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Sensing the Past

Canada #23 Fort York

When we first saw the historic buildings of Fort York surrounded by the skyscrapers of downtown Toronto, the early 19th century defenses seemed out of place. It made more sense when we discovered that the city, originally named York, was founded here.

The first garrison was built on this site in 1793 by the British Army, in response to border hostilities with American forces. In 1811 it was fortified with the addition of the defensive wall and circular gun battery.

In 1812, the United States declared war on Canada and in 1813 the American Army and Navy attacked York. Much of the fort was destroyed at this time, but it was soon rebuilt by the British. In August 1814, a second American attack was unsuccessful. The war between Canada and the United States finally ended in December 1814 but Fort York remained an active military site until the 1930s.

Today the fort is a living history museum, with displays, exhibitions and re-enactments which heightened all of our senses.

We saw both the officers’ quarters and the enlisted men’s barracks. In the barracks soldiers, who were often accompanied by their families, lived side by side, eating and sleeping together.

In contrast, the officers dined in luxury with fine china, silverware and crystal. Probably even more precious in this building was the luxury of space.

Like the soldiers of the Guard’s Artillery Detachment, we covered our ears with our hands as the Cohorn mortar field gun was fired at midday.

We heeded the call of the Fort York Drums as they marched onto the parade ground. Wearing the uniform of the Canadian Regiment of Fencible Infantry, the fifers and drummers played military tunes which would have been both familiar and comforting to 19th century soldiers.

We followed the scent of baking to the kitchen of the Officers’ Mess, where freshly baked gingerbread was cooling on the table.

While she shared the biscuits, the cook explained how these traditional treats are as popular now as they would have been in the early 1800s – there are never any left at the end of the day!

As we rested our hands on the kitchen table, we wondered about those who lived and worked here 200 years ago; who lifted the latch on the fortified gate, watched over the cooking in the open fireplace or dipped rainwater from the barrel with a bucket.

While we had time to wander in contemplation, we sensed we were surrounded by more than just those modern buildings outside the wall. The spirits of people from times long past were all around us.

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Welcome to 1867!

Canada #22 Black Creek Pioneer Village

In a quiet place far from Toronto’s bustling CBD, a little cemetery sits beside a mill pond. On an overcast day the pond mirrors its surroundings in a perfect reflection.

In the middle of the cemetery is a memorial to the Stong family, who migrated from Pennsylvania in 1800 to start a new life in Ontario. Daniel Stong and his wife Elizabeth both lie at rest here in the cemetery.

On the other side of the pond is a flour mill, dating from 1842 and nearby is a whole village of mid-19th century buildings. Of all these old buildings, the only ones original to the site are those which Daniel and Elizabeth built.

Black Creek Pioneer Village, in the Toronto suburb of North York, has grown around the Stong family farm as historic buildings from elsewhere in Ontario have been added to the collection. Some have been moved here complete, while others have been reconstructed after being carefully dismantled at their original sites.

Many of the old buildings are 19th century stores where, like the original occupants, modern artisans practise traditional crafts. They are passing their knowledge onto a new generation keen to keep the old skills alive.

Others are small museums, with their tools of the trade left as if the crafters will return for a new day. The village is a time capsule, set in 1867.

Meanwhile, back at the farm, chickens wander where they please and sheep and goats graze in the field near the barn Daniel Stong built in 1825.

Two farm houses sit side by side next to the mill pond. The first, a simple three room log cabin, was built by Daniel and Elizabeth in 1816. Here they raised eight children before moving in 1832 to a new, two storey home next door. Their second home is much grander, evidence of their hard work and resulting prosperity. Elizabeth must have been delighted with her beautiful new home after living for 16 years in the cabin. It became a hen house and storage shed.  

Daniel died in 1868, one year after the time in which the pioneer village is set. If he returned now the little stores, the peaceful mill pond and his 19th century neighbours going about their daily tasks might all look quite familiar.

I wonder what would he think if he stepped beyond its boundaries into 21st century Toronto?

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Hello Toronto!

Canada #21 Toronto

The subway journey from our suburban Airbnb to Toronto’s CBD was not long but the difference in outlook was amazing. In High Park, a few people were out walking or enjoying the summer weather on their front verandahs.

At Union Station in the city centre, we were engulfed by a bustling crowd all intent on their own agenda. Unlike most of those people, on our first day in Toronto, we had no particular destination. We spent the day exploring.

From Union Station, we headed south along Bay Street towards Lake Ontario. At Harbour Square Park, we watched the ferries coming and going, taking passengers over the water to Toronto Islands.

Our plan to walk some way along the lake shore was dashed by the horrified look on the face of the lady in the Tourist Information van. “Oh no. Don’t go there,” she said with an expression which told us it wasn’t a good idea. She directed us back along Bay Street with a right turn onto Front Street, assuring us this was a safer and more interesting route. She was right! There was a lot to see along Front Street.

We didn’t have to read the name on this building; the images on the sides gave away its purpose. The Hockey Hall of Fame, first opened in 1943, moved to Front Street in 1993. The building dates from 1885 and was originally head office for the Bank of Montreal.

At Berczy Park we came across this fanciful fountain, where 27 dogs pay homage to a golden bone. Later we found out there is also one cat and wished we’d known to look for it.

Just beyond Berczy Park is the original Flatiron building. Constructed in 1892, 10 years before its more famous cousin in New York, it was head office for the Gooderham and Worts Distillery for 60 years. Today,  commercial offices and a popular pub fill the building. The rear façade of the Flatiron is decorated with a large trompe l’oeil mural, a mirror image of the building opposite.

Further along Front Street is St Lawrence Market. Farmers have sold their fresh produce on this site since 1803 and the current building dates from 1848. Voted the world’s best food market by National Geographic in 2012, there are 120 speciality stores selling locally sourced fresh foods. The market is open every Tuesday to Saturday.

Our final stop in this direction was the historic Distillery District, founded by the same family who built the Flatiron building. The first building on the site was a windmill constructed in 1832. The Gooderham and Worts whiskey distillery soon followed and, by the 1860s, was the largest distillery in the world. Production continued until 1990. In 2001, the abandoned buildings were repurposed as boutique shops, restaurants and residences surrounded by gardens, sculptures and artworks. The district hosts a vibrant series of cultural events and festivals throughout the year.

We retraced our steps along Front Street back to Union Station and continued on in the other direction to CN Tower. At 553.3 metres high, the communications and observation tower is visible from anywhere. Up close, its height is daunting and tourists braving the Edge Walk outside the observation deck look like tiny insects.

The Rogers Centre, a multi-purpose stadium and home of Toronto’s major league baseball team the Toronto Blue Jays, is nearby. This day the stadium was quiet but when a home game is played more than 30,000 people come to cheer on their team.

Leaving Front Street, we walked along York Street to our final destination. Nathan Philips Square, where the old and new City Halls sit side by side, is one of the most photographed parts of the city. Toronto City Council operated in the old City Hall from 1899 before moving across the forecourt to the new building in 1966.

Three Freedom Arches dedicated to Canadians who have fought for freedom for all span the reflecting pool. The TORONTO sign is flanked at one end by a maple leaf commemorating the 150th anniversary of Canadian Confederation and at the other by a traditional medicine wheel acknowledging First Nations peoples.

We were glad we talked to the lady in her information van at Harbour Square Park. She really did send us in the right direction!

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Flying Over Canada

Canada #20 Vancouver to Toronto

After trekking across Canada on the Canadian Trail, we took to the skies in a virtual flight across the country at Flyover Canada.

Strapped into our seats in a darkened room, we soared above the land in an eight minute video journey from east to west through the four seasons. With snow-covered mountains and never-ending prairies, deep blue lakes and tumbling waterfalls, the scenery was spectacular and the special effects almost convinced us we’d flown cross country.

A few days later we did exactly that in the opposite direction, on a five hour flight from Vancouver to Toronto. From our window seat, our bird’s eye view of Canada rivalled that tourist ride  in Canada Place.

We said goodbye to beautiful Vancouver with one last glimpse of the city, the water and those stunning coastal mountains beyond. We could see places we’d become familiar with – the white sails of Canada Place and the cleared green area at the top of Grouse Mountain.

We flew over more mountains, sometimes separated by shimmering blue lakes or narrow winding roads.

Later the mountains became more rugged and wild – could these be the famous Rockies we’d read so much about?

Soon the mountains were gone, replaced by broad flat farmland stretching to the horizon. From above the fields looked like giant geometrical puzzles, with different shapes neatly fitted together. We were intrigued by the circles and, although we asked later, no one could explain their purpose.

At one stage, we flew again over water and decided it must be one of the great lakes. The deep blue, dotted with tiny islands, contrasted with the green of the land, densely forested and jagged along the water’s edge.

Then came more farmland, this time worked in neat grid patterns edged with dark green stands of trees. The fields were split by long straight roads; we could even see cars heading in both directions.

Eventually Toronto came into view. It seemed to go forever; a vast sprawl of homes, shopping centres and rows of high rise towers with wide green spaces in between.

The city centre, defined by a long strip of skyscrapers, was dominated by CN Tower, a building we would come to know well. Beyond the cluster of towers we could see more blue – Lake Ontario, so large it merged with the blue sky on the horizon.

The next part of our Canadian adventure was about to begin.

In the Right Place

Canada #19 Vancouver

The distinctive white sails of Canada Place are an iconic part of the Vancouver waterfront skyline and we quickly came to recognise them everywhere we went. From the Seabus on Burrard Inlet they stood out among the city skyscrapers, even when surrounded by cruise ships. At the lookout on Grouse Mountain, they were clearly visible on the waterfront. We could even see them from our 21st floor apartment in downtown Vancouver.

Close up the 30 metre high fibreglass sails are just as spectacular, but they are only one part of Canada Place. It’s the home of the Port of Vancouver and the cruise ship terminal, which can accommodate up to four huge ships at one time. Luxury hotels stand alongside the World Trade Centre and the Vancouver Convention Centre.

On the west promenade of Canada Place we went on a virtual trek across Canada, from ocean to ocean. The Canadian Trail consists of 13 sections designed to represent the 10 provinces and three territories of the nation.

Colourful glass plates embedded in the walkway list communities small and large, some well-known to us and others not familiar. We followed our own route through Canada, a few places we’d already been to and others we were yet to visit.

A mile-marker set into the pavement was another indicator of the distances we would cover on our Canadian journey.

This part of Burrard Inlet is an airport on the water, with tiny seaplanes continually taking off and landing. Even after seeing them in Victoria we were still entranced and stopped to watch as each one arrived or departed.

The trail ends at North Point with 360° views of the city, from the snow-capped mountains of the north shore to Stanley Park in the west, across Burrard Inlet to North Vancouver and east to the bustling Port of Vancouver.

We retraced our steps across Canada on the Canadian Trail and returned to the white sails of Canada Place. From our apartment to the waterfront those sails became our point of reference for our city explorations.

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Knowledge Gained

Canada #18 Grouse Mountain

Part Five

We made the most of our day on Grouse Mountain by taking part in every activity. As well as Breakfast with the Bears, we went to an Owl Interpretative Session, a Birds in Motion demonstration and a guided eco-walk.

Each time we discovered something new and, at the end of the day, we left with more than we came with. This is what we learned:

In the still of the night, a barn owl can hear the heartbeat of a frightened mouse as it tries to avoid detection.

A bald eagle reaches speeds of up to 160 km per hour when diving to snatch up its prey.

A turkey vulture uses its keen sense of smell to detect carrion more than a kilometre away.

Tiger swallowtails love to feast on the pretty purple flowers of the mustard plant.

Native azaleas and rhododendrons are much smaller and more delicate than their hybrid cousins.

Salamanders can live for up to 55 years in the still waters of Blue Grouse Lake.

Phil, our eco-walk guide, explained how the coastal First Nations peoples lived as one with nature. They brewed the bark and needles of the amabilis fir trees to make medicinal drinks.

Made from cedar, the traditional híwus Feasthouse on the shores of Blue Grouse Lake was a meeting place for family celebrations, gatherings and story telling through dance and music.

All of these new facts are fascinating, but what was the most important thing I learned?

I came away from Grouse Mountain knowing I never want to come face to face with a bear!

Showtime!

Canada #16 Grouse Mountain

Part Three

Grouse Mountain isn’t just about bears and beautiful views.

At the Lumberjack Show, we were transported to a Canadian lumberjack camp where fierce rivals Johnny and Willie took part in a competition. The winner would be declared the champion lumberjack for the day.

Using impressive skills handed down from one generation of timber workers to the next, Johnny and Willie competed in axe throwing, sawing and wood chopping.

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They duelled on a rolling log and raced each other to the top of a 20 metre high pole.

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Split down the middle, the audience took sides. We cheered enthusiastically, wildly encouraging Johnny when he won and good-naturedly regaling Willie with loud boos when he prevailed.

We all held our breath when a “tourist” accidentally joined the competition. After finding his way to the top of the pole he balanced precariously, often teetering as if about to fall before leaping off and safely ziplining down to the ground.

Who won the competition? I don’t remember.

I was too busy declaring myself the winner of the lumberjack selfies!

“Look Ma. I got me a lumberjack or three!”

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With apologies to Denzil and Miriam, to whom I promised there would be no more vertigo-inducing photos.