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Balmain bugged: A self-guided tour of Sydney’s early colonial suburb

In a newspaper article someone said they weren’t worried about the Opera House etc, but went to Balmain to see architecture and get a feel for Sydney. Although I could not entirely agree with this point of view, it does have a certain substance.

The workers’ houses with their exotic tips will be eye-catching, especially those that have been cared for with facades in modern light colors that accentuate them even more. Then there are others with garden supervision, where you only get tempting glimpses behind the sometimes wonderful flora, in particular eucalyptus trees, crepe myrtles and many colors of frangipani.

Examples of the colorful lace that adorn some of the cottages in the Balmain area. Source: Ian Smith

In many of them, the skylights (from the Latin “to sleep”) can be seen up high, and those keen eyes may also notice some Scottish-style windows cut under the eaves.

Every corner seemed to have a shop; two-story with accommodation upstairs and a shop downstairs, nowadays only living space. Another thing to admire is that modern architecture blends so well with the old one. There is real imagination in some of the many quality work, particularly some of the elegant woodwork and fresh sandstone blocks.

There can be no doubt that it was a working class suburb, given the number of hotels that once existed. It seemed like every other block had a hotel and many are still today, but for others you need to know where to look, like the Volunteer Hotel (now a private residence) which gets its name from its association with the Volunteer Fire Brigade received. My personal favorite is the Riverview, which once belonged to popular Olympic star Dawn Fraser and is where the food is something to enjoy. The oldest still traded hotel is the Dry Dock Hotel, with its flaky paint and $ 15 Sunday lunch.

Even in 2021, Exchange and Dick’s are still trading across from each other on Beattie Street. The Yalumba Wine Cellars building on Darling Street has a very historic, eye-catching Citroen H Van parked outside, apart from the fact that this is the oldest wine store still selling alcohol.

Self-guided walking tour from Balmain, SydneySource: Ian Smith

As you rock up or down to Balmain East Wharf, you’ll find it hard not to notice the adjoining beautiful sandstone building that is now a posh restaurant. There were strong connections here to my hometown Newcastle, as these once belonged to Fenwick and Co, which were the largest tug company in Sydney and Newcastle. Originally Bell’s Warehouse, it was later used as Fenwick’s shop and has been wonderfully restored and the name retained.

Self-guided walking tour from Balmain, SydneyThe Fenwick Boat Shed. Source: Ian Smith

The nearest ferry pier (Balmain), where you can pick up a free book or two from the donation pile, is in Mort Bay, named after Thomas Sutcliffe Mort who had a dry dock there. It’s located at one end of popular Mort Bay Park, where you can sit on ideally placed benches and watch people walk dogs and the harbor traffic go by on a balmy day like I was lucky.

Almost obscured (from the land side) Birchgrove Wharf at aptly named Long Nosed Point is even farther away. A peninsula with private moorings, a lovely place to wait for the ferry with sweeping views around the harbor. Ferry transports have been here for more than 150 years and the backdrop of the spacious houses from the late 19th century adds to the fascination. The original allotment was bought by a ferry owner’s brother, which explains the orientation of the road that leads down the quay.

You can walk down any thoroughfare and find historic architecture, move onto streets like Grafton and enjoy unusual views of the harbor, or discover obscure parks where picnicking among mature trees seems like a wonderful thing.

Balmain is also a well-known Labor Party stronghold. Current opposition leader Anthony Albanese is from here, as is Billy Hughes, Australia’s seventh Prime Minister and HV ‘Doc’ Evatt. Most important, however, is Tom Uren, who was so enthusiastic about the electorate that a walk is named in his honor. A zigzag effort that you really need the card for because it’s badly signed.

Other options are the Watch House walking tours which also have lots of information about what to see and excellent maps. Whatever you choose, I am sure you will enjoy a little bit of what is available in this particular suburb.

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