Words || Sarah Joseph
I have a fascination with discovering unusual places. I’m always happiest when I discover something like the dark upstairs corner of a coffee shop, perfect for reading, or the place where the gigantic concrete motorway reaches over a national park. I love being able to take my friends from other towns or cities to the places that I have discovered. My favourite restaurant, hidden under a church and park, a safari-themed bar down a dark alleyway and stairs, a secret garden in the middle of the city. They are places that are unique to Sydney, and I feel a strange connection to them that I cannot explain. For someone who spent three years of her distant youth living here, and now another three of her adulthood, Sydney is both nostalgic and foreign. So, discovering more of the cities eccentricities and peculiarities, the better.
A priceless resource in my search for knowing more about the strange and hidden places of this city is Vanessa Berry. Berry has lived in Sydney her entire life and explores the sprawl of city to find its bizarre and nitty-gritty places. In her wandering, she documents her finds on her blog and recent book of essays by the same name, Mirror Sydney. “I’m a very observant person, someone who notices the things around me very keenly. And so, no matter where I go, I tend to notice details and wonder how things got to be the way they are.”
The blog and book are a collection of essays and observations about the various places around Sydney that are of interest to her. Each essay is a beautiful compilation of history, memoir and knowledge of the most exciting and eccentric aspects. Berry combines her existing knowledge of the local area, all the myths, rumours, and personal history, with vivid and lively descriptions. “I don’t just kind of see what’s on the surface. I know a little more about what’s underneath it, and that doesn’t happen automatically when you are in some place that you don’t know. When you’ve got a long history, personal history, it kind of makes you feel a bit more embedded in it.”
I absolutely devoured the book over my summer holiday. The pages are crunchy from sand, and the blue dye on the cover has spread into the first ten pages or so. From the stories of Vanessa being lectured about Doc Martins being erosive on society’s morals in Hornsby, to crocodiles kept in backyard swimming pools in Kurnell, I was engrossed. Here was someone who truly claimed the city as her own, drawing maps of her memory and exploration all over the book. It filled my appetite for knowing more about the strange and wondrous side of my home city.
When I finally got to speak to Vanessa, everything I wanted to ask was to do with how she found these places and stories. She told me, “I started doing the blog that the book is based on in 2012. When I started, it was really just places I was curious about, and I had lots. But then as the blog was read by more people and more people found out that’s what I was doing, I got recommendations from people. I always love it when people contribute or get excited about the places that they know, or that are perhaps similar.”
A lot of her stories include in-depth historical research into the site or place. One example is her research into every single theme park that has existed in Sydney, ever, which Berry illustrated into a map herself. From the one’s we all know like Luna Park and its history of rides burning down, to Sydney’s very own African Lion Safari in Warragamba run from 1968-1991, which I had zero clue existed. “I do a lot of research,” she explained, “I use history, and I love it, but it’s not a straight kind of historical account of place in Sydney”. Vanessa continued to talk about how she is foremost a writer, and while the history is important, she is always chasing the story.
I tried to ask her for recommendations of cool places to check out in the city, and if she had a favourite. She laughed and told me that would be like choosing a favourite child, impossible. She said pretty much ALL the places she had written about. With hundreds of posts on her blog, it’s a pretty good start getting to know Sydney’s unusual places inside and out. She also mentions driving into the city and just walking around aimlessly, which I agree, is the best way to get to know a city.
Having lived in Sydney forever, Berry has an evident love for the city and its uniqueness, which is why she writes about and links action plans like the ‘Save Our Sirius’ campaign, in the book and on the blog. “I don’t think you can really ignore it, I couldn’t do that blog without mentioning some of these big important actions people are trying to raise attention about,” she continues, “I wouldn’t say it’s a political blog, but it’s not really a question for me, I had to at least mention these things. Often in these places where there is a lot of change happening, it is often not harmonious. It doesn’t benefit the residents who have had their community destroyed. People are still fighting it and letting their voices be heard and saying, ‘We’re not happy with what’s going on.’”
At this stage, I brought up Berry’s Instagram, which I had been stalking for quite some time. It is a condensed version of her Mirror Sydney blog, with slightly different abandoned and bizarre places. Images of old underground train walkways, ghost signs on old buildings and really just anything that catches her eye. One of the standouts of the account for me though is the slightly creepy feeling, over-saturated black and white filter on her Instagram stories. There is something both beautiful and terrifying about seeing, in one recent post, cockatoos hanging upside down in a tree, squawking at each other in black and white that I can’t put my finger on. “I don’t know why I started doing that,” she laughs. “It made it more interesting for me. I thought, oh, I’m going to make it black and white, and that will make it more interesting. I’m a writer, so I think a lot about stories, and what they mean, and how you make them. That might be reading a bit much into something that you’re not meant to read into at all.”
Speaking to someone with such a deep connection and love for this city is a special thing. In an age where the entire city is construction work, towering cranes and demolished buildings, learning about these places before they are gone forever is important. Even just discovering a new building or the weird history of something you’ve always taken for granted. I’ve been inspired to get out and explore, put on my walking shoes and discover even more unusual and fantastic places that I can create my own personal history with.
To check out Vanessa Berry’s work, head to mirrorsydney.wordpress.com.