Forgotten Sydney


David Whitley is led on a voyage of discovery through the unassuming laneways that tell an alternative history in central Sydney 

I find myself in a place I’ve stood many times before. I’m outside the Customs House Bar in Sydney’s Central Business District, a place I frequented on many a Friday night when a friend was bar manager and inclined to pour out exceedingly generous measures of vodka. I can’t quite work out how I’d never noticed the giant anchor before, though.

It’s not exactly hidden – it’s enormous and sits on a large platform in the middle of Macquarie Place. For the first time, eleven years after I must have first walked past it, I read the inscription around the outside. The anchor belongs to the Sirius, one of the ships in the First Fleet that first brought convicts and settlers to Australia in 1788. I’m taken aback. It’s a major piece of history, and I didn’t know it was there.

For all the great information you can get in guide books or online, there’s something to be said for going about things the old fashioned way. It’s often the case that you can get just what you’re after by walking into the tourist information office and flicking through the leaflets.

That’s how I found myself wandering around the bin alleys and forgotten passages of Sydney CBD. The City of Sydney has put together a number of themed leaflets that map out walking tours around parts of the city and its suburbs. They contain days of discovery for anyone curious enough to pick them up and follow them.

I’d grabbed the one that links what are optimistically known as Sydney’s ‘laneways’. Realistically, most of them are grimy, forgotten passages full of parking lot exits and loading docks, but most of them hold fascinating little morsels of the past, present and future.

Curtin Place, for example, runs around the back of the Australia Square complex. Against a wall by the huge outdoor terrace of Ryan’s Bar, there is a plaque. It shows a map of central Sydney with the map of the 1788 coastline marked on. It went a surprisingly long way in. Old buildings that are now a few streets back from the shore were once waterfront properties – old wool storage warehouses still have the wheels at the top where bales were winched up from.

Also on the map is the Tank Stream, which is now thoroughly hidden from view and running under the city as a storm water outlet. If it wasn’t for the Tank Stream, Sydney may not have been situated where it was. It provided a crucial source of fresh water for the early settlers – something Governor Arthur Phillip was intent on finding before choosing a site.

The stream now runs under the terrace of Ryan’s Bar. Again, something I didn’t realise before.
The rest of the journey throws up similar surprises – a hotel made from a former warehouse on Bridge Lane, a cool-looking wine bar all on its lonesome on York Lane and swish shops along Palings Lane.

All I’d walked past countless times in the past, all I’d have probably walked past countless times in the future without having them pointed out.

Towards the end of the route, I turn into Angel Place. Above me are dozens of bird cages. There are no birds inside them – they’re just hanging down. And then I hear the birdsong; the twittering gently wafts across the air.

I double take – not for the first time on this illuminating walk of surprise discoveries – and realise that the noise is coming from speakers. This inconsequential little laneway, it seems, has been chosen for a bizarre art installation.

Sydney, it seems, is not the city I thought it was. But I love it even more.