Playing Beatie Bow

In a beloved book I read when I was twelve, a tattered piece of ancient crocheted lace becomes the means by which a young girl is transported through time from the 1980s to colonial Sydney. The book is called Playing Beatie Bow, by Ruth Park, and it is set in The Rocks, that sandstone coloured heart of Sydney, right down under the bridge.

Argyle Street church and the bridge

Last weekend Sean and I stayed at The Rocks. We chose it because it was close to places we were going out and secretly, I was excited. Since reading Playing Beatie Bow when I was twelve, I’ve never had the chance to really explore The Rocks before, having passed through once or twice without the time to look around. As soon as we arrived, I felt my twelve year old self leap out of recesses of my mind and start piecing together what I remembered of the story. The spare time we had on the weekend became a kind of pilgrimage for me as I retraced the steps of fourteen year old Abigail Kirk, the novel’s time traveller.

In short, the time travel happens when Abigail, who has found a scrap of yellowed crochet in a box of fabric, comes across some children playing a game called Beatie Bow, in which they enact a frightening ghost story. It’s the playing of this game, and the possession of the piece of crochet that opens up the door to the past and Abigail soon finds herself trapped in the grimy, crowded slums of The Rocks in 1873, living with none other than the Bow family, and the game’s namesake, Beatrice (Beatie) May Bow.

They had turned into what Abigail did not immediately recognise as Argyle Street, though she had walked up that street a hundred times. The enormous stone arch of The Cut, the cutting quarried through the sandstone backbone of The Rocks, was different.

Below is the Argyle Cut (thanks to Pru and Drk for directions on Facebook – you were right. You can’t miss it!) through which Abigail follows Beatie Bow. It was kind of spooky to stand in there and hear voices echoing. It wasn’t hard to imagine that the slice through the rocks could act as some kind of link between past and present.

The Argyle Cut

There are dark and evocative stair cases all over The Rocks. You look at them and think, they go up and down as they’ve always done but what they lead to now is not what they have always lead to. Everything around them has changed.

Stairs at the Rocks

Down steps at the Rocks

Argyle Street steps

Although the area is quite touristy now, there are still dark corners, run down terrace houses and sign posts to a time when The Rocks looked more like this photo I found on Flickr thanks to the State Records NSW pages.

The Rocks, SydneyOn this short weekend trip I indulged unashamedly in my love for time travel stories and particularly Playing Beatie Bow.

Sean listened to me as I recounted my memories of the book and he discovered this beautiful piece of historic Sydney with me. The book began my love of time travel stories and I have a whole collection of my childhood time travel favourites that I’ve managed to scrounge around and find over the years. I long to write one myself and in fact have an idea for one set a little closer to home, if only I could ever get the courage up to actually write one of these books I talk about. The history and ghost story obsessed little girl in me wishes I’d just find a way to write the kind of book she loved to read.

Above the Argyle Cut

But for now, I’ve dug out the old copy of the novel and am reliving that childhood love all over again, loving especially the fact that crochet plays a central role!



31 thoughts on “Playing Beatie Bow

  1. I only read the book for the first time this year, but I loved it, partly because I already love The Rocks. A few months ago I went to an exhibit at the Museum of Sydney that had photos of The Rocks taken as a record before they cleaned it out and demolished the slums when the bubonic plague hit in 1900. They also had artists’ drawings and painting which were rather more idyllic. It was fascinating seeing how it used to be and working out where places were in relation to The Rocks as it is now, and seeing the photos of houses and people that were basically the same as those described in Beatie Bow.

    I also recently read Ruth Park’s autobiographies recently- they were really interesting. You can see how much of her life in the slums of 1940s Surry Hills got put into Beatie Bow.

  2. I love The Rocks. I love reading novels set there, and I love going there and finding hidden cafes and other places! Now that we no longer live in Sydney, we try to get to The Rocks/Opera House precinct whenever we go back. I love that going there is like taking a step back in time. Your pictures are making me nostalgic!

  3. How spooky. Cue old X files music….I couldn’t believe it when I opened my feed reader and found that you had a post called “Playing Beatie Bow”. We had just watched the DVD with the kids on Friday night (March 12!). What a coincidence. It’s an interesting story but bits of the movie were a bit adult for the 8yold. We all found the reflections on time past quite thoughtful and I particularly, having grown up in Sydney, found the footage of the Rocks just gorgeous.

  4. I don’t think I’ve ever read this one. Thanks for the recommendation, I think it’s something that both my 11 year old daughter and myself would really enjoy!

  5. I also love The Rocks – for many years I’ve lived in fear that the waves of tourists would overwhelm the strength of its sense of history – but somehow it survives. Every time I go through the Cut I notice the marks left by the tools used to shape by hand what must have been a major engineering work for the early colony.

  6. That’s a beautiful story. I had been to the Rocks but never really explore it. I will have to read the book & then explore the Rocks. Thanks for sharing.

  7. That is so interesting, I really didn’t know the Rocks were like that. I hope i can go and explore there one day too!

  8. the rocks is such an interesting place, and it would be even more fascinating to explore with that story in mind. i’ve heard of that book but never read it – must change this, especially as it combines history and crochet!

  9. Lovely photos – my parents were married int he Garrison Church in the Rocks and I have always loved the area

    and your long socks are utter;ly wonderful – and how brave to attack with a 2.25!

  10. Oh yes, I read it, read it again and again, loved it! (and the Riddle of the Trumpalar and Challenge of the Trumpalar that 2paw mentioned, too). Did you ever see the movie? I think Grandma took me and my sisters to see it and it was a bit more grown up than we expected – gritty and quite scary.

  11. I loved this book too! I remember going to see the movie with a friend and being frightened by some of the grittier scenes – like the guy pushing himself along on a trolley who grabs her ankles – or am I making that up? What a fabulous thing to do on a weekend in Sydney. You’ve inspired me – we’re staying at the Rocks next month so I’ll have to do some exploring.

  12. One of my favourite books (to this day) and my favourite part of Sydney. The Rocks really has a feeling that is very different to the rest of the city.

    Lovely photos!

  13. I was thinking of the book while down there a few weeks ago. i loved it. In fact I really enjoyed pretty well all Ruth Park’s books. Lovely photos to go with your entry.

  14. Love the book. Love the Rocks. Became even more interested when I found out more about my family (genealogy) and the fact that it was there home ground for many generations

  15. Oh, I love the good time travel ones, too! One of my favorites was E. Nesbit’s House of Arden. That magical clock!! I wonder if our library has Beatie Bow…?

  16. I remember having to read it for English and being a bit scared! What a chicken. I must read it again, because after all these years, it’s probably my sort of book. Wonder how late the library is open tomorrow…?

  17. Ooh! I love the theme and the pictures you chose for this post. Please, please, PLEASE write a book like this, Bells. In the meantime, I’m going to see if my local library can scare up a copy of Playing Beatie Bow for me. 😉

  18. I’m ashamed to admit I’ve never read the book – but there’s a great ?ABC video of it and I think I must have watched it at least 20 or 30 times as a kid dreaming of being transported back into the 1800s.

  19. I love The Rocks – it has a slightly spooky charm that can’t be matched in any other part of Sydney. It has changed since I first visited it as a teenager; it’s more touristy and commercial but, as you say, still has some dark corners. And stairs, there’s no way to escape all those stairs!

  20. It’s a wonderful book and how fabulous to be able to go to the places actually mentioned in the book!!! I remember going to the Library and borrowing this book when I was in teacher training. It was the best book. Have you read The Riddle of the Trumpalar series?? They are very good too.

  21. That’s one Ruth Park I’ve never read so I think a visit to the local library may be in order [ even though I’ve already been in twice this week]
    Wonderful post Bells – so evocative!

  22. I loved Beatie Bow as a child too (although not as much as you!! I forgot about the crochet!) The Rocks is a very cool place to just wander around.

    And I think you should write the book, it would be very cool. Also, tell us more about your favourite time travel books – I’d love to see your list!

  23. Sounds interesting… I wonder if I could find a copy in this part of the world… I should have a look…

    The Rocks is a beautifully spooky part of Sydney. I invariably spend most of my time wandering around that area for no apparent reason other than no matter where I am in the city, and I have free time, I find myself at The Rocks. Strange. So much history, hard work and sadness concentrated in such a small part of the city…

    I’d love to read your sort of story book. Just sit down and write one day – don’t think, just… write.

  24. We seem to have similar tastes in books as well. I loved Playing Beatie Bow, although if you’d asked me, I would have said it was set in Surry Hills (which of course was “A Harp in the South”). I love connecting fiction with art with a place. I had never realised how much Sesame Street is about New York until I went there…

  25. It is a great book, Ruth park one of my childhood favourites as well. If those mossy stone walls could talk they’d tell many a dark tale – I have some archive stuff that might help you get one of those stories out yet! Would love to see what you’d do with it. And of course a great place for a lovely weekend away, are you going to to another post about the beer?!

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