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Garden City

Victorian Green

Melbourne was always destined to be green. Charles La Trobe, the first Lieutenant Governor of the new colony of Victoria from 1851 to 1854, had a passion for conservation. It was matched by his fascination for all things Australian, from the climate and the country’s ecology, to the wild, untamed landscape.

On Monday, July 21, 1873, an Englishman with a remarkable eye for beauty was appointed director of the Royal Botanic Gardens in Melbourne. William Guilfoyle, a botanist who had migrated to Australia 20 years earlier and explored the country extensively from the sun drenched, subtropical north to the turquoise expanse of the New South Wales coast, had a notion that landscape architecture shouldn’t be purely for science. Guilfoyle cared enormously about colour, texture, light, and creating vast expanses of scenery. This fine art approach, however, irked his contemporaries who were more interested in designing outdoor spaces as grounds for botanical study. Ferdinand von Mueller, the revered German botanist who was the gardens’ director until Guilfoyle knocked him from his perch, called his 33 year old successor a “nurseryman [with] no claims to scientific knowledge whatsoever”.

Despite his youth, and the consensus among his peers that he was little more than a glorified gardener, Guilfoyle’s vision for the gardens transformed them into one of Melbourne’s most beloved public spaces. He used plants, trees, and flowers as a painter uses brushstrokes on a canvas, drawing scenic vistas, rolling lawns, and lakes surrounded by floral colour. He created the elaborate Fern Gully using palms and other foliage inspired by his travels in the subtropics, and built the Temple of the Winds as a memorial to the garden’s founder, Charles La Trobe. Guilfoyle’s gardens were an instant success, garnering praise from locals, dignitaries, and even international celebrities. Following a trip to the gardens in 1904, Polish pianist, composer, and politician Ignacy Jan Paderewski said Guilfoyle “did with trees what a pianist tried to do with music”. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who visited Melbourne in late 1920, described the gardens as “absolutely the most beautiful place” he had ever seen.

Today, Melbourne wears its moniker ‘The Garden City’ with ease. Seen from above, it’s a patchwork of green, owing to a network of nearly 480 ha. of parks and gardens. The city is home to more than 70,000 council owned trees. The spaces they inhabit have shaped Melbourne into a vibrant, green metropolis, brimming with leafy inner city respites. Its residents happily orbit these green spaces, accustomed to swapping the urban hustle for a tranquil park without having to leave the central business district. Melbourne was always destined to be green. Charles La Trobe, the first Lieutenant Governor of the new colony of Victoria from 1851 to 1854, had a passion for conservation. It was matched by his fascination for all things Australian, from the climate and the country’s ecology, to the wild, untamed landscape. When Melbourne was still in its infancy, La Trobe set aside large pockets of land in and around the city for parkland and public gardens. Though much of this has since been built on, La Trobe’s legacy survived. Parks, not to mention majestic tree lined streets, humble home gardens, and a burgeoning crop of community veggie patches and flower pots, are like coffee, street art, and meandering laneways; a quintessential facet of Melbourne life.

Carlton Gardens, on the grounds of the 1880 Melbourne International Exhibition, is a magnet for picnickers, architecture buffs, and tourists, as well as being a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Its South Garden features lush, grassy knolls, clusters of trees, and the original feature entrance fountain from the exhibition. The grand main path of the North Garden is lined with enormous oaks and elms forming a canopy of fairytale proportions. The entire 26 ha. rectangle, which also houses the Melbourne Museum, is studded with native Australian flora, including the evergreen Moreton Bay fig, as well as white poplar, plane, and cedar trees.

Royal Park, nestled just four kilometres north of the city’s heart, is a slice of the countryside with unique bush land and wetland habitats for wildlife. Its 170 ha. contain a mosaic of sprawling lawns, rolling hills, as well as countless facilities for sports and recreation. A cairn marks the spot where Australian explorers Burke and Wills commenced their infamous, and ultimately fatal, 1860 expedition to discover inland Australia. Located a handful of blocks away, Flagstaff Gardens is one of Melbourne’s most visited public spaces, its extensive green lawns popular with local office workers and visitors alike. Founded in 1862, the gardens were named for a flag pole that was erected as part of a signalling system on one of the area’s hills in 1840. The gardens also boast a striking avenue of elm trees, rose beds, and a bowling lawn.

To the southeast lies a trio of inner city green; Yarra Park, Fitzroy Gardens, and Birrarung Marr, the latter being Melbourne’s newest major park, established in 2002. Brimming with public artworks designed to celebrate the state’s indigenous cultures, its name means ‘river of mists’ and ‘river bank’ in Woiwurrung, the native language of the Wurundjeri people who inhabited these lands at the time of European settlement. It features local artist Deborah Halpern’s two headed Angel sculpture, and is also home to the much loved Federation Bells, which elicit squeals of delight from young visitors. Equipped with software that allows them to play over 30 songs, the bells ring out three times a day, and the official website even features a program for budding musicians to create their own compositions. At night, the beautifully lit Federation Bells overlook the city’s twinkling lights and the Yarra River. It’s a scene even William Guilfoyle couldn’t have imagined.

Garden City
Garden City
Garden City
Garden City
Garden City
Garden City

Further reading