Words || Lucy MacCulloch
“What the fuck is a Westleigh?” comments the “Only in Sydney’s North Shore” facebook page.
Westleigh is nestled in between Hornsby and Pennant Hills. It has a dog park and a little shopping village containing a bakery, an Aldi, IGA, some takeaway places and a secondhand store. There’s a playground and an oval regularly filled with kiddie soccer games and an occasional outdoor movie night. And that’s about it.
Well, there are trees. A lot of trees, actually, to the point where I’ve been told the snapchats I’ve taken from my backyard look “rural”. A lot of our street names are named after trees: Eucalyptus Drive, Stringybark Close, Spotted Gum Road and so on, though I don’t think many of the streets house any of their namesakes. To go with the trees there’s a fire brigade just a few minutes away. Though the only interaction I’ve ever had with them when they trawl through at Christmas at 8am, blasting their sirens and Christmas songs from a sound system that sounds like it’s made out of tin cans as they annihilate all goodwill in a single swoop.
Westleigh is, of course, undoubtedly on the north shore – we’re just to the west of it. It’s way, way whiter than the Hills and I’ve never heard anyone speak a language other than English here. We are a ludicrously safe blue seat, having literally never voted for a party that wasn’t the Libs in 60 years. Phillip Ruddock, who helped spearhead our current atrocities against refugees and our ongoing mistreatment of Indigenous Australians, remains Hornsby’s mayor despite getting all of our hopes up years ago and saying he would retire. Suburbs like Normanhurst and Thornleigh have been similarly dissed by North Shore facebook, and they at least have their own train stations. If you want to get out of Westleigh using local transport you’ll need to catch the hourly bus filled with either school kids or seniors with their trolleys, depending on what time you catch it. And, presuming you want to go anywhere that isn’t Hornsby station, you’ll probably need to catch a train after that. Have fun being at least half an hour early for everything!
If you do want to drive around Westleigh, prepare to go round in circles. It’s not like Cherrybrook where you have to go around three roundabouts to get anywhere, but most of the roads form a circuit. I’ve driven plenty of my friends crazy when they’ve asked me “left or right” and I’ve shrugged and said it doesn’t matter. Doesn’t matter which way you go, you’ll always end up back home. Or something. I’m sure it’s symbolic.
Westleigh is all of the usual North Shore stereotypes and complaints, just a bit smaller and messier. Most of the houses I walk past don’t have pools or pool tables. On the whole they’re 70s houses made from dark wood and plasterboard or red brick, compared to the intimidating white houses found in a lot of other places on the north shore. I do have a deep, longstanding hatred for the cacophony of lawn mowers, whipper snippers and tree grinders that seem to start up every week, most often at 8am on a Saturday. But we have less of a fetish for sprinklers than a lot of the north shore. I don’t think of the bright green grass of the real estate photos when I think of Westleigh, I think of dried, yellowing grass that crunches under my feet when I walk back from the bus stop.
It’s different in the residential communities, who pride themselves on their manicured hedges and shaped trees. I remember looking at houses there just before we moved when I was a kid and being so excited by the idea of playing in the community with other kids, of having neighbours my own age (note: I had not discovered the Internet at this point). But nowadays they seem so separate from everything else that I forget they exist. They’re just signs we drive past to get back home.
Mostly, when I think of Westleigh I think of trees. The richest parts of Wahroonga are big on trees too: tall, thick trunks with bright green leaves that sway gently over you, hints of dappled light coming through. Westleigh is not like that. Our trees take you by surprise. You’ll be walking along, a few desert ashes dotted here and there because a landscaper said so, and then you’ll turn a corner and be greeted by white and red gums that tower over roofs, or you’ll realise that someone has four paperbark trees in their front yard. You arrive at the top of the hill and look into the burned green valley below and remember oh yeah, that’s Berowra Valley National Park.
It’s the part I love the most too. There’s a family of eight kookaburras in a neighbouring tree that we feed sometimes, even though we shouldn’t, but we like hearing their laughs and seeing their fluffy heads. I’ve never been swooped by a magpie, but I have been squawked at by one who thought we were feeding the kookaburras too much and should feed him instead. A pair of crimson rosellas have been around lately to feed on our matching bottlebrush, so alive with bees that you can hear them buzzing from a metre away. There’s a pack of at least fifteen cockatoos that move about destroying people’s lawns, a family of rainbow lorikeets that hop around on tree canopies, and sometimes at night I can hear the call of a powerful owl, hoo-hooing into the darkness.
I’m not sure how much longer it will last for. Hornsby Shire talks a lot about minimising waste and protecting our local environment, but I’ve also seen the trees chopped down and the high-rises erected driving back from Hornsby. The smoke from our now regular back-burns has gotten worse and worse with each passing year, hanging around for days at the back of your throat.
There’s a lot to criticise Westleigh for, both in how it fails to live up to the manicured grandeur of the North Shore and how it reflects so many of the North Shore’s worst qualities. But there’s a comfort here. I have good memories of my cat smelling of sun and lavender; of the time a green king parrot sat on top of a tree in front of me, blending in with the leaves; the many, many times I’ve looked at an orange and pink sunset setting over the valley, eucalyptus leaves rustling overhead. And I think I’d like to be here for a bit longer, at least until more of it is gone, government-approved or otherwise.