Fun of the fair

It's one the most anticipated community carnivals on our annual calendar and to mark Canberra's Centenary year, today's St John's Fair promises to be bigger and better than ever.

Earlier in the week, I popped into the landmark church to catch up with the Reverend Paul Black, Rector of Canberra, Anglican Diocese of Canberra and Goulburn to see how preparations were progressing for today's festivities.

Obviously aware of this column's penchant for unusual history and quirky yarns, it didn't take the good reverend long to realise I wasn't there to rehearse my maypole dancing routine, or to taste test the homemade jams. No, instead of fistfuls of fairy floss Reverend Black met me, armed with a copy of Sanctuary in the City a knockout coffee-table expose on the 1845 church and its surrounds, and clad in walking shoes.

With book in hand, Reverend Black proceeded to lead me on a behind-the-scenes tour of every nook and crannie of the entire St John's precinct during which I fast discovered that St John's really is a sanctuary in the city in more ways than one. So today, I share with you my top five things you didn't know (and neither did I, until a few days ago) about one of Canberra's true treasures – the historic Church of St John the Baptist and its surrounds.

See you at the Fair – I'll be the one sheepishly wiping homemade cumquat jam off my face.

1. Secret seat

For many years the avenue leading from the west lychgate up to the church was defined by a soaring stand of Arizona cypress. Planted by Charles Weston in 1920, the trees reached canopy closure in the late 1900s, creating an alluring tunnel-like effect, very popular for wedding photos. Unfortunately, due to safety reasons, having reached maturity, the trees were felled in 2010, significantly changing the visual approach to the church.

Although Weston's trees are now long gone, just inside the lychgate is an eye-catching wooden seat carved from one of the felled cypresses that, according to Reverend Black, “is probably the most photographed object apart from the church itself”.

Like many Canberrans, Reverend Black was “obviously sad to see the trees go”, but they have been replaced by a new avenue of trees and until they reach the towering state of their predecessors, “at least now the historic church and its sandstone tower is on full display again after many years being obscured by the tree canopy”. The striking seat, titled, "Cut for the Same Cloth" was carved by British chainsaw artist Adam Humphreys on a 2010 visit to Canberra and was given in memory of Robert Campbell, husband of the Reverend Margaret Campbell.


During my visit, I couldn't see a "don't touch" sign, so if a five-minute session on the jumping castle today leaves you a bit dizzy, make a beeline for the memorial seat and chill-out in full knowledge you are literally sitting on part of Canberra's past.

2. Lightning strike

Although the felled trees allow a great view of the church tower, it isn't the original. The church's first tower was struck by lightning on February 6, 1851 and the event is colourfully depicted in Gray Smith's illustration, which appears in Samuel Shumack's 1977 paperback version of Tales and Legends of Canberra Pioneers (Australian National University Press). Details of the lightning strike are sketchy, but I'm not sure it was as explosive as portrayed in Smith's watercolour which has the reverend running for cover and a shepherd clutching a couple of frightened lambs. The tower also suffered from a subsiding foundation and was demolished in 1864 before being replaced by the current tower in 1870.

3. Rare critters

Just beyond the southern end of the graveyard is a surprisingly large horse paddock, where, according to Reverend Black, “parishioners once released and grazed their horses during church services”. However, if you left the car at home today, don't think of leaving your horse to graze while you take the kids rubber duck fishing in the fountain (at three tries for $2, good value!) – the paddock is now off limits to livestock of all sorts because its native grasses are a habitat for the endangered golden sun moth (Synemon plana).

Although adjoining the busy Constitutional Avenue, I'd never noticed the hidden enclosure before as it is bordered by Himalayan cypress hedges planted in 1926.

By all means take a wander down to the paddock and have a look, just be careful where you walk. The golden sun moth is a daytime moth and it spends most of its life cycle underground, the golden female only emerging in the hot summer months to meet the dark-coloured males.

The Australian War Memorial holds a 1926 photo taken midway through World War I, which features three soldiers lying in the horse paddock, apparently “sketching the Molonglo Valley”. Hope they didn't squash any moths!

4. Ghostly grave

On the northern side of the church is a grave belonging to Flying Officer Francis Ewen, a New Zealander and graduate of the Royal Military College, Duntroon. Ewen took part in the first mass flying display by the Royal Australian Air Force during the opening of Parliament House on May 9, 1927. Unfortunately, during the fly past, his single-seater SE5 biplane nosed-dived and crashed near the site of the current National Library of Australia. Ewen died of injuries in Canberra hospital later that same day. Although well-versed in the tragic tale of Ewen, Reverend Black understandably didn't volunteer any information regarding Ewen's alleged ghost, which some local paranormal investigators believe haunts the basement of the National Library where it manifests itself as a “sweaty man smell”.

5. Vanishing house

You will need to take a short walk into the city for my last point of interest. Although the church's current residence is within the church grounds, the St John's rectory once took pride of place in the area we now know as Glebe Park.

Built in 1873, the rectory, also known as Glebe House was a substantial two-story brick residence that would have been one of the most prestigious in the district. However, after the compulsory acquisition of the land on and around the rectory by the Commonwealth in the early 1900s, the stately building was subsequently used as part of a school and later a guesthouse. In need of extensive repair, it was demolished in 1954 to make way for Glebe Park.

Sanctuary in the City features a wonderful photograph of the Reverend Pierce Gallard Smith's family preparing to leave Glebe House for an outing on horseback in 1898. The caption describes the scene in detail: “The horses have been saddled, and those staying home are about to farewell the riders from the verandah and the first floor balcony.”


St John's Community Fair: Celebrating Canberra's Centenary, today 9.30am to 1.30pm, corner Constitution Avenue and Anzac Park, Reid.

Expect: A day of fun at Canberra's oldest church, packed full of entertainment, stalls, home-made jams, crafts, books, food and surprises.

Kid friendly? Yes - free jumping castle, climbing wall and animal patting arena.

Did you know? Fairs, fetes and bazaars at St John's have been a regular part of the Canberra's social calendar since the 1930s.

The book: Sanctuary in the City - St John's Church Canberra by Randall Wilson and Rodney Garnett (published by the Anglican Church of St John the Baptist, Canberra, 2012) will be available for sale at the fair. This coffee table-style expose about one of Canberra's most recognisable landmarks is a must for every history buff's bookshelf.



Spring has well and truly sprung and to celebrate Julie Lindner submitted a selection of photos of orchids resembling spiders, ducks and even donkeys, but my pick are these Golden Moths (Diuris chryseopsis). You can even compare them to the real Golden Sun Moth (Synemon plana) pictured.

If wildflowers are your thing, don't miss the 42nd Black Mountain Wildflower Ramble, today 9.30am to noon. Meet Belconnen Way entry, just before Caswell Drive turn-off and discover the surprising diversity of orchids, bush peas and wattles with guides. All welcome. More: Phone Jean Geue on 6251 1601.


Email: or Twitter: @TimYowie or write to me c/o The Canberra Times, 9 Pirie Street, Fyshwick. A selection of past columns is available at: