"THE execution of King Charles I, King John signing the Magna Carta and Queen Elizabeth I knighting Sir Francis Drake aboard the Golden Hind, shown in chronological order through the windows on both sides of the turret-shaped clock, took my breath away. It was a joy to see those key historical moments brought back to life by the complex mechanical animation," exclaims the woman from the next table to her companion.
Their conversation, clearly within earshot thanks to their heightened level of enthusiasm, further reveals that the amazing timepiece is none other than the iconic Royal Clock, located on the southern end of the Queen Victoria Building (QVB) here in downtown Sydney.
My interest is piqued when I learn that each performance starts exactly at the top of every hour, from 9am to 9pm, with miniature figurines emerging from the tops of each of the clock's four outer turrets to sound the trumpet voluntary.
As soon as the trumpeters recede into the background, a scene briefly illuminates to display a diorama of English royal history, before dimming and rotating to the left to make way for the next in sequence.
Ever since checking out at noon, and throughout lunch at the Four Seasons Hotel Sydney's highly acclaimed Mode Kitchen & Bar, I’ve been mulling over what to do during my last few remaining hours in the New South Wales capital before heading to the airport for my flight back to Malaysia.
Now, it looks like I’ve found just the thing to while the time. The promise of an afternoon exploring one of Sydney's most iconic buildings, situated further down George Street from where the Four Seasons Hotel is, appears to be a wonderful option.
Anxious to start, I quickly finish the last remaining bits of Valrhona dark chocolate and hazelnuts from my delicious mille-feuille dessert before heading downstairs to hail a cab.
Although the QVB is within walking distance, every minute saved would mean having more time to explore.
UNEXPECTED INFORMATION SOURCE
Instead of idly watching the busy cityscape through the window, I decide to get some background information on the iconic building from the Pakistan-born driver who has been living in Sydney for more than three decades.
A history buff himself, the naturalised Australian turns out to be an unexpected source of information on the QVB.
"It all began a decade after the turn of the 19th century when Governor Macquarie designated the area, now bordered by George, Market, York and Druitt Streets, as a market place to serve the people of Sydney. The first structure, completed in 1820, looked worlds apart from the grand building you’re about to visit," he quips while waiting for the traffic lights to turn.
With administrative offices at the Druitt street end, the two-storey Greenway's Market House began taking in stocks of maize, wheat, green forage, vegetables, turkeys, ducks, geese, groceries and even drapery. The whole of Sydney revelled at the convenience and business roared right from the start.
The phenomenal growth experienced over the next five decades eventually gave rise to the need for more space. The surrounding streets were turned into arcades within the market as a temporary stop gap measure while waiting for architect George McRae to finalise plans for the new George Street Market.
McRae's blueprints provided for a sprawling palatial building with an elaborate Romanesque-designed facade and had enough space to accommodate a hotel, a concert hall, shops and warehouses. Four hydraulic lifts, considered state-of-the-art at that time, served the market which had been relegated to the basement.
QV BUILDING COMES INTO EXISTENCE
As the building approached completion in 1897, the Sydney City Council resolved to rename it the Queen Victoria Markets Building to mark, in a fitting manner, the monarch's unprecedented and glorious Diamond Jubilee.
"Explore every inch of the place and look for clues to continue the intriguing QVB story from where I left off. Along the way, you’ll be pleased to learn that a Malaysian company played a pivotal role here some four decades ago," the father of two says with finality as he guides the vehicle to a gentle halt at the side of York Street.
His parting comment, made probably after learning about my country of origin during the course of our brief exchange, piques my interest to no end.
Impatient to find out more, I only make a brief stop to marvel at the imposing facade before making my way indoors.
Almost immediately, I sense the uniqueness of the QVB. The old-world charm is evident in every corner of the place even though the building is now home to over 180 of Sydney's finest fashion boutiques, jewellery and antique shops, top-end homeware outlets as well as modern restaurants serving a variety of tempting cuisines.
Above all, the delicious smell of premium beverages wafting in the air and the sight of mouth-watering pastries are more than enough to tempt visitors to get seats at the delightful cafes strategically located throughout the building.
On the architectural front, it’s interesting to note that the QVB's heritage values, especially its magnificent floor to ceiling columns, are kept in full view by frameless glass shop fronts. This feature also highlights the Victorian-era inspired colour palette which complements the unique cultural elements of the building.
By embracing vibrant colours in courageous combinations, the distinctive use of red, turquoise and eggshell blue helps to symbolise the soul of this Central Business District jewel. At each section, this intriguing palette is further separated and defined by clear white archways.
The dominant features here are the imposing central dome made of glass and copper as well as several eye-catching stained glass windows. The former is so grand that it immediately calls to mind the great domes of St Paul's Cathedral in London and St Peter's Basilica in Rome.
The building's many details, including arches, pillars, balustrades and intricate tiled floors, have all been faithfully and successfully maintained despite the years of refurbishment to maintain the building’s identity.
WORLD'S LARGEST HANGING CLOCK
While admiring the intricate features on the sides of an original 19th century wrought iron staircase, I’m suddenly alerted to the sound of distant chimes.
Tracing the source to the northern end of the building, I soon come face to face with the Great Australian Clock, the larger of two great clocks hanging in the QVB.
Weighing four tonnes and measuring 10 metres tall, it’s the world’s largest hanging animated turret clock.
With the help of 27 paintings, 33 picture scenes, 867 light bulbs and over 130 hand-carved figurines with a number being animated, this unique timepiece tells the Australian story from both European and Aboriginal perspectives.
Among the more significant events depicted are the arrival of the First Fleet in January 1788 as well as the first successful crossing of the Blue Mountains in New South Wales by Gregory Blaxland, William Lawson and William Charles Wentworth in 1813.
"It was only in 1918 that this building was officially known as the QVB. The name change was made to commemorate the impending centenary of Queen Victoria's birth in 1919 as well as to better reflect on the prevailing business that had migrated from market produce to retail," shares a tall young man in a bright green t-shirt to a group of people standing nearby as soon as the animated display comes to an end.
"If alive today, the 19th century British monarch would be celebrating her birth bicentenary this year as she was born on May 24, 1819. Let’s proceed to the statue of Queen Victoria at the corner of Druitt and George Street," he suggests before approaching me to hand over a brochure and introduce himself as Ross Pickrell.
"Welcome to I'm Free Walking Tours. We’re a team of young Sydney Siders who are passionate about our city and want to help all visitors, regardless of budget, get the most out of their stay here. With that intention, we don’t charge up-front and people are free to give whatever they think the tour is worth at the end," explains Pickrell as we make our way downstairs.
Like Pickrell, the rest of I'm Free Walking Tour guides are predominantly university students who specialise in a diverse range of subjects like history, architecture, museum management, law, English literature, journalism and commerce studies.
MALAYSIANS TO THE RESCUE
Before reaching our intended destination, Pickrell draws our attention to an attractive cartwheel stained glass window and points out the letters I.G.B. on the third panel.
I well with pride when he announces that they represent Ipoh Gardens Berhad, the Malaysian property developer that became the QVB's knight in shining armour in 1982.
"Drastic remodelling occurred during the austere 1930s where the main occupant was the Sydney City Council. As recently as 1959 there was a threat of demolition but thanks to the timely action of the Malaysians, the QVB today is a testimony of its original vision and the superb craftsmanship of the artisans who helped put everything back together again," explains Pickrell.
At the Queen Victoria statue, Pickrell reveals a secret hidden within the QVB: "Somewhere inside is a letter from Queen Elizabeth II to the citizens of Sydney. Nobody knows of its contents as it can only be opened in 2085 by the Lord Mayor of Sydney."
Before moving off with his group to other famous landmarks along their designated walking route, Pickrell points to a second statue nearby which portrays Queen Victoria's favourite pet, a Skye Terrier named Islay, sitting with its fore paws raised above a wishing well, as if begging passersby to donate generously to the Royal Institute for Deaf and Blind Children.
Cleverly sited to disguise the ventilation shaft for the carpark underneath, this bronze art work includes a poem telling the story of Islay specially translated into Braille, four proverbs highlighting the morality of giving in six different languages and a piece of stone from Blarney Castle which, according to an Irish legend, endows its kisser with the gift of great eloquence or skill at flattery!
Conscious of the little time remaining, I express regret at the inability to follow Pickrell on the remaining part of his tour and promise to be a full-fledged participant whenever the next opportunity arises.
During the walk back to the Four Seasons Hotel to grab my bags and have a light meal from the evening cocktail spread at Lounge 32, plans for another Sydney visit start to form in my mind.
With so much interest stirred up from just a single building, I can’t wait to embark on the full walking tour to see what other interesting nuggets of information this amazing city has in store for me. Until then, farewell Sydney and thanks for an afternoon well spent.
WHERE TO STAY
Four Seasons Hotel Sydney
199 George Street, Sydney, New South Wales 2000 Australia (www.fourseasons.com/sydney/)
A POPULAR Central Business District hotel among locals and foreign travellers thanks to its strategic location along George Street. It’s within walking distance to must-visit landmarks like the iconic Opera House at Sydney Harbour, panoramic Circular Quay as well as The Rocks heritage area where Captain Arthur Philip first landed in 1788 to establish the colony of New South Wales.
There are 531 well-furnished and well-equipped rooms, ranging from deluxe to suite. Guests staying in Club Rooms, Club Suites or Signature Suites get access to Lounge 32 which provides a variety of complimentary features. This five-star establishment also prides itself on having the largest outdoor hotel swimming pool in the city.
Food lovers will enjoy Mode Kitchen & Bar, which offers an uncomplicated yet utterly memorable modern Australian dining where technique is celebrated in the kitchen, craftsmanship on the table and the freshest produce on the plate.
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