A simple bicycle journey took me back 28 years. And at the same time it helped change my negative reaction to 21st century Melbourne.
Before arriving everyone who has been to Melbourne in recent years told me “You’ll be amazed how much it has changed”. I cast an interested eye over media and travel stories from Melbourne and I sensed that the city had successfully regenerated itself, especially acclaimed developments on the south bank of the River Yarra which had opened up a neglected city zone.
I guess gentle Adelaide was a bit of a false introduction to today’s Australia because on arrival in Melbourne I was shocked by the new freeways, the link roads, the intrusiveness of the new city centre buildings and above all else by the traffic. And when we reached our friend’s house we took a walk down to our old haunts of Chapel Street but they no longer felt like a friendly environment of cafes and small shops but a wall-to-wall temple of consumerism and never-ending traffic, even on a Sunday.
I couldn’t even cheer myself up by playing “When I see an adult on a bicycle I do not despair for the future of the human race” because I didn’t see any cyclists and only a few lonely bikes chained up to lamp-posts – never a good sign. (close to “desert” on my “Utrecht” cycle parking scale).
My gut reaction was really negative. What had become of the Melbourne I so enjoyed? Was it crushed by cars and buildings?
So I needed a pick-me-up. The way to do that was to take a tram up to the city, hire one of Melbourne’s public hire bikes and set off towards the area I used to live to see if the beach-side suburbs had survived the so called “improvements”.
I started from the bike hire at Federation Square and quickly picked up the car free restaurant and café areas of the South Bank which were obviously colourful and vibrant and a huge improvement on the past. Then I managed to pick up a shared use path which followed the tram route out to Port Melbourne.
When I popped out on the sea front in front of the ferry terminal it was clear that a more low-key gentrification is in progress here too with more refurbishments and new buildings, but on a human scale. On cue the sun came out and a hazy tranquillity descended over the sea. Much better!
After a brief pause I set off south along the Bay cycle paths I had also heard so much about, the ones I wished had existed years ago because then I wanted to ride by the sea but was never able to find a continuous attractive route.
Within minutes I reached Kerford Road Beach and the years just dropped away. This was instantly recognisable. And so, so, peaceful, even the few cars cruising along the beachfront road could not hide the fact that this is an oasis of calm just a short distance from the city centre.
After soaking up the atmosphere I swung away from the beach to the residential streets where I once lived to discover an even more remarkable throwback. I am not sure what planning regulations protect this area but it was as if the neat rows of single story houses with their picket fences and verandas were unchanged from the 1930s, never mind the 1980s. The fact that nobody seems to have been allowed to knock them down and rebuild keeps them all low so the sense of huge wide streets is retained too. It was deathly quiet, I could hear the children in the primary school and the rattle of the Middle Park tram a street away.
The houses in this area may be a bit small for the Australian dream but for a trendy, near-city lifestyle near the beach they have become like gold, I can imagine this community will fight tooth and claw to preserve what they have and so they should. Unsurprisingly the small parade of shops that used to be little more than a convenience store and a laundry are all rather boho and the trendy looking cafes could offer a coffee in whatever blend of bean and milk is in style this week.
To complete my journey I then biked across into Albert Park, the protective green barrier that keeps Middle Park tucked away from the rampant development of Melbourne. The city is ever present on the skyline but this large park and its attractive curved lake have been an escape for city dwellers for 150 years. It is still covered in the sports pitches, playgrounds and barbeque points that made it a green escape for the area. I walked to work through this park, something I regarded as a real treat then.
I had expected Albert Park to be damaged by its current role as the home of the Australian Formula 1 Grand Prix but it was not immediately obvious as the main features of the park are still the lake and sports pavilions. The only “monstrosity” I discovered at one end was the Formula 1 paddock which is a horrible lump of grey. I find it hard to believe that Australia doesn’t have one architect of note who could have done something sympathetic in this setting.
Beyond the park are Queens Road and St Kilda Road, the noisy arterial roads that runs south from Melbourne’s central district with a long line of high rise offices and apartments that have highly valued views over the park and beyond to the sea. I used to work in St Kilda Road and our 14 storey office block had the most amazing 360 degree panorama, something to make work interesting almost every day, although as a junior sprog I never got remotely near one of the privileged window seats. A few buildings crowd around it now but I bet the top floor is still in demand.
Once I had completed a lap of Albert Park Lake I was completely refreshed and I drifted back through Middle Park to the beach front where I had my bonus dolphin encounter before riding back to the city. I was much more tolerant of the noise, traffic and congestion on my way out because I felt uplifted by my bike ride and my journey back in time.
I am not sure that three twenty-somethings all on their first salary could afford to rent in Middle Park now. But I have to reflect now that I was so lucky to find a house share in this area as a naïve young bloke new to Melbourne. Even back then I could have lived in the bustling city centre or a happening suburb but the first advert I spotted put me this gentle neighbourhood a short walk from work, park, rugby club and beach.
I am so glad it is still there now and I hope Albert Park and Middle Park will be protected for years to come. If they are I despair a lot less about the future of the human race in Melbourne.