THE former NSW premier Bob Carr, a keen walker, had a grand vision for a Sydney city foreshore walk: a promenade that would enable people to stroll from Rushcutters Bay to Glebe, taking in the great vistas of the harbour in the east and the post-industrial bays of the inner west.
To achieve his aim he directed that all redevelopment involve returning the foreshore to the people. Some impediments still remain but, gradually during the past two decades, Carr's dream has become reality.
"It's wonderful that all those years after I made it a further directive to the bureaucrats, there is so much of the harbour you can walk around," the current Foreign Affairs Minister says as he strolls through the Glebe section.
The push for access is not limited to the harbour foreshore; the creation of Sydney Harbour National Park and co-operation from the navy and other big landowners such as the NSW Department of Health have opened up other waterfront walks. And local councils have joined in, realising that these paths can greatly improve the amenity of their area.
The City Harbour Walk: Rushcutters Bay to Glebe
It is now possible to take the 15-kilometre route from Rushcutters Bay, through the Botanic Gardens, past the Opera House and Circular Quay, under the bridge and around to Pyrmont and Glebe, with only a few detours from the foreshore.
Military heritage ... the old embattlements on Middle Head. Photo: Peter Rae
For the first time, the waterfront on the city's western side has been opened up as Barangaroo takes shape and, once it is completed, will enable walkers to stroll through a headland park and along a boardwalk to Darling Harbour. For now it is a more prosaic meander along the concrete apron of the old container terminal.
Last month, City of Sydney announced plans to open another part of the Glebe waterfront, allowing walkers to pass in front of Sydney Secondary College at Blackwattle Bay instead of heading inland. The $5 million finale will link 27 hectares of parkland for the first time since early settlement.
Some obstacles remain, the biggest being the Garden Island naval base on the eastern side of the city. Perhaps one day the navy will consent to some co-use of the site, and there are perennial talks about the base's future, amid pressure to accommodate more super-cruise liners.
Art with a view ... the Sculpture By The Sea exhibition between Bondi and Tamarama is one of Sydney's most popular strolls. Photo: Peter Rae
Other obstacles include the old coal loader, which is slated to become a cruise boat terminal, and the cement works in Bridge Road. The Sydney Fish Market doesn't offer much charm either, with walkers forced to squelch through the potholed car park.
Other parts of Carr's grand walk are truly remarkable. The view under the bridge is superb, the stroll among the old wharves of Walsh Bay nostalgic, and the Glebe foreshore a refreshing mix of parkland, Victorian mansions, and maritime relics.
In 2006, the navy opened up the grounds of HMAS Penguin, allowing the completion of the walk from Chowder Bay across Georges Heights to Middle Head, and down to Balmoral beach.
It is now possible to walk all the way from Cremorne to the Spit, mostly on bush tracks.
The trail stretches for 10 kilometres and takes in some of the most stunning vantage points for Sydney Harbour. But as local author Claire Mitchell details in her new book about the walk, Mosman Meanders and Foreshore Flavours, there is much more to the walk than just heart-stopping vistas.
Mosman might be home to lawyers and bankers these days, but in the 1860s it drew a more bohemian crowd. From the early 1860s, several pleasure grounds were established on the foreshore of Mosman that attracted big weekend crowds. They arrived by boat at dusk to dance, drink and stroll through themed walks, ride carousels, or play skittles and other games.
The first of these was at Cremorne Point and by all accounts its "Ball Masques", illuminated by 5000 lamps and Chinese lanterns, were spectacular. But, by 1862, the event had turned into the Victorian equivalent of a rave party, judging by the description in the Herald:
"Its Ball Masque by moonlight were scenes of licence and vulgarity – the larrikin element too much to the fore."
Fairyland at Clifton Gardens, the most popular, opened in 1863 and Balmoral Gardens boasted a 24-metre roofed dance floor.
The foreshore of Mosman also attracted artists and writers, who rowed across from the city to set up camp in the bush where they could relax and paint en plein air.
Artists Julian Ashton, Tom Roberts, Arthur Streeton and cartoonist Livingston Hopkins of the Bulletin congregated at these all-male camps.
The most famous was at Balmoral and is marked with a plaque.
Another, Curlew Camp, was at Sirius Cove and is marked by a faded inscription in a rock, which is dated 1890.
By the 1870s, the military had claimed part of Middle Head, Bradleys Head and Georges Heights to protect Sydney from the Russians. Stone fortifications, gun emplacements and tunnels can still be explored at Bradleys Head, though other fortifications at Georges Heights are off limits.
Legislation passed in 1903 allowing public bathing led to the construction of swimming enclosures at Balmoral and Clifton Gardens.
The final stretch of the walk from Chowder Bay to Balmoral Beach was opened in 2006, when the navy provided access through HMAS Penguin. There is a spectacular staircase through an angophora forest to Balmoral Beach.
Sydney's more recent military history is on show at the foreshore walk at Concord. Park at Brays Bay Reserve and stroll down to the strange flat area traversed by what appears to be a railway line, but is actually a slipway. In the cement between the tracks are women's names and dates from the 1940s – a record of the vessels that were produced in quick succession at the Commonwealth Shipyard No. 4, once on the site.
Then follow the track just up the hill to the Kokoda Walkway, an 800-metre stroll though lush tropical gardens, while studying the stations that tell the stories of the main battles along the real path in New Guinea. You can continue along the track past the mangroves towards Concord Hospital. At the gate, you can either cut through the hospital grounds or continue to the left along mangroves until you reach the grounds of Rivendell. By now you have left the war behind and are wandering in a garden reminiscent of Tolkien's elven world, after which the former convalescent hospital is named.
Huge old trees partly obscure the Italianate mansion in the centre on the rise of the headland until you reach the point where its impressive facade stands proud to the Parramatta River. Jutting into the bay is the most elaborate wharf in Sydney, a two-storey building with chimneys, cupolas and balconies.
Now an adolescent psychiatric facility and school, it has escaped the ravages of developers because of its history as a health facility.
Further round the headland are the new psychiatric wards of Concord Hospital, which then give way to World War II buildings of the original repatriation hospital. Cut back through the hospital grounds and through the Kokoda Rose Garden to return.
Bondi to Bronte
Sydney's most famous walk is almost too popular.
In the warmer months it gets crowded in the mornings as locals take their exercise. During the three weeks of Sculpture by the Sea in October, when artworks adorn the rocky outcrops along the path, it is more of a shuffle than a walk. But in winter it can be peaceful and when the surf is up it can be breathtaking.
The paved path, which begins at the south end of Bondi Beach, was built as a state government project in the 1930s and still feels rooted in that decade. Perhaps it is the deco facade of Bondi Pavilion, the nostalgic feel of the Icebergs pool (despite the new development), and the quaint surf club perched on the headland at Tamarama.
High points include vistas of Sydney's most famous beach, wind-sculpted sandstone formations at Mackenzies Bay, and the rainforest gully at Bronte.
The more energetic can forge on from Bronte to Coogee, passing through Waverley Cemetery, the resting place of Henry Lawson.