The walk from The Spit to Manly is one of Sydney’s classic walks along a wild, rugged yet suburban coastline. The full journey is 10km through lush, dense bush land and spectacular lookouts. The first half of the walk (rated Grade 3 by NPWS) – Spit Bridge to about Balgowlah Heights – has a lot of up-and-down, crossing over foot bridges, winding steps but nothing too steep. The water views looking across to Little Manly, North Head and South Head are singularly impressive, and offer a sharp contrast with the contours of the walking track, through promontories dominated by a thick covering of nature.
The aesthetic significance of The Spit to Manly walk is evident to anyone who follows its sinewy trail, but it was also intriguing for me to discover little snippets of local history along the way. In my previous post (‘Sydney’s Heritage and History Trails: Manly Scenic Walkway’), I featured some of the historical points of interest pertaining to the eastern end of the Manly Scenic Walkway (Fairlight to Manly Wharf).
Our starting point for the MSW walk going west to east, The Spit✥, a narrow channel of land jutting out from the northern part of affluent Mosman, was originally known as the “Sand-Spit”. Although there had been some tentative type of service earlier, Peter Ellery started the first truly effective ferry service from the Spit to Sydney’s Northern Beaches. Ellery ran the service from land he had acquired for farming in present-day Clontarf (today where Ellery’s Punt Reserve is situated) in a direct line over the water to the tip of The Spit. Ellery charged the users of his hand-operated punt ⅙d for a horse and cart and 6d for pedestrians. His service proved popular, popular enough for it to become a public ferry by 1871 (in 1888 a steam punt◙ replaced the hand-cranked boat) [‘The Spit – Historical Overview’, (Local Studies Service, Mosman Library, www.mosman.nsw.gov.au)].
The growing pressure for improved communications and transport lines between Sydney and the Manly area prompted a series of proposals (1862, 1888, 1915) for a bridge to be built across The Spit, before finally the go-ahead was given and a low timber bridge constructed and opened in 1924. Manly Council financed the bridge, and in a deal with the state government was permitted to reimburse its expenditure by collecting tolls for its use. In 1930 control of the bridge was passed to the Department of Main Roads [‘The Spit – Historical Overview’, ibid.].
The current bridge, a bascule lift span type made from steel and concrete, dates from 1958. The bridge, constructed in the same position as the erstwhile timber one, is also low-lying … consideration was given to making it a higher level bridge, but displaying a regrettable lack of foresight, the powers-that-be eventually plumped for the easier option and their legacy is still bedevilling Sydney motorists today! The Spit Bridge is believed to be the only Australian lift bridge still in operation on a major arterial road [‘Spit Bridge’, Wikipedia, http://en.m.wikipedia.org].
Clontarf Pleasure Grounds
A beautiful tranquil reserve fronting the beach sits on the land where Clontarf Pleasure Grounds once stood (owned for many years by publican Issac Moore (Sr) and his descendants). For around half-a-century from circa 1860 the Grounds was a popular venue for numerous leisure activities…including games of quoits, skittles and cricket, picnics, swimming and of course drinking! Clontarf Grounds were reputed to be “the oldest, largest, and most shady pleasure grounds in the harbour” [MacRitchie, John, ‘Clontarf’, Dictionary of Sydney, 2008,http://dictionaryofsydney.org/entry/clontarf, viewed 31 Oct 2017]. Over the years Sydney’s Clontarf has had several associations with Ireland: the name itself derives from the Battle of Clontarf, 1014 (a town close to Dublin); in the 1800s the grounds drew huge crowds during holidays including the Catholic Young Men’s Societies on anniversary days.
Attempted assassination in the Pleasure Grounds
In March 1868 a lone, mentally disturbed Irishman (and alleged Fenian sympathiser⌘) Henry O’Farrell took the opportunity during a visit by Prince Alfred Duke of Edinburgh to Clontarf, to shoot but not kill Alfred, Queen Victoria’s son. The British Prince was not badly wounded (the would-be assassin’s bullet was impeded by the “double thickness of the Duke’s trouser braces”). Prince Alfred was ferried to Sydney’s Government House for treatment. One unintended upshot of the incident was the establishment of the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital (RPA) at Camperdown through publicly subscribed funds raised to commemorate the Royal’s safe recovery◬. O’Farrell’s fate was sealed, he was summarily tried and hastily hanged within a month. His lawyer tried to run an insanity defence (entirely plausible) but in the prevailing climate O’Farrell’s case was a hopeless one. The incident had provoked pro-royal Australians into unleashing a torrent of prejudice aimed at Catholics, Fenians and Irish folks generally [MacRitchie, ibid.]
Clontarf Beach ‘Tent City’
During the Great Depression this now fashionable beachfront and reserve at Clontarf was the site of an impromptu tent city comprising several hundred homeless people down on their luck…the makeshift tent ‘homes’ were cobbled together with posts found in the bush and hessian (coated with whitewash, lime and fat as waterproofing)[MacRitchie, ibid.]
PostScript: MSW’s white sands
One of the pleasures of walking the stretch of the MSW track between Clontarf and Fairlight Beaches is coming upon the various little beaches that jot the coast. Often sheltered in bays away from the powerful ocean currents, some of these “mini-beaches” are accessible only from wooden staircases leading down from high on the promontories around Dobroyd Head and Balgowlah Heights. Bearing names like Castle Rock Beach, Forty Baskets Beach, Reef Beach and Washaway Beach, walking on these pockets of sandy white strips convey a sense of being in a remote and deserted location, despite most of the spots being a only a stone’s throw from middle class suburbia.
Grotto Point Aboriginal carvings
A short diversion off MSW onto a side track on the Dobroyd Point stage of the walk will allow you to view a number of archaic Aboriginal engravings – this part of the headland is known as Grotto Point. Enclosed in wooden pens are various depictions of whales, boomerangs and small fish carved into the rock platform.
✣✣ for more on Clontarf and the whole Sydney pleasure grounds era see also my 2014 post ‘A Day-Trippers’ Paradise: The Vogue for Pleasure Grounds in 19th/20th Century’
✥ a Spit (or sandspit) is a deposition bar or beach landform that juts out from the coast
◙ the introduction of the steam punt at The Spit later on (1911) would allow the Manly trams to be carried across Middle Harbour [MacRitchie, ibid.]
¤ as a result Northern Sydney motorists continue to be plagued by traffic bottlenecks every time the Spit Bridge opens in the middle for passing water crafts
⌘ It seems to have been generally assumed at the time that the Irishman was acting on behalf of the Irish Underground Fenian Brotherhood but this remains inconclusive
◬ the adjacent Duke of Edinburgh Parade is named in honour of Prince Alfred