Society

A Sacred Site Beyond The BBQs

Only the chapel on the fringes of what was once the YMCA’s Camp Buxton has been left as it was. Neglected and ruined among the trees, it is sanctified still by the memory of the fallen and forgotten serviceman to whom it was dedicated so long ago

ymca boysOn June 12, 1942, a young man called Ivan Charles Young was killed while serving with the RAAF. In his memory a small stone chapel was built in the bush at Shoreham, Victoria, for the use of campers at the YMCA’s Camp Buxton. The camp is long gone, but the chapel is still there, in ruins.

Ruins are fairly unusual in Australia. The type you find in older countries—crumbling castles and forts, abandoned mansions, roofless abbeys—once-solid buildings of stone or brick ruined by war or fire or neglect, don’t much exist here. Places such as Port Arthur and Port Macquarie are exceptions, unusual enough to be national monuments. You do see the occasional timber farmhouse or shearing shed falling into disrepair, with corrugated iron sliding off the roof and the wooden walls buckling as the weatherboards fall away, but that kind of ruin seldom lasts long against the assaults of weather or bushfire, and when it goes it is forgotten.

The chapel in memory of Ivan Charles Young is a very simple ruin. There is no dilapidated tower or glassless windows. There was never any roof to fall in. This chapel was open to the air, its walls a shin-high rock border in local brown stone within which rows of low benches on concrete supports served as pews. There is no altar, but a raised piece of ground at one end, surrounded by stonework, has a stone lectern on it facing what’s left of the benches. Much of the mortar has broken away from the blocks of stone like old fillings out of a tooth, and the wooden planks of the benches are either missing or splintered and collapsing. A tree grows through what was the platform beside the lectern.

The chapel was—built seems the wrong word—laid out in 1945 for the boys and youths spending their summer weeks at Camp Buxton, a holiday camp established twenty years earlier by the YMCA on a large parcel of land above the cliffs of Shoreham beach on Western Port. Buxton was the name of the farmer who donated the land. Children’s camps were popular in the years between the wars and Camp Buxton was intended for boys from “deprived” families who without it would probably have had no holiday anywhere. The YMCA ran year-round activity centres for such children in Melbourne’s then distinctly unprosperous and unfashionable inner-city suburbs.

The campers at Camp Buxton slept in tents pitched on wooden platforms. Their beds were “palliasses”—straw stuffed into hessian bags. The campsite was a mixture of scrub and pasture with grassy areas and timbered glades where the tea-tree grew thick and summer brought the hot scent of the pines and gums that rose high above the tents. The only permanent buildings were a cavernous timber and cement-sheeting recreation and meals hall with kitchen where three times a day plain healthy meals were prepared and hungrily consumed; a corrugated-iron shower block and concrete latrines; and a series of timber-and-fibro bunkhouses for the camp’s “leaders”, themselves usually teenagers or in their early twenties. Though the permanent buildings had electricity the tents were lit by kerosene lamps, collected by the campers each night from a store in the hall and suspended from the main rafter of the tent frame. There is no record of tents catching fire but it must sometimes have been a near thing. Today’s health and safety authorities would scarcely approve.

Near the edge of the camp property was a flagpole in a clearing where each evening the campers gathered to sing “Taps”, the softly melancholy night song of the US military, before collecting their lamps and making their way to the tents to fall asleep on their palliasses, lulled by the distant swish of surf at Point Leo. In another, wider clearing surrounded by a barrier of bush was the chapel. Here the camp assembled on Sunday mornings for a non-denominational service.

Once a week each camping season for forty years the voices of visiting clerics and camp leaders taking the service competed with the jingle of the bellbird and the maniacal laughter of kookaburras as the Bible was read and hymns sung, the latter accompanied by the squawking sounds that issued from a portable harmonium trundled across from the hall. The minister and camp leaders sang enthusiastically; the boys seldom knew the words. Then, while the campers fidgeted on their wooden benches, a muscularly evangelical sermon was preached from the lectern, the front of which bore a metal plaque, close enough for the boys in the first few rows to read:

 

DEDICATED TO THE MEMORY

OF

IVAN CHARLES YOUNG

WHO GAVE HIS LIFE

ON SERVICE WITH THE R.A.A.F.

12-6-1942

 

Slightly warped, as though someone has tried to wrench it off, this plaque is still there on the disintegrating lectern. No one remembers Ivan Charles Young now. When the YMCA sold the camp in the 1980s they left his memory behind.

The camp was bought as a going concern and, name unchanged, let out to school groups. The tents had given way to bunkhouses, and the kerosene lamps to electric light, but other than that not much had changed since the 1940s and the new ownership kept things more or less as they were, although it is unlikely that they had much use for the chapel.

The site was sold again in the 1990s and part subdivided for building and part retained as public space. Today the chapel is unvisited except by the occasional walker in what is now known as the Buxton Woodland Reserve. Birds sing loudly, otherwise this strange ruin is immersed in the soft rustle of natural quiet. Except of course in summer, when from the backyards of holiday houses that now cover much of the campsite comes the sound of laughter and of children at play—children the same age, some of them, as those who slept on straw in tents many summers ago and who could hardly have imagined what it was like to have a separate house for holidays. There were few beach houses at Shoreham when Camp Buxton was in its heyday, and those that existed were almost invisible in the scrub, their presence indicated only by a daubed number or name on a gate.

When the barbecues light up and the smell of firelighters and burning chops floats across the wire fence and over the chapel you are struck by the surreal juxtaposition of two worlds, the present one of trampolines and four-wheel-drives parked beside the beach houses, the other a darkening glade in which the past lives on in the shape of toppled stones and a metal plaque, and the breeze carries, together with the aroma of grilled meat, a silent echo of long-past renderings of “Onward, Christian Soldiers” sung in what was then remote bush.

Otherwise little remains of Camp Buxton apart from a few scattered bunkhouses converted for private use and the shower and lavatory block used for who knows what. The recreation hall has become a substantial house. Only the chapel on the fringes of the site has been left as it was. Perhaps few among the newcomers know what it is, and it is probably too small, too undistinguished, too far decayed to be taken into care as a heritage monument. It will continue to moulder neglected among the trees, ever more ruinous yet still a sacred space for as long as that discoloured plaque remains on its crumbling pile of stones.

The site of Camp Buxton is in Marine Parade, Shoreham, on the left as you approach the end of the road. To reach the chapel, enter through the posts immediately to the right of number 45, walk straight ahead past the open land on your right and veer to the left beyond the fence of the last private house. You will see the chapel half-shaded by a clump of trees.

Christopher Akehurst is a Melbourne journalist. He blogs at www.argus-online.blogspot.com. In the December issue he wrote on the decline of the suburban church.

 

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