When I first arrived in Melbourne, I stayed in an Airbnb apartment in East Melbourne. My journey to and from work took me through the delightful Fitzroy Gardens, a formal park on the edge of the CBD. I would stroll through the top end of the gardens in the fresh summer morning light, past the palm trees where unseen parrots squawked, paying my respects to the River God and his fountain, before ducking down one of the long avenues of elms. On my way home, the gardens would be busy with fellow commuters and their one way cellphone conversations, with groups of boot camp exercisers scattered around on the lawns, interspersed with solitary readers, and sometimes in the distance towards the heart of the park, little wedding groups, the bride and groom loitering with their attendant photographers.
The gardens were created in the nineteenth century and are dotted with features that were popular in parks in Victorian Britain. There are fountains and statues, and a bandstand and rotunda in the style of greek temples. Straight paths intersect the gardens at right angles and diagonals like the layout of the Union Jack, lined with elm trees planted in the 1880s. The elm trees are towering and majestic, but there is something not quite right about them. It was January when I first arrived here, but the elms had none of the soft lushness of deciduous trees in high summer. Their leaves seemed small and dark and tired.
As well as the Victoriana in the gardens, there are also attractions from the first half of the 20th century, like the spanish-mission style conservatory, and the tudor model village donated by the grateful people of Lambeth in the UK, for food that was sent to them during shortages after WWII. The model village looks more Hobbiton than Tudor, and the people who lived there have long since fled, terrorised by the giant myna birds that hop around the miniature lanes and perch insolently on the rooftops. Next to the model village is the Fairies’ Tree, ‘a gift to the children of Melbourne’, carved in the 1930s with Australian wildlife juxtaposed with fairies and elves.
The Fairies’ Tree is the stump of a Red River Gum, a tree that pre-dated the arrival of Europeans and the establishment of the gardens. There is another Red River Gum stump in the park, the Scarred Tree, whose bark was removed by Aboriginal people for making something, perhaps a canoe or containers. A plaque at the foot of the scarred tree asks us to respect it.
The biggest draw in the park, at least for tourists, is Cooks’ Cottage, a small stone cottage that used to be in the village of Great Ayton in North Yorkshire and belonged to the parents of Captain James Cook. The cottage was purchased by Russell Grimwade, a Melbourne philanthropist. It was dismantled, with each stone carefully labelled, packed in barrels and shipped to Melbourne where it was reconstructed to commemorate the centenary of the State of Victoria in 1934. Even the ivy covering its walls is a cutting from the ivy that grew on the cottage walls in Great Ayton. The space left in Great Ayton by the removal of the cottage is now itself a small park. To ‘appease the resentment’ felt by the people of Yorkshire over the removal of the cottage, stones from Point Hicks in Gippsland, the first part of Australia to be spotted by Cook’s expedition, were shipped back to Great Ayton to erect an obelisk, an exchange of stones for stones. I went to visit the original location of the cottage via Google Street View. The village looked very familiar, not just because I made several virtual circuits of it before I found the obelisk. I have probably been there in real life. I certainly remember visiting the much larger monument to Captain Cook on Easby Moor as a child, with my grandparents who lived in nearby Stockton-on-Tees.
The cottage was built in 1755. According to the visitor leaflet, this makes it the oldest building in Australia. There always seem to be tour groups milling around the cottage and I expected it to be busy when I went to visit, but most of the tourists seem content to take selfies standing outside and there were only a handful of visitors in the cottage itself. We shuffled politely around each other in the tiny rooms.
The interior of the cottage portrays how its original inhabitants might have lived, with furniture and other items from the period. A recording plays a dramatisation of Captain Cook’s parents discussing their son going off to sea. Mrs Cook pronounces ‘Cook’ to rhyme with ‘fluke’, just like my Grandma.
Apparently Captain Cook never lived in the cottage. In between his voyages he lived in Mile End in London, in a house that was demolished in 1959. According to the Captain Cook Society, the condemned Mile End house was offered to the Australian government, but it didn’t take up the offer. It seems a shame that Fitzroy Gardens lost out on the opportunity to expand its Captain Cook building collection.
And Captain Cook never came to the part of the Australia that is now Melbourne. And yet Captain Cook is here, in statue form, in the garden. He is clutching his map and telescope, looking into the windows of the cottage as if he is forever trying to find his way home.
The rebuilding of Cooks’ Cottage in Fitzroy Gardens, like the Fairies’ Tree and the Model Village is of its time of course: a time when Captain Cook was the discoverer of Australia and when it was not considered strange to juxtapose Australian animals with Northern European fairies, as if the Australian land had no spirits of its own.
It is difficult to take seriously the claim that Cooks’ Cottage is the oldest building in Australia. By that reasoning, you could bring any building that pre-dates European settlement out here and make it part of Australia’s history. I wonder if it is possible even to claim that the cottage is the same building that the Cooks lived in, as if a building is no more than the sum of its materials and the way they are configured. The very word ‘building’ suggests it is the end result of a process, which should make Cooks’ Cottage a ‘rebuilding’.
I have a sense that buildings should be permanent, rooted in the place where they were built, even if that place changes over time. This sense is violated all the time in New Zealand, where wooden buildings are routinely shifted around. There are even sale yards where unwanted homes sit forlornly awaiting their new homes. I approve of recycling buildings, but there is something inauthentic about a re-located house, sitting lonely and exposed on its new piles on a patch of bare ground.
As a historic artefact, Cooks’ Cottage is profoundly inauthentic, but it has served its purpose as a tourist attraction in a city that has relatively few sights for tourists to see, for the past eighty years. It looks comfortable enough in its Fitzroy Gardens location, more at home at least than the tourists who loiter around outside, unsure whether or not to pay the entrance fee. Maybe buildings put down new roots over time, like the ivy cutting.
When the Cooks’ Cottage guides, dressed in 18th century clothing, asked me if I was visiting from England, I said I lived in Melbourne. I didn’t expect them to believe me: the very fact that I am visiting Cooks’ Cottage marks me out as a non-resident. I didn’t believe myself either, but I’m not sure what the truth is. I don’t know how long you have to live somewhere before it feels like home, but I think it’s unlikely that the nine months of my stay here will be long enough. I have changed countries twice in the past decade, and I’ve started to wonder whether doing this requires a sort of mental dismantling, and rebuilding in a new location, waiting in a limbo of unbelonging, for the landscape to shape itself around me.
Russell Grimwade talks about the purchase of the cottage and the building of the obelisk in Great Ayton in this short documentary