Field Notes: Callan Park

Honi explores having a sense of place.

Photography by Zara Zadro

Callan Park is a bit of a miracle to me. Bright swells of grass set against blue sky, gold light studding the canopies of bay figs and magnolias, the river sharp and glittering under the winter sun. 

The park’s existence – 61 hectares of rolling, publicly-owned parklands on the waterfront in the middle of Sydney – sounds itself like an impossibility. This small paradise extending between the Parramatta River and Sydney College of the Arts in Lilyfield has acted variously as a residency, mental hospital, and nurse training school since the 19th century. Today, it is a popular socialising and exercising location for inner-west locals, which my family frequented almost daily during last year’s lockdown. 

One of my favourite parts of the park is its Moreton bay figs, which are native to the eastern coast of Australia. The largest of these is situated by the flank of one of the park’s sandstone heritage buildings. Its roots rise shoulder height or more from the ground, smooth and pale grey-brown. Beneath it, the air is thick and sweet and cold, the light a deep green sliding over its lacquered leaves. Little of the city’s racket is audible in the park, though especially here. Time seems superfluous. Further along, where the park ground sweeps downward into a smooth dimple, there is a dry stone fountain encircled by bristly, narrow-bodied Moreton Bay pines. Here, once, I found two plastic flowers and a note tucked in the crook between two branches, written with an anonymous elegy.

Perhaps it is no wonder that the NSW Writer’s Centre is housed at the Garry Owen house within the park’s creative sanctuary, shaded by jacaranda trees. 

Within walking distance of the fountain, you will also come across a shock of dark bamboo. Its fat stalks are many metres tall, and creak incessantly. Indeed, the diversity of the park’s flora and various spaces is something that spellbound me upon first visiting; traipsing through, one experiences a seemingly endless revolving-door of lush vistas and quiet nooks. 

Though private developers have long eyed Callan Park, none have yet succeeded in acquiring it for commercial use. With the backing of local communities, we can only hope it will remain this way for the use of many generations to come.