It's not every day you bunk down in an historical home ringed by a moat and fortified walls. Well, at least not in Australia.
Sure, the three-metre-deep dry moat is partially filled in and is officially known as a defensive ditch, but there was a period of time in our country's past when it was secured with razor-sharp barbed wire.
The yowie clan recently took advantage of a temporary lifting of COVID-19 travel restrictions for a weekend getaway at the former Officers Quarters at Middle Head in Sydney, which has only just opened its doors to the public after recent renovations.
Designed by colonial architect James Barnet, this 1881 Victoria Regency-style home, built to provide accommodation for two single officers, is considered one of the most significant buildings at the former Middle Head fort precinct.
Now, while the prospect of a weekend in a harborside bungalow was more than enough to lure the kids (Emily, next time please don't kick the soccer ball into the moat), it's the building's close connection to a famous Australian and former notable Canberran that enticed your Akubra-clad columnist up the M5 and across the Harbour Bridge.
Between training further afield, on and off between 1882 and 1893, this Middle Head hideaway was home to Captain William Throsby Bridges, a man who later became a significant figure in our military history.
According to military historian C.E.W. Bean, during Bridges' time in charge of the coastal batteries on Middle Head, he had a lot of spare time. in Two men I knew / William Bridges and Brudenell White, founders of the A.I.F. (1957, Angus and Robertson), Bean reveals "there was no stimulating friends, little work, and apparently slight chance of progress in the small colonial force. Bridges' main occupations during the idle months at Middle Head were reading novels and sailing".
Despite the obvious monotony, Bridges' commitment to the role at Middle Head stood him in good stead for promotion, for in 1911 he became first commandant at Duntroon and later first commander of the Australian Imperial Force. In fact, he was commander of Australian forces at Gallipoli where, without success, he argued with superiors for urgent retreat because of what he viewed as a hopeless military situation.
Still in Gallipoli, on May 15, 1915 Bridges was shot by a sniper in Monash Valley and evacuated to a hospital ship where he three days later. He was held in such high regard that his body was repatriated to Australia - the only identified soldier from World War I ever returned.
After a state funeral in Melbourne, Bridges' body was taken to Canberra for burial on September 3, 1915, his final resting spot chosen by Lady Bridges on the side of Mt Pleasant overlooking his beloved Duntroon.
Despite its age, the house has changed little since Bridges' days. In World War II, while most of Middle Head was designated a Close Defence Observation Post, Bridges' former home was used as a Red Cross Hospital. At this time the side balconies were partially enclosed, presumably to allow for more patients to be accommodated. In the late 1970s the building and much of the Middle Head military site was handed over to the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) as part of Sydney Harbour National Park and accommodated parks staff for a number of years.
While a flick through the guestbook reveals the first visitors since its doors were flung open to the public earlier this year have military connections to the site, most future guests who book a stay here will do so for its knock-out location - perfectly positioned to step out on the walking tracks around the harbour.
After a futile attempt to retrieve Emily's soccer ball (while there isn't any barbed wire anymore, those moats are steep) on our first day we wander down to Balmoral Beach, which despite being mid-winter is abuzz - a far cry from Bridges' time here. Next day we stride out in the opposite direction past the upmarket beachside enclave of Clifton Gardens and towards Taronga Zoo, but with so many hidden coves to explore and cafes to stop at on the way, we don't even make it that far.
You needn't spend all day in hiking boots to savour this unique place in our country's history. Five minutes' stroll from the front door are the remains of Middle Head's substantial fortifications, the very batteries involved in the destruction of three Japanese midget submarines in 1942.
Running under these batteries are a labyrinth of tunnels including one which contained an engine room where two generators provided power for searchlights right up until the 1930s. During the Vietnam War, the flooded tunnels provided an ideal place to familiarise Vietnam-bound officers in torture. Really! As a result today, rather ghoulishly, you can see the infamous 'tiger cages' where officers were purposefully imprisoned - the rust on the bottom of the cages gives an indication of the water level. Heck.
In fact, in today's world of over-zealous OH&S measures, I'm surprised so much of this site is so readily accessible. You do come across some locked tunnels (who knows what lurks down there) but you could easily still spend many hours exploring here. Much more if you have kids.
A weekend away at the Middle Head Officers Quarters is much more than a sneak peek into our military history, it also offers a great escape from the chill of a Canberra winter. A word of warning though, the closest beaches, Obelisk and Cobblers, are clothing optional. Yes, even in August.
Oh, and if you find Emily's soccer ball in the moat please let me know, her season just started and I'm yet to buy her a replacement.
- Make sure you check out the latest ACT and NSW government COVID-19 advice before travelling to Sydney.
Mosman hideaway with a moat to float your boat
Middle Head Officers Quarters: The former home of Major-General Sir William Throsby Bridges, located at the eastern end of Middle Head Road, Mosman, within the Sydney Harbour National Park. To book, visit www.nationalparks.nsw.gov.au and search for 'middle-head-officers-quarters' or call 1300 072 757.
The moat: In the late 1800s a defensive moat was constructed at Middle Head to protect gun emplacements from a land attack. The moat structure is a simple V shape cut into the sandstone with a low sandstone wall built behind it. Overhanging metal brackets were added to support barbed wire.
Did You Know? Marked by 20-metre-high cliffs and positioned between North and South Heads and directly in line with the entrance to Port Jackson, Middle Head has been a defence site to protect Sydney from invasion since the early 1800s.
Last words: "Anyhow, I have commanded an Australian Division for nine months..." These were the reported last words of Major General Sir William Throsby Bridges aboard the hospital ship Gascon. In the words of military historian, C. E. W. Bean, "he knew he was dying".
Grave: Bridges' grave is located in Canberra on the southern side of General Bridges Road, about 750 metres from the Mt Pleasant Lookout. The grave, designed by Walter Burley Griffin, is considered sacred ground by the Royal Military College, Duntroon and should only be viewed from afar.
Horse Tales: Of the 136,000 horses sent overseas during World War I and used by the Australian, British and Indian armed forces, Sandy, Bridges' warhorse, was the only one returned to Australia. As per Bridges' dying wish, Sandy enjoyed a long and happy retirement in Melbourne before being put down due to ill-health in 1923. Sandy's mounted head and neck are preserved at the Australian War Memorial.
WHERE IN CANBERRA?
Cryptic Clue: Tipping point.
Degree of difficulty: Hard!
Last week: Congratulations to Judi Thomson of Ainslie who was first to correctly identify the location of last week's photo, sent in by David Osmond of Dickson, as a piece of the Berlin Wall located at the Harmonie German Club in Narrabundah. A jubilant Judi just beat Roger Shelton of Spence, Brian Mexon of Kaleen and Karen Higgins of Ngunnawal to the prize. The photo brought back happy memories for Narelle Blackaby of Flynn who visited the wall in 1990 when it had just 'come down'. "We had to go through Checkpoint Charlie to get into east Berlin," she recalls.
How to enter: Email your guess along with your name and suburb to firstname.lastname@example.org. The first email sent after 10am, Saturday August 8, 2020, wins a double pass to Dendy, the Home of Quality Cinema.
While recently fossicking through his old photographs, Peter Meusburger rediscovered this photo of "a sleeping polar bear" taken during a cross-country ski trip from Corin Dam to Mt Gingera (the Tinderries are in the distance) in 1995. "I didn't dare go near it for fear of waking it from it's obvious slumber," laughs Peter. Love it.
This Thursday marks the 80th anniversary of when a RAAF Lockheed Hudson II Bomber plunged into a hill between Canberra airport and Queanbeyan, killing all 10 people on board. I'm sure this week I won't be the only one making the 4km return walk from Pialligo Avenue (near the paintball facility) through the pine forest to pay my respect to the victims of Canberra's worst air disaster, which included three members of the federal cabinet.