I don’t do marathons. Pheidippides dropped dead at the end of the first ever marathon in 490 BCE, and I’ve no intention of following in his footsteps. However WordPress.com recently asked its approximately half million bloggers to participate in a 5k. run or walk during the week leading up to 10 April. And as I’m very grateful to any organization with a business plan that includes a free blog space, I’ve done as instructed. Yesterday morning I went for a 5k walk around my home suburb of Sandgate.
The historian Manning Clark famously said that a historian needs a good pair of boots. And it’s true. Ideally, to get a sense of the history of a place, you need to get around its geography. I used to live in Brisbane’s western suburbs, a featureless sprawl of postwar chamferboard and tile, where it was very difficult to get a sense of the pre-settlement landscape. Once the natural watercourses are funneled into culverts, and the hills and valleys are tamed into real estate, it is hard to get a sense of place, or of a prior Aboriginal presence.
Sandgate is different. In Sandgate, the past is still visible; the bones are close to the surface. Lagoons, escarpments and the sea shape the land, and the natural cycles of the seasons are visible too: the coral spawns in summer and brings in fish; sting rays dig into the sand on the full tide; wading birds migrate from the northern hemisphere in summer. It’s easy to get a sense of what this place looked like, a century, or two centuries, ago.
Heading out the front gate, I’m at the bottom of the cliff after which my street, Cliff St., is named. At the top of this cliff, in December 1859, a man on horseback waited for the new Governor, Sir George Bowen, to sail into Moreton Bay. As soon as the ship rounded Moreton Island, he set out to ride the 12 miles into Brisbane, to alert the local dignitaries. Bowen brought with him the Letters Patent that proclaimed the new colony of Queensland.
Turning left, it’s a couple of hundred metres walk along Cliff St to the corner, to reach the shores of Moreton Bay. To the right I can see the Sandgate pier, but I’m heading northwards, to the left, along Flinders Parade. This part of southeast Queensland once had the largest Aboriginal population of anywhere in Australia, because of its abundant food resources – fish, water birds, turtle and eel – in the salt water of the bay, and the fresh water lagoons. Now the mangroves and sea grasses have gone, and a sea wall, built as a depression project during the 1930s, has been topped with another layer on concrete blocks – against a rising sea level?
On the corner of Cliff St and Flinders Parade is the Baptist Church, built in the 1880s. It was built in a style known as ‘carpenter Gothic’, as an ecumenical space for all Protestant denominations. My grandfather worshipped there as a young man, and I’ve been to weddings and funerals there, but it’s secular now, a children’s crèche.
Sandgate was proclaimed a town in 1880. When the railway came through in 1882, it became a popular holiday destination, full of boarding houses for naughty weekends or respectable honeymoons, as well as a wealthy town in its own right. Walking along Flinders Parade, I pass a number of old houses from this period, all with their own names: Cremorne, Torquay, Seaview…
Torquay is currently for sale, and I visited for a peep during an ‘open for inspection’ day a few weeks back. Wide timber floors and walls, complete with stenciled paneling, high ceilings and generous spaces, broad cool verandahs, a classic Queenslander. Beside the kitchen, there is a room with a separate entrance that must have been the maid’s bedroom. It is also the only house I’ve ever seen with its own bomb shelter, built during World War II, when people with houses on the waterfront were frightened of attack from Japanese midget submarines.
The cross streets, very boringly, are numbered rather than named. I walked past First and Second Avenue to Third Avenue, which is low, and floods in heavy rain, such as the January floods. Old maps show that there was once an occasional waterway linking the First Lagoon – Einbumkin Lagoon – to the sea at this point, a route for migrating eels that is now cut off by the sea wall and concrete walls around the lagoon. But those walls have contained the lagoon since the 1960s, and the eels are still there, so are they making their way overland in wet weather, or travelling underground through the storm water drains?
I walked on, past a couple of restaurants and an ice cream outlet, to Seventh Avenue. On the corner is Cremorne. The house was owned by a theatrical family, and named after the Cremorne vaudeville theatre in South Brisbane, which opened in 1911. The actor John McCallam grew up there. Now there’s a new Cremorne Theatre at South Bank, and the old Cremorne at Sandgate is due for renovation.
I turned up Seventh Avenue, away from the water, but before leaving, it’s worth a last glance out to sea. I’ve been walking in a gentle crescent along the esplanade, so the view is broader than from my own street. To the left are the Glasshouse Mountains, straight ahead is Moreton Island, and to the right is Sandgate pier, with the cranes of the port of Brisbane now clearly outlined behind it. This northerly part of Moreton Bay is called Bramble Bay, after HMS Bramble, which mapped the coastline in 1851.
Behind the avenues, parallel with the waterfront, the land has been rising gently, and Seventh Avenue ends at another cliff face, with a pathway up to the main road above. Somewhere here, below the escarpment, was a native police encampment during the 1850s and 60s. The Native Police were a quasi-military force of Aborigines, recruited out of their own tribal areas, under the control of European officers, whose job was to police the frontier. And Sandgate was the frontier, in the 1850s. The first land sales took place in 1853.
It’s an easy walk up the pathway to Brighton Rd, then across the road to the right of the Catholic church, and take the pathway down to the Second Lagoon, Dowse Lagoon, named after an early settler, Tom Dowse. In 1858 Aborigines attacked him near the lagoon, triggering the arrival of the Native Police. ‘Lieut. Wheeler, of the Native Police, cleared out the aboriginals, who never again troubled Sandgate,’ reported E.V. Stevens ominously.
Dowse Lagoon is brimming with fresh water at the moment, though 3 years ago it was almost empty, with scrubby weeds growing across most of the surface. Spoonbills and black swans used to breed here. I haven’t seen them back since the drought, though a lot of effort has gone into making this area more bird (and people) friendly, with bird hides, nesting boxes and toilets.
I followed the pathway around the lagoon, then up the small rise, barely high enough to call a hill, that separates the two lagoons. Here on the rise are the various symbols of authority: Catholic and Anglican churches at either end, and between them, the state school, the RSL, the bowling club, and the magistrates court. One oddity is the British Australian Club, established 1958, dating from the era of the Ten Pound Pom, when new British immigrants came here to live because it was cheap, its grand homes broken up into flats and boarding houses after the war.
I walked down the hill to the shopping centre on Brighton Rd, its centre of gravity being pulled inexorably towards the new supermarket at one end; the rest of the shopping strip now looks rather like a row of teeth, where every loose tooth destabilizes its neighbours.
Ahead, enclosed now in a one-way traffic system, is the old war memorial, with a garden and a small rotunda. Then across the road to the Town Hall, built in 1909 in a rather splendid art deco style. Sandgate’s town hall is one of a number of similar town halls that date from before Brisbane’s suburban councils were amalgamated in 1925. All of them, these days, lack real purpose, except to house the public library and host an occasional concert.
Then I’m back in Cliff St., heading for home. I’ve probably walked 5k, though I can’t be sure since I didn’t take a pedometer with me. It doesn’t matter really. The exercise proves once again that Sandgate is rich in history – its bones are close to the surface. I just wish mine were.