Monday, July 28, 2014

How The Simcoes Fell In Love — And The Magical Hills Where It Happened

UK TOUR DAY TWELVE (THE BLACKDOWN HILLS): These are the Blackdown Hills. They're one of England's official "Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty," all rolling green hillsides and yellow fields and ancient trees lining roads so old they've worn deep groves into the ground. It's a land of magic and of myth: of pixies and fairies, of warrior ghosts and witchcraft, of Druids and Romans, of poachers and smugglers, of Iron Age hill forts, Bronze Age burial mounds and Stone Age earthworks. And this is where the founders of Toronto fell in love.

The story of the Simcoes starts with a man named Samuel Graves. He was an Admiral in the British navy; he spent much of the 1700s fighting. He was the Captain of a ship during the Seven Years' War and he was the head of the whole North American fleet during the early days of the American Revolution. That bit didn't go very well: he was ordered to control the entire east coast of the United States with only a couple dozen ships. Those orders have gone down in history as one of the most impossible tasks ever asked of a naval officer. Graves was doomed to fail. Eventually, he was replaced and he headed home to his country estate, where he'd live out the rest of his days in relative peace and quiet.

His house — Hembury Fort House — was in the Blackdown Hills. In fact, it still is; it's a retirement home now. And while Admiral Graves didn't have any children of his own to take care of, he did have a niece. Her name was Elizabeth Posthuma Gwillim.

She was an orphan from the very beginning. Her father had been a military man, just like Graves. Thomas Gwillim had fought in Canada during the Seven Years' War, as Aide-de-Camp to the legendary General James Wolfe. He was there at the Battle of the Plains of Abraham, one of the most famous moments in all of Canadian history. And unlike Wolfe, he survived. But the Seven Years' War had been raging on battlefields all over the world — it was the first truly global war; one of the bloodiest conflicts in human history. So after Canada, Thomas Gwillim was sent to Germany. And it was there, for a reason that has been lost to history, that he died.

He never knew that his wife was pregnant. It was a surprise: she was 38; they'd never had any other children. And soon, she would follow her husband to the grave. The strain of giving birth was too much for her. She lived just long enough to see her baby daughter before she passed away. That's how the infant Elizabeth got her middle name — Posthuma — because both her parents were dead.

Growing up as an orphan, young Elizabeth spent her childhood living with relatives. Some were in Northamptonshire — in the middle of England, "the county of spires and squires" — where she was born. Some were in the verdant Wye Valley, on the border with Wales. But it seems that most of her time was spent with her uncle, Admiral Graves, in the Blackdown Hills. She became the daughter he never had.

"Elizabeth fell in love with the beautiful Devon landscape," her biographer, Mary Beacock Fryer, writes, "which she grew to regard as her spiritual home. She roamed the rolling countryside, and the moor rising above the green fields with their underlayer of red sandy soil." She went for long rides and walks through the hills, sketching the countryside and collecting plants. At home, she turned those sketches into watercolours and stayed up late reading or chatting with her best friend. Those same skills would eventually earn her an important place in Canadian history — her diary, drawings and paintings provide a remarkable record of Toronto's earliest days.

But Elizabeth wasn't the only young person who shared the affections of the old Admiral. During his days in the Royal Navy, Graves had become friends with the captain of another ship: Captain John Simcoe. He, too, fought in Canada during the Seven Years' War. But he never came home. He caught pneumonia just a few months before the Battle of the Plains of Abraham and was buried at sea near the mouth of the St. Lawrence River. He left a wife and two sons behind. The eldest was named after his father and got his middle name from his godfather, Admiral Graves. He was called John Graves Simcoe.

Simcoe followed in the footsteps of his father and his godfather, fighting for the British in North America. This time, it was during the American Revolution, where he quickly made a name for himself as one of the Redcoats' most successful commanders. He adopted guerrilla tactics, never lost  a battle, survived serious wounds and months in an American prison. But while he was gone, his mother died. Simcoe was still in his 20s — now he was an orphan, too.

After the war was over, he returned home to England to nurse his wounds. And since he didn't have any immediate family left to stay with, he headed to his godfather's house in the Blackdown Hills.

There's a chance he might have already met Elizabeth by then. But even if he had, she would make a whole new impression now. She was 19 years old, pretty and slight, just about 5 feet tall. She could paint and draw and do needlework, was well-read and spoke three languages. And for his part, Simcoe was a dashing young officer in his late 20s, a hero of the war against the American rebels with political ambitions and a passionate interest in the distant Canadian colonies.

Simcoe, too, fell in love with the Blackdown Hills. He was fascinated by the history of the place — those stories of fairies and ghosts and smugglers. As soon as his wounds had healed enough, he started to join Elizabeth on her long walks through the countryside, up and down those big green hills. They would both make sketches of the picturesque landscape and turn them into full paintings when they returned home to Hembury Fort House. And while at first, they were accompanied by the Admiral's wife — who was skeptical of the young relationship — soon, she let them go out on their own. They would stride down those ancient, sunken roads, with Elizabeth having to run every few steps in order to keep up with the tall soldier.

"From walks the couple graduated to long rides each morning before breakfast," Fryer writes in her biography. "To Mrs. Graves’ chagrin, she found herself looking on, helpless, as the two were obviously falling in love. Admiral Graves was delighted with the train of events, and sought to give the couple every encouragement."

It worked. Just a few months after Simcoe arrived in the Blackdown Hills, the two were engaged. It was the summer of 1782. That December, they made the short trip down the hill from Hembury Fort House to a nearby church in the tiny village of Buckerell. There, they were married in front of their friends and their surviving family members. With Elizabeth's inheritance, they bought a beautiful estate of their own, just across the fields from Hembury, where they would raise their family. They spent the rest of their lives in the very same hills where they'd first fallen in love.

Except, of course, for one long trip to Canada, founding a new city in a new province in another land they loved.


Dreams for the Simcoes outside Hembury Fort House
The fields of the Blackdown Hills
The view from the Simcoes' estate
Road through the Simcoes' estate
The cows of the Blackdown Hills
The ancient, sunken roads
The road down the Hembury Fort hill
The village where the Simcoes got married
St Mary & St Giles, where the Simcoes got married
A dream for John Graves Simcoe
A dream for Elizabeth Simcoe


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've already written posts about: the ancient red soil beneath the Blackdown Hills; the ancient church where the Simcoes got married; the ancient River Otter, which flows along the southern edge of the Simcoes' estate; the deaths of John Graves Simcoe, his mother and his brother. I'll be writing more about the Blackdown Hills, too, including the nearby chapel which is officially part of the province of Ontario and the prehistoric fort that gave Hembury Fort House its name.

You can buy Mary Beacock Fryer's biography of Elizabeth Simcoe here, or buy it here. You can do the same for her biography of John Graves Simcoe — co-written with Cristopher Dracott — here and here. And Elizabeth Simcoe's own diary here and here.

You can read about "The battle of the fairies and the pixies" in the Blackdown Hills on Landscape Tales, the blog of Dr. Lucy Ryder of the University of Chester. She also tells the story of some of the ghosts of the Blackdown Hills: Part One and Part Two.

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

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34 The Upper Canadian Ball
Elizabeth Simcoe, 1793

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
The East Devon Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty


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

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30 The Conference of The Beasts
Francis Simcoe, 1796

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01 Metropolitan York
John Graves Simcoe, 1793

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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


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.