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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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