A freelance writer living and loving in the northern beaches of Sydney...travelling, writing, outdoor activities, gardens, and Pilates are a few of my favourite things. Visit me www.potpourritravels.wordpress.com or www.facebook.com/potpourritravels/
Published October 8th 2017
History with a view for future sustainability on show
the humble entrance to the historic Coal Loader site
Sydney has an intriguing and often hidden history and, being a working harbour, many of the fascinating and historic sites give fabulous sights and insights into our city's past. One such place is the Coal Loader. I was visiting a friend in the Mater Hospital at Waverton and, looking for some green space to take a break, I began exploring the winding, quiet streets of Sydney's lower north shore. What a pleasant surprise to discover Ball's Head and the Coal Loader Centre for Sustainability. Operating between the 1920's and the 1990's as a transfer depot for coal, the former industrial site is now a fabulous meeting place for the local community, offering an information centre, picnic areas, rooms for hire and a coffee shop.
I easily find a carpark in Waterhen Drive and follow the well sign-posted path into the centre. There's a small amount of natural bush at the entrance and a Bush Foods Garden has been established, containing edible and useful native plants. Before white settlement, the area was home to the Cammeraygal people and some large rock platforms contain examples of rock carvings. Glimpses of the Harbour Bridge can be seen through the canopy of trees and on a week day, with few people around, it's sublimely peaceful.
A few steps down the slope of land leads to the original buildings of the Mess Hall, constructed in the 1920's. Containing dining and washing facilities for the workers of industry, the building is now re-used for accommodation, a music recording studio, and meeting and recreational room. Adjacent to the building is a viewing deck, overlooking a man-made wetland area. Through the bush you can see glimpses of the harbour, and even though Sydney has had a very dry few months, the understory is still filled with tree-ferns and daylilies in flower.
The path continues to descend and leads to a Community Bushland Nursery, where local volunteers have access to native and indigenous plant seedlings. Vegetation restoration is an important and on-going project that preserves the surrounding green corridor, and also contributes to the sustainability philosophy of the centre.
As the path levels out and heads south towards the point, crumbling remains of the long finger wharf showcase the former working life of the site. Jutting out a long 160 metres to enable loading at both high and low tides, coal skips moved along the wharf depositing coal into bunkers of docked bulk carriers. At the land's end of the wharf an elevated platform received the coal and had open chutes into four tunnels below. It's a little spooky and wet underfoot, but I walk through tunnel 2 that leads through to the nearby Balls Head Reserve and walking tracks. (Reminder to self to bring walking shoes next time and explore further along the foreshores!).
Back through the dimly lit tunnel, I take the three flights of stairs (although there is also an elevator) back up to the main thoroughfare. Halfway up the stairs is the Chicken Yard, complete with rooster and his flock, happily clucking away in the shade of the overhanging gums. It's an incongruous sight amongst the old industrial backdrop, but all part of the current Sustainability Centre's education program.
When the site was decommissioned in the early 1990's, a groundswell of community support saw it dedicated as public open space in 1997 and it is now run by North Sydney Council. The inspirational transformation leads the way as an information, innovation and educational centre. On the top level more buildings include a coffee shop, housed in what was once a workshop, and wonderful old sand stone walls create a unique ambience. The main administration building was the original caretaker's cottage; the cottage's courtyard is now a viable and thriving community vegetable and herb garden. Vegie pods filled to the brim with edibles, native bee hives, free seedlings and worm juice are just some of the initiatives on display. Also run by volunteers, the garden uses captured water from their rainwater tanks, and the information centre inside the cottage has plenty of information brochures and workshop details to get you inspired. School holidays are particularly popular, holding demonstrations of worm farming, bush art, and 'green' theatre shows. For more information click here.
The vision and objectives of the local council and community plan is to 'learn from the past: embrace the future', and they certainly have provided a fabulous example of how to lessen our impact on the planet. Artisan markets are held on the last Sunday of each season, the Coal Loader buildings are available for hire and showcases best practises for sustainable living, and you can even drop off your old batteries, mobile phones and fluorescent lightbulbs.
original sandstone walls and railway sleepers help house the coffee shop