Newfoundland: the quirky and the memorable
I have been in reflective mood this week, looking back on a road-trip around Newfoundland, Canada exactly five years ago. We were there a month, covering the length and breadth of what the locals fondly refer to simply as “The Island,” driving around 6,500 km (4,000 miles) in the process.
I wish I could tell you it was the best holiday we’ve ever had, but sadly it wasn’t. Although the icebergs were impressive and most of the people were friendly, many of the roads were cratered with pot-holes that wouldn’t have looked out of place on the moon. The food was largely uninspiring, and while there were some undeniable scenic highlights, we had to drive past one hell of a lot of tedious fir trees to find them. And, to make matters worse, I got a spectacular (positively Vesuvian!) dose of food poisoning.
There’s a lot about our visit to Newfoundland that I’d rather forget, but reading back over my blog of the trip there was plenty of good stuff too, much of it quirky and some of it pretty damned memorable. So today I thought I’d share some of the better moments with you, the readers of Now I’m 64.
Quirky Newfoundland (1): Bilbo Baggins and the Warhol Prophecy
This is a re-edited version of a post first published on The Platypus Man in Newfoundland, 8 July, 2017
Andy Warhol famously suggested that in the future everyone will be famous for 15 minutes. By extension it might be argued that everywhere will be famous too, that each and every place under the sun will become known for something, albeit most probably something rather insignificant.
A case in point is Huntsville, Alabama. Passing through the city a few years ago we were surprised to discover that Huntsville is, according to the people who decide these things, the Watercress Capital of the World. Now, pleasant enough as watercress may be in a mixed-leaf salad, it seems rather desperate of the city elders to fly their colours from this particular mast, not least because the same city boasts an outstanding space museum, including a genuine Saturn 5 rocket.
Huntsville’s dubious claim to fame came to mind again yesterday when we drove into the small town of Elliston, which, as signage at the side of the road indicates, styles itself as the Root Cellar Capital of the World.
For the uninitiated, and I guess that’s just about everyone other than the good burghers of Elliston, a root cellar is an underground vault in the garden in which you can keep your root vegetables, and other produce, cool and fresh. The British aristocracy had their ice houses and, not to be outdone, Elliston folk built rutabaga (turnip) larders that work on a broadly similar principle. It is a must-have garden accessory around these parts; every home should have one and indeed, in days gone by, most of them did.
There were hundreds of root cellars in this area of Newfoundland at one time, and although most have fallen into disrepair some are lovingly maintained. The best look as if they’ve come straight off the set of a Lord of the Rings movie, giving the impression that at any moment the door will open and a hobbit will emerge, puffing contentedly on his pipe. ‘Hello’, he says, ‘my name’s Bilbo Baggins, pleased to meet you I’m sure.’
‘Well, hi there,’ replies Andy Warhol, ‘that’s a fine root cellar you have there. I’m pleased to tell you, Mr Baggins, that one day you’re going to be famous. But only for 15 minutes.’
Quirky Newfoundland (2): When did you last see a vegetable?
This is a re-edited version of a post first published on The Platypus Man in Newfoundland, 25 July, 2017
You’ll be familiar with the painting. A small boy dressed in blue stands in the centre of the picture facing to the right, where his inquisitors are seated at a table. His family look on, anxiously. The canvas depicts an imaginary scene from the English Civil War, and was painted by British artist W. F. Yeames in 1878. Its title is “When did you last see your father?”
Skip to Newfoundland, July 2017, where a new interpretation of the painting has been commissioned. The venerable Platypus Man stands in the centre of the picture, facing his inquisitors. His head is bowed, his shoulders hunched. Tears flow from sunken eyes, cascading down his deathly-pale cheeks. Mrs P watches, her face contorted with pain and suffering. The title of the painting is “When did you last see a vegetable?”
You see, vegetables are in short supply around here. To be fair, we’ve eaten up-market two or three times during the trip, and on these occasions veggies have been available. Although at those prices I should bloody well think so.
Mostly, however, we’ve eaten “cheap and cheerful.” Until yesterday this meant that just about the only vegetables we’ve eaten have been potatoes of the chipped persuasion. Newfies apparently feel the same about healthy eating as Roman Catholic bishops feel about contraception – they’re vaguely aware of the concept, but have decided it’s not for them.
Yesterday, however, we experienced a bona fide miracle. We ate “cheap and cheerful” again, and got both broccoli and carrots. Now you have to understand that I’m not a big fan of broccoli. I once heard a comedian on television refer to it as Satan’s Fart-weed, but didn’t even crack a smile – I mean, what’s funny about the patently obvious? But yesterday, so grateful was I for something – anything – green, that I ignored the ghastly intestinal consequences and wolfed it down ravenously.
And as for carrots (also not my favourite veggies, on the grounds of being too orange to be taken seriously … a bit like Chris Evans and Ed Sheeran, I suppose), Peter Rabbit himself couldn’t have made quicker work of them.
However, we’ve discovered in northern Newfoundland over the last couple of days that some locals have seen the light and taken matters into their own hands. They’ve fenced off areas of land by the side of the road, miles from the nearest town or village, and planted veggies there.
Around here settlements are invariably on the coast, where neither climate nor soil are conducive to the growing of vegetables. But by moving inland along the main roads, conditions for horticulture are improved. Every weekend the “owners” drive out to tend their little allotments, lavishing love and care on them that would put celebrity gardener Alan Titchmarsh to shame.
Apparently anyone living here can, quite legally, drive a few miles out of town, put up a bit of fencing to keep out the moose, and claim a parcel of land to set up a vegetable patch. Ownership of the roadside gardens is respected – no Newfie would dream of nicking his neighbour’s carrots – and nobody pays rent or tax on the land that has been thus acquired.
This all sounds wonderfully progressive, and could work well in the UK. I think I’ll drop Keir Starmer an email and suggest it for inclusion in the Labour Party’s next election manifesto. I have my eye on a nice patch of ground next to the A38, slightly north of Derby, that’s just crying out to have vegetables grown on it. I won’t even have to worry about the moose.
I will, however, definitely give broccoli a miss when sowing my crop. After all, a man should follow his gut instinct.
Quirky Newfoundland (3): Ticklish names and monstrous squid
This is a re-edited version of a post first published on The Platypus Man in Newfoundland, 27 July, 2017
The time has come
The Platypus said
To talk of many things
Of ticklish names and monstrous squid
And salmon fit for kings.With apologies to Lewis Carroll ("The Walrus and the Carpenter")
Today we ventured to the coastal village of Leading Tickles. Yes, that really is a place, not a dubious seduction technique that I once employed in my pursuit of Mrs P! In these parts a tickle is a narrow strait, so narrow in fact that it tickles the sides of your boat as you sail along it. There are plenty of other tickles to be had in this neck of the woods, including Dark Tickle and Thimble Tickle. Boringly, the latter is now known as Glover’s Harbour. Less boringly, it’s a place of world renown…if cephalopods are your thing, that is.
In 1878, the world’s biggest known squid, weighing in at two tons, 17m (55 feet) in length and with an eye that had a diameter of nearly 41cm (16 inches), was washed up here. It has received the official stamp of approval from the Guinness Book of Records, so we can be sure it’s kosher. Given that there is absolutely nothing else that a tiny, isolated place like Glover’s Harbour is going to become known for, the locals have latched on to it. The squid has achieved celebrity status; there is a decent interpretation centre, and a life size model which really does bring home what a monster it was. Although, sadly, climbing on it is strictly forbidden!
On the way to visit Squiddly Diddly we took time out to visit the Grand Fall Salmon Interpretation Centre, and view the salmon ladder. Historically, salmon were unable to progress upstream beyond the 30m (100 feet) high waterfall located here, meaning that less than 10% of the entire watershed was available for breeding. However a fish ladder comprising 35 steps has now been constructed, enabling them to by-pass the falls and continue their journey upstream to the spawning grounds.
Watching the fish leap up the steps was mesmerising; some got it right first time, others failed multiple times before finally perfecting their technique and progressing to the next level. We were also able to watch from a glass-walled underwater viewing deck, enabling us to see them from side-on at very close quarters. Some carried flesh wounds caused by mishaps on their journey upstream, though others were unblemished and beautifully marked.
While some of the salmon were modest in size, others were huge. These have probably done the journey multiple times before. Unlike Pacific Salmon, the Atlantic Salmon does not die after breeding, so most of the fish we saw today will return to the sea after mating, and will hopefully make the same intrepid journey again next year. Here’s wishing them a safe journey.
Memorable Newfoundland: Picturesque places, beautiful birds and wonderful whales
This is a re-edited version of a post first published on The Platypus Man in Newfoundland, 29 July, 2017
For the past week we’ve been in the far west of Newfoundland, but this evening at 4.30pm, we’re booked on a whale watching trip departing from the town of Bay Bulls on the east coast. We therefore have a hard day’s driving ahead of us, hundreds of mind-numbing kilometres in which to contemplate the majesty of the fir trees lining our route. We can hardly contain our excitement [overseas readers please note that the English are famed for their ironic sense of humour! A man can see too many fir trees, and today this man will.]
At least it’s no hardship to leave our current accommodation. We suspect the innkeepers received their training from the Basil Fawlty school of hotel management, from which they were evidently expelled for failing to meet the required standard. They don’t say goodbye when we leave, but this isn’t really a surprise as they didn’t say hello when we arrived either (although they did get their assistant to collect our money pretty damned quick).
As soon as breakfast is eaten we’re on our way, whistling the theme tune from The Great Escape as we drive out of the car park. Within a couple of minutes we’re on the Trans Canada Highway (TCH), Newfoundland’s equivalent of the M1. Joy of joys, just like our own M1, the TCH is being widened and chaos is therefore in the air, which doesn’t improve my mood. It’s a nightmare, but after much misery we finally leave the mayhem behind us. I slip the car into cruise, settle back and prepare to watch the kilometres sail past.
A couple of hours later I’m going stir crazy. We decide to leave the TCH for an impromptu side-trip to the coastal village of Salvage. It’s an inspired decision. Salvage turns out to be one of the most picturesque places we’ve visited all trip. The fishing shacks and associated paraphernalia are particularly fine, hinting at a way of life that it is completely alien to us. Mrs P loves photographing them, and snaps away happily until it’s time to hit the road again.
Suitably refreshed by our unscheduled visit to Salvage I put my foot down, and we reach Bay Bulls in good time for our whale watching trip. The boat takes us first to a small offshore island where seabirds nest in their thousands. The skipper brings us in close to the shore, giving us great views of the birds on the cliffs and rocky outcrops. Gull Island boasts a colony of handsome guillemots. There are also some puffins to be seen on the island, while others swim past our boat or fly overhead with beaks full of little fish with which to feed their chicks.
Bird watching over, we move on to Witless Bay, reputedly the best place in Newfoundland to get up close and personal with humpback whales. For once the hype is fully justified, and within a few minutes we find ourselves surrounded by a group of between 15 and 20 humpbacks, all gorging themselves on fish that congregate here to breed.
The skipper kills the engine and we sit still in the water, mesmerised by the whales all around us. The humpbacks patrol the bay, breaking the surface as they swim sedately along, then diving suddenly in pursuit of their quarry, then surfacing again with a loud “blow” of exhaled air and water-droplets.
A couple of times we see them lunge-feeding, exploding from the deep with huge gaping mouths that have, in this single manoeuvre, made short work of thousands of tiny fish. Occasionally we spot one spy-hopping, raising his head slightly above the water’s surface to watch what we’re up to. They approach within metres of the boat, sometimes lying motionless at the surface like floating logs, as if winded by the sheer volume of fish they’ve just swallowed. Encrustations of barnacles are clearly visible on their skin. The humpbacks are compelling, awesome creatures, and time seems to stand still as we revel in their majesty.
Today could have been a pretty miserable day, but it turns out to be one of the best we’ve had in Newfoundland. Yet this is a strange place, and Newfies march to the beat of a different drum. After the whale watching is over we retire to a nearby restaurant that specialises in fish. The waitress welcomes us warmly, says we can sit anywhere we like and have anything on the menu…except fish. Unsurprisingly perhaps, in a part of Canada where Basil Fawlty sets standards that some locals find unattainable, it appears that the fish restaurant has completely run out of fish.
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POSTSCRIPT: If you’ve enjoyed these random memories of our trip around Newfoundland, why not check out my 2017 blog of our holiday. There are a few laughs, plenty of surprises and loads more excellent photos by Mrs P, like this one of picturesque Quidi Vidi harbour.
You can find the blog by clicking on this link.