The first walk begins here, on 14 June 2014, on Gem Pier at Williamstown, surrounded by water. It’s a breezy day and lots of yachts are out on the bay, the wind bellying their spinnakers, while others are berthed at the yacht clubs. It’s a picturesque sight and across the bay is a fine view of the city of Melbourne.
I won’t be heading into those skyscrapers though, either by water or land. The idea is to walk clockwise around Melbourne in a big circle, in a series of walks through the suburbs, over a period of about a year, or as long as it takes.
On the way I’m going to observe and write about the suburbs I pass through – trying to avoid the obvious in favour of the obscure, the secret, and the forgotten. I have my own particular preferences – post-industrial architecture, faded signage, street art, suburban iconography – but really it’s a matter of drifting along a route only vaguely planned, looking closely at whatever I come across, and trying to make unforeseen connections.
I’m walking the first leg with Vin Maskell, a local writer and Williamstown resident, the author of many essays about Melbourne and one of the people who got me interested in observing suburbia more carefully. Standing on Gem Pier, the wind blowing sea spray on our faces, we have the old navy ship HMAS Castlemaine on one side, the Sea Shepherd vessel Steve Irwin on the other. Every winter, Sea Shepherd ships depart from and return to a berth at Seaworks, to pursue Japanese whaling vessels in the Southern Ocean. Marks are visible on the hull of the Steve Irwin where the whalers have rammed it. It wasn’t that long ago that whaling was an important part of the Australian economy. Whaling ships probably used to leave from the very same berth that Sea Shepherd ships do today, and their crews perhaps drank at the same local pubs.
The maritime history of Williamstown is on display at Seaworks, a fledgling museum created by a team of volunteers on the site of the old Melbourne Harbour Trust workshops, not far from Gem Pier. It displays a diverse mixture of seafaring exhibits, ranging from beautiful scale models of ships to diving suits, nautical instruments, seaman’s tools, letters and documents from the Harbour Trust, memorabilia from ports of the world, and someone’s handwritten volumes recording every warship in the world. They have thousand more items waiting to be catalogued, but lack the resources, cash and expertise to do it as yet. There’s plenty of interesting stuff here, if you want to learn something about the sea and its importance to Melbourne. An oral history project is about to get under way, documenting the lives of Williamstown’s seafarers and shipbuilders.
We head along Nelson Place, which runs parallel to the waterfront. Today it’s a rather genteel suburb, but not long ago Williamstown used to be notorious for its pubs, which saw many brawls back in the day when ships and whalers were in port. Probably the whalers had worked up quite a thirst escaping from the huge jaws of whales. Several of those pubs are still standing, including one, the Oriental Hotel, built in 1854. It’s scheduled for demolition and is festooned with protest signs and ribbons. These days the brawls take place in the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT), where the fight is between developers and those who want to save the area’s historic buildings. Protesters have made their feelings clear through some angry street art on the wall of the pub.
Along with the vacant land alongside – once occupied by a woollen mill – the hotel is going to be turned into a fancy new development. Indeed, there are promotional signboards up at the site proclaiming ‘Waterline Place’. The Save Williamstown group is fighting the Nelson Place development, but VCAT has given the go ahead. The argument was that the hotel is too derelict to be restored. Come here in 2024 and it’ll be all apartments, retailers and cafes. For now, though, the blocks of land next to the pub are empty and deserted, at an intermediate point between the past and the future.
There’s less doubt, though, about the future of the Bristol Hotel, another of Williamstown’s many old pubs, at the top end of Ferguson Street. They are building some 40 apartments on the site. For many years the Bristol was a popular watering hole, and remains of a ghost sign on the peeling back wall reminds passers-by that there used to be a beer garden here. (Vin wrote an article in the Big Issue, ‘Tell tale signs’ mentioning this old pub, and quoting an elderly Williamstown resident who grew up in the neighbourhood.)
Not far away on Ferguson Street there ‘s another nice ghost sign, advertising a popular brand of sherry.
Already we’ve come encountered some of the themes that I expect will recur over the course of this walk. I’m interested in transformations, and the tension between preservation and redevelopment. However much things change, there is always something left behind. Sometimes it is visible and tangible; other times it can be more elusive, to do with the ways that the lives lived in a place leave their traces on it, a matter of atmosphere and mood. Investigating those traces is part of the point of this project.
If you have memories of the places I’ve mentioned, or Williamstown more generally, please leave them in the comments or email me.