Colonial history still alive and kicking

The Rocks, once the haunt of “garrotters and delinquents”, are now reformed, refurbished and impeccably plumbed, writes JOHN BORTHWICK

“The narrow alleys of the 1800s took their toll on the drunken sailors and whalers who came ashore after long voyages at sea,” says a wall plaque beside an old brick laneway. That alley, in Sydney’s historic Rocks area, bears the curious name of Suez Canal, which is the perfumed revision of its earlier title, earned long ago and for good reason, Sewers Canal.

The Rocks, once the haunt of “garrotters and delinquents”, are now reformed, refurbished and impeccably plumbed. Tourists and partying Sydneysiders have replaced the cutpurses and shanghaied seafarers of yesteryear, but all around you is evidence of where European settlement first began in Australia.

From the kick-off Sydney was a roaring port where The Rocks in its thirstiest years supported up to 50 alehouses. Of the dozen that still remain many are heritage-listed and several contend for the country’s “oldest” tag, be it the antiquity the building or its liquor licence.

The wedge-shaped Hero of Waterloo on Lower Fort Street has been there for 178 years and still delivers live music, counter meals and ghost tours, but no longer the press-gang thugs. It contends with the Lord Nelson (19 Kent Street) and Fortune of War (137 George Street) for the title of the oldest hotel — depending on your definition. There’s ‘pub grub’ of varying quality across The Rocks, several good rooftop bars (see later section), and music and trivia nights where you find them. An amble around here can easily degenerate into a pub crawl, so walk in moderation?

The Rocks were made for walking. It occupies a harbour peninsula of about 50ha that was known as Tallawolodah to its original Gadigal custodians. George Street is its main drag and there’s a long foreshore walk that loops from Circular Quay out to Dawes Point below the bridge, around to Walsh Bay and west to Barangaroo. The Rocks area is quartered by the north-south Harbour Bridge approaches and east-west by Argyle Street.

You can’t get lost. Thus you probably will. So just wander, bumping everywhere into history hewn in sandstone — remnants of the country’s first hospital, dockyards, observatory, bordellos and boozers are all around you.

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