Monday 17 May 2021. I have passed through lovely Footscray Park, with its flowerbeds and shady paths, Wisteria Arbour and duckponds, playgrounds and recreational areas, scores of times over the years – generally en route to the Maribyrnong River Trail, sometimes to take the children to visit the ducks or the playgrounds. Rarely, though, have I spent time in the park for its own sake. Today I thought I would.
Footscray Park is Victoria’s largest and most intact Edwardian garden. The park occupies a wedge-shaped area of land, comprising a hill and river flats, between Ballarat Road and the Maribyrnong River, opposite Flemington Racecourse. According to eMelbourne, the Victorian Racing Club had bought the hill, a derelict former quarry known as ‘Poverty Point’ (and more politely as Footscray Hill), and lower grazing land to prevent its use for noxious trades, then sold it to the Municipality of Footscray in 1909, following a community campaign. In 1911 the council reserved the land for use as public space, and in that same year noted architect Rodney Alsop (whose designs include St. Mark’s Anglican Church in Camberwell as well as numerous houses in Toorak) won a competition to design a park. In 1916 Alsop’s design began to be realised with the appointment of Superintendent of Parks and Gardens David Matthews, who subsequently worked for decades on the park. In 1996 Footscray Park was listed on the Victorian Heritage Register for its historic, aesthetic, horticultural and social significance. Today, as a century ago, the park is a vital community asset; its extensive gardens and recreational areas host thousands of picnickers and casual and organised sports players every year, as well as cultural events and an impressive New Year’s Eve fireworks display.
I entered Footscray Park via the main gate, in the park’s southwest corner by Victoria University’s Footscray Park campus (there is another formal entrance on Ballarat Road) and plunged immediately into a delightful garden, quiet and peaceful, leaving urban Footscray far behind.
From the entrance, Footscray Park’s main east–west thoroughfare sweeps along the crest of the erstwhile Footscray Hill in a series of graceful curves, running broadly parallel to Ballarat Road and at a gradually declining elevation. At its eastern end, beyond which lie open recreational areas and one of the park’s two playgrounds, the path swings around to run at a lower elevation back towards Victoria University. (Originally this was a separate path; for simplicity’s sake I shall refer to two paths, ‘upper’ and ‘lower’.) Steps and smaller paths run between the two paths, leading the visitor through elegant terraced lawns and alongside garden beds, downhill towards the Maribyrnong River flats, where further recreational areas are located. Perpendicular to the lower path is Drew Walk, Footscray Park’s main north–south thoroughfare, which leads down to rustic Wisteria Arbour and the duckponds, and beyond, to the Maribyrnong River.
As I rode slowly along the upper path, I stopped at intervals to wander, observe and photograph plants and features, many of which I was not familiar with. I noticed the beautiful established trees – evergreen and deciduous, natives and exotics, conifers and palms – as if for the first time, and admired the flowerbeds, still colourful in autumn, and other flowering plants.
I noted numerous examples of rustic Edwardian stonework as referred to in the Victorian Heritage Register listing, for example the main entry gate pillars, a lookout shelter, a drinking fountain, spherical pillar caps etc.
Presently I reached the eastern end of the upper path and executed a sharpish turn to the left, to begin the gradual descent west along the lower path. Once again I stopped at intervals to explore. Gracing one of the terraced lawns, for instance, just past the beginning of Drew Walk, sat a bust of Henry Lawson, gazing contentedly from its plinth upon the scene. The bust was designed by Stanley Hammond and unveiled in 1960.
I doubled back and regained the top of Drew Walk. From here one has a splendid view across the Maribyrnong River to Flemington Racecourse – the track, the lawns, the grandstands. (Each Melbourne Cup Day, in early November, the slopes and flats of Footscray Park are filled with picnickers, each of whom can soak up the festive atmosphere without being on course.) I cycled down the steep path to Wisteria Arbour and the duckponds. The ponds, almost lost in a haze of greenery on either side of the arbour, are currently home to Pacific Black Ducks and Chestnut Teals, as well as large domestic ducks of unknown provenance.
Not far from Wisteria Arbour is a smaller arbour, festooned in yellowing wisteria and as pretty as its larger neighbour, through which one passes, as though through a magic portal, from a secret garden into an open recreational area. It was here, on this threshold, that I came upon an unusually fine fountain, known colloquially as the ‘platypus fountain’ and officially named the Alfred Green Memorial Fountain.
Finally I cycled fifty metres or so to the end of Drew Walk, at a beautifully planted round garden bed just short of the Maribyrnong River. From here I surveyed the entire park. Dark clouds sat on the horizon, and I wondered whether it would rain. I returned to the wonderful platypus fountain for a final look (why had I never known about it before?) and headed home along Geelong Road.