Our 14 year old had some options for a Biology assignment. I was pretty keen on a project involving writing about unusual diseases that appear in our family history but he chose to undertake one that involved a trip to a Natural History Museum. There is one close to home, in Philadelphia, which would have been more straightforward. However, he requested that we take a trip to New York to visit the museum there, which we had visited as part of the boys’ first ever trip to NYC back in February of 2014.
We had not been to NYC for years so we decided it could form the basis of a fun day trip. We formulated a plan for the day that we had to throw away the evening before the trip when the 14 year old fell of his skateboard and badly sprained his ankle. Since he was still pleading to go and given we had already booked and paid for the admission tickets, we decided to forge ahead with the trip to the museum but to junk all of the other plans for the day.*
One area of focus for the assignment was early humans so we headed to that section first. I took a DNA test a few years ago as a means of making contact with other family historians researching the same families. It has led to all sorts of interesting interactions but there was really nothing interesting about my DNA. It proved I was as boring genetically as I was on paper. The only unexpected find was that I have a smattering of Neanderthal DNA. Until then, I had not known that Neanderthal DNA can still be identified at detectable levels in contemporary humans. I guess now I know where my massive forehead comes from.
There was a special exhibition about sharks so we decided to boost our tickets for entry to that gallery. You might recall that my 14 year old and I are a wee bit obsessed with sharks. I cannot say that we especially learned anything new about sharks but we appreciated the life size models as we could really grasp the scale of some of the less familiar sharks. We also had fun with the megalodon models.
I am sure that many visitors to natural history museums spend a lot of time among the dinosaur fossils. While I am certainly no dino nerd, I have never outgrown that childhood fascination with these ancient beasts. One of the things my son was writing about in his assignment was fossil evidence of dinosaurs being feathered so we particularly honed in on the exhibits relevant to that topic. We also made sure to visit all of our favourite dinosaurs – mine is a triceratops in case you are interested. We visited the Ice Age mammals too. As much as I know it would be wholly unethical to do so, I do think it would be marvelous to resurrect mammoths from extinction.
Other sections of the museum we visited included the Central American gallery and the meteorite and gem sections. You will observe our family tradition of taking photos of ourselves in the same poses as sculptures. My 16 year old loves sparkly shiny things so has always enjoyed that section and my husband is an astronomy geek so he loves getting up close to space rocks. He was especially enthralled by a case containing three chunks of meteor taken from the surface of the moon.
Unfortunately the limping 14 year old was starting to feel the strain of his busted ankle so we could not keep forging on through all of the other areas of the museum. We felt satisfied that we had covered a lot of ground, however, so left feeling fulfilled.
And now we need to return to NYC at some point soon to do all of the things we had planned on doing that day but didn’t manage to achieve.
*The reason the 14 year old is in the majority of the photos is because they will be used to illustrate his assignment and not because he is more biddable than the others when it comes to having his photo taken.
A friend who owns a second home in the Poconos thoughtfully offered us the opportunity to spend a day or two at her property. We gratefully accepted her offer partly because we thought we could all benefit from a mini-break and also because we normally only take day trips to the Poconos so it meant we would have longer to explore. Furthermore, I have also wanted to visit the Delaware Water Gap since we moved here (I cannot even recollect precisely why) and having my friend’s house as a base presented us with the chance to go that bit further afield and spend an entire day poking around in that area, which is governed by the National Park Service.
On our first day, we decided to focus on relaxation and quality family time. We spent time in the house together – playing card games, watching shark documentaries – and we walked to a nearby lake to spend some time there. We had planned on going swimming but it was a little bit too chilly at that time of day even for paddling so we just enjoyed the scenery, people watching, ice cream, and playing more card games. After dinner on the shore of another lake, however, it was time to head out and go for a hike.
My husband and I visited Hawk Falls several years ago now but we have never managed to take the boys there because the parking situation has always been horrendously swamped. Because we had the ability to hike in the early evening this time, however, we found a parking spot with ease and headed to the falls. It’s a relatively easy hike to the falls – though a little steep for a stretch on the return – and I like the way the path winds through the woods and across streams. I just really like being in the woods.
There are definitely more impressive waterfalls but Hawk Falls are pleasing enough. Running water is always lovely, right? Except in relation to natural disasters or domestic pipe failures, of course. While we had met other visitors on the path, by the time we reached the falls, we had the whole place to ourselves. It was really peaceful. The boys had fun leaping around on the rocks. The 15 year old even scaled the rock wall on the opposite bank.
We had a leisurely start to the next day. We also decided to start with a big breakfast because we knew we would have few and far between (if any) opportunities to stop for a bite to eat for the rest of the day. Our 18 year old ordered a massive sandwich stacked full of any breakfast meat you can think of and slathered in sausage gravy. His digestive system is in training for that $27 a day college meal plan he had to sign up for.
I had devised an itinerary for our travels through the Delaware Water Gap and the first stop was my happy place: an old cemetery. Obviously I like to wander around in cemeteries regardless of any personal connection to the place but, on this occasion, my husband and kids actually have some relatives buried there. Only my 12 year old agreed to come and find the graves with me. Everyone else stayed in the car. You will observe from the accompanying photos that this became a common occurrence on this particular trip. My youngest son was my exploration buddy while the others opted in and mostly out of most itinerary items. Anyway, we found the two relevant Shellenberger graves with ease.
Next up on the itinerary was visiting the view points on the Pennsylvania side of the Delaware. Now I had conducted a decent amount of research on the Delaware Water Gap in order to draw up my itinerary so I was surprised and disappointed to discover that the view points were, quite frankly, totally duff. The first one we visited, we literally could not even glimpse a sliver of water through the trees and across the railroad tracks. What we could see was the interstate on the opposite side of the river and the sheer face of a small mountain. The same proved true of the other two view points we visited – though I did manage to see a patch of water from one of them. What I came to realise was that the National Park Service had taken photos of the views using either drones or cranes. Therefore, any human of normal height stood absolute zero chance of seeing the view, especially since there seemed to be no management of the foliage on the river banks.
After that failure, the kids were growing ever more cynical about the purpose and merits of the whole trip. I decided we should boost up the Pennsylvania side of the Delaware River and focus on all the bits and bobs on the New Jersey side I was hoping to see. Incidentally, all of the Visitor Centers and Ranger stations were closed and none of the historic buildings were open for visitors so it was just as well I had conducted all of my research in advance. What my research did not tell me was just how arduous navigating the roads was going to be.
The first stops were all fine as they were within the boundaries of still functioning towns. First there was the Foster-Armstrong House (usually open the public but not recently) which was a ferry-side tavern and inn for tired 19th Century travelers. Then there was the Minisink Dutch Reformed Church, the oldest church in the county and still going strong today. And there was the Nelden-Roberts Stonehouse.
After those three historic buildings, my itinerary took us onto the Old Mine Road. Well, this proved to be quite the challenge. The road dates from the 1600s but I had expected the surface to have been improved since then. I am obviously exaggerating but the surface was seriously bad. It was extremely crumbled, full of deep pot holes and eroded at the sides – and it was single track as it was for very long stretches – and just incredibly rickety. It got worse the further we ventured down the road and the more committed we were to just plunging onwards. It actually got to the point that Mr Pict and I were making mental note of routes for one of us hiking back off the road on foot and where the nearest lived in property was for phoning for help should the axel of the car break. I feel like we should have earned badges declaring “I survived the Old Mine Road”.
Anyway, first stop on the Old Mine Road was the Westbrook Bell House. While my oldest two sons trekked back along the road to a ruined barn my 15 year old wanted to photograph, my youngest son and I headed down a grass covered path through the woods in search of the house. It felt like a fairytale with maybe a witch’s house at the end of the trail. We soon reached the house, which is the oldest extant structure in the Delaware Water Gap, dating as it does from 1701. We were wandering around the exterior of the house and peering into barns that looked like they might collapse at any moment when I smelled and then spotted what looked to my non-expert eyes like pretty fresh bear poop. We, therefore, decided it might be a smart idea to skedaddle back through the woods to the car.
After another bone-jangling stretch of the Old Mine Road, we rejoined a proper road to visit what was once the village of Bevans. This rural hamlet has been transformed into the Peters Valley School of Craft so there were art and craft galleries and artisan workshops operating out of the old buildings.
Tempting as it was to stay on these proper roads, I was both determined (some might say foolishly) to see the other items on my itinerary and I was convinced (some might say foolishly) that the final stretch of Old Mine Road could not possibly be as bad as the stretch we had left behind. Yup. Foolish. If anything, it was worse because this stretch also involved uphill stretches. I swear I could hear our car wheezing. I think everyone was relieved when we reached the Van Campen Inn and could pull over the car and take a break from all the bumpy driving. I had spotted on one of the maps I had looked at that there was a cemetery for enslaved people in the vicinity of the inn so my youngest son and I set off trying to find it. We were wholly unsuccessful. I think mostly we were determined to try just to avoid getting back in the car for a while longer.
The Delaware View House was in a very sorry state. It had served as a hunting lodge and a hotel in its prime. Now it is clearly deteriorating rapidly. We very carefully walked around the wraparound porch before losing our nerve and getting ourselves back to solid ground.
The penultimate planned stop was at Millbrook Village. This is the site of a genuine settlement from the 1830s but the few remaining historic buildings have been expanded upon with reconstructed buildings that create the impression of what the village looked like in the 1870s. I think it would have been fun to visit at a time when visitors were permitted to enter buildings. This was probably the most engaged the boys were on the trip but they were fed up and jaded from all of the previous stops and from the nerve-shredding travels on that road so they were pretty resistant to finding anything of interest at that point.
The penultimate actual stop was at the request of my 15 year old. He has apparently inherited my love of dilapidated buildings so he wanted to take photographs of a barn that was falling apart at the seams. My 12 year old stood in the window of a gable end that had fallen, Buster Keaton style, while the 15 year old gave me palpitations by climbing over piles of planks in search of better camera angles.
We made one final pit stop in the Delaware Water Gap as one final attempt to see the Delaware. Kittatinny Point Overlook suggests being in an elevated position that provides a view out over the Delaware. Well nope. Not that we could find anyway. The best we could hope for was descending some stairs in order to be down on the shore. Unfortunately this spot was the end point for the scores of people who had rafted down the river so it was very busy and there were boats everywhere. Therefore, even that close to the water, it was nigh impossible to really take in let alone appreciate the view.
As you can no doubt tell, my trip to Delaware Water Gap was somewhat disappointing. I am sure it is a fantastic area to visit if one wants to interact with the water in some way but I don’t do water sports. I really wanted to engage with the history of the area and to take in the landscape. I believe, therefore, it was a case of too high expectations and a lack of delivery. The whole “view” point debacle really set the tone for the day. When Mr Pict gets hacked off on an excursion, things are really not going well. I happen to like old, abandoned, decaying buildings so I definitely got far more out of it than anyone else in the family but I cannot say that was worth the investment of time. The condition of the Old Mine Road was probably the nail in the coffin of the trip. It set our nerves on edge and meant there was too much focus on the function and mechanics of driving rather than taking in the surroundings. It also simply slowed us down and made a long day out even longer. I am glad I finally visited the Delaware Water Gap after years of wanting to do so but I don’t think I could recommend a visit there to anyone not wishing to float down the river and I don’t envisage a return visit.
Living in eastern Pennsylvania as we do, we are never too far from a Revolutionary War site. We are surrounded by the stuff. Despite that, I really don’t know as much as I ought to about the Revolution. It just doesn’t engage me as a subject so I really only retain the scratchiest general knowledge about it. This is not because I am British. Nope. I am totally on the side of the Americans. I am just really not into military history unless it intersects with some other genre of history that I am into. I only know as much as I do about the Civil War because I am married to a big Civil War nerd and learning osmosis happens.
Anyway, one of the local Revolutionary history sites we had not visited in the almost 8 years since moving here was a pretty big one: Brandywine. It was the biggest battle of the War, with the most troops fighting and doing so continuously for 11 hours over 10 square miles. The battlefield is only open seasonally and on particular days so we have just never gotten around to making a plan to visit work. Mr Pict, however, was determined we should finally visit so we got our act together and went.
We started off at the Visitor Center where some friendly, chatty staff placed the battle within its wider context for us. Mr Pict also got deep into the weeds of a conversation with them about why the site doesn’t have National Park status. The rest of us scuttled off into the adjoining museum. Small as the museum was, the information boards were some of the clearest and most informative I have encountered. I was actually finally able to grasp the chronology of the conflicts that occurred in our region and why the American and British sides manoeuvred that they did. I always love a diorama and they had several. Meanwhile the 12 and 14 year olds entertained themselves in the dress up corner.
The rest of the trip was a driving tour. We could have hit up a couple of dozen points of interest along the route but nobody was really enthralled at that prospect so we kept to the highlights. We started at the house of Gideon Gilpin, a Quaker farmer. It was the property that Lafayette used as his quarters and where he returned after being shot in the leg during the battle. Incidentally Lafayette turned 20 days before Brandywine which kind of blows my mind. I personally just like old buildings so I enjoyed wandering around and looking at the shapes and the stonework. Near the house is a massive sycamore tree that is over 300 years old which means it was around during the battle. I kind of love that living connection to the past.
The next stop was the Benjamin Ring house that Washington used as his HQ. The interior was not yet open so we just skirted its exterior. I didn’t find it too interesting to look at. However, we got chatting to a volunteer guide who, while telling us that his hobby is making replicas of historic guns, revealed that he lives in the house that was the site of the last witch trial (more of an interrogation) in Pennsylvania. Obviously I had to steer the conversation in that direction. Much more interesting to me than battles and military leaders.
We went to find Jefferis Ford, which is the spot where the sneaky British forces managed to cross the river. American troops were defending all of the other fords along the river but, for some reason, neglected to protect Jefferis Ford. Quite the oops. Anyway, we cross the bridge that now spans that area and looked down at the dun brown water and then we went on a trek up hill and down dale trying to find a spot with decent sight lines where I could do a three point turn. So that was annoying.
The final stop was at the Birmingham Quaker Meetinghouse. This was the location of some ferocious fighting and fallen soliders from both sides are buried in a mass grave in the small walled cemetery that abuts the meetinghouse. As much as military history is not my thing, cemeteries very much are. After visiting the walled graveyard, I therefore wandered off into the adjoining larger cemetery. Most of the stones are very small and simple, since Quakers traditionally do not approve of ostentatious memorials. I went in search of the grave of artist NC Wyeth but really stood no chance of locating it since his family’s stone is a simple one set into the ground. Our kids were all out of tolerance for this parent-driven excursion as it was so were not up for entertaining my cemetery wanderings.
While the cemetery largely comprised standard grave markers, there were some very elaborate memorials. Just outside the gates were monuments to Lafayette and Casimir Pulaski, neither of whom is buried in Pennsylvania let alone that cemetery. Inside the cemetery, however, is a large monument containing a marble statue that really is quite at odds with the rest of the graves. It marks the plots of the family of John Gheen Taylor. Want to know why he got to break the rules? That would be because he was the cemetery president.
So that was our trip to Brandywine Battlefield. I don’t think I will feel the need to return but, surprisingly, I did actually learn something through my visit. Plus it is always nice to go for a wander somewhere new. Now I am actually keen to visit the Museum of the American Revolution so that I can put together some more of the details of the war. Because goodness knows I am not going to sit down to read a book about it or even watch a documentary. Once I feel ready to return to museums, that one is going to be high on my list.
We had four guests visiting us over the Thanksgiving holiday: my in-laws and Mr Pict’s oldest friend and his partner. After a day of over-indulging in feasting, we all felt the need to get some fresh air and burn off some calories. We, therefore, headed to Valley Forge to hike around the site of the encampment and the surrounding fields. I have blogged about a previous visit to Valley Forge, back in Spring of 2016, so will not repeat myself here. Suffice to say it was a fair bit colder than it had been during that first exploration. The wind was so biting that I lost feeling in my ears. I also tried to recreate a previous “gargoyle” photo but had misremembered which son was the model.
The following day, the six adults went on a child-free trip across the border into Delaware. Our destination for the day was Nemours. This is a French chateau style mansion that Alfred Dupont built for the woman who would become his second wife. We learned that Alicia was not easily wooed and that the mansion was Alfred’s final pitch at winning her affections. She agreed to marry him but I am pretty certain he did not win her affections. Indeed, the subtext of our entire tour of the property was how problematic and dysfunctional Alfred’s marriages were – and obviously he was the common denominator – and how suspicious a few events in the biographical timeline were, including sudden deaths that removed the necessity for a divorce or the mysterious advent of infants. I basically had my own little dramatic soap opera playing in my head as I moved from room to room and learned more about Alfred and his wives.
After a quick pootle around the grounds, we embarked on a guided tour led by an enthusiastic young woman named Kat. She started the tour in the mansion’s basement and that turned out to be my favourite part of the house. I have visited hundreds of stately homes, palaces, and castles in my time and the public rooms tend to be much of a muchness. What set this home apart from the others that I have visited was that basement level. Since he had built his mansion from scratch in the early 20th Century, Alfred was not having to cram modern technology into a much older building or try to couple the old and new. He also seemed to be especially enthralled with engineering and with the cutting edge of mod cons so there were lots of fascinating gizmos, gadgets, and gubbins going on beneath the surface of the building. As someone who spends too much of her life doing laundry, I especially liked the spacious laundry room – housed in an exterior building but connected to the mansion through a tunnel so that undies need never be exposed to public view.
Each room in the house had been decorated for the Christmas season. The chosen decorations were on a theme connected to the space in which they were sited and I enjoyed the festive sparkle and the attention to detail. Again, my favourite trees were to be found in the basement level – a steampunk tree in the boiler room and a bottle tree in the bottling room.
The house is beautifully decorated and immaculately maintained. I found myself admiring the skill of the people who must remove every speck of dust from the surfaces in advance of doors being opened each day. There was a lot of opulence on display but it was not so lavish as to be garish or excessive. My favourite room was the conservatory closely followed by the kitchen.
After completing our tour of the house, we wandered over to the garage – which was larger than my house – to see the family’s collection of very shiny luxury cars. We contemplated having a walk around the grounds, which are laid out in a French style, but it was far too cold and we were too hungry to tolerate the cold. We, therefore, bid farewell to Nemours and its muffled tales of familial dysfunction. Since we have also visited Hagley Museum (way back in 2015), we now need to visit Delaware’s other open-to-the-public DuPont property at Winterarthur.
Today is my birthday. Today is also election day and, since my workplace is used as a polling station, my birthday treat is a day off of work to be home alone. Each year, on a weekend adjacent to my birthday, I get to decide where we go and what we do for a day trip. I love museums so my choice was to visit a museum in Philly that we had not yet visited.
The National Museum of American Jewish History is situated in the old city. It is housed in a lovely building that allows its collections to be organised into clear chronological and narrative strands. We started on the an upper floor and with the story of the first Jewish community to immigrate to the United States and then moved throughout the galleries and levels to learn about the contributions the Jewish community have made to American history and culture. I realised that I knew almost nothing about Jews in colonial America so I found that gallery to be especially interesting. My kids enjoyed the section about migration within the US and my youngest had a hoot dressing up in prairie clothes and pretending to cook beneath the covered wagon. He tried on various costumes in several sections of the museum which was a great way to keep him moving and engaged. At one point he even pretended to be a dog in a kennel. My 14 year old is currently reading the book ‘Refugee’ by Alan Gratz so he liked the display about the perilous journey of the St Louis and, of course, the tragic consequences of countries refusing permission to land. Predictably, Mr Pict liked the section on the Civil War. For my part, I really enjoyed my visit to this museum. I especially like social history and there was plenty of that being showcased. I actually would have benefited from more time in the museum as I had to rush through the last section and even then we were the last visitors to leave and they literally locked the doors behind us.
After the museum, we headed off in search of food. Before we found a suitable option, however, we passed Shanes Confectionery and had to pop in. Aside from being a sweet-toothed family, Shanes claims to be the longest running confectionery shop in the US. We were gifted some Shanes chocolate and famous clear candy a few years ago now so we have sampled some but it was great to finally be in the store. Stepping across the threshold was like stepping back in time as the store has been lovingly and beautifully restored to its early 20th Century style, including restored machinery and gadgets. My oldest son found the narrowness of the store to be too claustrophobic for his liking but the rest of us thought it was all wonderful. My youngest is a chocaholic so he was smitten to the point of being overwhelmed by all the marvellous chocolates. He is also cat-obsessed so he loved seeing chocolate in feline form. I loved seeing the old cash registers and the stained glass and the patina on all the wooden shelves. There were so many fabulous confections to choose from but we rose to the challenge and made our selections.
Dinner was in a British themed pub. We were all excited to spot that Irn Bru was one of the soft drinks available. Even though the recipe has (somewhat controversially) changed since we left Scotland, it was a taste of home. There were also mushy peas available as a side so Mr Pict and I ordered those. They were far too good quality to taste authentic but that is not a cause for complaint. I can usually only manage a single course when eating but I had spotted sticky toffee pudding on the menu so had to order it – though I did share with some of the boys. I was delighted to discover that it had been made with dates just as it should be. It was scrumptious.
The closing ceremony for my birthday trip was to view an art installation on the Delaware River. When we arrived at the Race Street Pier, it was already dark so the ghost ship should have been visible. Alas, it was not. We were informed that the organizers were experiencing technical difficulties and they had no timeline whatsoever for a resolution. Oh dear. The crowd was restless. Some people were loudly complaining. We took up a position along the pier’s barrier and waited patiently for the glitch to be fixed. After half an hour of waiting, however, the boys were bottomed out on patience and started to plead with me to give up and to just go home. I was, however, determined to see this thing so just tuned out their gripes. I admit that even my patience was waning as the cold seeped into my bones some time after the 40 minute mark. Finally, water erupted from rigging that sat on the water’s surface and, as the fountains spumed, the image of an 18th Century schooner appeared, projected onto the water. It was impressive and I was glad to see it. Was it remarkable enough to wait almost an hour in the cold with four moaning children? The verdict is still out.
After our visit to the Montmorency Falls and the Ile d’Orleans, we wanted to spend the evening back in Quebec’s old city given it was our last evening there. It was completely lovely to be out in the cooling air and the golden light of the sinking sun really showcased the city’s architecture. We didn’t really have an objective when we set out for our stroll but then inspiration struck and we decided to walk along a section of the Ramparts.
The fortifications technically date from the mid-18th Century after the British took the city from the French but they have been demolished and reconstructed over the centuries so they are a bit of an architectural Frankenstein. We could not have walked the entire perimeter of the walls even had we wanted to because, once again, as with our attempt to reach the Plains of Abraham, we were thwarted by construction works. We, therefore, walked a stretch from Porte Saint-Jean around to the area of the Plains of Abraham.
The elevation of the walls afforded us a great view over the city streets, lots of panoramic vistas, and letterbox vignettes observed through these oblong windows cut into the walls. It also helped us appreciate how these fortifications functioned as defences and how much they must have dominated the city.
The ramparts made for a really lovely stroll, away from the crowds yet still in the thick of things, and it was especially pleasant to be so high up as the sun set and then to be back in the area of the Place Royale in the dark to enjoy the twinkling lights and glow from the lamps. It turned out to be the best way for us to bid farewell to Quebec.
We were keen to do something educational in Quebec, really learn something about the history and culture of the place. The Musee de la Civilisation was a mere hop, skip, and jump from our apartment so we headed there. It’s a museum of history and anthropology which obviously has a particular focus on French Canada and the First Nations peoples. It was, therefore, perfect for our purposes. I suppose because I am more used to Victorian museum buildings so I was pleasantly surprised by how spacious this museum was and how the flow worked between sections.
I enjoyed the exhibition on the history of French Canada. It was presented in chronological order and I thought the artefacts were well-curated in order to illustrate that history and communicate something about the people of each period. Lots of social history too which is my thing. The kids really did not dig this section at all and did not especially engage but they are all old enough now that they could mill around at their own pace while their father and I took our time.
What we all uniformly enjoyed was a special exhibition on the subject of poison. We learned about poisons used for good and poisons used for malicious purposes and the presentation was very visual and interactive. My macabre lot found it fascinating – though I suspect their highlight was seeing a bloke (hopefully an employee) reaching his bare arm and ungloved hand into a tank full of poisonous frogs. As I have previously confided, I have an interest in the history of pandemics and that has led to a bit of an interest in medical history. I, therefore, enjoyed all of the items that were about turning poisons into medicines – some of which were obviously of questionable merit (hello, mercury!) and a display case full of bezoars. As someone who loves the macabre, I also liked the poisons that were used for detecting witches. Mr Pict and two of our oldest sons are arachnophobes but they liked seeing a tarantula and a black widow.
The next section we visited was a sort of maze full of games that were, I think, about using your senses to solve puzzles and messing around with optical illusions. The boys especially enjoyed playing around with a mirror in which they could pretend to be dangling above skyscrapers and a maze that was absolutely devoid of light. It was fun to find our way around using just our hands and it was even more fun to watch each other on the night vision cameras.
The final section we went to was about prehistory. I mean, what history museum is complete without some fossils? I loved the way several exhibits were presented, with an audiovisual animation of a creature playing behind the glass case containing the relevant fossil. My youngest – who is absolutely obsessed with cats – was delighted to find a mummified cat on display.
It was a really good quality museum and a thoroughly pleasing way to spend a morning in Quebec.
Between our tour of Ben & Jerry’s and all of our edible tourism later in the day, we went for a hike in Little River State Park. We all like to wander in the wilderness and I love ghost towns so our aim was to do the history trail that took us around the abandoned farming community of Ricker basin. What I had not planned for, when proposing this hike, was the weather and the elevation of the trail. We arrived at the State Park in absolutely torrential rain. Even the park officers looked at us like we were loopy. They also revealed to us that the trail should take us a few hours. This did not compute with me, even as I looked at the map, but that was because I had not comprehended that the hike was going to be so steep and, at points, difficult underfoot. I did that thing of assuming the park folks were basing their estimation on a slow pace of walking instead of asking about the topography so we committed to the trek and off we went.
Thankfully, the rain eased up and then stopped entirely early on in our trail. The mud underfoot was still something we had to contend with and the intense humidity brought with it mosquitoes and other biting minibeasts galore but we were thankful at least to not be battling through rain. One of the reasons Ricker Basin was abandoned was because of flooding. It experienced two awful floods in 1927 and 1934, the first of which killed 55 people. The second flood inspired the construction of a dam and led to a declining population. Until then, however, the area had been farmed by a number of families for a century.
As we trudged past the remnants of farmhouses and buildings, it seemed incredible to me that people had ever lived here. The terrain was really pretty steep. It was little wonder that they were largely subsistence farmers because trudging back and forth to market would have been quite the task. Even before that, however, it must have been a massive undertaking to clear the land and prepare the ground for agriculture. In the years since its abandonment, nature had almost completely engulfed all signs of human habitation. There were trees everywhere. There must have been even more dense woodland back when Mr Ricker first bought the land and started endeavouring to clear it. These were definitely hardy people.
One building is still standing but otherwise nothing remains of the buildings except for foundations and the occasional basement. In addition to the farms, there was also a school house, and a couple of cemeteries. At one of the cemeteries, I learned that the family who owned the plot had planted trees around its borders, one for every member of the family, planting another when someone married into the family, so that each individual had a tree available for cutting down and turning into a coffin when they died. As morbid as it seems to have a coffin tree planted to commemorate your birth or wedding, I actually found myself admiring the pragmatism and forward planning of the scheme. Circle of Life and all that. As we walked – and it was a whole lot of walking, our phones logging almost 15,000 steps – we would occasionally stumble across a little fragment of metal. Previous hikers had started a tradition of gathering artefacts found on or near the paths into collections in specific sites so we picked up what we found and added the items – including a bolt and a bed spring – to gatherings of other finds lined up on walls.
It was a really enjoyable walk that reminded me a lot of some of our favourite treks in Argyll. It mercifully did not take us the four or five hours the park rangers had predicted but it did take us a great deal more time and energy than I had anticipated. Thankfully all the little spots of human habitation kept all of us – especially the children – engaged. We definitely earned our calorie intake that day.
Followers of this blog will know that both Mr Pict and I have a keen interest in history. Mr Pict, however, is really into military history which is not really my bag unless it intersects with family history or social history. My husband is very much an American Civil War nerd but his next favourite period of military history is the Second World War. He was, therefore, really keen to go along to an event in Reading that focused on that particular conflict and, since I like to go on jaunts and have new experiences, I decided to accompany him and our youngest son.
It’s a massive event. It takes place over a whole weekend, though we only went for a day, and covers a huge area. We were absolutely staggered by the number of people who were in attendance. There were umpteen parking lots to accommodate all of the visitors’ cars and multiple school buses taxiing people from those lots to the actual airfield that was hosting the event. That place absorbed a heck of a lot of people without it ever feeling ridiculously crowded – though there were exceedingly long lines for portaloos – and I was impressed with how organised the staff were at keeping people flowing.
Given it was being accommodated at an airfield, the event was especially focused on the airshow element and there were vintage planes galore. I know nothing about planes and even less than that about vintage planes but Mr Pict was excited. We had a gander at a lot of planes that were being exhibited at ground level, watched a reenactment of a dog fight, and watched planes doing aerial stunts. The highlight of my husband’s day was seeing a Mitsubishi Zero, which apparently was the fastest propellor plane (if I was paying attention to what I was told).
The other thing there were a lot of were reenactors. For obvious reasons, the majority of people chose to depict American military personnel but there were also some Brits, a smattering of Poles, some Japanese pilots, a smattering of Russians, and a surprising number of Germans. I observed that the latter had by far the most immaculate uniforms and best posture. The reenactors were really into the details too and I enjoyed looking at all of the vignettes they had created in their camps and the still lifes of vintage objects they had curated. I guess I like those little human details and the creativity because, goodness knows, the vehicles, weapons, and military paraphernalia don’t do it for me.
There was a fun Home Front section housed in one of the hangars. Part had been turned into a movie theatre that was showing old newsreels and cartoons. We didn’t catch any of those but we did sit in some shade to take in one of the radio show performances which happened to be a couple of singers. There was also the recreation of a 1940s American sitting room, a group who were putting women’s hair up into “victory rolls”, and a candy store. From the latter, we bought a fresh lemon that had a lemon candy straw poked into it. It was deliciously refreshing.
We watched a reenactment of a skirmish between the Germans and the Allies in a French village. I was amused by the incongruity of a bunch of blokes in German military uniforms standing around and chatting in front of a fleet of yellow school buses. When they got going, however, the action was very well choreographed and the volume of the artillery noise was pretty arresting. I could feel the vibrations in my sternum. The smoke and noise and crowds was a bit too much sensory overload for our ten year old so we skedaddled from there to the flea market section where a bit of retail therapy (even in the form of “window shopping”) got him recalibrated.
We somehow managed to spend four hours there despite the fact we were getting toasted by the blazing sunshine and the fact that 2/3 of us were not that engrossed by the subject. I thought the whole event was very polished and there was clearly a lot to do and engage with if World War II history is your thing so it was definitely worth doing. It was an enjoyable day out and I was glad I tagged along. I don’t have a need to repeat the experience but I can definitely envisage my husband making a return visit.
Our final destination of the cruise was Grand Turk, one of the Turks and Caicos Islands. Two decades ago, Mr Pict had a job opportunity that would have taken us to live on Grand Turk for at least two years. He declined for various reasons but I was curious to see what the island was like and to imagine what my life would have been like there.
The ship docked at a beach resort area but we were eager to see something of the real Grand Turk, albeit from a completely skewed tourist perspective. We, therefore, squeezed into a taxi and were whisked up the length of the narrow, flat island to the capital city, Cockburn Town. The population of the whole of Grand Turk is under 4000 so it’s a compact city more akin to a village. We spent some time perusing the stalls on Front Street and poking around on the beach – my kids found bits of coral, lobster body parts, and sun lounging dogs – and enjoying the view of the stunning turquoise water.
Our goal for the day was the National Museum so we popped in there when it opened. I am so often surprised by the quality of small, local museums or those dedicated to narrow interests. This was the case with the Turks and Caicos National Museum. The staff were very friendly and knowledgeable and they had really made the most of showcasing their exhibits, curating them in such a way that they told clear stories about the island. The Museum is sited in the Guinep House, one of the oldest buildings on the island. We learned that most of the timbers used in its construction were likely salvaged from shipwrecks, one of which was exposed so we could see it for ourselves. I was rather charmed by this fact since one of my Shetland ancestors was imprisoned in the 1840s for pillaging from a shipwreck, another group of islands with very few trees.
The ground floor of the museum was dedicated to showcasing its big ticket item: the finds from a wreck known as the Molasses Reef Wreck. A caravel from the very early 16th Century, it is the oldest European ship excavated in the Americas. While some like to claim that it could very well be Columbus’ ship Pinta (yup. him again), the museum staff were clear that identification has not been possible beyond stating the caravel was Spanish in origin and dated prior to 1520 at the latest. It is possible, for instance, that is was a slave ship. Regardless of its specific history, it was very cool to see the remains of such an old vessel. We saw timbers that still had the wooden “nails” in them, various armaments, and a massive anchor. A related exhibit illustrated how the ballast on the sea bed had been critical to identification and analysis and demonstrated how archaeologists had worked on the site.
Upstairs, we found an exhibit about the salt industry, the Fresnel lens of the island’s lighthouse, the story of an Irish helmet diver whose two brothers had drowned while diving, the culture of the indigenous Lucayans, and John Glenn’s landing in 1962 following his orbiting of the earth.
Following the Museum, we returned to the resort bay. My in-laws decided to relax on the ship but we Picts decided we would have a final beach day. The kids played on the sand and in the surf with their dad while I listened to a podcast while lying on a shaded lounger. That is the type of beach time I can compromise on. Not a bad hurrah for the last shore day of our cruise.