On nostalgia, suburbia, and keeping the bush at bay on the NSW south coast

I recently had a holiday break at a favourite coastal place near Jervis Bay. It was one of the spots that got me thinking about the history of our coast a decade or so ago after many stays.

Silver Gull and south coast heath. Photograph by Ian Hoskins 2016
Silver Gull and south coast heath. Photograph by Ian Hoskins 2016

Like most other places within three hours of Sydney, this little town is now well and truly on the holiday map for city folk so, by the time I got around to organising things, it was impossible to rent anything in the streets that I’m familiar with – wide ones with big blocks and old relaxed fibro.

But staying in a different part of town gave me another insight into the place. For the first time I was down on the main entry thoroughfare. My rental was a small bungalow – probably original fibro but reclad out front and so ‘coastified’ within it was a bit like a inhabiting a mini theme park. There were framed surf photographs from the Australia’s ‘longboard days’, not one but two longboards squeezed in as decorations, various bits of ‘word art’ telling me to ‘relax’ and so much artfully arranged driftwood and shell that it was difficult to find a spot for sun cream and keys.

White Australia’s collective love affair with the coast is, I have argued, only a little over a century old. But within that timeframe there are enough generations of accumulated memory to generate an aesthetic of somewhat mawkish nostalgia both generic in its bleached beachiness and specific in its references to the history of Australian surfing.

Judging by the amount of mowing and edging going on around my little shrine to modern coast culture, I guessed this was the centre of the owner-occupied – rather than rented – part of town.

The intensity of the grass trimming was intriguing, even if the noise was incessant. I was immediately reminded of Allan Ashbolt’s pessimistic portrayal of Australian suburban life which appeared in the literary journal Meanjin in 1966, part of a symposium called ‘Godzone’ exploring aspects of ‘God’s own country’ as Australia was sometimes described:

Behold the man – the Australian of today – on Sunday morning in the suburbs, when the high decibel drone of the motor-mower is call the faithful to worship. A block of land, a brick veneer, and the motor mower beside him in the wilderness – what more does he want to sustain him.

Trimming an already trim garden, south coast NSW. Photograph by Ian Hoskins, 2016
Trimming an already trim garden, south coast NSW. Photograph by Ian Hoskins, 2016

Ashbolt was a man of the intellectual left. For him the lawn mower was, in effect, the intrusive machine in the Edenic garden of Australian radicalism. Like the surburbia it helped to maintain, the mower reflected a deadening quest for conformity and respectability that was consuming Australian working ‘men’. It, and the gardens it created, sat counter to the labour movement led reform that had made this country one of the world’s most progressive societies – in class terms at least. The ‘motor-mower’ was a manifestation of false consciousness.

The manicured lawn also annoyed a contemporary of Ashbolt, the architect and social commentator Robin Boyd – but for aesthetic and cultural rather than political reasons. In his classic 1960 jeremiad, Australian Ugliness, Boyd wrote despairingly that ‘progress is measured by the number of acres transformed from the native state of sloppiness [ie natural bush] to the desirable state of clipped artificiality’. Boyd used the term arboraphobia to describe the contemporary attitude to native vegetation echoing, in turn, the blunt observations of historian WK Hancock who in 1930 wrote that white Australians ‘hated trees’.

Scribbly Gum (Eucalyptus haemastoma) Jervis Bay. Photograph by Ian Hoskins, 2016
Scribbly Gum (Eucalyptus haemastoma) Jervis Bay. Photograph by Ian Hoskins, 2016

In recent decades the Australian suburb has been embraced by a less judgmental intelligentsia who see creativity and an authentic democratic culture expressed there. In terms of gardening there could be a degree of nostalgia here too. For the new suburbs of Sydney, at least, pay little heed to the need for private gardens. Bloated houses spread over as much of their respective blocks as planning laws permit. Shrubs are a low maintenance ‘designer’ afterthought. So anyone nurturing or growing anything outdoors must be a good thing. In this context, the well-tended blocks of Ashbolt and Boyd’s suburbia, or indeed present-day south coast settlements, could be examples of ‘creative suburbs’.

I must admit, I felt the power of nostalgia as I sat and watched the passing parade from the front of my little ‘temple’. Not wistful for the trim gardens outside or the surfing past celebrated inside but for the casual freedom of this re-creation of old suburbia. This little town is a place where people ride bikes without helmets and where children roam unsupervised. I suspect my  nostalgia was shared by the parents who bring their offspring here to delight in letting them head off to make their own fun away from scrutiny and electronic devices – just as they did ‘back in the day’. In the context of contemporary life, this old ‘suburbia’ is an added attraction of the modern coast holiday.

Yet the apparent casualness sits at odds with the obsessive pursuit of neatness and all the effort and the noise generated to create it. So while I wince a little at the stridency of Ashbolt and Boyd’s attacks from on high, the starkness of the ‘clipped artificiality’ of these coast gardens is still bewildering.

Cabbage-Tree Palm (Livistonia australis) endemic to semi-tropical rainforest, Jervis Bay. Photograph by Ian Hoskins 2016
The threatening ‘sloppiness’ of the bush. Cabbage-Tree Palm (Livistonia australis) endemic to semi-tropical rainforest, Jervis Bay. Photograph by Ian Hoskins 2016

There is a sense of place reflected here. But it seems to be one in which manicured gardens and trim facades are constructed as psychological and perhaps real bulwarks against the surrounding native forest and heath – a buffer of order where all beyond is alien disorder just as Robin Boyd suggested. Stranger still is the prevalence of the cultivated plants that evoke other coasts; Cocos Island Palms, exotic Hibiscus from Hawaii and Pandanus from the north. This is a confounding relationship to place and beauty for it suggests a need to sit apart from one’s habitat rather than within it. There is a need to make this specific place – glorious though it is – conform to some generic postcard version of ‘coastiness’ just as the décor of my holiday house did.

I was awoken on the last day of my break by the high decibel drone of a ‘whipper snipper’ outside my bedroom window. It was wielded by the owner, clearly offended by a few wisps of grass and oblivious to the possible annoyance his noisy obsession might cause. It was a Sunday morning. Allan Ashbolt would have felt vindicated and I was decidedly not ‘relaxed’.


‘Its a wonderful way to use a swamp’: Sussex Inlet, canal estates and the definition of wasteland

The residents of Sussex Inlet had a win recently. After more than 25 years of siltation and collapsing walls Shoalhaven Council have agreed to dredge the water channels, dug nearly 40 years ago, that provide boat access to the sea from the bottom of the suburban gardens of this canal estate.

The estate gets its name from the estuary which fills its canals. There are two sides to this natural Sussex Inlet – literally. Along its northern shoreline is a mix of mangrove, casuarina and sclerophyll forest dotted with the occasional habitation, including one of the earliest holiday retreats on the south coast.

Sussex Inlet canal estate, south coast NSW
Looking across Sussex Inlet to the south. The canal estate lies beyond these trees and buildings.


The heritage-listed Christians Minde was established as a guest house in 1896 but the name refers to the Danish family who settled there in 1880. Indeed it was the death there of Christian Ellmoos Jr in 1888 that gave the place its name for Christians Minde means ‘In the memory of Christian’. Nearby is Kullindi – the homestead built in the early 1900s for other members of the family. Their descendants left many years later and both sites are now used for holidays and functions. Timber-built and more than a century old, they sit next to the estuary and within the landscape.

On the south side of the estuary is the settlement of Sussex Inlet, originally a small coastal village that was greatly expanded when parts of the waterway were reclaimed and casuarina and mangrove forests turned into the canal estate.

The two shores couldn’t be more different. Where the Inlet branches off naturally through mangrove on the sparsely settled north side, on the south canals serve as streets and cul-de-sacs. Which is, of course, what they are – for this is a suburb for power-boat owners and recreational fishers. The distinction between the cultural landscape of the canal estate and the bush beyond is emphasized by landscaping – typically manicured lawns. And where 19th century colonists marked their presence in the Australian bush with pine trees, the iconic planting of the canal estate is the palm tree – usually the introduced cocos that has come to evoke leisure and coasts.

Architecture too helps make the point that, despite the presence of water, this is above all a ‘man-made’ place. For Sussex Inlet was developed at the height of the popularity of the brick veneer bungalow and villa.

Sussex Inlet canal estate, south coast NSW
Boats, palms, lawns and flags. Sussex Inlet canal estate in 2012.

Compared to their counterparts in the United States, where timber has remained a primary building material across social groups and periods of boom and bust, Australians (or at least those in NSW) have long preferred brick homes. In its capaciousness and finish, the brick veneer house proclaimed an unequivocal end to post-war austerity. In its larger incarnations it can be seen as the progenitor of the ‘McMansion’. Indeed in canal estates such as Sylvania Waters, upgrading and redeveloping have seen the McMansion become the dominant style.

However, the standard brick veneer house of the 1960s and early 1970s is entirely Modernist in its elevation of function over form, its use of machine-made materials and its eschewing of decoration. Like most Modernist styles, the brick veneer form rarely ages well. It was designed to look new from the beginning and to stay that way. The patina that is so much a part of appeal of stone and timber, and that lends the Ellmoos buildings on the northern shore of the Inlet their organic charm, plays no part in the attraction of brick veneer. As it was a post-austerity style, there is little evidence of nostalgia for past styles and finishes. The brick veneer denied history – at least until Georgian fan-lights, decorative shutters and faux-paned windows crept into some designs from the late 1970s. These can be seen as a segue to the post-modern McMansion. And whereas neatness and attention to maintenance is the original and optimal state of the brick veneer, it speaks loudly of respectability – as does the well-tended garden.

Australia’s first canal estate was carved out of sandy flood plain next to the Nerang River on Queensland’s Gold Coast by developer Alfred Grant and architect Karl Langer in the mid-1950s.

In New South Wales, Sylvania Waters was created on the George’s River in Sydney’s southern suburbs by the Hooker Corporation in the early 1960s. Sussex Inlet followed a decade later. It is contemporary with Settlement Shores near Port Macquarie and another canal development part of the Tweed River system called the Endless Summer Estate.
The concept had its immediate antecedent in Florida and Hawaii where America’s extraordinary post-war affluence gave rise to the idea of the leisure community. In New South Wales, its introduction coincided with the growth in boat ownership which doubled during the 1960s.

This was the era of unchallenged intervention in the landscape – exemplified by the Snowy Mountains Scheme – when any resource that remained untapped and untamed was by definition a wasted resource. The natural world was there to be shaped for the benefit of humans. Concern about ecology was still nascent.

But attitudes were changing even as the Sussex Inlet canals were being dug. The tide was turning so to speak. The issue of sand mining had focused the attention of a young conservation movement which became more strident in its opposition to development and exploitation. That concern spread to the impact of canal estates upon marine systems – particularly mangrove forests. For many these estates became synonymous with greedy-development, poor-planning (the cost of renewed dredging was high), ignorance and quite simply bad-taste. Sylvania Waters was the setting and name for one of the country’s first reality TV shows – a fly-on-the-wall exploration of the nouveaux riche in the flamboyant 1980s.

New South Wales was the first to ban the construction of these developments in 1997. Bans were extended in other states and a moratorium even established in Queensland – the spiritual home of the Australian canal estate.

But among estate residents there remains a pride that defies the concerns of ecologists – just as their houses stand apart from the surrounding landscape. News of renewed dredging in Sussex Inlet prompted one resident to declare… ‘Its a wonderful way to use a swamp’ (Source: South Coast Register 27/11/2013 )

One person’s paradise, it seems, is another’s wasteland. Therein lies the difficulty for the local Council planner.