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modern transport pressures threaten Parramatta Park

Mawbey, P. On track for a heritage disaster The Sydney Morning Herald 26.1.2000

On track for a heritage disaster

When Governor Macquarie's wife lived on the vice-regal estate now known as Parramatta Park, she had a treehouse built in a tall gum tree so she could climb up and admire the view. Elizabeth Macquarie was not playing at being a tomboy like Marie Antoinette did a milkmaid. She had an active interest in the art of landscaping and delighted in both creating and viewing beautiful vistas. When residing at Government House in Sydney, her special vantage point for gazing out at the harbour was the sandstone outcrop near Bennelong Point now known as Mrs Macquaries Chair.

These days, there is no trace of Mrs Macquarie's tree left in the former governor's domain at Parramatta. It is thought to have been removed (along with Governor Macquarie's stables) when the western railway line was extended from Parramatta through the park in 1860. An irreplaceable piece of Australia's cultural heritage was destroyed in the name of progress. A similar fate is now hanging over several other old trees in the park, and once again the threat is from the railway.

According to the recently released Parramatta rail link environmental impact statement, the proposed new Chatswood-Parramatta line is to be extended to Westmead. This will involve widening the existing rail corridor that cuts through Parramatta Park and permanently relocating the road that runs beside it, Park Parade. Most of the construction work will be done in a part of the park known as Coronation Hill. This was where the stables were, as well as a bathhouse and an observatory. Some physical evidence of the last two remain, and possibly some archaeological remnants of the former. There are also some heritage trees and promising results of recent attempts to regenerate the original Cumberland Plain vegetation.

Further construction will take place on the other side of the existing railway trace in a part of the park used as a nine-hole golf course. This will lose some land and possibly some trees. Some of the heritage trees under threat are believed to have been used as directional markers for an observatory erected in 1822 by Macquarie's successor, Governor Brisbane. Transit stones which held a telescope and the "marker pines" are all that remain of this major scientific endeavour. Three are located in the main construction area and although it is proposed to work around them, fears are that their roots will not be able to withstand heavy trucks rumbling over them.

One is a hoop pine, araucacia cunninghamii, an Australian native, and the other two are chir pines, pinus roxburghii, originating from the Himalayas. It is believed Brisbane planted them to reflect the north-south survey access between the southern gatehouse at Mays Hill (now on the Great Western Highway near Parramatta High School) and the observatory. Another hoop pine which could have been part of Brisbane's tree planting system is located on the golf course near the fifth tee. This, the EIS says, may be removed. Three that definitely will go, if the current proposal goes ahead, are two hoop pines and one chir pine on the western side of Coronation Hill. These are thought to have been part of an avenue planting.

This threat to Australia's cultural heritage could be averted simply by ending the rail link at Parramatta.

People wanting to travel to Chatswood from places further west would have to change trains there, just like anyone travelling from Chatswood to Cronulla has to do at Town Hall. The EIS says this would make Parramatta station too congested. These days no-one would dare to put a railway track and a busy by-pass road through Centennial Park or the Botanic Gardens in Sydney.

Yet this is what has, in effect, been done to Parramatta Park.

As the site of Australia's first botanic garden, surrounded by beautiful parkland, it was in fact a combination of both. The problem is that Parramatta Park has yet to be formally acknowledged as Australia's national heritage park. One of the first "national" parks, it has since been demoted to a "regional" park, which linguistically belies its significance to Australia as a nation.

Increasing the presence of the railway will create an even greater sense of division, or "alienation", between the two areas of parkland than already exists.

By far the best solution would be to continue the tunnelling that will be involved for most of the Chatswood-Parramatta rail link, and then take both the new and existing railway, plus the road, underneath Parramatta Park. This would reunify the existing parkland and restore an uninterrupted vista. The EIS says it would cost more to continue the tunnelling through to Westmead and to build an underground station there. But the cost to Australia's national heritage under the present proposal is much greater.

Once the integrity of the park was restored, some serious thought could be given to interpreting the landscape to re-create a better idea of what it was like in vice-regal times. As someone who viewed the area as a special place, Mrs Macquarie would be extremely pleased.

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