Balmain is one of those old inner city Sydney suburbs that I have never visited, so one of the things that I decided to do when I was in Sydney for a week was to rectify that. Okay, while the suburb isn’t serviced by any train, it is serviced by the ferries (though as a form of public transport they certainly aren’t the fastest – the Parramatta River Cat takes at least two hours to make its way from Circular Quay to the Parramatta Wharf). Anyway, for those who don’t know, here is a Google Maps image of Balmain.
Despite having never been here, I do have a little background when it comes to this suburb. Back when I was much younger I had scored my second job at a small tech firm (Automation and Process Control Systems I believe, though from a quick search over the internet is seems that they no longer exist – though there is a similar company located where I used to work, which I believe bought the company a while back) and they had an office located somewhere in Balmain (though I can’t remember where). The Sydney office was basically a base from where their Sydney sales executive could operate from. Anyway, it was because of that job that Balmain had always stuck in my head.
Also, we looked at the Balmain Clocktower through one of the telescopes when I was at the observatory earlier on my trip, though I never got to actually see it because my the time my wanderings got me close I realised that I needed to catch a bus back to the city so I could go to the healing service at St Andrew’ Cathedral (and to also grab forty winks back at my hotel, however I also ended up falling asleep on the bus as well).
My first stop was, of course, the wharf, but that was because I had caught the slow (or stopping all stations) ferry from Cockatoo Island, however this was the Birchgrove Wharf, which is stuck at the end of a long peninsula.
Actually, now that I checked out Google Maps, I noticed that there are only two other stops between Cockatoo Island and Birchgrove, namely Woolwich and Greenwich Point, so the journey didn’t end up talking all that long. However, upon stepping off the ferry, touching my Opal card off (and puzzling why it wasn’t deducting any money – I still have that card sitting in front of me and I have no idea when I’m going to use it again – I hope the card doesn’t expire and I lose that $50.00) the first thing I encountered was a mansion, which is probably not surprising – it is Balmain.
So, I began my journey along Louisa Road which, not surprisingly, was full of a collection of old and new houses, though as I wander along here I always wonder how people could afford to live here with the prices so high. Mind you, there are probably still a lot of older owner-occupiers who had the prices of their houses skyrocket underneath them thanks to record-low interest rates and wealth advisers spruiking the wanders of negative gearing (though paying a ridiculous amount of money for an overvalued property that you aren’t going to be able to rent out sort of defeats the purpose).
Mind you, despite the harbour views, and the price tag on your average house here, I still have this impression that the south side of the harbour is the cheaper place to live. I guess that had something to do with the southern side traditionally being the working class side of the harbour where as the North Shore has always traditionally been the abode of the bosses. Obviously that has changed a lot now, especially with the rise of inner-city living. Mind you, as my generation graduated from university and got jobs during the nineties, the price of property was still quite affordable, meaning that they would buy up property where it was cheap – however the crash of 2008 changed all that (apparently the income gap, and the increase in the price of houses has accelerated since that time).
Well, enough of economic theory (not that I’m an expert, I just do a lot of reading) and on with my travels through the leafy suburb of Balmain. So, I soon arrived at Birchgrove Park, which was cool because not only do I like parks, but it also breaks the monotony of walking past houses. Also, since you generally can’t walk into a house (unless you are invited, or there is an open inspection – I actually knew a person who would go to mansions during an open inspection to have a look around) parks, being public spaces, mean that I can get off the road.
The park was cool, but I can’t actually say that it was hugely fantastic – it was your typical inner-city park, though it was quite large and did have some sporting fields, as well as a harbour view. Oh, they also have some nice terrace houses along the edge – in fact the was this road called ‘The Terrace’ where there were some quite old terrace houses, some I suspect calling out for a bit of renovation.
However the one thing that really caught my attention was an old corner store, called the Gladstone Store, that was hidden behind some of the terrace houses, but with still a decent view of the park. Since I love those old cornerstores (especially when they don’t have Coca-Cola signs plastered all over them) I decided to check it out, and see if I could grab a coffee. Well, I have to say that it was a really impressive experience, especially since it mostly sold home-made produce, and made some pretty decent coffee. You simply don’t see places like that around anymore – especially selling home-made produce (though you can find some stalls in the various markets scattered about the place).
After a really nice cup of coffee I then headed off into the depths of Balmain, namely looking for pubs. Okay, you all probably think I’m a alcoholic, but one thing I like doing is having a drink in a pub that I’ve never had a drink in before. This hobby (which was encouraged by a friend at work) had me seeking out all the pubs in Melbourne, and then making notes of what I thought of them, which resulted in me posting my thoughts up on the internet. Anyway, as I’ve discovered, by seeking out pubs I end up wandering around places that I’d not normally wander around (though there was one pub in Frankfurt where I opened the door, looked at the clientèle, and decided to look for someplace else to have a drink).
Well, I have to say that the two pubs I encountered were pretty ordinary. They seemed like your typical old pub that catered to the people that had lived here for decades. It felt as if the gentrification of the inner city had yet to hit these pubs. One of them was named after that dude that Mel Gibson played in Braveheart, though for some reason I keep on thinking of Robert the Bruce, but that definitely wasn’t him – actually it was, William Wallace.
After bidding farewell to the second pub (of which, once again, I can’t remember the name, but it had nothing to do with Scotland, though it did make the claim of being Balmain’s oldest pub) I then made my way through the back streets, past an old park that seemed to contain some ruins from the colonial period, to my next port of call. However as I was wandering through the place I stumbled across one of the defining things of modern gentrification – the factory converted into an apartment block. I’ve seen this around Melbourne as well, where an abandoned factory is bought, and instead of knocking it down they simply fill it full of apartments.
After marvelling that the ingenuity of modern architecture (if you wish to call it that, though I would probably consider it to be more like the character of modern inner city living, though I do admit that I would have no qualms with living in a renovated factory – though one would have to say that this is the renovation craze taken to an extreme) I continued on with my journey and made my way to what turned out to be a pretty cool pub in East Balmain (the East Village Hotel, and you can find my review on Yelp and True Local, obviously).
It seems as if the East Balmain Village is sort of like one of those local shopping areas for people who can’t be bothered getting in their car (or on the bus) and heading down to Balmain central. However at the end of Darling Street (which is the main street in Balmain) is the East Balmain Ferry Wharf (and a bus also regularly plies the route, though I’ve noticed that bus drivers in Sydney are less willing to pick up passengers, even if the bus is empty, than they are in other places I’ve visited). So, after having some craft beer in a lovely beer garden, I packed my bag an headed down Darling Street to Balmain Central.
As I mentioned, the annoying thing that I discovered about Sydney (though I’m sure that it can happen anywhere) is that bus drivers don’t always stop for you when you hail them, even if you happen to be near a bus stop. Okay, the trek down Darling Street wasn’t all that long, but I did want to catch a lift, and it seemed that the bus driver wasn’t all that obliging (and yes, it was a Sydney Bus, not some mini bus that drops school children off at their home).
My next stop was the London Hotel (which I haven’t reviewed yet because it hasn’t been marked on my personalised Google Maps – if you give a place a rating of three or higher, Google Maps will highlight it for you if you are logged in, which is pretty cool, but also annoying because I would like all of the places I have rated to be marked, and I really don’t want to give a place that I rate a one or a two a three just so it appears because that will ruin all the ratings – such is life, as Ned Kelly famously said before the trapdoor opened beneath him). Anyway, since I haven’t got around to reviewing it yet, I’ll simply say that it was a nice pub, somewhat classy, and it has a cool veranda that looked out onto Darling Street.
My next discovery as I wandered down Darling Street was the old Congregationalist Church. This church, according to the sign, was established in 1853 (or at least they built the building then, the church was probably around a lot earlier). It’s no longer a Congregationalist Church, namely because that denomination no longer exists (it merged with the Methodist and the Presbyterian to become the Uniting Church, though a number of Presbyterian Churches chose to remain independent). Actually, it isn’t even a Uniting Church, though what it is used for these days I can’t remember.
Thus I entered Balmain proper, which is sort of like a modern shopping district that still retains its old charm. Obviously it still has the ubiquitous Coles and Woolworths, but there are no major shopping complexes, just the good old shopping strip along Darling Street. Mind you, Darling Street isn’t all that wide (I don’t think they thought that far ahead when they first laid out the city) so you do find it suddenly ends up crawling with cars.
Sure enough, as I was making my way along Darling Street, I came across one of those places that I absolutely love, but try my best to resist the temptation to step inside – a book shop. The main reason is that I already have heaps of books on my bookshelf, and everytime I step inside one I always end up adding to that already huge collection (which just doesn’t seem to get any smaller). Since it is a bookshop, I have written a review of it on Truelocal and Yelp, though since it isn’t a second-hand bookshop it isn’t the best sort.
Well, it was starting to get late, and I had things to do back in the city that night, so I decided to call it a day. Okay, I did visit another couple of pubs, one pretty average, and one pretty awesome (and you can find my reviews on, yep, you guessed it, Truelocal and Yelp), however that was enough for me (and I did get back in time for a quick snooze at the hotel).
Leafy Balmain by David Alfred Sarkies is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. If you wish to use this work commercially please feel free to contact me.