Hidden away just across the harbor, in quiet Lavender Bay, Sydney’s smallest suburb, is a “secret garden.” This surreal shaded sanctuary and nature refuge beckons visitors and lovers of all things botanical.
So secret is Wendy Whiteley’s Secret Garden, there’s no sign leading to it. Most guidebooks don’t mention it. Many locals haven’t heard of it. But here’s how to find it and explore it on your next trip “down under.”
A short ferry ride to Milson’s Point in front of Luna Park gets you to the meandering shoreline path alongside Lavender Bay. On your right, pass through the tunnel beneath the railroad trestle. Ascend the flight of stairs leading to the top of the garden and the big white Victorian house towering above it. A large concrete wall encases a swimming pool as a backdrop for the entrance to the garden pathway.
Here, we met longtime gardener, Ruben Gardiol, cleaning the pool and happy to talk to any curious visitors. He explains how Wendy Whiteley transformed a garbage dump into a lush garden where visitors can spend hours exploring or just sitting and enjoying the lush surrounds. The garden overflows with unusual plants, towering trees, eccentric benches, and quirky bits of art tucked here and there.
In 1970, Wendy, and famous Australian artist Brett Whitely, set up their family home overlooking Lavender Bay. They lived there for more than two decades. In 1992, overcome with grief following Brett’s death, Wendy started cleaning up the dense lantana, blackberry vines, and privet that covered the neglected railway land below her home.
The overgrown land belonged to the New South Wales Rail Corporation, which had no interest in doing anything with it. They raised no objections to Wendy beautifying this derelict area. She attacked the rubbish piles spread out over the 1.4 acre plot, clearing rotting mattresses, rusty refrigerators and other debris that had lain untouched for years. Thus began Wendy Whiteley’s “secret garden.”
Wendy obsessively cleared the land, collapsing from exhaustion each night. Then started the process over again the next day. The garden evolved – a rare convergence of form, beauty, color, and whimsy – a giant work of art!
The secret garden developed over 20 years, helped by dedicated volunteers, and two full-time gardeners. Now a treasured, flourishing sanctuary, the garden is open to the public.
Atop the garden, the massive Moreton fig tree – Australia’s version of the African Banyan – provides abundant shade for picnickers. This ancient tree overlooks the garden, protecting and preserving it. On Sydney’s hot summer days, a breeze off Lavender Bay cools the garden.
Whimsical, crooked paths zigzag the garden, leading to all manner of intriguing nooks and crannies. You’ll find plenty of hidden spots to sit and watch the bay. Strolling through the garden, we saw families picnicking, children running and laughing, lovers retreating into hidden corners, and a wedding party celebrating.
Etched in stone on a large monolith beside the path, an inscription reflects an artistic sentiment for nature and our place in it. “And we shall walk and talk in gardens all misty and wet with rain and we shall never, never grow so old again.”
A labyrinth of 12 terraced paths, cut into the steep hillside, leads you to different levels of flowering enchantment. Thick tree branches double as handrails on stairways. Old weathered railroad ties support the terraced sides of the pathways. Some paths have stairs leading down to chairs and benches tucked into small shady groves, providing rest areas for visitors.
Sprinkled around the garden you’ll find unusual benches, fanciful chairs, and crudely fashioned picnic tables. At the bottom of the garden an awning provides shelter over a small table where you might expect elves to be picnicking. Large ferns and bamboo growing out of a bathtub stand next to well-used bird baths. Classic statues of cherubs and other mythical creatures greet you at every corner. Colorful miniature paintings show up in unexpected places.
Orange bursts of clivia, red coleus, golden wattle, pink fuschias and a tree-sized trumpet vine stand out among the flourishing green plants. Elsewhere, a profusion of rose bushes, yellow daisies, red geraniums and colonies of orange birds of paradise thrive. Jasmine vines grow over the cyclone wire fence that separates the garden from the train rails. As you walk along the fence, the wind from the bay mixes the smell of railroad creosote with the sweet perfume of jasmine plants.
Wild turkeys strut and peck, oblivious to our presence. Kookaburas, wagtails, and multi-colored parrots and seagulls call this home. White butterflies flit around the tree tops. The garden exudes a magical ambiance; you expect to step around a corner and stumble across a troupe of fairies.
Wendy Whiteley’s love of plants, flowers, and trees is captured fittingly in a quote inscribed on another obelisk by the exit. “Eros again now loosener of limbs troubles me bitter sweet shy wild unruly defiant creature.” This may be the real secret of this garden!
Wendy Whiteley still lives in the family home above the garden, with its distinctive tower that overlooks the dramatic garden. And today, the “secret garden” is safe from reclamation.
In 2016 the New South Wales government granted heritage protection to the garden and house, ensuring that generations of visitors can continue to enjoy the garden with its spectacular views of Lavender Bay and the Sydney Harbour Bridge.
WHEN YOU GO:
The garden is open every day all year round. No admission is required. To find it take the ferry from Circular Quay or Barangaroo to Milson’s Point in front of Luna Park, Sydney’s oldest amusement park. Following the pathway along and past Luna Park to Lavender Bay, you’ll come across an old railway trestle. On the right is a tunnel leading to stairs that climb up to the garden. There is no sign that points to Wendy’s secret garden, leaving visitors to find their way up and into this remarkable botanical sanctuary.
Alternatively, visitors can take the train to Milsons Point railway station or park at the Kirribilli Club, in Harbourview Crescent. The Kirrribilli Club offers food and beverages and gorgeous views of Lavender Bay.
Where to Stay:
West Hotel Hilton, Curio Collection by Hilton, 65 Sussex Street, Sydney, New South Wales. 61 2 8297 6500. www.westhotel.com.au. Located near the lively area of Barangaroo, this delightful hotel is close to the Barangaroo ferry wharf. The bar offers botanical inspired cocktails and the restaurant features locally sourced, seasonal produce.
Featured image – Oyster plant (acanthus mollis) and pink spider plant (grevillea sericea) / Pam and Gary Baker.
Pam and Gary Baker are California-based food, wine and travel writers. They love exploring the world and discovering new places, including secret gardens. pamandgarybaker.com