21 April 2015
Day 6 War Memorial to Mugga Way
The weather has changed in the last couple of days, reflecting the sombre preparations outside the War Memorial for Saturday’s ceremony to commemorate the ANZAC landing one hundred years ago at Gallipoli. Grandstands draped in camouflage netting have been erected on one side of the parade ground to accommodate the large numbers of people expected to attend. Rows of white chairs for the dignitaries take up the other sides of the ground.
The ANZACs were part of the allied expedition whose aim was knock Turkey out of the First World War. The insane plan was to open the Dardenelle Straits so that allied naval vessels could sail up the Bosphorus and take Constantinople. The campaign dragged on in a stalemate on the Gallipoli Peninsula for eight months at great cost of life on both sides and ended with evacuation of the allied forces.
With the War Memorial at our backs, under a leaden sky we turn our faces into the freezing wind driving up Anzac Parade. Anzac Parade is part of Walter Burley Griffin’s plan for the city, the axis that runs from the top of Capital Hill to the top of Mount Ainslie. It’s one of the most significant avenues in Canberra. On either side of the wide pebbled median strip are memorials of all the campaigns in which Australian and New Zealand forces have fought and died. The memorials are spaced between stands of magnificent eucalypts, now shedding great dark ribbons and sheets of bark.
We keep to the western side of the Parade stopping to take a closer look at some of the memorials. The Hellenic Memorial commemorates the Australians and New Zealanders who joined allied forces in a ‘fighting withdrawal’ from the Greek mainland and afterwards in the Battle of Crete. More than 5000 Australians were taken prisoner following these campaigns. The Hellenic Memorial incorporates a broken amphitheatre, an olive grove, cypress pines and damaged steel fragments, symbolising the futility and destruction of war.
At the Vietnam Memorial, three stelae form massive sloping walls enclosing a space over which hang three great stones suspended from wires anchored by the stelae. The inner surfaces of the stelae are covered in inscriptions that capture the political and personal circumstances of the 50,000 army, navy and air force personnel who participated. One inscription reads, ‘Frankie kicked a mine the day mankind kicked the moon. God help me, he was going home in June.’ Another: ‘I don’t seem to have many friends since I came home. If you weren’t there you can’t understand.’
Half-way along Anzac Parade is the first memorial to be constructed here. The Desert Mounted Corps Memorial is a cast bronze sculpture of a mounted Australian Light Horseman defending a New Zealander standing beside his wounded horse. It has a particular resonance for me because my great-uncle Eustace served in the Light Horse in World War 1 and my uncle Des was a ‘Desert Rat’ in in Egypt in the Second World War.
Just before the end of Anzac Parade we detour under a lych gate to the graveyard of the 1841Anglican Church of Saint John the Baptist. Many of the European pioneers of the Limestone Plains, having lived to a ripe old age, lie here. The sandstone church would look at home in an English village, as would the rose gardens that surround it, and the old white-washed Saint John’s School House, now a museum. Defying today’s bitter weather, the rose bushes are bright with blooms.
We leave the grounds of Saint John’s and walk back to Constitution Avenue which runs at right angles to the bottom of Anzac Parade, here flanked by two arches commemorating the two countries’ joint involvement in the Great War.
At this point there are no Centenary Trail signs but our map indicates that we need to turn right past the entry to the underground car park of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) building and through the underpass beneath Parkes Way to the shore of Lake Burley Griffin.
The first structure we come across here, situated on a small rise, is Blundell’s Cottage. It’s quite a contrast to the highly fortified glass and steel frontage of the ASIO building behind us. Built in about 1858 by the grazier George Campbell for his ploughman William Ginn, it’s a modest stone cottage with lean-to corrugated iron awnings and a garden enclosed by a picket fence. Blundell’s Cottage is one of the few stone cottages in the area to have survived intact, but we note that the rusty roof metal is in need of attention. The cottage was a home until 1958, after which it was converted into a museum displaying the lifestyle of the working people who lived in it.
Still with no Centenary Trail sign in sight, we continue south-east along the lake foreshore toward Kings Avenue Bridge, encountering dog-walkers, joggers, cyclists braving the weather. The sun glows intensely behind the cloud layer like incandescent wood behind mica. Small cold waves lap the concrete walls of the lake. Lapwings and silver gulls graze on the shore; moorhens, ducks and black swans glide through the water; a heron skates across the surface and launches into flight; a little pied cormorant dives for its breakfast and surfaces with a tiny silver fish. The glinting fish flips in the cormorant’s bill for a desperate second before being swallowed into oblivion.
On our right is the elegant white tower of the Carillon on its little island. Beyond it, on the other side of the lake between the southern end of Commonwealth Avenue Bridge and the western end of Kings Avenue Bridge is the Parliamentary Zone. Along the foreshore there is a row of flagpoles flying the flags of all the nations that have a diplomatic mission in our National Capital. Behind them are many of the national public buildings, separated by vast expanses of grassed parkland and stands of deciduous trees decked in their autumn shades of gold, burnt sienna, magenta, orange, brown. The lively colours of the autumn trees and the wind-tossed flags stand out against the luminous greys of lake and sky.
Turning up the path to Kings Avenue Bridge we find a Trail sign on a lamp post, the last sign to be seen for a while. On the other side of the bridge is a confused network of earth and concrete walls and metal barriers where an underpass is being constructed for pedestrians and cyclists to commute between the Kingston Foreshore and the Parliamentary Zone. We blithely go on a few metres along Kings Avenue towards Parliament House atop Capital Hill before realising that the map shows that the Trail continues to the right, along the southern foreshore. This makes sense: the Trail is designed to showcase the public as well as the urban and rural environments of Canberra, and most of the national public buildings are situated along the foreshore. But we wouldn’t know this was part of the Trail if we didn’t have the map. Could it be that only very special signs are permitted in the Parliamentary Zone? We wonder how our friends from Alabama got on when they were walking this part of the Trail. (Answer: they had a GPS app on their mobile phone.)
We negotiate the labyrinth of temporary pathways around the underpass works and proceed along the foreshore, past the National Gallery of Australia, the High Court Building and the Portrait Gallery, to Commonwealth Place. Here (consulting the map) we turn left into the walled and windy walkway that leads to Reconciliation Place, situated between the Portrait Gallery and the High Court, where artworks provide images and text that reflect different themes of reconciliation between European settlers and the indigenous people of Australia.
We continue across the lawns of Old Parliament House past the Aboriginal Tent Embassy. The Tent Embassy was first set up directly across the road from the main entrance of Old Parliament House in 1972 to protest against the government’s refusal to recognise Aboriginal land rights; it has survived in various forms, not without controversy, ever since. Just now there are more tents than usual, possibly for people who’ve come to Canberra to attend the ANZAC ceremonies specifically to honour the Aboriginal diggers who fought and died on Gallipoli. There are piles of firewood lying around and a 44 gallon drum for cooking and keeping warm. Fires will certainly be needed tonight.
The official name of Old Parliament House used to be the Provisional Parliament House. The building, in the simplified Classical style that characterised all the government buildings in Canberra of the ‘20’s and ‘30’s, was completed in 1927. It accommodated the Parliament of Australia until the newly-built official Parliament House on Capital Hill was opened by Queen Elizabeth II in 1988. Old Parliament House is now officially the Museum of Australian Democracy, but it is known affectionately to Canberrans as ‘The Wedding Cake’ because it looks just like an old-fashioned wedding cake.
Old Parliament House and the two buildings which flank it, East Block and West Block, were the three original buildings in the Parliamentary Zone. I have a proud connection with this part of Canberra. In 1927 my grandfather was in Number 3 Sewer Camp digging the sewers for Old Parliament House and the old Canberra Hotel, now the Hyatt. While my grandfather was working on the sewers, my father was a telegraphist for the Post Master General, the tenant of East Block at that time. Granddad lived in a labourers’ camp beside the Molonglo River which later became Lake Burley Griffin. Dad lived in the Printers Quarters at Kingston. The printers refused to stay there. The living conditions were appalling.
We pass the mosaic reflective pool at the entrance to the tranquil colonnaded old House of Representatives rose garden and tennis courts, which are now in public use. A mother and a couple of kids on school holidays are looking for the entrance to the courts, hidden among the rose beds. We continue up the hill on a path running beside the great sweep of lawn that lies between Old Parliament House and the official Parliament House. The last time I took this path I was in a protest march against our treatment of refugees. On the lawn in front of the forecourt is the Foundation Stone which was laid by then Prime Minister Andrew Fisher on 12 March 1913, the day Canberra was officially declared the Capital of Australia. The Foundation Stone has six sections, to represent the six colonies of Australia before Federation in 1901.
The ‘new’ Parliament House is an extraordinary and wonderful building with subtly beautiful internal and external decorations and finishes. Most of it is nested inside Capital Hill, which was excavated for the purpose while retaining the shape of the hill. The top of the hill was replicated by a wide boomerang-shaped structure arching over a monumental façade. The façade looks a bit like the front of Hatshepsut’s Mortuary Temple in the cliffs at Deir el Bahari on the west bank of the Nile River in Egypt, only more tasteful. From the vast forecourt there are vistas to the west and north of the National Museum of Australia, Black Mountain, the Civic Centre (where unfortunately the Art Deco buildings of the thirties have been swamped by the high-rises), and to the north east straight back to where we began today’s walk: over the Foundation Stone and Old Parliament House, across the lake, up Anzac Parade to the War Memorial – and beyond to the top of Mount Ainslie.
We continue south on the western incline of Capital Hill via paths that meander through the Senate Gardens full of trees bursting with red and yellow berries, flowering bottlebrushes and other native bushes. The gardens are interspersed with recreational facilities for the Members and staff – a fitness circuit, tennis courts, a sports field – but these are all deserted. Parliament isn’t sitting at the moment, but we suspect that the outside facilities aren’t used much anyway; the busy denizens of the place are more likely to use the gym inside.
As for us, we have now reached the House of Representatives’ entrance on the opposite side of the building to the main entrance. We head down towards State Circle where Melbourne Avenue begins and lo, we behold a sign. But it points to the right, whereas we are pretty sure we should be going straight ahead to where Carol parked her car in Mugga Way at the top of Melbourne Avenue. Disobeying our instincts, we follow the sign. After a couple of hundred metres we agree that if we persist and supposing there are more signs, we will probably end up back at the War Memorial. Dodging the traffic, we cross State Circle and go back to Melbourne Avenue. This street with its wide median strip, old trees and gracious homes (including the ‘Tudor’ house that was home to the young Gough Whitlam) provides a pleasant finish to today’s section of the Trail.
We enjoyed the coffee and the ambiance of Poppy’ s Café at the War Memorial so much last week that we decide to do it again today. The bright, light, Art Deco décor of the café somehow catches the subdued but expectant mood of the people who have begun to congregate for Saturday’s ceremonies. People write notes, read books, look at pictures, talk quietly, animatedly over their coffee. A man and his little son play cards at a table next to ours. There isn’t an Ipad in sight.