Friday, 13 January 2017

NSW Summer Series: Sydney Light Rail (Part 1)

Over the rest of January, I'll be running two of my previously published print articles about New South Wales, Australia.

This article was first published in 2011, so some details may have changed. However, as Sydney is currently in the process of expanding its single tram line into a larger network, it seems apt to revisit attractions along the route of the existing light rail service...


“He shot through like a Bondi tram!”

It’s fading now, but this colourful expression was part of the Australian idiom for many decades, meaning to depart at high speed. Whether Sydney trams were ever that fast is another question; but since the city’s tramways were closed in the 1960s, there’s been little chance to find out.

Which is a pity, as around the world trams are back in fashion for their environmental positives. They’re also a tourist attraction in themselves, in cities as diverse as San Francisco, Lisbon and Melbourne.

There is, however, one exception - Sydney’s Light Rail, which opened in 1997 and runs along the route of a disused goods line that once snaked through the industrial suburbs of the inner west.

Though overshadowed by the big-ticket tourist attractions on Sydney Harbour, the tram line is a microcosm of Sydney, taking in restaurants, tourist districts, cultural attractions, neighbourhood shopping strips and suburban parks.

It’d appeal to anyone who’s been to Sydney more than once and is looking for something new - and today, that’s me. Stepping aboard at Central Station, I set out to discover some of the city’s lesser-known attractions at the stops along the way.

Tram Stop: John Street Square

Passing up the restaurants and museums by the tram line’s initial stops, I head onward to Pyrmont, to a cafe I’ve been told is a great place to have breakfast.

At this point the line lies within a deep cutting, and its rough-hewn stone walls add an unexpected dash of grandeur.

At the top of a steep flight of stairs (where I belatedly discover a lift) is Harris Street, an appealing collection of weathered buildings that speak of Pyrmont’s working-class past.

On one corner there’s a dilapidated old shopfront with a pitched roof, and opposite it is the atmospheric facade of the Terminus Hotel, clearly closed for decades and covered with old beer ads and a tracery of ivy.

A few doors down from these relics is Bar Zini (78 Harris St), a symbol of the gentrification of this area. Slotted into a narrow shopfront, it’s a light modern space with dark timber furniture, exposed floorboards and a long counter, a modern Australian take on the classic Italian cafe.

From the short breakfast menu I choose a panino filled with double smoked ham, tomato, fontina cheese, basil and tomato salsa. It’s basically a fancy version of a toasted ham and cheese sandwich - and it’s very tasty.

Tram Stop: Jubilee Park

From this stop I have a great view over a suburban gem that tourists seldom visit - the perfect circle of Jubilee Park, an old-fashioned cricket ground with a white picket fence and dainty pavilion, nestled within the curve of the old railway viaduct which carries the tram line.

Beyond the park is Rozelle Bay, one of the many nooks of Sydney Harbour. It’s a pleasant walk past the cricket ground and through Bicentennial Park, a former industrial space that was redeveloped as waterside parkland in recent years.

The view from the waterline is a snapshot of the area’s history, with neatly manicured greenery on one shore and a collection of shipyards and old factories on the other, including huge silos in the direction of the modern ANZAC Bridge. I sit on a bench with a view over the water, enjoying this haven, a quiet space on a weekday morning.

Tram Stop: Glebe

Backtracking, I step out at Glebe, whose tram stop opens onto a fascinating streetscape of sandstone ex-warehouses beneath a narrow park set into a cut, with a row of terrace houses high above.

A short walk away is Glebe Point Road, an attractive shopping strip lined with genteel terrace houses and lush gardens on one side, and shops on the other.

In the 19th century shopfronts there’s both the old and new: retro furniture shops, classy fashion boutiques, sushi outlets, Thai restaurants, discount stores, antiques emporiums and day spas. It has a village atmosphere, but one updated for the 21st century.

I walk along to Gleebooks (49 Glebe Point Rd), a renowned independent bookshop that’s a veteran of the strip and the host to many literary events. Inside, the lofty interior is crammed with volumes, the shelves taking up every part of the shop floor that isn’t necessary for customer access.

Browsing the stock, I’m pleased to spot two novels by my favourite British humorist, PG Wodehouse. In the self-help section in the centre, my eye is drawn to titles such as Hamlet’s Blackberry and Why We Lie; and I can’t help smiling at a copy of Stuff White People Like, a humorous poke at the tastes of people who live in gentrified suburbs just like Glebe.

[Next post: Fish out of water, and dishes of the East...]