Finding a quick and easy solution to this epidemic thingo isn’t going to be easy. Like finding fairies at the bottom of the garden I reckon, but who says that can’t be done? The human race has survived diseases before and the end of the world has been predicted often and always since those first 7 Days of Creation. I guess the whole point of easing the lock down right now is that we may just have to learn to live and to die with this for a while. It won’t be easy but none of this is going away in a hurry, just like those yon garden fairies.
A curious concomitant of the need to leave the proletariat at home during this crisis has been that many people are only now discovering the park lands and gardens beyond their local streets, some for the first time. Suddenly there’s an alternative to their coffee shops and gymnasiums as people leave their cars at home in favour of Shank’s Pony and breathe in the deep fresh air of the great outdoors. It’s hardly surprising then, given what’s been happening. I’ve heard tell that during a similar time of plague in the 16th Century, Henry VIII took to his country estates, moving from house to house regularly in the belief that fresh air was more-healthy than city. “One is safer on the battlefield than in the city,” wrote his Chancellor Thomas More highlighting the dangers of close living conditions in the towns (while, given his fate, maybe not appreciating that an axe can be sharpened equally in both), but Thomas did have a point. The rural escape, the so called tree change of society has always had its appeal.
It’s an idea reflected in a growing trend that’s been dubbed “Cottagecore”, a movement promoting a romanticised interpretation of the life we imagine can be found in the countryside. Felicity Kendal and Richard Briers tried this on in the 70s in a much loved television show, but the movement has boomed during lockdown with real estate agents reporting an increase in enquiries for rural property and the hashtag cottagecore running at close to a quarter of a million posts on Instagram. Cottagecore as an idea promotes a belief that mental wellbeing can benefit from a removal from the fast paced environment of city living. “Rebalance your energy and remember relaxing is far from a waste of time,” says one young cottagecore influencer. I like the sound of that.
As a concept I’d say it’s not entirely without its parallel in Yallambie these days. “I’ve lived in this area for 20 years and never gone into the Park,” I’ve heard people say as they get out for the first time on these crisp autumn mornings or sunny afternoons. On a good day it can be a quite magical place if you’re seeing it with fresh eyes, a point apparently not lost on some park users. Under one of the magnificent Yallambie Oak trees, a relic from the distant farming era, somebody in a flight of fancy recently created a little grotto inside a hollow of one of the trees and sign posted it, “The Secret Garden.”
The Secret Garden is of course remembered as a work of children’s fiction, a tale of redemption through the beauty of landscape. The latest 2020 film adaption was in the can and became one of the first casualties of the Covid crisis but this thing was the work of children doing what children do best. Or maybe it was the work of an adult to whom a child like outlook on life remains no stranger. Whatever the inspiration, it was first and foremost a work of “art in the found object” and a nod to a “Borrowers” world usually kept just beyond our sight. While I was there a small girl balancing on training wheels wobbled into the park ahead of her mother and made excitedly straight for this tree. I watched to see if she was about to disappear like Alice down a rabbit hole but no, she was just a visitor and lingered only long enough to do some rearranging.
So who believes in faeries? Raise your hand Conan Doyle if you’re there but to paraphrase another writer, J M Barrie, it’s said that every time a child says they don’t believe in faeries, a fairy somewhere pops out of existence. The Findhorn community on the north east coast of Scotland is one place where this sort of belief is firmly rooted. That community was founded in a belief in the healing benefits of the spirits of the forest although these days I think they call it an experiment in everyday life, guided by the voice of an inner spirit. Whether you want to believe in that or not, the Quantum World is proof that there could be more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.
So, as if to reinforce this point, further along from the oaks, I found this day the place where those fairies have obviously been hanging out locally all these years. There it was, a fairy tale glen of toad stools growing under the scattered remains of Baron von Mueller’s pinetum, the red caps of which I’m sure would have had Big Ears reaching into his pocket for his latch key.
To digress just a little, it’s been a good autumn for fungi don’t you know with all this extra rainfall and cool mornings resulting in a burst of toad stools and mushrooms which have been popping up seemingly everywhere. Out the back of the still vacant site of the Cactus House we found a lovely crop of mushrooms growing but generally people take about much notice of the Fungi Kingdom as they do the Faery Kingdom. Fungi is however a completely separate world to both the plant and animal kingdoms and has an estimated 2 to 3 million species world wide of which only 120,000 have been described. It includes microorganisms such as yeast and moulds, as well as the more familiar mushrooms of the dinner table. Those red cap, fairy tale toadstools though are officially classified as poisonous. So too are the yellow stainer and death cap, both of which apparently can be mistaken as mushrooms by the near sighted, but both of which are exceedingly toxic. In fact the death cap is very appropriately named. One bite of it will kill you stone dead. Every year various poisonings, usually of a minor type, are recorded in Australia during the mushroom season but this year the newspapers have been filled with more stories than usual, probably due to the extra fungi around and people getting out into the parks who haven’t been out there much before.
The reality is however that going for a walk these days is probably about the safest and most sensible form of recreation you can do. With nearly 5 million people calling Melbourne home, a figure that comes complete with all the benefits and disproportionate difficulties associated with such a number, Henry VIII himself would have been happy enough to get outside. We’ve always needed our parks and gardens but right now we need them like never before. Meanwhile the world keeps turning and the sun keeps shining. The faeries are out there for those who want them to be, dancing between the mushrooms on moonlit nights wherever the healing benefits of the spirits of the forest are needed.
What’s small and furry, has a duck bill and webbed feet, lays eggs while suckling it’s young and can be found on occasion with a sting close alongside its beaver like tail?
I’m sure you know the answer already although chances are, like me you’ve probably never seen one outside of a natural history museum. If you’ve got 20 cents in your pocket though, you could be closer to one than you think.
Ornithorhynchus anatinus – I was walking in the park early in the morning a week ago when I saw it. As I crossed the river from the Yallambie to Montmorency side at the bridge below the site of Casa Maria I heard a splash and, pausing to look upriver in the direction of the sound, I heard another movement just below me. Turning in the direction of the new sound, I was just in time to see something furry go into the water with a kersplosh and an instant later I saw it rolling over in the water of the overhanging river bank, unmistakable now in its appearance with a short, flat tail. It didn’t break the surface of the water again while I watched but I could see the direction that it took underwater, marked by a “V” on the surface of the pool heading in the direction of an obscuring reed bed and the source of the first splash. ‘Must be a pair of them,’ I thought as I turned away. ‘That’s a good sign for the health of the river.’
Playtpus, for that’s what my furry friend turned out to be, is a somewhat paradoxical animal. A semi-aquatic, egg laying, mammal it is the sole survivor of the family Ornithorhynchidae, in the genus Ornithorhynchus (bird billed). When stuffed examples were sent for study from Australia to Britain at the end of the 18th century, outraged scholars believed they were the victims of an attempted antipodean hoax for if the imaginary Babel Fish can be used as “a final and clinching proof of the non-existence of God,” then the Platypus is the ultimate contradiction. It proves that God has a sense of humour.
Platypus are possibly more common along watercourses in the suburbs than you might think. Shy and nocturnal, they are all too seldom seen however. Historically, the Plenty River is said to have been abundant with these aquatic native animals with Thomas Wragge’s grandson, Frank Wright remembering the river at Yallambie before the Great War, writing that, “Possums and platypus were plentiful. Often we would see six or ten platypus in a day.”(Wright, Recollections of the Plenty River, 1974, quoted in Calder, p212). Similarly Wragge’s great grandson, Bill Bush reported seeing them regularly while growing up at Yallambie in the 1950s but in all the years that we’ve lived here, this is the first time I’ve seen one.
That doesn’t necessarily mean the Platypus is an endangered species. Not yet. It is evidence only of the difficulties some species have adapting to life within an urbanised landscape and how unobservant we tend to be in our every day lives. I see wallabies often enough in Yallambie Park, including a pair that seem to have taken up residence on the ridge above the Platypus bathing pool. We’ve even had a beautiful, chocolate coloured swamp wallaby in our garden but while wallabies and kangaroos seem to have urbanized OK, other animals don’t necessarily adapt so well. Platypus are susceptible to illegal netting practices in the river and the morning I spotted the Platypus, I saw a dog running off the lead and into the water in the immediate vicinity of the sighting.
It has been reported that Australia has the fourth-highest level of animal species extinction in the world with the number of extinct species topping 40 with another 106 listed as critically endangered. Clearing land for urban expansion and agriculture, logging forests and damming rivers have all contributed to this problem while Victoria also enjoys the dubious reputation of being the most deforested state in Australia. More than 60 per cent of the forest that existed at the time of first settlement is now gone. The announcement yesterday by the State Government that logging of native timber in Victoria would end by 2030 is at least a step in the right direction and an indication that the Government is aware of the problem and concerned by the flow on effects of the destruction of native ecosystems. But will it be too little, too late? Already the critics are lining up, supported by a conservative Federal government, to claim that the State Government is putting furry animals ahead of timber industry jobs. A decade sometimes seems like a long way away.
Meanwhile we city folk can continue to take our walks in the reinstated setting of a suburban park land environment, convinced that everything is going to be alright Jack. It brings me joy to see our chocolate coloured swamp wallaby exploring the lower reaches of the garden although, given the history of urban landscapes, I suppose my chances of seeing another Platypus down by the river anytime soon are about as good as seeing the legendary Babel Fish.
From the hanging gardens in Babylon and the capabilities of the very capable Brown of Great Britain, garden fashions have come and gone like the seasons, to be remembered now like the weeds in a Bangay box hedge. 19th century Australia was no exception to this rule and in 1865, the English nurseryman John Gould Veitch wrote while visiting Victoria that there had grown up in the colony “a very decided spirit for the introduction of any novelty which may be likely to prove of use or ornament to the gardens of the colony.”
There were many novelties to distract Victorian gardeners but of all of them, it was the craze for collections of pine trees, or pinetums as they were sometimes known, that has left the greatest mark on our millennial landscape. We’ve all seen the presence or former presence of colonial homes marked in country Victoria by stands of tall conifers, sometimes long after the settlers and sometimes the homes themselves have vanished. Collecting conifers was for a while a fashion in 19th century Victoria and no garden of any consequence in the colony could be said to be ever truly complete without its own resident selection of trees.
“Floraville”, the Bakewells’ garden at Yallambee Park was already well established before this coniferous craze properly kicked off but Thomas Wragge, who adopted Yallambee in the 1860s and who purchased the property in 1872, appears to have been well placed to take over at least in spirit where the Bakewells maybe left off.
The background to this story has been shrouded by the passage of time but as mentioned in the previous post, the Yallambie identity “Old Harry” Ferne who lived on the river bank at Yallambie in the 1970s believed anecdotally that the pine trees that then surrounded his home were sourced from Victoria’s first Government Botanist and director of the Royal Botanic, Baron Ferdinand von Mueller. Winty Calder, writing in “Classing the Wool and Counting the Bales” repeats this legend but also speculates about the origins of the story, observing that:
“…von Mueller frequently gave seeds and plants to people. However, it is more likely that the Bakewells were the recipients of von Mueller’s plant material, during the period 1857-1873, than was Thomas. During those years von Mueller distributed many plants to public institutions and to private individuals, but he claimed in 1865 that ‘the distribution of plants to private gardens has been very limited and in reciprocation only’. Unfortunately the National Herbarium in Melbourne apparently now holds little of von Mueller’s correspondence with private individuals, such as Thomas Wragge or the Bakewells, or notes relating to associated exchange of plant material. But Thomas Wragge did gain possession of Yallambie two years before von Mueller ceased to be Director of the Botanic Gardens, even though he continued as Government Botanist. Before 1873, Thomas could have continued a plant exchange begun with the Bakewells, and it is not impossible that such an exchange might have continued for a few years after 1873…”
Even without a triplane, the “Green” Baron of Colonial Victoria certainly seems to have got around a bit. Public gardens were laid out at many goldfields centres with places like Ballarat, Bendigo, Castlemaine and Kyneton all receiving large numbers of trees and seeds for their Botanic Gardens from von Mueller. Indeed, a visit to a public garden in any reasonably sized town in country Victoria today will usually turn up at least a few trees with a claim to some sort of von Mueller provenance, with many of these trees being pines, araucarias or otherwise coniferous in nature.
Baron Sir Ferdinand von Mueller, KCMG came to Australia in 1847, arriving in Victoria in 1851. In 1853, Lieutenant Governor Charles La Trobe appointed him to the newly created role of Victorian Government Botanist and from 1857 he was also the Director of Melbourne’s Botanic Gardens. Mueller travelled widely throughout Victoria on prolonged field trips and on just one jaunt into the hitherto unexplored Buffalo Mountains and Southern Gippsland, he covered 1500 miles and added 936 new species to the Victorian plant list.
From the very beginning of his directorship, (or should that read dictatorship), of the Gardens, von Mueller saw the Gardens as an important collecting and distribution centre for plants and seeds throughout the new colony. During the period 1857-8 alone, the record states that no fewer than 39 public institutions and 206 private applicants received plants from von Mueller’s department, with 7120 plants and 22,438 packets of seeds being distributed and 57 gardeners receiving live cuttings.
With these numbers in mind it seems to me very possible that von Mueller might well have supplied plant material to the Bakewells in the 1850s, possibly in a reciprocal exchange. The Bakewells had established their garden in the early 1840s and by the mid-1850s it was well established and in a good position to take part in such an exchange. Furthermore, from the first days of settlement, Robert Bakewell conducted the garden at Yallambee as an early and successful experiment in Victorian Acclimatisation, the colonial principles of which the Baron was a well-known and early active supporter.
Another point worth considering is that when it came to approach, plants were not the only thing von Mueller was known to cultivate. He cultivated working relationships with people of consequence and was often rewarded handsomely for it. Von Mueller collected titles throughout his life like they were going out of fashion with the “Sir”, “Baron” and the “von” parts of his name being all titles that were added to his name during his lifetime. Not only were the Bakewells well-connected by religious and familial ties to the Howitts and through them to the wider cultural elite of Melbourne, but “Yallambee Park” had been acknowledged within intellectual circles with several internationally publicized descriptions.
Edward Latrobe Bateman, whose association with the Station Plenty (Yallambee) has been recounted in considerable detail previously in these pages, is another contender for a Mueller connection at Yallambee. He had been described as a “splendid artist” by von Mueller and at the Intercolonial Exhibition of 1866 which Mueller helped arrange, Bateman decorated a Great Hall and a Rotunda. Significantly, Bateman also found considerable later success as a garden designer of both public and private gardens. Obviously these people were all moving within the same circles.
Thomas Wragge by contrast was a farmer and although he would in time achieve pastoral success and considerable economic wealth, it has not been suggested that he moved within the same creative or intellectual associations as Bateman, or of the Bakewells and Howitts.
At any rate, whatever the origins of the Yallambie tree scape and whether Wragge inherited the genesis of the collection from the Bakewells, it seems clear now that Thomas and his family enjoyed the trees as they reached maturity at the end of the 19th century and that they probably continued to add to it up to and into the 20th.
In the 19th century plant collectors achieved fame as they combed the continents in search of new pines and no gardener was considered worth his salt without an ability to provide his patron with a collection of at least some description.
At nearby Eaglemont, where elm trees were once saved at the expense of those in Yallambie, the forester William Ferguson planted a great pinetum, the largest in the colony, on the summit of “Mount Eagle” for J H Brooke as a prelude to a grand estate envisaged for that place. The first curator of the Geelong Botanic Gardens, Daniel Bunce visited in 1861 and recorded that “under the skilful management of his gardener Mr Ferguson”, Brooke had accumulated “the largest number of conifers of any establishment in the colony”. The house was never built and Ferguson left the project in 1863 with Brooke himself leaving for Japan four years later. However, in the 21st century at least some of Brooke’s trees remain, hidden away inside the private gardens of wealthy Eaglemont homes, proof of the enduring nature of the grown landscape and especially the legacy of 19th century pinetums.
At Yallambie the Bakewell/Wragge conifer collection survived well into the 20th century and its condition was intact enough to draw comment from Old Harry in the 1970s and 80s. Over the years many landscape reports and surveys were written identifying its importance, first by Heidelberg City Council and then, after 1994, by Banyule City Council. One of the first but certainly not the last of these reports “Plenty River & Banyule Creek” by Gerner Sanderson Faggetter Cheesman was published in October 1983 and noted that:
“The introduced species planted adjacent to the homestead, Yallambie, also require thoughtful management, not because of any problem they create, but rather because of their cultural importance. The planting here reflects past fashions of the Victorian era. Tall, dark foliage plants such as Pinus spp., Araucaria spp., planted quite randomly are all in fair condition…”
Old Harry had recently moved into a new home in Tarcoola Drive when that report was published but a few years later another report (previously quoted here) was delivered by Loder & Bayly, Marily McBriar, the recommendations of which in part read:
“An area which requires protection and sensitive management. Conservation of important historic plants, eg. conifers, and partial reconstruction of farm elements…”
More than 30 years later the value of these reports and others like them would seem to be only in the ongoing evidence they provide of what Council hasn’t managed to deliver over time. One by one and sometimes more than one the trees of the pinetum have gone to pot, collapsing sometimes in spectacular fashion. In the last 20 years alone I have by my own count seen more than a dozen of these trees vanish and, with the exception of the trees in a few private gardens, they have not been replaced.
All the same, the list of old plantings that remain today in Yallambie Park and within private gardens nearby still manages to read like some sort of pine growers’ plant catalogue. The list includes Araucaria bidwilli (Bunya Bunya Pine), Araucaria cunninghamii (Hoop Pine), Callitris glaucophyla (Murray River Cypress Pine), Cedrus deodara (Himalayan Cedar), Chamaecyparis funebris (Funeral Cypress), Cupressus lusitanica and Cupressus lusitanica glauca (Mexican Cypress), Cupressus macrocapa (Monterey Cypress), Cupressus sempervirens (Italian Cypress), Cupressus torulosa (Bhutan Cypress), Pinus canariensis (Canary Islands Pine), Pinus nigra var maritima (Black Pine), Pinus pinaster (Maritime Pine), Pinus pinea (Stone Pine) and Pinus radiata (Monterey Pine). As an exercise in botanical history, this list which was sourced from several of the more recent Banyule Council studies, is a tribute to the surprising longevity of some of these species at Yallambie and a memorial to the garden in which they once stood.
Garden fashions have come and gone and the popularity of pines within an Australian river environment long ago lost their allure. At Yallambie, in spite of the recommendations contained within numerous commissioned reports, exotic plantings have given way to a native landscape.
As if to follow this cue, vandals imposing their own agenda once attacked one of Robert Bakewell’s Cypresses on the river bank, leaving the tree in a shockingly ringbarked state. The tree took months to die in a process that was heartbreaking to watch. A similar end was suffered by the 400 year old “Separation Tree”, a River Red Gum in the Royal Botanic Gardens that suffered two ringbarking attacks before its final demise a couple of years ago, leaving garden lovers and history buffs equally appalled.
The late, lamented Separation Tree was already well over 200 years old when von Mueller began his directorship in 1857. In 1873 however, a year after Thomas Wragge completed his purchase of Yallambie, the Baron was summarily sacked from his position at the Gardens. It was felt within some quarters that von Mueller was more concerned with the science of plants than the business of creating a pleasure gardens for the leisured elite of Melbourne.
During his tenure Mueller had urged the establishment of a plantation of conifers at the Gardens, its purpose supposedly being to demonstrate the usefulness of the forestry industry to Victoria. Numerous trees remain from Mueller’s pinetum and can be found on the Garden’s Hopetoun and Hutingfield Lawns today but the humiliation of his situation was almost too much for a Baron to bear. After his dismissal legend has it that Mueller never again set foot inside the Gardens, pining like Adam outside the Gates of Eden.
The work of his replacement, Mueller’s protégé the young William Guilfoyle, is now mostly the landscape we see at the Royal Botanic Gardens today. After 1883 Guilfoyle remodelled Mueller’s pinetum, changing it from regimented avenues of trees to strategically placed specimens which survive in the Gardens today as signature trees. Von Mueller’s approach had gone out of fashion, his legacy dead seemingly like the Dodo.
Contemporary reports suggest that Von Mueller’s demise was the result of the lack of fountains and statues installed at the Gardens under his watch, the absence of which was keenly felt by the Melbourne masses who had a seemingly insatiable thirst for such things.
Ironically, if you step off the tan and into the gardens today, one of the first things you may see hidden behind the neighbouring shrubbery outside the National Herbarium of Victoria, is a small statue of the good Baron himself. It was installed there in 1984 to mark 150 years of settlement, its presence in the Gardens seemingly illustrating a point. When it comes to gardening, if you wait long enough, inevitably you reap what you sow.
He was known locally as “Old Harry” and in the conservative pre-Whitlam era ’60s, Old Harry Ferne was something of a Yallambie eccentric. The stories that surrounded Harry were legendary and as he assured his listeners, they were all true. Well, mostly. A square peg in a round hole. You might say that they broke the mould when they made Old Harry.
Harry Ferne lived in a one room cottage on the banks of the Plenty River. He was a relative or maybe a sometime friend of the Temby family at Yallambie Homestead. Nobody was really quite sure exactly. He moved into a cottage in the garden on the river flat below the Homestead in 1968 and stayed there for more than a decade, even in the face of increasing pressure from Heidelberg City Council to move him out. In a recorded interview made in the early 1980s Harry remembered that, “When I arrived in the area there was a forest of trees. Now there’s a forest of houses.” (Heidelberger, 2 June, 1982)
Like a hermit at the bottom of the garden in the finest of English folly traditions, Old Harry was a bit of an enigma. He walked with a pronounced stoop that belied his clipped moustache and a somewhat understated military bearing. A “real gentleman” as one local described him but a man who was for all that, prepared to live outside of the mores of society. Local children from the nearby developing housing estate seemed drawn to him and “descended on him in droves, keen to fish for tadpoles in his water storage ponds,” or to simply spend time with this curious character with the mysterious past. In an era when children could spend as much time as they wanted with an older, unmarried man living alone in peculiar and reduced circumstances without anyone batting an eyelid, Old Harry and his stories became a magnet for juvenile gangs, the king of the kids in the Yallambie area.
Harry’s Yallambie Cottage was a single roomed timber dwelling that had been built at the foot of the Yallambie escarpment sometime in the dim dark, far distant past, nobody could quite remember when. Maybe it was a re-erection of a Bakewell pre-fab, but who knows. Harry said, “When I took over the cottage, it was a ruin. No windows, no door, no water and no sewerage. Just possums in the roof, bees in two walls and a wombat under the floorboards.”
Harry set to work and cleaned up the ramshackle building, laying brick paving and redeveloping the remnant gardens surrounding the exterior.
Harry was fascinated by the history of the area and especially the legend that Baron Ferdinand von Mueller had contributed to the Yallambie landscape. He would point out trees to interested listeners as possible contenders for a von Mueller provenance. Even in 1970 these trees were well over 100 years old and on one occasion Harry narrowly escaped with his life when a pair of trees from the Yallambie pinetum collapsed and nearly destroyed his house.
The Yallambie Cottage was surrounded by a forest of these exotic trees and in the winter months the smoke from Harry’s fires hung low, trapped by their overhanging branches. Harry did a lot of his cooking on a barbecue in a half barrel outside but his cottage also housed a cast iron range where he made toast and where an old kettle was kept continuously on the boil for anybody who cared to stop by long enough to share a yarn and a strong cup of tea.
Harry’s cottage neighboured the nearby old Yallambie pumping house which in the farming era had been used to draw water up from the river for use in the outlying paddocks. Invoking the principle that possession remains nine tenths of the law, Harry claimed the pumping house likewise as his own, although ostensibly it was located on Heidelberg City Council land. This was Harry’s world. It was a place to spend time with friends both young and old. It was a place to watch the passing of the seasons and to stare at the reflections in the waters of the river. And it was a place to think about the past.
Harry’s was a naturally artistic nature and he spent hours in the fields sketching the surrounding river landscape. He was a friend of the Dutch sculptor Rein Slagmolen whose artists’ colony at the nearby former convent, Casa Maria, was an early feature of the pre subdivisional landscape of Yallambie. Harry also had friends in the theatre and the opera who probably wondered at what they had struck when they came to visit him in his rural realm.
Harry kept a car, an early model VW Beetle, but it didn’t get driven about much. Harry didn’t find much need to get behind the wheel or to leave the area. The Temby children and others kept their horses on the Yallambie river flats and it was the horses that Harry preferred to populate his drawings with.
Harry kept an old concrete water trough near the cottage for the horses but when one enterprising young lad used Harry’s water colour paints to paint the trough an ultramarine blue, Harry was less than impressed.
In the summer months Harry harvested the fruit from the Yallambie orchards and in those days, there were many more trees than the few that remain today into the 21st millennium.
Pears, apples, loquats, figs, grapes and walnuts grew on the river flats in abundance but Harry also added to his crop by collecting baskets of blackberries from the vines that grew out of control along the river. Harry was a surprisingly good cook and the produce was baked into apple and blackberry pies and shared around the neighbourhood with friends and acquaintances. Throw in the occasional snared rabbit and Old Harry was virtually living off the land at Yallambie. “We’re 10 miles from the city, yet you would think we were 100 miles away,” he said. Every year on the 5th November a great bonfire would be kindled on the flats marking Guy Fawkes’ treasonous plot and “cracker night” would be celebrated with a great deal of noise and potatoes roasted in the embers of the fire.
There was no bath or shower in the Yallambie cottage and Harry’s ablutions were limited to a regular swim in the river. Toiletry arrangements involved a septic tank which Harry installed himself alongside the cottage but herein were sown the seeds to the eventual demise of his riverside rural idyll.
The cottage stood on the Plenty River flood plain. Three times in the 1970s Harry was flooded out and on one occasion he battled a surge of water that came up to his chest inside the house. Harry dug a deep 100 foot trench to the river and carted 10 tons of white sand onto the river flats to shore up the property and to protect it from flooding, but it was to no avail. The Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works wanted Harry gone, reasoning that every time the river flooded there was of a risk of Harry’s septic getting into the stream. In 1978 the matter went all the way to the Housing Commission and The Honourable Geoff Hayes, the State Minister of Housing.
In the face of this Harry finally resolved to buy a block of land in Tarcoola Drive bordering the derelict Yallambie Homestead stables. He paid about $5000 for his block and designed and built a home, putting many of his own details into the construction of the interior, everything from the blue slate floor to the leadlight chimney window, (courtesy of his friendship with Rein Slagmolen). It was a far cry from the Yallambie Cottage but Harry didn’t stop there, carving a garden into the steep slope at the back of his Tarcoola Drive address, slashing blackberries and replacing them with clusters of pampas grass and a jungle of ferns. Hundreds of blue stone blocks were introduced into the landscape with Harry erecting a flying fox rope pulley to man handle the rocks down the slope and into position. Brick paving and ponds were designed to create a Japanese style feel to the garden.
Harry said, “I love the feeling of rocks and water. I want to achieve a harmony between man and nature. I don’t think I’ll ever actually finish the garden. It’s an ongoing evolutionary process.”
He never did finish. Time had moved on and “Old Harry” was now approaching an age befitting his moniker. Soon after moving into his new home, vandals burned the pumping house and the cottage to the ground on the river flats.
Harry said, “I don’t think I’ll ever shift out of Yallambie. It all depends whether I get married or not.”
The garden Harry built in Tarcoola Drive is now a ruin, his cottage and the pumping house little more than memory. The sobriquet “Harry’s” on a letter box of a house now the only pointer to the identity of its original owner.
Harry didn’t marry of course. He died 30 years ago from a coronary occlusion while on the Heidelberg Golf Course, proof if proof be needed that if you’ve gotta go, better to go while doing something you love.
But for all that there are some who still think that Harry was true to his word. At the setting of the sun as the shadows lengthen under the trees on the river escarpment, there is a very real feeling that maybe Harry never left Yallambie after all. It is a belief held by the current owner and visitors to the Tarcoola Drive house that Harry built. At the closing of the day, the spirit of Old Harry lives on.
I saw a sight you do not often see on Tarcoola Drive this morning. A motorised street sweeper. None too many street trees from which to sweep up the non existant leaves I expect.
You see, trees aren’t much chop with our Council. Within our neighbourhood there are a number of historic colonial era trees. Included in this list there are maybe a half dozen English elms dating from the colonial period and now growing inside private gardens. In Yallambie Park there are none.
20 years ago elm leaf beetle was identified as a developing arboricultural problem within the City of Banyule. Early in 1995 under this cloud, my wife and I attended a Council sponsored, beetle strategy meeting in Albert Jones Reserve, Eaglemont. Suggested treatments that day ranged from canopy sprays, bark banding, soil treatments or, as a last resort, complete removal of affected trees. “What would happen to house prices in Eaglemont if all the elm trees in the suburb’s leafy streets were destroyed?” That was the worrying question on peoples’ lips. A parks and gardens officer from the Council spoke and I remember his words exactly. “Strategic management is the answer. I don’t know whether anybody here knows where the suburb of Yallambie is, but there is a particularly bad outbreak of beetles in parkland on the River there. The Council intends to deal with the problem there as a priority.”
When Council workers arrived in Yallambie in March that year to handle the beetle problem, they did so by cutting down and removing all of the English elms in Yallambie Park. Those trees had stood for over a hundred years. I know this because I counted the rings on the remaining tree stumps.
The Council officer supervising the destruction told me on site during this process that the complete removal of the elm trees in Yallambie park was deemed necessary by the Council so that resources could be better concentrated on saving the street trees of Eaglemont.
There was the problem in a nutshell. Short of my wife and I chaining ourselves to the trees marked for destruction, there was little that could be done to prevent the chain saws once they were started. We did get our faces plastered in the local newspaper in protest however. “Elm Tree Cull Shocks Couple” (The Heidelberger, April 19, 1995) was the somewhat embarrassing headline. The article quoted a council officer as saying that the Council intended to revegetate with indigenous plants after the removal of the exotics. “It is part of our wider objective to return the Plenty River environs to their indigenous state.” (Ibid)
Apparently Council had not read its own Landscape Survey written by Loder & Bayly, Marilyn McBriar in 1985-87. Although there have been other reports written since, all generally overlooked, in my view the McBriar report remains the most comprehensive and observant of these Council sponsored landscape surveys. It is worth quoting briefly and in part from its chapter about Yallambie, if only to draw attention to how this report has been almost totally ignored in the nearly 3 decades since.
YALLAMBIE FLAT Existing Landscape Character A dramatic landscape in complete contrast to the precincts further north. A large horseshoe shaped open flat is contained all round with manna gums to the north east; river edge thickets to the east with a lone Roman cypress; river thickets to the south east with suckering false acacia (Robinia pseudo acacia); a thicket of elms (Ulmus procera) and a stand of mixed araucarias, mainly hoop pine (Araucaria bidwillii) to the south west; to the west the old homestead sited on the ridge is partially concealed by the large mixed conifers down the overgrown garden slopes to remnant orchard at the bottom; a line of pin oaks (Quercus palustris) and hawthorns flanking an old track to the north west; and a pair of magnificent English oaks (Quercus robur) to the west. The scene resembles a derelict common dominated by the magnificence of the conifers and oaks, and the brooding western slope with the dull walls of the old house…
Recommendations: An area which requires protection and sensitive management. Conservation of important historic plants, eg. conifers, and partial reconstruction of farm elements, eg. orchard, is required. Development should ensure the retention of the open landscape setting, with views to open water from Yallambie to indigenous woodland on the Eltham side. The Eltham side should be planted out with indigenous woodland species as a dusky woods setting to Yallambie. Preservation of the western escarpment now under private management is critical. The significance of the site should be recognised in its management and planning and the site should be permanently linked with the homestead. Western escarpment property owners should be encouraged to participate in sympathetic management of their properties. Any planting on the escarpment should be as unfussy thickets with the pines protected and dominant. The landscape should be developed to continue the impression of a mature and derelict farm/garden from a past age.
In spite of the neglect that Yallambie Park has witnessed over time and which in recent years has become almost systematic, there are several features still to be found if you take your time. Of note are several venerable oaks, some towering araucarias (including the “lone” Hoop pine of the river flat) and several historic Italian cypress. Of the latter, there were once many more. Richard Howitt mentions their existence during his visit to the Bakewell farm in 1842: “I noticed cypresses, R.(obert Bakewell) had raised from seed in abundance.” (Richard Howitt, Impressions of Australia Felix, 1845).
These cypresses were planted in the early days of the Yallambie Farm as a way of marking boundary points and sight lines for ploughing. At least one of these 150+ year old trees was ring barked within this writer’s memory, evidence of a misplaced environmental vandalism within the community.
Thomas Wragge claimed to be one of the first orchardists in the district and it is said that the quality of his trees was greatly admired, (Avril Payne, 1971 Fine Arts Thesis, possibly quoting Wragge’s grand daughter, Nancy Bush). It is likely however that Thomas was taking credit for the work of the Bakewell brothers who preceded him. Certainly the Bakewells’ vineyard was a very early venture. Raymond Henderson in his book regarding the early viticulture of Port Phillip “From Jolimont to Yering” (Roundabout Publishing, 2006) suggested that the vineyard planted at the Bakewells’ Yallambie was practically one of the first in the Colony and Dr David Dunstan in his AGL Shaw Lecture of 2011 said that “…for the vignerons of 1840 contract work was available in the gardens of the well-to-do. Their first effort was a one acre vineyard just above the confluence of the Plenty River with the Yarra at Yallambie, the property of John and Robert Bakewell.”
Until recent times, on private land at the base of the escarpment above Yallambie Park, there existed a single, extremely old grape vine. It produced a small, red grape in the summer but eventually became very overgrown by garden escapees. In the opinion of John Hawker, horticulturalist with Heritage Victoria, this vine dated from the Bakewell era at Yallambie and if so was an important and rare example of a pre Phylloxera viticulture. Perhaps William Howitt saw this vine in 1852 when he capably described the Yallambie farm:
“…the vine-plots were well dressed and kept. They cut their vine-stocks there generally much shorter than in Germany, little more than a foot from the ground, and give separate sticks to each. Mr. Bakewell’s were an exception. I was surprised to see the flat of this garden planted with the vines, and the sloping sides of the hills only partly planted with them. But as they grow the grapes chiefly for market, no doubt they obtain much heavier bunches, but they would not produce so finely-flavoured a wine.” (William Howitt, Land, Labour and Gold, 1858).
In the 21st century, alongside a suburban block in Goulburn Grove in the new Cascades subdivision of Yallambie, a hobby vineyard has lately been planted on the sloping electrical easement located there. I wonder if that keen gardener and vigneron realizes the traditions to which he has been adding?
Other surviving elements of the Wragge/Bakewell orchard have gradually been lost through attrition and ongoing Parks mismanagement. An ancient apple tree was very nearly killed one year after Council workers sprayed it with herbicide while treating the rampant blackberry canes that had overgrown it. The old apple tree was completely defoliated in the middle of summer and gave every appearance of being dead until finally struggling back into leaf some 18 months later, by then very much the worse for wear. That apple, several pears and one single, ancient fig are all that remain now of the once extensive Yallambie orchards. The fig tree fell over some years ago and was destined for the Council chipper when I approached the workmen on site assigned the job and suggested that if raising the tree back to a standing position was impractical, what was left of the tree should be left where it had fallen. Figs are surculose plants and sprout basal growth from their existing root base. Today that sorry tree survives in Yallambie Municipal Park and still produces fruit in summer. Against the odds it endures, a monument to neglect where it was planted probably more than 150 years ago by our early settlers. It is a true Lazarus of the fruiting world, testament that it’s sometimes better to do nothing than to do the wrong thing. This is an assertion that has become almost standard practice in Yallambie Park.
When Banyule City Council was created in 1994 from an amalgamation of the old City of Heidelberg and parts of the former Shires of Eltham and Diamond Valley, it was thought that by giving Banyule both banks of the lower reaches of the Plenty River a strategy would be developed to better manage the river environs. In Yallambie, the eastern end of the horseshoe bend has since been allowed to return to an indigenous state and much of the old cultivated river flats and the former prize winning pastures have been planted with Manna gums and native grasses. A sign identifies the site as being an important permanent camp for Aboriginal peoples in precolonial times. Near this sign on the river bank just off the bicycle path, stands diversely a large Italian cypress.
When I came to live in Yallambie two decades ago, some of my new neighbours, many of them old time Yallambie residents, could recall a time when the river banks and the surrounding vicinity of Yallambie Park were “like a botanic gardens”, planted out with fuschias and flowering bulbs. Both the river and the flood plain became degraded as residential development proceeded. A story in the “The Heidelberger” newspaper of 1982 reported local complaints that nothing was being done to prevent the spread of noxious weeds in the Yallambie parklands, (The Heidelberger, May 26, 1982).
Those noxious weeds are today a little better managed than previously but it really comes down to what your definition of a weed is. To some it is the English oaks, Italian cypress, pines, poplars, robinias, olives and fruit trees, growing now alongside the more recent, reintroduced indigenous plantings, that are the weeds. That was the verdict passed on the late and lamented English elms in Yallambie Park when they developed an associated problem. In this new millenium, as the surviving Bakewell and Wragge era trees become more geriatric and general victims of neglect, will this verdict be the fate of all remaining colonial era elements of Yallambie Park?