Surely not!



From America


Two pieces of correspondence from Drainies came my way recently, both of which had a North American bent.

The first, from Graham, alerted me to the goings on in Los Angeles. Olden times readers of this blog will know that there’s been a long and dedicated effort to reclaim the concrete channel, so beloved of Terminators on Harley-Davidsons, and make it into a proper functioning river again.


I love that picture, above (a still from the video). Those men with hats are engineers working out how to “fix” that darned river and its annoying habit of having water in it. It worked so well that we copied the idea in Australia. Several times.

FOLAR has had a big win. (FOLAR stands for Friends of the Los Angeles River, so it should be FOTLAR: if you’re going to have the “o” of “of” then why not the “t” of “the”? But then NORWICH never did work because, as we all know, knickers starts with a “k”.) But the political winds have shifted and real advances have been made in the rehabilitation of the biggest beck in California. Hope!

On a completely different, and more irreverent, tack came this link from Richard. Maybe it was the heading that alerted him: Comic writer gets stuck in a hole and Twitter saves him. Hmm. Still, it’s entertaining. This guy got stuck in a skate bowl in the rain with his dog and an umbrella. How to get out? Thankfully, the Twitterverse responded.

Ryan in hole

Could that ever happen to me and Jambo, wondered Richard. Of course not! We’d simply climb on a log and bob down to the Carrington boardwalk. As the meerkats say, “Simples!”


Goo story


This time last year there was a team of lads down the creek “fixing” the cracks in the concrete. I’d pass them of a morning as I took Jambo down towards the TAFE and we’d nod at one another and occasionally talk. It looked like cold work on that northern side of the beck, with the winter sun never getting onto them till the afternoon by which time they were packing up to go home.

The idea was to stop the pollutants from the gasworks from seeping into the water table and the creek. It seemed, to my unscientific mind, a completely futile act. Surely, like the Karuah bypass, it would just shove the bottleneck somewhere else.

Anyway, they did about 50 yards of concrete then, one day, they were gone.

Since then the goo they squirted under the slabs has bubbled its way to the surface, only now it looks grey and frothy and almost as bad as the toxins it was meant to contain.


There are large patches of emulsified oils, which may be from the old fuel depot. I don’t know.


The bituminous gunk has a beautiful rich purpley-black colour that isn’t done justice in this photo. It’s the colour of a raven’s wing or a magpie’s flight feather, a colour that I’ve never seen in clothing or paints.


It’s really very disheartening and fills me with a sense of gloom about the rehabilitation of the gasworks, which seems to have stalled completely. (I did see a digger in there the other day which has made a few desultory scrapes in the ground. The only thing this seemed to do was to make the air around the creek reek of bitumen.) As for the now abandoned fuel depot, I can only think what would have to happen to land prices before that got tackled with any serious intent.

Sorry to come across so dejected but I don’t think we’re going to see a clean, green Styx Creek any time soon.



Spring is definitely not yet in the air. I was thinking this as I walked Jambo down the creek and noticed this plastic roadworks pole bobbing down the beck, washed hither from whence I know not.


What I do know was that it was cold and wet and slippery and generally a bit miserable.

But there are still folk out and about. I was rather startled to meet two lads emerging from the tributary tunnel next to Chatham Road bridge, the one you see beneath Richardson Park. They were wearing gumboots and had flashlights and had, amazingly, tunnelled their way from Merewether High School.

Yesterday I bumped into another pair of explorers who told me all about the old fuel depot, which has apparently been abandoned. The owners of this site were, right up until the end, carefully maintaining the holders and the buildings and the grounds and so to hear that they were no longer there was a complete surprise to me. I felt like the Turks must have felt when they woke up and realised the Anzacs had slipped away in the night.

But, like Nature, youth culture abhors a vacuum. It there’s empty space it must be filled. They sent me a couple of pictures of the depot, and of the recently re-fenced gasworks. I have absolutely no idea what this dummy’s arm signifies. I mean … huh?


The old naphtha holder was, they told me, getting a fresh lick of paint. Approaching from the south, they smelt the fumes of aerosol cans as a crew of hardy graffitismos plied their decorative trade.


Poor things, they nearly had heart attacks, but they were good enough to let my contacts reel off a few shots for posterity.


Note the cut-off ladder to stop scallywags climbing the holders. Apparently they’ve done the same thing in the fuel depot.


Such a shame. Seriously, I’d pay good money to go up one of those and look out over Hamilton!

Friday foto


Oh what a feeling.


Keeping in touch


One of the glories of social media and the internet is the connections that are possible between like-minded people. Of all the posts that I’ve put out over the years, the two most popular were on the demolition of the Islington Junction Box (hello, rail buffs) and on my attempts to save an injured fruit bat (hello, North American bat buffs). We’re talking hundreds and hundreds of visits, and loads of feedback.

Most of the time, though, the connections take the form of a friendly email from someone who wants to bring something to my attention: I mistake I’ve made in describing a place or a person; a comparison with what’s happening in urban waterways in another state or country; or a g’day from a kindred spirit in another part of the world. I also get wonderful follow-up messages that help me to understand this wee square of inner Newcastle that much better.

Recently, Lachlan pointed me to these two Ralph Snowball photos of repairs to the railway bridge over the Styx at Islington. The caption states they’re of a washaway following floods in 1897. You can see a better version here.


As is so often the case with Snowball’s pictures, they’re wonderful human studies with levels of detail that the smartest smart phone couldn’t hope to match. Again, direct link for a decent view here.


Another photo link was sent to me by Alex, a former Newcastle resident who used to cycle through Ham North to and from the BHP back in the day. Alex also lamented the loss of the Islington Junction Box. In an earlier post I’d made the following grossly sexist comment:

The Wife and I were discussing [the signal box] just the other day, trying to remember when it stopped being manned. (She said “staffed”, though when I challenged her to name a single lady signalperson she knew she was cornered. Ha!)

Well, step forward and take a bow, Margaret Tomlin, “one of the first and most successful women to break into a male industry”. Margaret is pictured here at the Flemington box in September 1982; click here for a better version of the picture.

signal woman

However, in defence of my sexist self, Alex does note the:

Different lever configuration though, pistol grip power assisted (most likely compressed air assisted similar to Newcastle Signal Box). The levers at Islington Junction signal box would definitely have been of the ‘armstrong’ mechanical type.

Yeah, Margaret Tomlin. Lightweight!

Lame sexist comments aside, I’d love to know where you are now, Margaret. I bet you could tell some stories!



The sunset behind the gasworks was gorgeous the other night.


And then, within a day or so, it was grim as buggery. Drenching rain, slippery banking, general air of miserableness.


But just when I’m feeling flat as a tack and I’m staring blankly at The Longest Goods Train in the History of Christendom lumber across Clyde Street, I see that some kind soul has secreted this lovely flower decal against a fence post for a person such as me to spy and feel good about.



Lost words


I got several responses to my post about trying to find a word for the permanent watercourse that runs down the centre of the drain, the thing that I call the “beck”. Robert tells me that it’s a “fresh”, though I think I prefer Lachlan’s “stynx”, especially for that part of the drain that goes past the gasworks.


Megan pointed me to an article by Robert Macfarlane on his new book Landmarks, which is about the regional and place-specific words that describe certain characteristics or features of a place: landscape, animal behaviour, weather and climate patterns, and so on. The most shocking part of the article was this:

The same summer I was on Lewis, a new edition of the Oxford Junior Dictionary was published. A sharp-eyed reader noticed that there had been a culling of words concerning nature. Under pressure, Oxford University Press revealed a list of the entries it no longer felt to be relevant to a modern-day childhood.
The deletions included acorn, adder, ash, beech, bluebell, buttercup, catkin, conker, cowslip, cygnet, dandelion, fern, hazel, heather, heron, ivy, kingfisher, lark, mistletoe, nectar, newt, otter, pasture and willow. The words taking their places in the new edition included attachment, block-graph, blog, broadband, bullet point, celebrity, chatroom, committee, cut-and-paste, MP3 player and voice-mail.
As I had been entranced by the language preserved in the prose‑poem of the “Peat Glossary”, so I was dismayed by the language that had fallen (been pushed) from the dictionary. For blackberry, read Blackberry.

It made me wonder about more new words for the urban environment. Words are obviously needed for the following phenomena. I’ve provided the definitions; now you provide the word.

1. The gap between two concrete slabs in a creek bed wide enough to stop an aerosol can from rolling into the stynx.


2. A group of interwoven twigs that were once a next but, having been abandoned, have now fallen from their place in a fig tree.

3. An air movement that is barely a breeze yet is strong enough to stop a pair of balloons from being washed downstream, causing them to bob on the surface of rapidly moving water without themselves going anywhere.


4. The temporary aggregation of leaves, sticks and litter that causes a body of water to pool around it. At some point the collection of sticks will collapse under its own weight.


5. The curiously curled-lip effect when a heavy flush is powerful enough to tear the roots of a mat of reeds and water hyacinth away from a concrete bed but without the force necessary to sweep the entire mat away.


6. The two-tone colour that occurs when a polluted, sediment-heavy drain empties into a fast-flowing fresh.


Answers on a postcard to the usual address.

The best laid plans


Thought of the day: maps show the world the way it is; plans show the world they way it might be.

A couple of pieces of drain-related correspondence dropped into my in-box and triggered this thought. The first email (from the good folk charged by Jemena with the task of rehabilitating the gasworks site) came with photos of a pair of plans from the turn of the twentieth century. These plans set out the gasworks as it was intended to be. The first one shows a detail of the junction of Clyde Street and the rail line; the only recognisable feature today is the Pepper-designed admin building.


The second plan – a more complete scale – is from slightly later, given the presence of holders 4 and 6, and the one for tar and liquor.


I find it interesting that neither of them exactly mirror the gasworks site based on the remains of the built environment. The rail tracks, roads and building footprints are recognisable but don’t match exactly. There’s a fractional discord, like a radio station that isn’t properly tuned in.

In contrast, these maps (sourced by Lachlan) show the area as it was, a snapshot of the time focusing purely on what was of interest to the cartographer. If you look at the middle dark line of those running from the bottom left to the top right, the one with the words “unused railway” along it, you’ll see the point where it crosses the Styx. I’d always understood that this unused railway was simply a planned track, but Lachlan has discovered (through the wonderful resource that is the National Library of Australia’s Trove searchable archive) reports that prove the base for the track was created in the 1870s but was resumed in the 1890s and “repurposed” as a drainage channel.

1893 Parrott-extract

This map shows another later detail.


I’ve added the links Lachlan sourced as they’re well worth reading for a sense of the track / drain’s development, particularly the insight provided by the progress of the “commonage drain”, A Day with the Unemployed, when “butty gangs” of 10 unemployed men assembled and worked on a rotational basis to spread out the income.

As the future of the drain, and the lands to either side (the soon-to-be remediated gasworks and the fuel depot), is in a period of flux, it’ll be interesting to see what plans the powers that be are drawning up for the area. And, of more interest to us mere mortals who simply happen to live right next to it, the reality of what will actually happen.

How full is full?


I was contacted this week by a gentleman who wanted to talk about drains.

It was never my ambition to become Newcastle’s Drain Man, but so be it. The man was a hydrologist and was preparing a brief in response to the Australian Institute of Engineers’ proposed revision to its guidelines on drains and waterways. Having investigated the Wollongong floods he was now looking at Newcastle, started his research in the City library, and was directed to “that man who walks around in the drains a lot”.

We had wide-ranging chat about things drainy, and one of the topics we covered was how high it got during the Pasha Bulker flood. He’d heard reports that the water was close to the underside of the Chatham Road bridge, which I pooh-poohed. No way did it get that high.

After he’d hung up I started wondering: had I been to quick to dismiss this claim? Fortunately, by coincidence a Drain Correspondent got in touch with pictures of the creek during the super storm. The following pics are all courtesy Isaac: cheers, mate.


This one shows just how close to the top of the concrete banking the water came. But, hats off to those olden times engineers, they got the capacity pretty well right. I’ve never seen it spill over here, or anywhere apart from the section near Hamilton North Public School and the showgrounds.

What of further upstream?

This photo, taken nail-bitingly close to the edge of the bank, shows that at Chatham Road bridge the water is nowhere near the underside, which is exactly as I remember it from the Pasha flood.


I really do have to hand it to those Victorians, and the Edwardians who followed them. They sure knew how to build their urban infrastructure, whether it was sewers, drains or dams.

The only time they got it “wrong” was the capacity of roads and bridges. They could never have predicted how much we would take to the motorised carriage; in fact, they’re still getting it wrong in Sydney now. Like drains, roads tend to spill out once they’ve reached capacity. But while we’re prepared to neglect our waterways we’re quite happy to lease our ports or electricity infrastructure in order to spend money on our roads. What a selfish species we are.