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Parramatta is a city of church steeples and domes. Once a city of churches, these buildings are now are home to commercial Parramatta. When occupied in thought or in conversation, we miss some of beautiful Parramatta which soars above.
Of course, with a river running through it, Parramatta is also a city of bridges. On an early Saturday morning we discovered one of lattice truss design – the Gasworks Bridge. Walkers cross the river from high above, to North Parramatta, via a narrow footpath. The westward view looks out to the River Cat Wharf.
In our research about the Gasworks Bridge we discovered a Sydney Mail article dated November 29, 1879. The headline: 'Alleged Scamping of Work at Parramatta Bridge'.
The ironwork for the bridge was imported from England and put together at its construction site. Several workmen alleged that the engineer in charge was either – by sanction or by neglect – using bolts (rivets) of incorrect size which would ultimately 'weaken the whole of the structure'.
The Secretary of Public Works called for an inspection, to give the men making the allegation an opportunity to prove their statements. After making the charges, the men had been fired from their duties at the site. They later asserted they were discharged because they belonged to a trade union. Perhaps you know: is the Gasworks Bridge crossing Macarthur Street the bridge in the 1879 article?
Address: Parramatta Park
Hours: Tuesday – Sunday; Tours operate 10am–4pm, last tour at 3.30pm Fee applies
Regal Old Government House is a dramatic and historic landmark in the beautiful grounds of Parramatta Park overlooking Parramatta's George Street. We love walking through the Tudor Gatehouse at George Street and uphill past the obelisk dedicated to Lady Mary Fitzroy.
Only guided tours provide access to the early government house. In order to protect and preserve the heritage furnishings from the oils of visitors' hands, this is a 'no touch' tour. We unknowingly ran our hand over a beautiful table. Luckily the guide was patient with our naïveté and we were not expelled from the tour.
Our recommendation: if your children are between nine and 12 years, they will enjoy touring the governor's house but for younger children, the special interactive group tours (often school excursions) such as Whispers, Tales and Gossip, are recommended. The school room is a delight. The gift shop has charming items and books for sale.
At Lachlan's Restaurant, adjacent to the original house, the menu is exceptional and the service impeccable – all quite grown-up. However, unless yours are model children, we suggest a family picnic lunch by the playground where there are shaded picnic areas, or the Parramatta Park Café, which is set in the gardens, surrounded by jacaranda trees, overlooking the river. Kids will enjoy the menu and adults the great coffee and sweets. To this observer, the café is a buzzing place every day.
Address: 9 Ruse Street, Harris Park
Phone: 02 9635 5655
Admittance by guided tour only. Fee applies.
Hours: Open Tuesday–Friday, 10.30am–3.30pm Saturday–Sunday 11:00am–3:30pm
Experiment Farm, located on a beautiful hill, represents the success of convict James Ruse. With exceptional farming skills, he planted wheat in May 1790. Six months later he harvested the crop. He was rewarded for his efforts with a 30-acre grant, being a major leap from the original 1.5 initially given to him.
In 1792 Ruse received Title. It was the first land grant in Australia and a major achievement for a convict. Known as Experiment Farm, it was the first private farm.
In 1793 he sold the land to Dr John Harris who in 1834 built the cottage we visited at Harris Park. Within walking distance from Elizabeth Farm, Experiment Farm Cottage is similar in architectural style, with deep and wide verandahs and an elevated roofline. The lovely house and farm convey the early days of colonial Parramatta. Today, the high-rise skyline of Parramatta juxtaposed upon this rural and picturesque setting is jarring to the eye.
School outings give youngsters an opportunity to re-enact farm chores and kids love using farm tools and planting corn. Children's games and other outdoor activities of 18th century are also favourites during these tours.
When you visit, a carpark near the cottage provides limited parking.
Address: 70 Alice Street, Rosehill Phone: 02 9635 9488 Hours: Open Friday – Sunday, 9:30am–4pm Fee applies
Built in 1793, Elizabeth Farm is the oldest surviving Homestead in Australia. It was built by John Macarthur and named for his wife. The beautiful family home remains as a hands-on museum today, where there are no barriers, locked doors or fragile furniture.
Each room played a role in the private lives and social activities of the Macarthur family. We found the kitchen most interesting. Its stone walls and floor must have been unbearably cold in winter, but the kitchen would have provided cool respite from the humidity of Harris Park summers.
With its high roofline and deep shaded verandahs, Elizabeth Farm became a model for many other Australian homesteads. At a recent Open Day we were able to climb a ladder high enough to peek into the attic above these rooms. The most interesting feature was the configuration of thin ropes attached to bells of various sizes, which were used to summon the servants.
The garden surrounding the house has an interesting horticultural history of its own, including the introduction of the flowering camellia to Australia and credited to Elizabeth Macarthur. Small gardens are maintained at the homestead today.
The cafe has indoor and alfresco seating – the Devonshire Tea was fantastic.
Address: 63 Hassall Street, Harris Park (corner of Gregory Place)
Hours: Open Thursday–Sunday, 11am-4pm (free)
Hambledon Cottage was built by John Macarthur as a second house on his Elizabeth Farm Estate From Experiment Farm, the cottage is only a short downhill walk, crossing a charming footbridge and onto Hassall Street.
The cottage is built of sandstock brick – an elegant 1824 Colonial Georgian. The resemblance between these three historic houses is no coincidence – high ceilings, paved verandahs and deep windows. When built, the cottage may have had a view out to the river.
Address: Town Hall CBD
Hours: Fridays, 7.30 am – 2.30pm
Early morning begins with rain but within the hour the thick overcast breaks and a pale sun peeks through. Vendors quietly unload their wares, perhaps worrying that the usual purchasers will forgo the markets on a wet, chilly morning.
Slowly, the heart of historic Parramatta, the city centre piazza, wakes up. Flags flap gently against the restraint of their tall, dark posts. Trees in perfect symmetry line the footpath and the breeze lifts the aroma of freshly made coffee.
An early train arrives, churns out its masses and within minutes the first customers arrive. And so it has been – minus public transportation – since September 1791, when as recorded by the Colonial Secretary of the Colony: 'The Town Hall was intended to include a market place for the sale of grain, fish, poultry, livestock, wearing apparel and every other article that convicts might purchase or sell.'
Today, fresh local food and locally grown produce are the staples, but the market continues to thrive in the best tradition, as it also mirrors our growing diversity. Among the produce there are exceptional imported Fair Trade coffees and all the trimmings for a Mexican breakfast burrito – onions, tomatoes and pungent green coriander – chopped and placed on display. Sugar-coated Lebanese delicacies are made to order.
Under the trees of St John's Cathedral Park, a tai chi class begins its graceful routine and, nearby, four friends of a 'mature age' set up their chequer boards, prepared for a rousing challenge. The vendors look up as clouds give way. Beautiful Town Hall is suddenly wrapped in sunlight – it's going to be a great market day.
Address: 346A Church Street, Parramatta Phone: 02 8839 3324
House: Open daily 9am–5pm (excluding public holidays)
Parramatta's Heritage and Visitor Information Centre – where we honour our Aboriginal and European cultures – is perched high above the river foreshore.
It provides detailed maps, brochures and guides to Parramatta and surrounding neighbourhoods. The staff are very helpful, with plenty of local knowledge.
The centre's permanent exhibition, Parramatta: People and Place, tells of the Burramatta clan of the Dharug who lived along the river for generations. Through photographs of old Parramatta, archaeological artefacts from the district and archived collections, the permanent exhibition captures the establishment of Parramatta as Australia's second colonial city. Other specialist exhibitions are launched throughout the year.
Outside the centre, at street level, is Lennox Bridge, built between 1836 and 1839 by convict labour. With its beautiful arch – perhaps influenced by the Parisian bridges crossing the Seine – Lennox Bridge stands as a memorial to the convicts' endurance.
Address: See map Lennox Bridge on Church Street
Follow the steps at Lennox Bridge down to the footpath at the edge of the river. This is a beautiful walk – the artwork is credited to Aboriginal artist Jamie Eastwood. Through the art, we gain insight into the culture of the Dharug and the value they placed upon the river. Eastwood's vivid colours also tell of the Aboriginal perception of European settlers.
Above the steps, in a grove of lemon scented gumtrees, we hear a chorus – sounds of nature and human voices.
In this reconciliation soundscape, the most common language of the Dharug is chanted or spoken, a constant riff underplaying the environment.
Address: Centenary Square, Parramatta
For taking in the city, we usually begin at its centre, Centenary, as it provides marvellous people-watching opportunities. A small amphitheatre, benches, an ornamental waterworks, a children's playground, flowerbeds and tall trees characteristically adorn the space.
Customarily a town square is a city's oldest precinct and its buildings are lively, functioning artefacts of history. Such it is with the space surrounding Parramatta's Town Hall.
Many community festivities usually begin here. For official celebrations, the dignitaries' grandstand is placed in front of the Town Hall, and when darkness arrives, the building's exterior is lit for all to see.
Parramatta train station is close by and the prominent St Johns Anglican Cathedral looks protectively over the city square. The steeples of St John's – not part of the original 1803 construction – were added in 1818. Though there is contention among historians, Elizabeth Macquarie, wife of Governor Lachlan Macquarie had a great interest in architecture, and is often credited with the design.
With the exception of the towers, the building was severely damaged in 1850 and a new St John's was built in 1855. The cool and dark interior, with stained glass windows and tall heavy doors, reminds us of beautiful European cathedrals.
We love wide-open Parramatta Park with its beautiful lawns, gardens and heritage buildings. In 2010, Old Government House and Domain, Parramatta Park was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List. According to research, the landscape today is largely unchanged from the earliest days of the colony.
While we have explored sections of the Park, we highly anticipate walking the trails, relaxing in the rose garden and searching out the six original gatehouses leading into the park. We recommend a day spent in this historic domain. Check out our blog postings on www. parramattaguide.com for our future outings.
Address: Corner of Church and Market Streets, North Parramatta
We think you will enjoy peaceful Prince Alfred Park – a heritage destination to the north of Lennox Bridge and Riverside Theatres. It is a lovely city park: small and oasis-like, with lush palm trees lining its footpaths. The site of the colony's first gaol, today it is a shaded space where residents work out, read or engage in conversation.
The park was created in 1869 and a stately octagonal Victorian rotunda, built in 1899 sits at its Church Street entrance. The exciting Parramasala Parade ends its colourful march up Church Street here, where residents gather to enjoy entertainment.
Anecdotal history suggests that in 1799 convicts set fire to the first prison – Gaol Green, a log and wood structure which would have burned easily. A stone structure replaced it in 1802, which leads one to speculate about public safety during the gap years. By 1835, the new building was overcrowded and unsafe and was demolished in 1842 and replaced with another, on O'Connell Street.
Address: 73 O'Connell Street, Parramatta
This large early prison has survived and remains substantially intact. It is a registered historic artefact. The prison is surrounded by a high austere sandstone wall and the original entry gate opens onto the small main courtyard.
The gaol is a two-storey building and research tells us that soldiers were quartered on the second storey and their horses were stabled below. Prisoners were housed in three prison blocks built in 1883, 1887 and 1898. Probably in keeping with the punishment of the times, the sandstone building is severe and bleak.
Completed in 1885 – bridge is of state significance
Caution: we do not recommend this for children under 9.
The walk from Hambledon Cottage to the Gasworks Bridge is a bit of a hike. We suggest you drive. Exiting Experiment Farm, turn right onto Harris Street. Cross Parkes Street, then cross George Street. Cross the bridge (Harris Street becomes Macarthur Street) and immediately turn right into the reserve/carpark and before New Zealand Street. This is a residential area, so street parking is easy to find. (CAUTION: The greatest difficulty is crossing Macarthur Street to get to the footpath.)
Walk the pedestrian footpath to the middle of the bridge – the overall length is 100m and is a two-lane bridge. From the centre, the view down to the river and back to Parramatta is exciting. Parents will like the rectangular lattice trusses – the aesthetic strong lines of the bridge. Kids will love the noise, the narrow footpath and looking down to the river from this old lattice truss bridge.
Hours: Open Days: First Saturday of July, October, January, April
It is time to unleash your 'inner explorer', and the heritage trail is an opportunity to explore: to see exhilarating vistas and remarkable estates, hear significant narratives, devour great food and grab a few winks at exceptional accommodation. This is a Greater Blue Mountains Heritage Trail Open Day.
Penrith, Windsor, Bells Line of Road, Falconbridge, Valley Heights, Leura, Katoomba and Lithgow: villages and towns that collectively share the early history of New South Wales. These represent notable events found in history books, not mere footnotes: crossing the impenetrable Blue Mountains, growing food for colonial Sydney, opening mining fields and cattle grazing lands and building exceptional hotels and guesthouses.
On the Trail, accessible by road or by rail, each locale has conceived a means to commemorate and celebrate: old gully bridges, Aboriginal hand painting and rock carving, steam trains, thrilling cable cars and skyways, cool botanic gardens, gardens with impish sculpture, museums with fictitious animals. Tall tales and the local yarns are exceptional when you visit the family history societies. And, what about preserving the very old buildings? Today, they are often an exceptional gallery, a performing hall, a lovely tea room or a yummy lolly shop.
Each locale on the Trail is connected with distinctive physical beauty - a river, a winding road, caves, canyons, mountain vistas - but paramount are the volunteering locals on duty who know each area like the back of their hands.
* Many of these attractions are open year round beyond the Heritage Open Day. For details, check www.heritagedrive.com.au.