Municipal parks in Sydney are having their moment in the limelight at the moment. A spot in a park to unfurl a picnic rug upon which to sit (socially distanced) with four masked, vaccinated friends is as prized as a table in the most fabulous, hatted restaurant right now. In our main local park, we are deliriously enjoying the real-life company of our friends for the first time in three months. Sydney has many beautiful parks, and earlier this year, before our current lockdown, I visited the wonderful Callan Park in Lilyfield, with some friends: which I imagine is now being much used by the residents of that local government area for get-togethers.
This amazing 61-hectare site runs from Balmain Road, Lilyfield, to Iron Cove on Sydney Harbour and has a rich and fascinating history. Traditionally, the land was home to the Wangal and Gadigal people of the Eora nation, and there are five Indigenous shell middens at Callan Point, within Callan Park, dated at about 4,500 years old. The place encompasses vast areas of sweeping lawns, myriad well-established trees (with more species than in Central Park in New York!), a rainforest gully, cultivated gardens and a large number of beautiful old buildings. There are more than 200 buildings from various eras on the site, with the oldest being Garry Owen House, which was built in 1839 by Crown Solicitor and Police Magistrate John Ryan Brenan and was set in expansive gardens with a tree-lined avenue leading down from Balmain Road. In 1841, Brenan bought an additional three acres west of his estate and built another large dwelling, Broughton House, which he sold off with its grounds in 1845. Brenan's bankruptcy in 1864 forced him to sell the Garry Owen estate to Sydney businessman John Gordon, who renamed the property Callan Park.
In 1873, Gordon subdivided the land for auction as a new waterfront suburb, but the government of the day bought the entire 45 hectares to build a hospital for the mentally ill, along the lines of the progressive thinking of American physician Dr Thomas Kirkbride, who had written a treatise advocating an architectural style for such institutions that he believed promoted recovery and healing, in contrast to the previous methods of treating the mentally ill, such as confining them to prisons or poorhouses, where their needs were rarely met. Twenty neo-classical sandstone buildings, named the Kirkbride Block, were completed in 1885, with spacious rooms (with plenty of natural light and fresh air), verandahs and outdoor courtyards for the use of the patients. Exposure to the restorative power of nature was also vital to the philosophy guiding the creation of the hospital, which included a serene, parklike landscape surrounding the buildings for patients to exercise in and to provide therapeutic contact with nature. The gardens were designed by Charles Moore, the Director of the Sydney Botanic Gardens at the time.
Meanwhile, the adjoining Broughton Hall (which had been enlarged to include the neighbouring property Kalouan, with its many magnificent trees, in 1878) remained a private residence - with a beautiful, prize-winning, landscaped garden with terraces, arches, vegetable beds, fruit trees, glasshouses, lawns, fishponds, a rainforest gully, hedges and flower borders - until 1915, when its owners offered it to the government as a convalescent hospital for shell-shocked soldiers returning from World War I. In 1918, the government purchased the property and in 1921 it became the state's first psychiatric clinic for voluntary patients. Under the direction of Dr Sydney Evan Jones, medical superintendent from 1925 to 1948, the original garden was adapted as a therapeutic space, as he believed that horticultural activities could help patients in their recovery process, with gardening as a form of occupational and psychological therapy: via physical exercise, caring for plants and engaging in nature, such as strolling on paths through the gardens and the rainforest, with a few surprises such as a quirky sandstone crocodile in a stream and concrete flamingo sculptures along the way. With the help of patients, Evan Jones added a number of features to the garden, including paths, steps, walls, seating, and bridges over a watercourse. Much of the initial layout and many of the structural features and plantings remain, although the house itself is derelict.
The many stately trees across the whole Callan Park/Broughton Hall precincts from the plantings of the original private gardens then the later additions by Charles Moore (who had a particular interest in native rainforest species) are outstanding features of the site, and on sunny days they cast beautiful shadows across the lawns. Tree species include Gingko biloba (maidenhair tree), Cedrus deodara (Himalayan cedar), Dracaena draco (dragon tree), Magnolia grandiflora (bull bay) and Schinus molle (peppercorn tree). There are numerous specimens of native pines such as Araucaria bidwillii (bunya pine) and Araucaria cunninghamii (hoop pine); other interesting native trees include the rare Syzygium moorei (rose apple, named for Charles Moore), Stenocarpus sinuatus (firewheel tree), Davidsonia pruriens (Davidson's plum), Corymbia citriodora (lemon-scented gums) and Angophora costata (coastal angophora).
There are also many fig trees (including Ficus macrophylla, the Moreton Bay fig, and Ficus rubiginosa, the Port Jackson fig), and also various native and exotic palms on the site, including Livistona australis (cabbage tree palms), Archontophoenix cunninghamiana (bangalow palms) and Phoenix canariensis (Canary Island date palms). A stand of giant bamboos (Bambusa balcooa) in the Broughton Hall rainforest gully is an impressive sight. Around some of the buildings, a diverse array of shrubs and ground cover plants can be seen, some not often used today but also others that have remained stalwarts of Sydney gardens. A few that I observed during my visit included a hedge of Plumbago auriculata (now disparaged for its suckering tendencies!), Loropetalum, Rhaphiolepsis, Brunfelsia, Dombeya, Aspidistra, blue ginger, Acanthus mollis and clivias.
In the 1950s, the treatment of mental illness was radically altered worldwide by the introduction of new, powerful psychoactive drugs and the use of electroconvulsive therapy, and the important therapeutic role of gardening and the natural environment was seemingly disregarded, along with other principles espoused by Kirkbride and Evan Jones, with employed labour replacing patient involvement in the gardens across the site. Callan Park and Broughton Hall amalgamated to form Rozelle Hospital in 1976, when the pattern of care for psychiatric patients came to emphasise deinstitutionalisation. In 2008, all the services of the hospital were transferred to Concord Hospital. The grounds are open to the public. The site currently has tenants in the spheres of health, education and not-for-profit community services, including WHOS (We Help Ourselves), which runs drug and alcohol programs, including use of the garden areas of Broughton Hall for horticultural activities for clients. Thinking has now come full circle in appreciating the manifold benefits of gardening and contact with nature on mental wellbeing, as acknowledged in a NSW Health report published in 2005.
The site is currently managed by Greater Sydney Parklands. A community group, Friends of Callan Park, was formed in 1998, to safeguard this unique heritage site from the various ongoing threats of being carved up, sold and developed, or being used for commercial purposes, so that it can remain a public open space available to all. The past 18 months have taught us all that we need these green oases for physical exercise, social interaction and having contact with the natural environment, all of which help maintain our sanity. I can't wait till I can leave my LGA to visit this place again, hopefully when its 108 jacarandas are in bloom!
Ageing and gardening
17 Oct 21
As one gets older, there is the need to rethink aspects of one's garden.
Painting with coleus
10 Oct 21
Coleus can make wonderful pictures in the garden.
03 Oct 21
Tough and undemanding plants from my parents' garden are favourites in my own.
The value of green spaces
26 Sep 21
Earlier this year, I visited Callan Park in Sydney's inner west.
19 Sep 21
Meet some of the ferns that grow well in Sydney,