Monday, October 8, 2012

Pittwater Youth Hostel and Towlers Bay Cottage, a 'Petrov Affair' Safe House

I've been reconnecting with my family and nature this past week and from where I'm sitting now, it's hard to believe that initially, I wasn't keen on making this trip.  It all started at a rowdy yacht club function last November.  To say we were skint at that time, was an understatement.  If you remember, Mr Beach House had spent our last $5000 on pursuing his unachieved sailing goals in an international regatta in the USA and as a result, we were finding it difficult to put food on the table in the months subsequent to his folly.  The government had suddenly stopped buying our sail training boats, as a result of spending cuts, and we needed time to adjust our own spending commitments. So this was not the time to put your hand up at an auction and buy a 2 day holiday package for $300.  One that I might add, was quoted on the night as worth ahem, $240.  Mr Beach House now says it was my hand that went up, but as you will also remember, if you have been coming here a while, November last year was a period in which I was madly trying to lose weight and wasn't really drinking, so I will swear it was his hand that shot up, not mine.

Anyway, roll forward almost a year and the holiday package to Pittwater Youth Hostel was about to expire, so it was booked in for the school holidays just past.  I was joking to friends that we were going on 'holiday', very tongue in check.  I mean I ask you, where's the holiday for a mum in having to prepare and cart all the food and linen, not being able to drive there or walk to a restaurant or a shop and having to carry all your stuff up hill for 15 minutes, once you alight the ferry?  At that stage, it sounded more like a boobie prize to me!!!!  Well folks I could not have been more wrong.  And as Mr Beach House knows, on the very rare occasions that I am wrong and it is rare beach dwellers I can tell you, I will happily admit it.  Shout it from the roof tops actually.  This was one of the most enjoyable and relaxing holidays we have ever had as a family and it was all 10 minutes from home as the crow flies and just an hour from Sydney's CBD.

We were pretty organised.  We managed to get 2 days worth of food for a family of 4, our clothes, life jackets, towels and sleeping bags (which by the way are not allowed at youth hostels now) packed and onto our trolley.

The 15 minute walk up to the YH was not difficult, but probably was more like 25 minutes with a whining 4 year old.  But I made her walk the whole way herself and God love her, she did it.

On the trip over, I was hassling Mr Beach House to hold on to the littlest Beach House brat tightly, as she was sans life jacket.  I was also promising I would be more relaxed on the return ferry journey.  Mr Beach House just chuckled, patted the top of the balustrade and said "She'll be sitting up here on the way back." 

 Which she practically was, as you can see below.  So much so, that the ferry captain came out and  told us to sit her down.  I told you our stay was relaxing.

The first evening, the little Beach House Brat asked me "Where's the television?"  I told her there wasn't one and she nearly fell over in shock. She couldn't understand that it's possible for a house not to have a TV.  I also purposely took no electronic devices for the kid or us, except my phone, but I did think to throw in a book for the big BHB.  He enjoyed reading it to a new friend, out on the deck in the balmy evening.

When we got home I asked him whether he'd rather be on the computer or back at the YH.  He said the youth hostel any day, as he loved having lots of other kids on tap to play with.  They bush walked, ran around playing newly invented games, played Monopoly for the first time and swam together.  

I tried kayaking for the first time too (no shots unfortunately as it's wet) and loved it.  Initially I said to Mr Beach House, I would only hug the shore, as I was afraid of capsizing, but it wasn't long before we were having races across the bays of Pittwater from one gorgeous beach to the next.  We found beautiful fresh water creeks and lots of wild life and I was slowly falling in love with the place as I wound down.

There was a sense of intrigue to our holiday as well.  I am incredibly interested in politics and was fascinated to hear, that just a 20 minute walk from the Youth Hostel, is one of the safe houses the Petrovs stayed in for the first 18 months after their defection from Russia.  Apparently there were others in George St, Avalon and also one in Palm Beach.  Up until the 1970's, there was a very real threat that the Petrovs would be assassinated by Russian spies. Basically because Vladimir Petrov  and his wife were Stalinist appointments  to the KGB.  Petrov was worried that those who had 'murdered' Stalin (although officially he died of natural causes), would also make him disappear upon his return to Russia.  He defected 2 weeks before his wife and without her knowledge.  She had more to lose by defecting and dismissed it when he had raised it with her at an earlier time, as she had family back in Russia (he did not).  After his defection, Mrs Petrov had been kept under virtual house arrest at the USSR embassy and then boarded a plane back to Russia in Sydney with two armed embassy minders, to great protest at the airport.

On the orders of Prime Minister Menzies, she was taken off the plane at Darwin, as the Russians tried to take her back to Russia ultimately against her will, although she was very torn between staying in Australia and what her defection would mean for her family, back in the USSR.

Anyway this, is one of the safe houses they stayed in immediately post their defection. The home is known as Towlers Bay Cottage and she's an absolute beauty.

 She's all Sydney sandstone and concrete, with beautiful French doors and a lovely NE facing terrace over looking Pittwater.  What is completely criminal about this, is that the house was compulsorily acquired (prior to the Petrov Affair) when the area became a National Park and the policy of the day, was to extinguish private ownership in National Parks. Isn't it ironic that this despotic behaviour was what the Petrovs were escaping. Ultimately the government didn't resume many of the homes in this area, as they soon realised the expense involved for taxpayers.

This resumption is a classic example of government policy being made on the run, and inevitably going horribly wrong.  The house is  now boarded up and is how the government treats our national history.  They usually take the least expensive option, no matter the outcome.  I mean why resume it, if subsequent governments are not going to look after it?

The house was apparently occupied for state conferences and holidays by Neville Wran and other government dignitaries in the the 1970 and 1980's, but I am told it was thought not to be a good look that the new rich were now taking advantage of the property, as it had been compulsorily acquired from private hands, so it was abandoned.

There is a garage, even though there is no access via car to the area, apart from a fire trail, which is not open to the public.  Perhaps those who built the house thought road access may come in the future. Apparently the National Parks once installed a care taker in the care taker's cottage, who used to drive in via the road from West Head, much to the disgust of the residents who otherwise let their kids roam free and were worried about him running them over.

The substantial wharf attached to the house, known as Towlers Bay Cottage, has also been left to decay.

And the boat ramp is now a jumble of broken concrete.

The care taker's cottage is falling down.  It is such a terrible shame that governments allow this to happen.  Why not put it out to private tender under lease for renovation, with perhaps some conditions about allowing some kind of public access, so the beautiful home and the history of her inhabitants can be preserved for future generations.  It will only take one big bush fire to rage through the area for the whole thing to turn to ashes and it would have a much better chance of survival, if it was loved and cared for.

The bush is starting to overtake the care takers cottage, which has smashed windows and other damage.  This kind of thing breaks my heart. Some serious vision is need here people.

Anyhow, with our 48 hours in paradise at and end and now being much more enlightened about our own backyard than when we embarked on this adventure, we wheeled our lighter trolley back down the hill.

Hoisted the red flag to let the ferry know we wanted to be picked up.

Agreed it was one of the best holidays we had ever had.  Knew that we loved each other heaps and agreed to do it all again in six months or so.  Most of the other guests were repeat visitors as Pittwater Youth Hostel is just such a fabulous place to be.

I thought the impromptu passenger library at one of the ferry wharves said it all.  If you want to go back to a time where people connected with each other, let their kids run wild from dawn to dusk, where they slowed down and shared and simply enjoyed the moment, then the Pittwater Youth Hostel and her surrounds are absolutely and completely for you.

Oh and Mr Beach House was very appreciative of my efforts in organising the food and taking care of all the logistics for our break, that he brought me flowers.  Seems he does like me after all.

Today I am linked up here


  1. What a great spot Carolyn......
    Love your pics and the history of the place ;O)
    Tania xx

  2. looks like a lovely time Carolyn, glad you could relax. thanks for sharing. I think you are right - we would love it there!

  3. Carolyn, what a fascinating (and delightful - what gorgeous pics) post - I loved reading it and cannot wait to get out to the Pittwater YHA (about which I have heard much - but never about the TB cottage) and have a look for myself.

    This was a very pleasurable interlude to my day - thank you so much.

    warm wishes, Ursula

  4. Thanks for sharing! I really enjoyed reading this post! Mx

  5. it looks like a great spot for the weekend! an adventure for the kids.

  6. Oh what a wonderful escape from the world and such an adventure for the family! A-M xx

  7. Thanks for sharing ur adventure. It's always the way, when u think that there is no way ur going to enjoy yourself and have fun, it turns out to be the best time u ever had. I think we all have had this feeling one time or another. I love this history that goes with it too, unfortunately there is nothing we can do about Gov't and their so called "wisdom" ur not alone we all feel this way no matter where u live in the world.

  8. Such a shame about the house!!!
    What a waste!
    The government needs a serious talking too!

  9. Robyn Grosvenor from "Cove Lee", Towlers BayMay 14, 2015 at 5:13 PM

    The Petrov affair occurred in 1954 and the main home, that you refer to as the"Towler Bay Cottage" was constructed around 1963-64. Prior to my parents purchasing the property in 1961 it had always been in private hands. I have all the documentation right back to the original Crown Grant. The guest house "Rama" was a guest house for fishermen in the properties from the mid 1920's onwards. they used to row over from Church Point. Rama was later burnt down in a fire and only the 80 year old fisherman's cottage remained when we moved to Towlers Bay in 1961. The name my parents, Morea and Alan Grosvenor, who designed and built the home, boatshed and jetty gave the property was "Cove Lee". Although this has been forgotten with time. We did not wait for road access but rather owned an amphibious car we also had a local utility for pick ups from the wharf. All the building materials for the house, boatshed and jetty came in by barge which my father had constructed for the purpose. Unfortunately Mr Tom Lewis, the then Minister for Lands resumed our property for land value. We were all devastated as we had put so much love into developing our home on Pittwater. I get very upset when I see and read about my childhood home being called a Cottage!!! It was a beautiful complex of landscaped gardens and ponds amid manicured lawns when we owned the property. I would really like the property by the name "Cove Lee" because that accurately describes the location of the property. Regards, Robyn Grosvenor.

    1. Hi Robyn Thanks for clearing up the mystery. Why don't you get in touch with the government and in particular Rob Stokes, the Member for Pittwater and ask him to so something about the degradation of your childhood home. Even if it was sold off now someone may love it back to life. I am very sorry that the government was able to do that to your family.It was a very low act and look how your lovely home is treated now. In my opinion it is quite criminal that governments can treat people in this way.

    2. PS I contacted Rob Stokes about the property and he never got back to me......typical.

    3. Thanks for the clarification.. was trying to find some history of the house. I can understand the logic of resuming ALL the properties in the area as part of gazetting the area as a national park... but it looks like this was the only house/property resumed (and the nicest of all the houses!) and it's just been left to decay. It is a shame. It could at least be sympathetically restored and used as NPWS-managed holiday accommodation, to fund ongoing maintenance. Must have been wonderful living in the house, in that location.

    4. It seems funny though that now the Government is selling off all the family jewels that they don't put this out to tender. They could do so on a 99 year lease, if they don't want to sell it. I think it's time to contact Rob Stokes again.

  10. I was delighted to see the comment above from Robyn Grosvenor correcting the information about the house and cottage in Towlers Bay. My Dad was the caretaker for the Grosvenor family during their time there and I remember the area very fondly. My Dad certainly never drove in; he had a 'tinny' like most of the locals, and all the shopping came by water from Church Point. As Robyn says, the house was a very fine one, and beautifully set in gardens. I also remember that there was a duck pond, and an enclosure for Robyn's pony 'Muffin'. It makes me sad to see what has become of the beautiful house, and the little caretaker's cottage where I spent so many holidays. Regards, Judy Keena

    1. Perhaps you two should get together and try and get the state government to do something with the property. Even if it was sold on the proviso that is is properly simpathetically renovated, so that the property is saved. Thanks for making contact.

  11. What an amazing feeling to finally know more about this house! Thank you for the article, I'm grateful to have to read this today, with all the comments.

    I agree, it's a shame to let such a beautiful property abandoned.

    What's about a petition? Is it not with 10,000 signatures that the government has to give a closer look? A story such as this one, had probably be in the mind of thousands visitors of the last decades.

    1. Great idea Audrey I'll sign it for sure. I can't believe the government has not invested in renovating it and letting it out to holiday makers. Politicians are so disappointing on so many levels as COVID 19 and ICAC is highlighting.


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