On the first Sunday of the year I decided that, regardless of the weather, I would go to Narrabeen Beach – the next beach in my alphabetical list. And that, in going to Narrabeen on the first Sunday of the year, I would set myself up to go to the beach every Sunday for the rest of the summer.
It was not to a promising beach day.
I set off in a misting rain on the M30 bus from Newtown to Neutral Bay where I transferred to the B1 to Narrabeen. I read The Hate Race, listened to the German boys at the back of the bus, and watched rain accumulate and roll down the front window of the second deck. My aim for the day was to simply be present, enjoy myself, not worry about the weather or whatever other tasks were rattling around my brain and in need of doing.
In my mind, the Northern Beaches – from Manly all the way up to Palm Beach – are as one. But every time I visit one of these suburbs, I am reminded that each has its own vibe and character. Narrabeen feels more like the Central Coast to me than Manly. Streets dead-end at the ocean. There are utes and tradesperson vehicles parked in front of many of the homes. The streets are quiet but nearly every person I pass says hello – verbally, not just a nod and a smile – I get “Good morning” and “Hi” and “G’day” from my fellow strollers.
Most of the architecture is modern, or at least recent, but there are a few hold-outs, old-school fibro places which make me happy.
My first stop is Zubi Espresso, the top rated Narrabeen café on Beanhunter – which, as I’m walking, I realise is closer to North Narrabeen beach, another beach for another visit. There is fun art on the wall and they serve me a fine skim flat white which I drink at a footpath table while flicking through the Sun-Herald and feeling a mist of rain coming in sideways.
In some ways, Narrabeen is the perfect place to visit on a not-beachy day. I’ve decided to do the 8+ km walk around Narrabeen Lagoon with hopes that, on completion, I’ll be a bit warm and ready for a refreshing ocean dip.
En route to the lagoon I passed this memorial:
Turns out George Augustine Taylor (1872-1928) was a fairly interesting character all around.
George trained as an architect but became known as an artist who contributed drawings to The Bulletin and London Punch among others. He ran with the Sydney Bohemian set in the 1890s and published a book about that world, called Those Were the Days, in 1918. He was also a member of the Dawn and Dusk Club – an association of “bohemians and intellectuals” which included Henry Lawson. Clearly, this was just an excuse to drink – as if one were needed. Their club motto was Roost high and crow low.
Anyway, George had an interest in aviation which led him to build a full-sized glider which he flew at Narrabeen on 5 December 1909 – becoming, as the memorial says, the first person to fly in a heavier-than-air (ie not a balloon) craft in Australia. His wife, Florence Mary Parsons, went next – making her the first woman to fly a heavier-than-air craft in Australia. Here’s Taylor in flight. Isn’t that grand?
Allow me to dwell, for just a moment, on the exceptional Florence Mary Taylor (née Parsons) OBE, CBE. She was the first qualified female architect and the first woman to train as an engineer in Australia. She was born to working-class parents near Bristol, England in December 1879 and died in Potts Point in February 1969. The family migrated to Australia when Florence was five and settled in western Sydney. Following the death of both her parents (in 1896 and 1899), she was, at 20, the guardian of two younger sisters. She took a job as a clerk in an architectural firm and noticing the male draftspeople were earning more than her, enrolled in night classes which led to her being the first woman to complete final year studies in architecture, in 1904. From there she was off and running – no doubt hitting and clambering over all manner of stumbling blocks put in her way. With her husband, Florence began a sort of publishing empire specialising in building and engineering related magazines. Following George’s untimely death in 1928 (he drowned in the bath as a consequence of an epileptic fit) she continued the publishing business until her retirement in the early 1970s. Amazing. Here she is.
The walk is a mix of paved and unpaved surfaces which I share with a steady stream of cyclists, walkers, and runners. In the most bush-like section of the walk as I reached the crest of a small rise, I could hear a wee cyclist huffing and puffing up the hill and declaring “I did it!” at the top. She wobbled and wove past me, new streamers flying from her handlebars, laughing and calling out, “Weeee!” It was the best moment of the day. Fifty metres of this little girl’s bicycle ride around Narrabeen Lagoon expressed my own often felt struggles and joy in cycling. The whole of the joys of bicycle touring in this micro moment.
Nearing the end of the walk and what have we here? Baby ducks!!! Oh my goodness, look at all those little fluff balls.
It was nearly five o’clock when I got to the beach and the Surf Life Savers were taking down their marquee. There were a few kids in the water. Looking up towards North Narrabeen and down to Collaroy, only a few people seemed to be on the whole very long stretch of beach. The misty rain had begun again as well. Calculating that I wouldn’t get home, as it was, until nearly 7 pm I decided not to change into my swimmers, not to go all in. A decision I regret, really. Instead, I rolled my shorts high and waded in. The water felt warmer than it had at Manly last week and was crystal clear. I wanted to go in but didn’t want to take the time to go in. Instead, I took my photo, walked back up to the main road and got the B1 heading home.
A bit about Narrabeen
Wikipedia suggests several convoluted and untrustworthy tales of how Narrabeen got its name. You can read about them here if you like. What we can say for sure is that it’s the only Australian location name-checked by the Beach Boys in Surfin’ USA – the song they closed their set on North Narrabeen Reserve with on 28 November 1992.
The first land grants to Europeans were made in the early 1800s including one to Alex Macdonald who was granted 89 acres along the beach in 1815.
An Aboriginal presence continued at a camping ground at the western end of the lagoon until the middle of the 20th century when the camp residents were forcibly removed to state housing in the western suburbs and their humpies razed. The area is now part of the Sydney Academy of Sport.
Here, Dennis Foley, a Gai-mariagal (Camaraigal) descendant, shares his memories of visiting the camp before and after it’s destruction:
In 2005 a skeleton was found during excavations in Ocean Street. Carbon dating aged the find at 4,000 years – Sydney’s oldest, he came to be known as Narrabeen Man. Evidence indicated he was speared to death, perhaps ritually, in punishment for something quite severe, perhaps – according to Allen Madden, a Narrabeen cultural heritage officer. Narrabeen Man was unusually tall – 183 cm (6 feet) and 30-40 years old. His remains are lying under care as Sydney Uni’s Shellshear Museum.
To read more about the Aboriginal history in this part of Sydney, check out this article from the Dictionary of Sydney.
The 2016 census counted 8,207 people in Narrabeen, of these 66 (0.8%) identified as being of Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander heritage. Sixty-six percent of Narrabeeneans were Australian born, but 28% had both parents born overseas. Eighty-three percent only spoke English at home with other languages including Portuguese (2%), German, Spanish, Italian and French (all less than 1%).
Narrabeen is in the Northern Beaches Council Local Government Area, the State electorate of Pittwater (Rob Stokes, Liberal) and the Federal Division of Mackellar (Jason Falinski, Liberal).
In the 2017 Same-Sex Marriage Postal Survey 84% of voters in Mackellar returned their ballots with 68% of them voting Yes and 32% voting No. Across NSW it was 58% Yes, 42% No, and nationwide it was 62% Yes and 42% No.
To get to Narrabeen I took the M30 bus from Newtown to Neutral Bay, and the B1 to Narrabeen; I did the same in reverse coming home ($2.70 total – because it was Sunday, normally $4.71 each way).
I had a skim flat white and slice of banana bread for $9.50.
The walk around the lagoon is just over 8 kilometres and took me, with breaks, about 2 hours.