimony of how an urban space can become regenerated and green.

Not unsurprisingly, I found myself equally attracted to the incredible trees in Surry Hills as the terraces and as the light dancing through the leaves and across sweeping branches, I zoomed in through the lens exploring every detail.

As if I hadn’t already found enough to love about Surry Hills, it is just so artistic and even the graffiti is better.

Welcome to the Arthole

Welcome to the Arthole

Awhile back, I stumbled into what I’ll call: “The Art Dungeon” in Campbell Street. It is in the quirkiest location underneath a vintage fashion shop which is incredible in itself with such an array of fabric, velvets, sequins and a veritable tour through flower power, sequins, pill box hats and deep purple coats.

Captured this scene in the Art Dungeon. So many things you could say...

Captured this scene in the Art Dungeon. So many things you could say…

Anyway, the art dungeon gets rented out to an stream of up and coming artists and it’s all a bit like life at the top of Enid Blyton’s Magic Faraway Tree…you never know quite what you’re going to find.

Exhibiting Artist Luke Temby from Cupco httP:\\

Exhibiting Artist Luke Temby from Cupco httP:\\

I haven’t been back there but when I last went, I met up with exhibiting Artist, Luke Temby from Cupco and felt like I’d been transported to a veritable fantasy world.

However, if you know me at all, you’ll know that no Rowie tour is complete without a trip to the Opportunity Shop (thift or charity store depending on where you’re from). While Surry Hills has been blessed with an abundance of pubs since its inception, I’ve only found one Op Shop: the Salvo Store at 399 Crown Street (just up from Albion Street.

I must admit that it is indeed a rare day that I walk out of an op shop empty handed but as they keep telling me, my purchases are helping the homeless and so who am I to resist such a good cause.

Speaking of being homeless, I picked up this stunning bride doll from the Salvo Store this week and naturally felt compelled to put a roof over her head. After all, we couldn’t have a homeless bride, could we?!! She is intended to be a gift for my daughter but she’s currently in my room. She needs to be looked after.

The Homeless Bride.

The Homeless Bride.

I also picked up a copy of the Masterchef Cookbook from the first series where Julie Goodwin became Australia’s first Masterchef. It was an excellent find. Rather than being full of impossible gourmet nightmares way beyond my capabilities, this book is actually very educational and informative, teaching you much of the basics…including how to cut an onion.

However, after leaving the Salvo store, my Cinderella moment had come and after mixing up the time of my medical appointment, I was rushing down Albion Street hoping to fly all the way to Royal North Shore Hospital, instead of relying on public transport.

So, unfortunately I didn’t have time for my much anticipated Coconut Chai Latte and I guess the rush took the sting out of my horror. The Vegan Mary Cafe, as I called it, was gone without a trace and there was just a bland, white-washed terrace left in its wake. Somehow, I’m going to need to get my fix and am going to try to get one locally.

I understand that time and tide stand still for no one and that I can’t take things like a coconut chai latte for granted. We must carpe diem seize the day with both hands.

I AM FOREVER walking upon these shores,
Betwixt the sand and the foam,
The high tide will erase my foot-prints,
And the wind will blow away the foam.
But the sea and the shore will remain

xx Rowena

14 thoughts on “Surry Hills, Sydney…A Sense of Place.

  1. merrildsmith

    Thank you for the tour and the history lesson! Great photos–too bad “the Vegan Mary” is gone. Perhaps it’s relocated? The photo of your grand and great grandfather with the truck is so cool.

  2. roweeee Post author

    Thanks, Monika. I’m going to have to try and find a local cafe who’ll make me the coconut chai. It was just divine and isn’t awful when you stumble upon somehting like that which you really enjoy and then it’s gone.
    BY the way, my friend Ian who lost Spitz, ended up getting another dog. We found a wonderful little dog called Zac, which is foxy x Australian Terrier. He only weighs around 6 kilos and he’s just over a year old. He just seemed tailor made for Ian in the ad as he gets on with cats. Here’s a link to the ad
    We’ve been down to the beach with him and Ian two days running and he’s been the only other dog who can keep up wioth Bilbo’s ball chasing obsession. In fact, Zac runs fast him. His legs move so fast, it’s like they’re whirling. My goodness. I wish I had his energy. Hope Bilbo doesn’t have a heart attack trying to catch up. xx Rowena

  3. roweeee Post author

    You’re welcome, Merril. I ha great fun going through my photos last night and had forgotten how much material I had snaffled up from my previous trips to Surry Hills. I’ve probably been there 6 times in the last 18 months and I always find something incredible. It has also been interesting retracing my ancestors footsteps there. Many of their houses have been knocked down but some are still standing. I found myself walking along the streets and counting the number hoping. A school has been on the site of one of the houses for over 100 years. That really seemed odd.

  4. roweeee Post author

    Thank you very much. There’s some fabulous food out here….what they call gourmet Australian but there’s also a strong Asian influence. I enjoyed your post about the smoky BBQ. I hate it when you take people to a place and it lets you down. Doesn’t reflect well on your judgement. xx Rowena

  5. barb mann, artist, writer and world fighter for justice

    I was searching thru your endless site thinking where do I connect here? but I was seeking to see about being a guest blogger and of course I would glad to reciprocate since I now know how this is done. My nasty something or other deleted 1/2 my post.
    well here goes: I too have a brides doll story and drawing. MM I wonder if she ever made it to the altar? sitting there for years.Most fun was when I examined my doll to see if she had underpants on. Does this make me a bad person? lol
    I’m sending her to your house, she’s down in the dumps.barb

  6. roweeee Post author

    Thanks, Monika. I’m going to have to try and find a local cafe who’ll make me the coconut chai. It was just divine and isn’t awful when you stumble upon somehting like that which you really enjoy and then it’s gone.
    BY the way, my friend Ian who lost Spitz, ended up getting another dog. We found a wonderful little dog called Zac, which is foxy x Australian Terrier. He only weighs around 6 kilos and he’s just over a year old. He just seemed tailor made for Ian in the ad as he gets on with cats. He’s a great little dog with boundless energy.

  7. roweeee Post author

    Given our geographical location, Australia does have fairly close ties with Asia, which are reflected in our food. Thai is particularly popular and something you can easily cook at home and makes a healthy takeaway meal. Chinese is still popular and I’ve spotted a few Vietnamese restaurants over the last few years. Our food really is a big melting pot.

  8. roweeee Post author

    You should have seen it after he’d been chasing the ball through the sand. Quite a different dog! He runs so fast chasing the ball that his legs a whirling and poor Bilbo can’t keep up. His title as the “Ball King of Dog Beach” has been snatched away! xx Rowena

  9. Minuscule Moments

    Oh my Rowena back in the day I use to walk those streets too. I was a Newtown girl for many years and loved the inner city life. Thanks for the tour. Surry Hills looks as funky as ever.

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