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.