Exploring Australia 1: Perth & Fremantle

St Mary's Roman Catholic Cathedral, Perth, Australia

St Mary’s Roman Catholic Cathedral, Perth, Australia

The first and most striking quality of life in Western Australia is the light.  I did see overcast skies for an hour or two, but for most of the daylight hours Perth glows with sunlight and the blueness of the sky.  It’s a place to be cheerful, full of cheerful people.

Perth is one of the remotest cities on earth:  it’s actually closer to Singapore than it is to Sydney.  Its population is 1.6 million, and it has the confident air of a community that looks after itself.  To arrive first in Australia, as I have, in this place feels a little like landing in the UK in Norwich, but without the crazy road system and all the people rushing about.  Perth people take their time without being lazy:  they’re comfortable and courteous and personable.  I sat in a coffee shop near two uniformed firefighters sitting by the open window taking their break:  in perhaps twenty minutes three passers-by greeted them and shook hands.

Getting acquainted with Perth is easy:  there are three free bus loops, called CATs [Central Area Transit].  After an hour or two of spinning around the streets I was dizzy and disorientated.  At one point I thought I’d seen two cathedrals, and only when I got off the bus did I realise that it was the same building – St Mary’s Roman Catholic Cathedral, initially built in straightforward Gothic in the 1860s, and brought up to date in a post-Modern variant design in 2006-9.  (I missed the Anglican cathedral, St George’s, which is more modest, tucked down a side-street near to the river-front.)

At the river front ferry-terminal there’s a strange sculptural building – a combination of sails and a spire – that turned out to be, of all things, a homage to clocks and bells in general, and English change-ringing in particular.  The Swan Bell Tower houses a peal of eighteen bells, twelve of which are a donation from St Martin-in-the-Fields, London, a 26-bell carillon and the Joyce of Whitchurch clock from Ascot Racecourse.  I learnt more about change-ringing from the explanatory video than I’d ever known in England.

Rather than pay a lot of money and spend a lot of time swanning down the Swan River to Fremantle on a ferry, I caught the train, which cost A$3.40 [slightly over £2] and took twenty minutes each way.  Fremantle, which the locals call ‘Freo’, is entertaining, full of bars and people shouting loudly in a genial manner – rather like Great Yarmouth.  Its main street is awash with fine nineteenth-century facades and feels like the set for a Gold Rush western, and there is a superlative maritime museum that clearly needs half a day at least.  The harbour cafés celebrate fish and chips.

Fremantle has its own CAT free bus-service.  The one I caught also had two Aboriginal guys, one entertaining the passengers with a digeridoo.  A digeridoo on a single-deck bus is impossible to ignore.

I must return to both places.  Between them, they deserve a week.  The only problem is, they’re so far away from everywhere.  Which is part of their charm.

Mike Higginbottom’s lecture Gothic Down Under:  English architecture in the Antipodes explores the influence of British architects, and British-trained architects, on the design of churches and other buildings in the emerging communities of Australia and New Zealand.  For details, please click here.


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