It’s hard to take pictures of Bilgola. It’s very picturesque – that’s not the problem. It’s just that there are winding, steep roads and No Stopping signs everywhere, making it difficult to be spontaneous and pull up and take a happy snap. Again, it was very hot the day I ventured north and trekking long distances up hills didn’t seem the best way to check out this exclusive suburb.

Exclusive? Well, it’s isolated and has large properties, masses of greenery – palms, palms, palms – and an almost private beach – one road in and the same road out. Aptly called ‘The Serpentine’. Serpentine Parade, Vaucluse; Upper and Lower Serpentine Road in Greenwich; Serpentine Road, Hunters Hill – something quite grand about the name.

Basically the suburb is split in two and, for a non-local like me, it’s easy to get lost. Actually, that’s not quite right: it’s the area that’s split in two. There are two distinct suburbs sharing the postcode 2107: Bilgola Beach with beach and Bilgola Plateau with its, er, plateau. The two only parted ways in 2012.

Bilgola Beach is snuggled nicely between Newport Beach to the south and Avalon Beach to the north.

That’s Avalon Headland on the right, looking quite stern and not at all soft and curvy like other headlands. There’s a good story about that. It used to be the profile of a face but in August 2017 a giant chunk of rock fell off, leaving a rather flat and solemn silhouette. This was prompted by a mini-earthquake in July. True! You can read all about it here.

The beach is all paid parking: $10 per hour is a bit steep. I don’t think you should have to pay to go to the beach. I guess they want people in and out on a rotating basis. There is a decent rock pool with lane numbers marked on the southern tip, shadowed by a steep cliff face covered in very unattractive mesh to stop rocks falling on little kiddies (and the over 50’s who were the ones making best use of the pool on this particular day). It’s a small beach – only about 500m from end to end. And the surf when I was there was fairly flat but beware. There have been a number of drownings here over the years and there is a known permanent rip at the northern end of the beach known as the Newport Express. The beach faces south-east which I thought is quite unusual but – you learn something new every day…did you know Bondi Beach faces south? It does so there you go. And Shelly Beach – a short stroll from Manly – faces west!

The name Bilgola is said to come from Belgoula, an approximation of an indigenous word referring to ‘swirling waters’. A picturesque weatherboard house later known as Bilgola Cottage and/or Talla Malla stood right next to the beach in the gully known as Cabbage Tree Vale and in the 1880’s was used as a weekender by William Bede Dalley, who at one point was Attorney-General of NSW.

Captain Oswald Watt, an aviator awarded a Légion d’honneur and a Croix de Guerre (impressive work!) bought the property in 1912 and salacious gossip (and newspaper reports of the era) tells us his wife Muriel divorced him the year before due to ‘misconduct’ with a much admired 19 year old dancer named Ivy Schilling. He slipped on rocks while collecting firewood and drowned in relatively shallow water in 1921, aged 43.

The Argus (Melbourne, Vic. : 1848 – 1957) 17 June 1913: 6. 

Fellow military colleague and friend Adrian Consett Stephen wrote, ‘I only know that when I heard of his tragic and unexpected death, it was as though some bright bird of gorgeous plumage, which I had been watching in full flight, had suddenly dropped stricken at my feet.’ Might be a bit flowery for you, but I think it’s beautiful. Stephen was also a playwright.

Has to be some true crime. But it’s not a terribly murderous place. Instead, here’s a few other drownings + a macabre incident: In 1922, human bones found on Bilgola Beach alongside a tattered men’s swim suit were identified as those of Norman Whitley, a surveyor employed to work on the estate of the Late Oswald Watt (remember, he had the cottage right on the beach). Whitley failed to show up to work on Monday morning – it’s believed he was attacked by a shark; Stanley Wallace, a returned soldier disappeared in the water while trying to rescue his daughter Phyllis in January 1929 – he was possibly taken by a shark; John Dalley, son of the original owner of Bilgola Cottage drowned while rock fishing in 1935 (although some reports say it was Avalon Beach). Hmmm, could there be a curse on the inhabitants of poor old Bilgola Cottage?