If by ‘secret’ it is meant that Sydneysiders and tourists alike know of or have navigated the winding pathways of Wendy Whiteley’s Secret Garden, then this peaceful, “living artwork” has been perfectly described!
After being discovered “completely by accident” by Wendy Whiteley, the garden has grown into a much-loved haven for a growing number of people. A peaceful picnic spot, a place to host private business meetings, a romantic backdrop perfect for proposals, or simply somewhere to while the time away, the Secret Garden has become entrenched in every aspect of Sydney life.
Who is Wendy Whiteley?
Some secrets are worth sharing. In 1970, Wendy and Brett Whiteley settled in Lavender Bay. Brett was a celebrated artist and Wendy — often considered his muse — had strong artistic abilities herself.
For twenty years the Whiteley’s were far too busy to concern themselves with the entanglement of flora that stretched from their doorstep and melted away into the seldom used railway yard and pooling ocean below. In 1992 this all changed when Brett (now divorced from Wendy) tragically died of a heroin overdose. “[Wendy] needed something to take her mind off things,” explained Ian Curdie, coordinator of the volunteer gardeners. She concentrated her efforts on the garden. “I was just cleaning up a mess. Literally and, I suppose, symbolically too,” Whiteley tells writer Janet Hawley. “We’d all tried so hard but lost the fight to clean up Brett’s addiction. I had this urgent mental and emotional need to get some order back into our lives.”
Grief-stricken further in 2001 by the death of her daughter, Arkie Whiteley, and searching for some sense in the senseless, Wendy hurled herself into the site with renewed vigour. Clearing it of vines, weeds, discarded glass bottles, rusty appliances, and abandoned mattresses, she created a garden. “I didn’t know anything about horticulture when I started the garden… I just knew what I liked. I’ve since learnt what likes being here. It’s a symbiotic relationship between the plants, myself and my gardeners”.
What is in Wendy’s Whiteley’s Secret Garden?
Thirty years on and what has emerged from Wendy’s fervour and dedication, with the help of two trusty gardeners, Corrado Camuglia and Ruben Gardiol, is a place of natural yet tamed beauty.
Zig-zagging gully paths lined with raw bush-timber balustrades, cobbled stairs, various nooks and crannies filled with trestle tables, benches, and a range of eclectic artefacts and a panoply of both native and exotic shrubbery. “Things that are happy in this garden just go mad,” says Whiteley. “They grow and grow and grow and grow. The bay has always had that magic element. Something about it being tucked in – it feels very protective.”
With that in mind the now towering trees, including a sprawling, east-facing Port Jackson Fig and a luscious Moreton Bay Fig in the western corner, provide a shaded canopy in some areas and perches for a colourful array of birds — wagtails, gulls, kookaburras, and parrots — in others. On the flat, the Bangalore Palms- a treasured feature with immeasurable symbolic value to Wendy (a gift from Arkie)- flourish.
“I had no intention of doing a ‘bush thing’, just sticking to local plants. There hadn’t been a garden there before so why would I? I just bought things I loved the look of and then we worked out what needed to be in full sun and what didn’t.”
Due to the vertical nature of the sandstone rock face and realising it was the “cliff side of the original tidal beach, [where] Sydney Harbour once lapped in”, Wendy explained “a lot of the planting was literally to hold the thing together.”
(See how the defining characteristics of Wendy’s Secret Garden differ from the western-esque gardens of St Mary Abbots or Mount Street in London, UK.)
The History of Wendy Whiteley’s Secret Garden
The first rule I broke was doing it at all.
There was just one small issue: Wendy didn’t actually own the land.
Lavender Bay, referred to by traditional Aboriginal landowners as Quiberee, was actually a large v-shaped harbour beach until it was filled in by Sydney Railways to allow for the creation of an extended railway line. When this closed in 1924 the area became an unofficial dumping ground until Wendy set her sights on it. Today this extremely valuable land is owned by the New South Wales (NSW) Government and the old rail line is used intermittently for stabling trains or training crew.
Despite not owning the land, Wendy Whiteley’s Secret Garden has been funded almost entirely by Wendy herself.
An Uncertain Future for Wendy’s Secret Garden
Because the land was owned by the rail company it for a long time faced an ‘uncertain future’. Wendy’s love for the Secret Garden had blossomed in an untameable fashion, but she was fearful that they would "finally take away the garden.”
In a desperate attempt to generate awareness a book was published in September 2015 by Janet Hawley, Wendy Whiteley and the Secret Garden. This sparked an ABC television documentary, ‘Wendy’s Way’, which furthered her agenda. Her final effort was to invite the NSW Premier, Mike Baird, for a cup of tea and a walk around the garden. Baird realised it’s deep-rooted community value, determining it: “an asset for Sydney, NSW and even Australia.”
On October 9th 2015, he granted North Sydney Council a long-term lease of 30 years, with the option of extending this for a further 30 years stating: “This garden is a gift of Wendy’s to the people of Sydney – it truly is a living Whiteley that is bursting with life and creativity. I’m delighted that a place which brings such joy to residents and visitors, has now been secured for future generations to enjoy.” It was official, Wendy’s wish for the garden to become a public park had been fulfilled and by March 2018, the Garden had gained NSW State Heritage Protection as well.
Baird also promised that the on-going care of the Secret Garden would be established in a Trust. This was important to Wendy who, being 75 at the time, was worried what would happen to it once she was gone. “Nothing disappears faster than a garden, when it is not properly maintained,” she explained.
The Sydney Harbour High Line
If Wendy wasn’t amazing enough already, when she does pass away her beautiful home will be sold as part of a $100 million bequest to be gifted to the people of NSW. To retain public access to the garden after this happens, all levels of government agreed in 2016 that once the railway line becomes completely redundant it shall be transformed into the Sydney Harbour High Line (SHHL): a “landscaped corridor” from Lavender Bay to Waverton Station.
The Sydney Harbour High Line will not only be an attraction for Sydneysiders but will also offer tourists a unique opportunity to embark on a cultural harbour-front trail along two of Sydney Harbour’s famous bays, both steeped deeply in maritime history.
In summary, Wendy Whiteley’s unfettered imagination has allowed for the creation of an immortal sanctuary. The garden has truly become a much-loved pillar of Lavender Bay, attracting anyone with the power to appreciate what it takes to make something out of nothing. In Whiteley's words: “Everyone needs a secret garden in their life.”
Interested in finding more places like this? Why not try one of our Scavenger Hunts in Sydney - work as a team to overcome cryptic riddles and allow yourselves to be swept off the beaten track on a journey to discover all the quirky bars and unusual sites Sydney has to offer.
Alternatively, please read on to find the answers to all your Secret Garden Questions!