Angela Catterns - still a river girl at heart / Sailing ship venturing up the Parramatta River near the Catterns’ home. A Catterns’ boat, Bumface is on their slipway.

Angela CatternsGregory Blaxell* talked with popular radio presenter Angela Catterns about growing up on the Parramatta River and her absolute love of the river and sailing ...

The Catterns family moved to waterfront Drummoyne from Homebush when Angela was just a teenager. She recalls her first impressions of the new house – unbelievable, right on the water with its own river pool, boatshed and an entertainment area.
Ships and boats large and small plied up and down the river. Ships working the Mortlake gasworks, barges taking oil to Shell’s refinery at Clyde, lighters taking timber to Homebush Bay. There was always something to see, from the hard working tugs to grand sailing vessels that sometimes poked their noses into the river.
And there were the yachts from the Parramatta River Yacht Club and racing fleets from Drummoyne Sailing Club and Greenwich Flying Squadron. There were even some flotillas from the big city yacht clubs that deigned to ‘explore’ upriver especially on wild days. Ferries, motor launches, dinghies, rowboats, canoes and kayaks.
The Italian fishermen, who, in their chunky workboats trawled the river for prawns and fish, are still a vivid memory for Angela. As they pottered about, they occasionally burst into song – maybe an Italian love song or an aria from an Italian opera. Who knows!
There was always something to see and hear on the river.
2 October 1964, the opening day of the Gladesville Bridge.Yet Angela recalls that her most loved moments, the time when she emotionally embraced the waterway and when it seemed to take on mystical proportions, were late on summer afternoons just as the sun was setting, when she could sit quietly on the end of her jetty, dangling her feet into the river, watching the sun fade and the night wrap the scene; a time when she stirred the river with her feet and created the silvery phosphorescence. At these magic moments, combined with adolescent fervour, she wrote, in verse, about those things that she loved.
The massive arch of the new Gladesville Bridge was a relative newcomer to the area when the Catterns family moved to Drummoyne. Its construction had resulted in the demolition of many fine houses. Still it was necessary because the old bridge, with its opening span, had become a traffic nightmare.
Front elevation of Drummoyne House with the statue of Flora in the middle of the front lawn. [Photo: From Colleen Morris, Lost gardens of Sydney, Sydney, Historic Houses Trust, 2008, p 78]The importance of the first Gladesville Bridge, opened in 1881 when it replaced a vehicular ferry, was a very significant development in the late nineteenth century.
When it eventually joined up with the Iron Cove Bridge (opened 1882) and linked with the Fig Tree Bridge that spanned the Lane Cove River (opened 1885), it saw the development of the suburbs on the northern side of the Parramatta River and the beginning of the suburbanisation of Sydney’s North Shore. From 1910, trams crossed the old bridge on their journey to Ryde which, before that time, was joined to Drummoyne with a horse-drawn omnibus.
The land on which the Catterns house was built was originally part of William Wright’s Drummoyne Estate. Wright bought the land c.1853 and had built Drummoyne House by 1856, the year in which he retired from his business of trading in New Zealand Kauri gum, a natural resin used in the manufacture of varnishes.
Poster for 1894 subdivision of Drummoyne House and Grounds Estate. [Photo: From Colleen Morris, Lost gardens of Sydney, Sydney, Historic Houses Trust, 2008, p 80]Wright, over the next few years, developed a famous garden and engaged John Sanderson who had been the gardener at William Macarthur’s Camden Park. Sanderson lived in a cottage near the point. His responsibilities were huge with formal gardens, a kitchen garden, an orchard, a vineyard, stonework-edged walks and a croquet lawn said to be the largest in Sydney.
The garden contained both exotic and native trees and shrubs – jacarandas, camellias, gardenias, rhododendrons to name a few. Wright’s interests increasingly included cacti, palms, ferns and orchids but he insisted that the garden also retain good specimens of indigenous trees and scrubs. The shrubberies were generously planted with ‘Mandarin orange’ and there were extensive areas of lawns.
A statue of Flora, goddess of flowers and Spring, stood in the centre of the lawn in front of the house. The gardens at Drummoyne House often caught the attention of other prominent gardeners and gardening publications thus ensuring that this estate was recognised as important, not only for its dominant building but also for its botanical collection and the design and maintenance of the garden.
Angela at the tiller of dhow Lamu while sailing in Kenya. [Angela Catterns]Subdivision of the Drummoyne Estate began in 1882 with a further subdivision after Wright’s death in 1889. There was a further subdivision in 1894 and it was as a result of this subdivision that the house occupied many years later by the Catterns family was built.
Angela first viewed her family’s new house from the stone steps and jetty built on Wrights Point. The jetty was joined to the house by a carriage way. What a fantastic way to arrive on the estate!
So this is the territory that surrounded impressionable Angela Catterns. Her father, Basil Catterns, had fought in WWII and had been awarded a Military Cross for his bravery on the Kokoda Track in 1942.
Angela and her father Basil. [Angela Catterns]After the war he had pursued a career in advertising, produced a film of the Melbourne Olympic Games, sailed the Sydney-Hobart Yacht race on several occasions and had been one of the founders of the CYCA’s magazine Offshore . He also became an active member of the Sydney Maritime Museum now known as the Sydney Heritage Fleet.
The neighbours Angela best remembers once lived next door when that house was empty, awaiting development and occupied by a band of hippies using the property as a squat. They often just popped in to the Catterns, sometimes had a meal and sometimes used the phone.
They were happy, flower people and perhaps used ‘a little help from their friends’. And they loved music and they loved sharing. They weren’t like anyone Angela had ever met. Angela’s positive feelings towards the squatters and the way they lived are still with her.
When Angela left school, she wanted to be a writer. Her first jobs were as a junior copywriter at Horderns, then Farmers in the city. She moved to the north coast and worked at her first radio station – Lismore’s 2LM, then moved to Orange for a few years at CBN8 TV.
In 1979, she joined Simon Townsend’s Wonder World as a reporter, then left to travel the world. In the mid-80s she joined Triple J as a program producer. On one occasion the regular presenter was unable to front so she filled in; quite successfully it seems.
Shortly after, she was made the presenter of Triple J’s weekend breakfast show, before moving to commercial radio 2SM to be their morning announcer. About a year later she was sacked because, according to the station manager, ‘women don’t like listening to other women on the radio’.
After working at SBS TV, she headed off to Washington DC to fulfil a long-held ambition to work in American radio.
She returned to Sydney in 1990 and became the presenter on Triple J’s morning show as it began broadcasting nationally. Eventually she moved to ABC Local Radio to present the National Evening Show.
During the 2000 Sydney Olympics, she was responsible for all the public domain announcements and was also venue announcer for the Gymnastics.
Early in 2001 she rejoined the ABC as the Breakfast Show presenter on 702 ABC Sydney and in 2004 out-rated all other competing shows (including Alan Jones). She was lured away by the fledgling new station Vega 95.3 where she hosted the breakfast program until she left in November 2007.
Angela at the tiller of her co-owned folkboat Solveig. [Angela Catterns]These days she’s a freelancer – emceeing conferences and events, recording voice-overs and often filling in for the regular presenters on 702 ABC Sydney. Last summer she teamed up with Wendy Harmer to present a popular and occasionally wicked breakfast program.
They’re doing it again this year.
Through all of these twists and turns Angela has maintained her absolute love of the river and sailing. She co‑owns a folk boat moored not far from her Balmain home. Her love of sailing came from her years at Drummoyne where there were always boats around – her brother sailed dinghies, her father Basil sailed on the harbour and offshore and loved nothing more than buying a slightly pre-loved boat and restoring it.
The slipway at her home was usually occupied by sad boats being encouraged back to good health. Did she like ‘messing around with boats’? In the past, she often helped her Dad with a spot of varnishing, or painting. But her real love was and still is sailing. Even when she ventures beyond Australia’s shores, she often explores sailing in the local, traditional craft.
I had lunch with Angela and her very special mum. What a delight to sit in a room and gaze out on the ever-changing, mood-swinging river. And as I was shown through the house, I saw a mounted display of Basil Catterns’ war medals proudly displayed on the lounge room mantelpiece. His presence is still a strong force in that house.
In so many ways, Angela is a product of a gracious lady, her mum, and a remarkable man, her dad. They together gave her the river with all its charms and with all its faults. And she has embraced it, almost passionately.
Some of its waters must run through her veins.

* Gregory Blaxell is an historian and author. His new book A Pictorial History City of Canada Bay will be launched on 10 December.