Williamstown occupies a stubby headland at the mouth of the Yarra river, overlooking Hobson’s Bay, a bay within the much bigger bay of Port Phillip. You can see Melbourne’s CBD towers from Williamstown but it doesn’t feel like part of the city. It’s more like a town apart with its diminutive botanic gardens complete with avenue of palms and statue of a local dignitary, and the small-scale grandeur of its civic buildings. There are no hipsters here, no raw food or craft beer bars, at least not yet. In Williamstown you get fish and chips, ice cream and gift shops selling crystals.
I’m drawn here when I feel restless, although I’m never quite sure whether I find what I’m looking for.
Williamstown used to be the main port for Melbourne, the disembarkation point for new settlers and for prospectors during the gold rush. But then the Yarra was straightened into navigable submission, and ships were able to sail into the heart of the city.
Williamstown has that sense of a place that has been bypassed. You get off at the diminutive station where the line terminates, and wonder where you are. Your fellow passengers quickly make their way in different directions and you are left alone, unsure which way to go. Across a patch of grass, on the other side of the street is a folorn-looking building that must once have been a rather grand pub, flanked by little wooden cottages, and off to your left, an incongruous 1960s public housing tower block.
Once you’ve got your bearings though, it’s the sort of place where you can happily wander. You can potter around the waterfront where dinghies bob alongside the grey bulk of battleships, or meander round the sidestreets seeking out quirky old buildings in varying states of repair. Williamstown’s attractions are mostly slightly dusty and run by enthusiastic volunteers, like the restored WWII warship HMAS Castlemaine where for a small fee you can wander freely and without too much concern for health and safety up and down metal stairways, peering into cabins and through engine rooms. Or Seaworks, where you can look at nautical artefacts and model ships housed in a collection of ramshackle former shipyard buildings. The Pirates Tavern is round the back if you fancy a beer in the sun, listening to live cover bands with your fellow buccaneers.
I like the sense of space out here. The quiet wide streets, the big sky above the rusting fuel storage tanks and the bluestone timeball tower at Gellibrand Point. From here you can see the long curve of Port Phillip Bay, the buildings gradually decreasing in size away from the CBD, diminishing to a narrow blur between sea and sky.