The clock on this silly season is counting down and I only have a few days left to indulge my passion for beautiful objects in the name of gift giving. I leave the house and head into the city but at the last minute decide to eschew the department stores and label name boutiques in the city centre and veer to its eastern edge, where I know I can fulfill my yearning for the artisanal, and my hunger for the hand made.
At Martin Place train station I follow the signs to Sydney Hospital and emerge just a few steps from Macquarie Street, opposite the statue of Il Porcellino. Right next to it is The Little Shop housed in what was once the Northern Gatehouse of the hospital. Run by the Friends of Sydney Hospital volunteers this tiny space is filled with a menagerie of crocheted animals, beautiful hand knitted jumpers and anything else you can imagine made from wool. Perfect gifts for newborns and young children and anyone that hankers after a cute animal toy. I buy my mother a knitted purple pig. A miniature of the statue outside I guess.
Emerging from this wonderland of yarn I turn left into the hospital courtyard and walk through to the Domain – the people’s park. A place of lunchtime crowds, outdoor concerts and, in days gone by, cricket games and soap box oratories (see Get on Your Soap Box). Following the path across this part of the city’s lung system, leads straight to the Art Gallery of NSW, which is worth a whole day visit and several returns, but today I’m just here for the Gallery Shop.
I browse the bookshelves packed with titles about art and artists, fashion and photography, classic novels and modern literature. I relish the beautiful collection of children’s books. There are also posters, prints and postcards, and original jewellery and artefacts that would all make wonderful gifts. I covet umbrellas, arty socks, scarves and bags; boxes of gift cards, diaries and calendars; and beautifully illustrated exhibition catalogues. Defying the temptation to load up, and grateful that it’s not yet Christmas Eve, I leave with just a small book by one of my favourite writers. This traipse is still in its early stages and I realise now I should have bought my little red shopping trolley.
Outside the building, after I admire Walter Vernon’s early Greek classical stone façade, I find myself at the edge of the green that spreads south from the gallery. A few metres away is Art Gallery Road, with its tarmac footpath, but before me beckons a dirt path through the grass. It runs past the Police Memorial and stretches on towards the Domain Car Park. It looks like the kind of rough goat track that you might find in a country field.
I’ve read about these strange pre-roads. Town planners call them desire paths and they are sometimes referred to as desire lines in urban design circles. They are paths “created as a consequence of erosion caused by human or animal foot-fall.”1 I follow this unexpected trail all the way to St Mary’s Road, across it is the continuation of my haphazard track, now a real asphalt path through the lower eastern side of Cook + Phillip Park, which sits in the shadow of St Mary’s Cathedral.
I contemplate a quick visit to light a candle and utter some prayers of gratitude in the gothic structure that towers above me but decide that’s a separate excursion, as is the Australian Museum that sits grandly at the top of William Street, when I emerge from the cover of Port Jackson figs, at the other end of the park. Besides, it’s time for cake.
I walk a little way east and turn left at Riley Street, discovering I’m not the only one craving sustenance. On the bench outside Flour and Stone bakery an older lady sits with two teenage boys. They eat pies. I can’t tell if they’re her grandsons but I can tell that they’re eating the Chicken, Leek & Tarragon pie and the Slow Braised Lamb, Potato and Rosemary pie. She enjoys a Pannacotta Lamington. Her eyes are closed and I recognise the look of bliss on her face because I’ve had one of these before, when a work colleague generously indulged us for afternoon tea. It’s how I heard about this amazing little bakery.
Inside a crowd of well dressed professionals, absconded from their offices, treat themselves to perfectly baked Madeleines while awaiting their take away coffees. There are also parents with children, tourists perhaps, or locals enjoying the first day of the school holidays, and rich slices of the Valrhona Manjari Chocolate – a baked chocolate mousse cake. When it’s my turn to order I scan the counter. The chocolate cake is gone. I can choose from Italian Christmas cake; old fashioned vanilla slice; hazelnut torte; pistachio, raspberry and rose tea cake; or a buttermilk ricotta and poached pear muffin. I order the muffin and a coffee, and squeeze into a seat at the window.
Once suitably fortified I head back out to William Street and walk two blocks east along this grungy artery that connects the CBD to the Eastern Suburbs. Once the haunt of Kenneth Slessor’s “dips and molls, with flip and shiny gaze”2 it’s now a car hire corridor. There are also plenty of cafés, a chocolatier, a hospitality supplies shop open to the public, a traditional hardware store, and plenty of eating houses in the nearby streets. But I’m not ready for lunch yet. I’m headed to the corner of Palmer Street and the Australian Design Centre’s Object Shop and Gallery.
As I step inside I fall in love. This is the kind of place that inspires my inner artist, and gives me buckets of hope for the future of our little globe, and of course plenty of options to fill the Christmas stockings. I wander through their current exhibition, Designing Bright Futures, admiring the ingenious and exquisite work of twelve emerging designers. I love Hannah Goddard’s Material Ecology, a hand made dress put together from ‘repurposed linen, silk, lace, and recycled wooden spools’3.
In the object shop I’m mesmerised by the whimsical ceramic houses of Central Coast artist, Keiko Matsui; the charming hand painted monsters by Emma Kidd; and Catriona Pollard’s beautiful baskets and, and, and actually everything else. Because I want to buy all the beautiful pieces in this shop, I get that this is the time to practice my slow, deep breathing, as I carefully step away from the counter, and nonchalantly back out the door. I will return, once I’ve trawled their website and worked out exactly what to buy, for who.
Back on the busy street I cross the road and walk up the gentle slope towards the famous Coca Cola sign to Grand Days, a vintage boutique and book shop whose name harks back to the 1930’s and a Frank Moorehouse novel that I love. There are luscious clothes, eclectic bric-a-brac, an entire room devoted to vinyl, and hundreds of books. I try on a pink and purple sixties shift dress and buy it, along with a book about a cat that visits a lonely Japanese couple and decides to stay. Obviously I have no problems making decisions about what to buy for myself. Just other people.
It’s now time to end this jaunt so I head to nearby Kings Cross station. I briefly consider walking back to the city via Potts Point, and the McElhone Stairs, down to Woolloomooloo, and back through The Domain but decide to stick with the train option. But not before I devour several Vietnamese rice paper rolls at AnNam Café on Darlinghurst Road.
Afterwards, as I meander to my train, I muse on the magic to be found exploring these old quarters of our city, becoming a true ‘citizen of the street’, as coined by Rebecca Solnit in Wanderlust: A History of Walking. Sydney, like many other cities, is a great place for roving afoot. If you can find the forgotten corners and pockets of one of its many suburbs, you can experience the heady delight of discovery and the return of wonder. And also cake.