Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Samuel Taylor Coleridge & The Simcoes' Hometown River

UK TOUR DAY ELEVEN (THE RIVER OTTER): This is the mouth of the River Otter. It's in Devon, part of what they call the West Country, in the far south-west of England. The river has a connection both to the Simcoes — founders of Toronto — and to their family friends, the Coleridges. It also flows through some pretty spectacular scenery.

Here, where it meets the English Channel, the Otter is part of a World Heritage Site: the Jurassic Coast (which I wrote about yesterday). I reached its banks at the end of a long walk through the countryside and along the top of towering coastal cliffs. The sun was just beginning to set; the tide was coming in. People were riding the waves as they swept upstream (a bizarre sight for someone from Toronto) and into the marshes at the mouth of the river. You can just see the edge of those wetlands in this photo, on the right. They've been protected as a nature reserve, where saltwater and freshwater mix together in a green Eden of reedbeds and shallow pools. There are birds everywhere — and strange, colourful insects I've never seen before. There's so much biodiversity, in fact, that it's listed as a site of Special Scientific Interest.

The whole surrounding area, for miles and miles and miles around, is also one of England's official "Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty". For most of its length, the Otter flows through rolling green and yellow fields, some of the most beautiful landscapes the United Kingdom has to offer. A few kilometers upstream, you'll find the picturesque village of Otterton, home to a watermill that's been spinning on that site for at least a thousand years. (That's where I had lunch during my walk.) And if you keep following the river upstream, you'll soon find yourself in another Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty: the Blackdown Hills. There, the rolling slopes get even bigger and more spectacular, some of them rise 800 feet into the air, so high they're almost mountains. From the top of some of those hills you can see far off to the distant horizon, all the way west to the rugged moors of Dartmoor National Park.

The Otter was a particularly important river for the Simcoes. They had connections to both ends of it. As I wrote yesterday, when they got back from Canada, they bought a summer home in Budleigh Salterton, the town at the mouth of the river. But by then, they'd already developed a close relationship to the Otter. Their estate was in the Blackdown Hills. The river ran just beyond the southern edge of it. And a small tributary of the Otter — the River Wolf — flowed right through their lands.

The Blackdown Hills
The Coleridge family lived nearby too, in the parish of Ottery St. Mary. The Reverend George Coleridge was the headmaster of the local school. And after the Simcoes got back from Toronto, that's where they sent their son Francis to study. The young boy had spent his earliest years growing up in Canada. And we still remember him with a subway station in Toronto — it got its name from the log cabin the Simcoes built on a spot overlooking the Don Valley. They jokingly named it after their toddler: Castle Frank.

The Reverend's brother, James Coleridge, was in the army. He served as aide de camp to John Graves Simcoe in the years after the founder of Toronto returned home. Simcoe had been made into a General. And when it looked like Napoleon might invade England, he was put in charge of the defenses for the entire West Country. According to Simcoe's biographers, James Coleridge would climb to the top of a nearby hill every morning to look through his telescope toward Simcoe's house. If there was a towel hanging in the window, it was a signal that Simcoe needed him. And Coleridge would rush to his General's side.

It was a third brother, however, who would go down in history as one of the most famous poets of all-time. Samuel Taylor Coleridge was born in Ottery St. Mary. And so, he grew up on the banks of the Otter. He even wrote a poem about it right around the same time the Simcoes were travelling to Canada.

It's called "To the River Otter" and it goes like this:

Dear native brook! wild streamlet of the West!
How many various-fated years have passed,
What happy and what mournful hours, since last
I skimmed the smooth thin stone along thy breast,
Numbering its light leaps! Yet so deep impressed
Sink the sweet scenes of childhood, that mine eyes
I never shut amid the sunny ray,
But straight with all their tints thy waters rise,
Thy crossing plank, thy marge with willows grey,
And bedded sand that, veined with various dyes,
Gleamed through thy bright transparence! On my way,
Visions of childhood! oft have ye beguiled
Lone manhood's cares, yet waking fondest sighs:
Ah! that once more I were a careless child!

The poem — and the poet's connection to the Simcoes — leaves me wondering what kind of impact Francis Simcoe's years in Canada had on him. Sadly, he didn't live long; he was killed as a young soldier fighting Napoleon in Portugal. But for those brief years, did he remember the Don River or Lake Ontario the same way Coleridge remembered the Otter? The same way children who've grown up in Toronto still do, more than 200 years later?


The River Otter
The Otter Estuary Nature Reserve
The Otter Estuary Nature Reserve
The Otter Estuary Nature Reserve
Otterton
Otterton
The East Devon Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty

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I'll write more about Francis Simcoe one day. Maybe even soon, as one of these UK Tour posts. One of my favourite stories about him comes from his biography by Mary Beacock Fryer. She writes that when he got back to England, he was so used to life on ships that when he descended the stairs at the Simcoe's hotel, he did it backwards.

Read more posts about The Toronto Dreams Project's UK Tour and the connections between the history of Toronto and the United Kingdom here



This post is related to dream
30 The Conference of The Beasts
Francis Simcoe, 1796

This post is related to dream
01 Metropolitan York
John Graves Simcoe, 1793

This post is related to dream
34 The Upper Canadian Ball
Elizabeth Simcoe, 1793

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Dinosaurs, Sir Walter Raleigh & The Simcoes

Budleigh  Salterton from the Jurassic Coast

UK TOUR DAY TEN (BUDLEIGH SALTERTON): The tenth day of The Toronto Dreams Project's UK Tour took me to a small, seaside town with an awesome name: Budleigh Salterton. It's probably most famous for being the site of a super-important painting called The Boyhood of Raleigh. Sir Walter Raleigh grew up in these parts; the painting shows him and his brother sitting on the beach as children, listening intently as a sailor tells them tales of life at sea. Raleigh would go on to become one the giants of the Elizabethan age — "aristocrat, writer, poet, soldier, politician, courtier, spy, and explorer..." He searched in vain for El Dorado, popularized tobacco in England, and spent two separate stints in the Tower of London before finally being executed. (Clive Owen played him in the second Elizabeth movie.) According to Wikipedia, the painting — by the famous Victorian artist Sir John Everett Millais, who made the trip to Budleigh Salterton to do it — "came to epitomise the culture of heroic imperialism" all the way from the height of the British Empire in the 1800s to its final days after the Second World War.

Here it is:

 
Off in the corner of the painting, you can see just a little bit of Budleigh Salterton's iconic red cliffs. They tower over the beach on either side of the town, stretching off into the distance as far as you can see. And they're incredibly important, too. In fact, they're a World Heritage Site. It starts a few kilometers to the west and continues east along the cliffs for 150 more — an enormous stretch of the southern coastline of England. There's a footpath you can walk the whole way. I did about 8 kilometers of it, and it was spectacular; from the top of those cliffs, you can see the whole enormous stretch of coastline spreading out around you.

They call it "The Jurassic Coast". And that's because this is the only place in the world where you can see the entire archeological history of the dinosaurs from start to finish: from the strange, reptilian beasts that came before them all the way through to their final days. The record spans 185 million years. That's about a third of the entire evolution of animal life on our planet.

The way it works is that the further west you go, the further back in time. And since Budleigh Salterton is near the western edge of the Jurassic Coast, the cliffs here are the oldest. This red earth is from nearly 250 million years ago: The Triassic Period. Back then, this spot was part of the super-continent Pangaea — not that far, actually, from what would one day become Toronto. Budleigh Salterton was in the middle of a desert region; that's why the dirt is so red with iron. It was roamed by the bizarre reptile ancestors of dinosaurs, crocodiles and birds. Creatures like rhynchosaurs (squat, mammal-like plant-eaters with sharp beaks), thecodonts (kind of like tall alligators), labyrinthodonts (huge carnivorous amphibians) and bromsgroveia (relatives of the ancestors of crocodiles).

They've even found footprints from those beasts in the rocks around here. I got to see some of them at the Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Exeter. They have rhynchosaur fossils on display, too.

The beach at Budleigh Salterton
But the region wasn't completely dry back then. When it did rain, nearby mountains fed rivers that swept through the desert. Big pebbles from those riverbeds are still here. In fact, they're everywhere. You can see them in the cliffs; they erode out onto the beach. That's what Budleigh Salterton's beach is made of: big, prehistoric pebbles instead of sand. You can see some of them in the Raleigh painting, too.

And of course, those ancient pebbles were here 200 years ago — which is when the history of Budleigh Salterton overlapped with the history of Toronto. Pretty much as soon as the Simcoes got back from founding our city in the very late 1700s, they bought a summer home in the seaside town. Today, it's still there — though very much renovated and modernized — on a hill overlooking the beach. It's even called "Simcoe House". There's a plaque and everything.

On my first night in town, I headed to the Sir Walter Raleigh pub, where I got to meet a bunch of people from the local Fairlynch Museum. We talked about the Simcoes, The Toronto Dreams Project and the connections between the history of Budleigh Salterton and the history of North America. There are quite a few people in England with a passionate interest in the Simcoes — I'll write more about that in a future post — and the Fairlynch is planning to embrace the connection. They'll be incorporating the Simcoes and the founding of Toronto in a new room dedicated to the ways the history of their town has overlapped with the history of North America. And it looks like among the very first things to go on display will be copies of the three dreams I've written for members of the Simcoe family.

The Jurassic Coast
The Jurassic Coast, looking east to Sidmouth
RAF WWII base on top of the Jurassic Coast cliffs
The South West Coast Path
The mouth of the Otter at Budleigh Salterton
The mouth of the Otter at Budleigh Salterton
Across the Otter from Budleigh Salterton
The red cliffs of Budleigh Salterton
The beach at Budleigh Salterton
The beach at Budleigh Salterton
The Sir Walter Raleigh Inn in East Budleigh
A dream for John Graves Simcoe at Simcoe House
The plaque at Simcoe House
A dream for Elizabeth Simcoe at Simcoe House
A dream for Francis "Castle Frank" Simcoe at Simcoe House
Old-timey Budleigh Satlerton, via Fairlynch Museum
Michael Downes shows me around the Fairlynch Museum
Michael Downes shows me around the Fairlynch Museum
My dreams for the Simcoes at the Fairlynch Museum

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Read more posts about The Toronto Dreams Project's UK Tour and the connections between the history of Toronto and the United Kingdom here.

You can learn lots more about the red cliffs here and the prehistory of the region here.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Death & The Simcoe Boys

UK TOUR DAY NINE (EXETER): Death was no stranger to the Simcoe boys. In fact, it started to claim people close to them before they were even born. Both of their older brothers died as babies. The eldest was buried just a few weeks after he was baptized. The second was born and died the following year. Sadly, that wasn't unusual. This was the mid-1700s, when infant mortality was still a familiar tragedy in England. Luckily, the next two Simcoe kids — the future founder of Toronto, John Graves Simcoe, and his younger brother Percy — survived their first few dangerous months. But then it was their father's turn.

They were just toddlers when war broke out. The Seven Years' War would prove be one of the bloodiest conflicts in human history — the first truly global war. The major powers of Europe clashed across their own continent and in their colonies all over the world. The boys' dad — John Simcoe — was the Captain of a ship in the Royal Navy. So when the war started, he was sent across the Atlantic, to Canada, to fight the French. He served under the legendary General James Wolfe — but a few months before Wolfe launched his famous surprise attack on Qu├ębec City at the Plains of Abraham, Captain Simcoe came down with pneumonia. He died near the mouth of the St. Lawrence River and was buried at sea.

So now, the young Simcoe boys were being raised by a single mother: Katherine Simcoe. Up to that point, they'd been in the countryside, but after the death of their father, their mum moved them to the same city where she'd grown up: to Exeter, one of the most historic cities in all of England, originally founded by the Romans sometime around the year 50. It's nearly two thousand years old.

And on Day Nine, that's where The Toronto Dreams Project's UK Tour took me: to explore the hometown of the man who founded our city — to follow in the footsteps of his family, to leave dreams for them there, and to visit the spot where his story ended. Because it's in Exeter that all three of those surviving Simcoes eventually died.

Young Percy was the first to go. On a June day in the summer of 1764, he and some friends were playing in the River Exe. It flows through Exeter on its way south to the Bristol Channel — and that stretch can be very a dangerous place sometimes. On that particular day, something must have gone horibly wrong: the river got the better of the young boy, who was still just 10 years old. They tried to save him, rushed him to shore and rubbed his body with salt. But that didn't work, of course. Just a few years later, that "cure" for drowning was discredited as a superstition.

The River Exe, near where Percy Simcoe drowned
They say John Graves Simcoe might have been there to see his little brother die. His biographers write that it's "quite likely" he was playing in the river that day, too. And now, suddenly, he was an only child. It was just him and his mum left.

She was the next to die. But first, she seems to have done all she could for her only remaining son. When he graduated from the local Exeter Grammar School, she paid to send him to one of the most prestigious boarding schools in the entire world: Eton College. It's just a few hundred meters from Windsor Castle; nineteen British Prime Ministers have gone there. (I'm planning on heading there in a few days, too.) After that, Simcoe was off to Oxford University, and then to join the army. And since this was back in the days when most people had to buy their way into being an officer, his mum paid for that too.

Soon, Simcoe was making a name for himself by following in his father's footsteps: fighting in a North American war. This time, it was the American Revolution. And as commander of the Queen's Rangers, Simcoe was quickly becoming one of the rising of the Briitsh army.

So that's where he was when his mother died. It was during the first year of the war. Her death was long and painful. A friend wrote to Simcoe when it was all over: "Your poor mother's death was truly a release her last disorders were so exceedingly painful that no friend could wish her continuance." She passed away at her home on the Cathedral Close — a row of buildings standing across the lawn from Exeter Cathedral. Her only child was thousands of kilometers away when it happened. But exactly 30 years later, John Graves Simcoe would die in one of those very same buildings.

By then, of course, he had earned a place in Canadian history by founding Toronto. And he'd seen plenty more death. He killed men during the Revolution. And watched his own men die, too. Then, his little daughter Katherine (named after his mother) died in Toronto when she and our city were only about a year old. He named his next child after his father; he died, too, when they tried an early, rudimentary, and incredibly risky inoculation against smallpox.

In the end, John Graves Simcoe died in much the same way his father did. He had just been awarded one of the most prestigious jobs in the entire British Empire — Viceroy of all of India — but before he could leave, he was needed in the fight against Napoleon. On the ship over, Simcoe fell seriously ill; it was probably the damp conditions on board. He was rushed back to England. To Exeter. To the house of his friend, the Archdeadon, who lived in one of those buildings across from the Cathedral. John Graves Simcoe had travelled thousands upon thousands of kilometers in his life, but it was there — only a few meters from where he mother had died, and a few hundred meters from the spot where his brother had drowned — that the man who founded Toronto finally drew his last breath.

The Cathedral Close, where Simcoe died
Ontario Heritage plaque on the Cathedral Close
A dream for Simcoe on the Cathedral Close
Exeter Cathedral
Knights died for the Cathedral tourists
Exeter Cathedral
Dreams for Simcoe & his son at their Cathedral memorial
A First Nations figure on Simcoe's Cathedral memorial
Detail of Simcoe from his Cathedral memorial
Exeter Cathedral
Badass pulpit
Exeter does death up right
Marking the old entrance to Exeter Grammar School
A dream for Simcoe at the Blue Boy statue
A dream near the spot where Percy Simcoe drowned

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Read more posts about The Toronto Dreams Project's UK Tour and the connections between the history of Toronto and the United Kingdom here. I'll be posting lots more during the trip! And you can follow me on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook too.