Alice and Shania go to a secret garden

On Lavender Bay's open secret.

Art by Shania

“And we shall walk and talk in gardens all misty and wet with rain. And we shall never never grow so old again.” 

Wendy Whiteley’s secret garden is arranged in a swirling whirlpool of hidden pathways and cluttered gardens, and is settled over multiple levels of greenery. Bangalow palms shoot up from the sandstone rockface, bright orange nasturtiums pop out from walls, and potted flowers hang from drooping trees. Groups of children run rampant through the never ending pathways, kicking soccer balls and searching for fairies hidden amongst the flowerbeds. Statues of cherubs pluck away at mandolins, trees are etched with the names of long-lost lovers, and a single marble lion stands guard over the garden path. 

The blustering wind and sun’s wanton rays met us at the top of Milsons Point Station. It’s the first stiflingly hot day Sydney has seen this spring, and yet as we took our first steps into Whiteley’s secret garden, the gust came to a standstill. Sounds of the city were drowned out by avian trills and the soft lull of a lyre in the distance. Gossamer-winged butterflies hastily approached us as we walked through the garden, encircling us and leading us down into the heart of the garden. Following our winged friends had us feeling like Shirley Barber’s Sarah Jane, dreaming of enchanted woods and spellbound by the emerald canopies that protected us from the scorching 36°C heat. 

Wendy Whiteley’s secret garden has long been imagined to be home to mystical creatures and local folklore. Hidden away behind the T1 train tracks, the garden offers respite from the concrete jungle of its surrounds. At the little fountain towards the west, parrots, kookaburras, and tiny wagtails take to the water for sustenance. But in the dark of night, as the twinkling lights of the city fade to nothing and shadows envelop Lavender Bay, it is said that the water is a meeting place for the little people who live in the miniature houses scattered around the space. The little cottages, with their pastel facades, sit along the walkway, watching the passers-by filter down. The little people chatter away, weaving tales around the lives of visitors and befriending a lucky few who frequent the garden enough. 

On days the full moon obscures the garish stars, phantoms of will-o’-the-wisps are visible dancing through the celestial light in thistledown skirts — their swift bodies spinning around and around, wishes waiting to be granted. They materialised on the night we spent trawling through the shrubbery in wait for a miracle. Angel’s trumpets bloom under the Brobdingnagian Port Jackson Fig tree, its sprawling roots sectioning off flower beds. If local town folklore is to be believed, a version of every person who stands below the fig tree at sundown is stored within its rootstock, and their apparitions haunt the harbourside from dusk ‘till dawn.

Wendy Whiteley came upon the garden in the years following the death of her late-husband, avant-garde artist Brett Whiteley. The pair had lived at 1 Walker Street in Lavender Bay from the 1970s, and the suburb inspired much of his work. The electric blue harbour gleams across Whiteley’s depictions of Sydney by night in artworks like The balcony 2, and Self portrait in the studio in his Archibald-prize winning self-portrait. The couple raised their daughter Arkie beneath the Walker Street tower, crawling across canvases and watching the sun set on the Lavender Bay Jetty. 

Brett infamously died in a motel down the south coast in 1992, and in the weeks that followed Wendy was stricken with grief. She returned to the lower North Shore in search of control and closure, and found herself in the garden underneath her home. She cleared away old piles of rubbish, did away with the neglected train carriages, and hacked at the overgrown jungle of lantana that covered the bedraggled greenery underneath. She took to the garden with all her artistic sensibilities — replacing the weeds with native shrubs, herbs, and flower beds filled with miniature iridescent flowers. Her daughter Arkie donated the Bangalore palms, and artist Margaret Olley showed her reverence for Whiteley, passing on a fountain from her own Paddington home. And yet the land was still owned by the New South Wales Government who, on a whim, could take it back in favour of a glamorous CityRail upgrade. For years, Whiteley and a small but mighty gang of locals maintained the garden — pruning the paper mulberry tree, trimming the geraniums, and picking the sugar plum tree. It was only in 2015 that NSW Transport passed on the land to North Sydney Council, and the garden solidified its place on the foreshore.

In Hinduism, there is a folktale called, ‘How Night Came Into Being.’ It tells the story of a brother and sister who, for years, roamed the earth under the warm comfort of the sun. Upon the death of her brother, her grief caused floods, fires, destruction across the world. The gods, concerned for the fate of the universe, enveloped her in their comfort and gave her the gift of tomorrow. They painted the sunset upon the sky and conjured a twinkling blanket of stars to lull the sister in her sleep, for when she awoke the sun would shine brighter than ever, and she would be another day further from her grief. As day turns to night in Wendy Whiteley’s secret garden, we think of the privilege of planning for another day under the sun, another evening where we can sit and watch as the wind moves the clouds. 

We came to the garden in search of inspiration, with the hope of writing about its history and legacy. It was difficult for us to articulate the sequence of events that brought us here, the very ones we aimed to pen down. It is not always easy to build something beautiful out of pain and grief, but this space is testament to the reality that things grow where they belong, whether or not they were planted. 

As the sun rises over the harbour, we climb up the jagged steps toward the rows of houses that rest atop the rocks. They glow with a sense of promise that burdens the likes of storytellers, each brick chosen with the intention to create. We think of Wendy with every tread, her grief bleeding into one of the most magical places we have visited. Ladybugs crawl out of creeks and take flight across the light-kissed daisies. The garden is something of a haven for all life, big or very, very small.

And I will stroll the merry way, and jump the hedges first. And I will drink the clear, clean water for to quench my thirst. And I shall watch the ferry-boats, and they’ll get high. On a bluer ocean against tomorrow’s sky.” — Van Morrison, ‘Sweet Thing’