Put a bunch of Irish, American Loyalists, and Scottish Highlanders on an island and a couple of centuries later, you can have your own Heritage Village celebrating the fact that they all got on so well and lived and prospered. Who’d have thought it? Orwell Corner on PEI (Prince Edward Island) was closed for the season (nothing new there) but we shamelessly drove in anyway and had a look around. It’s all quite nicely done and had it been open, we might even have been tempted to pay to have a proper look-see. As it was, we were grateful that there was something to see at all.
We got a tad excited at the thoughts of visiting a Belfast that didn’t have black cabs and murals on the wall, but when we drove through it (twice) without realising, we reined in our expectations. PEI certainly isn’t Nova Scotia. That said, its capital Charlottetown, a city that bills itself as a walkable one, is rather sweet. We slept well, ate well, and managed to see something of the place before moving more north in search of Anne Shirley and the lovely Gilbert Blythe.
While in Charlottetown, I went to see a memorial exhibition for Canadian soldiers killed in Afghanistan. I had a long chat with Sargent P, a short, stocky man with military bearing whose punctuated speech sounded remarkably like a machine gun in semi-auto mode. He’d been home on leave on Easter Sunday 2007 when he saw on the news that six of his mates had been blown up. He’d wanted to stay in Canada to meet their bodies and pay his respects but he had to go back. They crossed in the air. Seven years later, he was still remembering. I asked him why he’d signed up. Why the military? He said that he didn’t have what it took to be a policeman, but he had two kids. I didn’t get the connection and said as much. I got that look – one I’ve had many times before – the one that says if you don’t have kids, you won’t understand. Quite simply, he wanted his kids to be proud of him. I was struck by the honest-to-goodness, down-to-earth simplicity of his thought. Why do we make life so complicated for ourselves?
There were 190 plaques for 201 dead. And there was a bowl of poppies. Visitors could stick the poppy pins next to those they knew or would like to have known. I got a little carried away as some had so many, and others so few. The exhibition is touring Canada and has to have an impact. I was moved. Very moved. It was staged in the Confederation Center of the Arts, built to commemorate the Canadian Confederacy. Back in 1964, every single Canadian donated 30 cents to build it – let’s think of that the next time we say we’re powerless to effect change or that tiny random acts of kindness are not worth the effort. It was built to mark the centenary of the 1 September 1864 meeting convened in Charlottetown that would lead to the Dominion of Canada coming into being in 1867. Perhaps particularly poignant, given the juxtaposing of birth and death in the city for me that day, was a large blackboard across the street enticing people to write about what they wanted to do before they died. It got me thinking.
With little to choose from in the line of what was open to be seen, we headed up towards New London, the birthplace of L.M. Montgomery, creator of the much-loved Anne of Green Gables. While PEI doesn’t have much in the way of trees and leaves and such it does have a lot of red clay and water. Spoiled for choice at which half-shut village we should stop at, we chose North Rustico because of the lobster pots and fishing boats. From there we finally got to Green Gables itself where we walked around and through the house that inspired the book. We took a few steps into the famous haunted woods and had a peak at Lovers Lane, bumping into many of our fellow ferry passengers from the day before. Did I mention that PEI is Canada’s smallest province with a population of about 140 000 in total … when everyone is home… and that it closes once the season is over.
Anyway, back to Maud herself. Although she moved away when she got married, she was brought back to PEI, the setting for 22 of her 23 books, when she died. The local cemetery makes no bones about claiming her for its own and were I buried there, I might be a tad peeved that I didn’t get equal post-mortem billing. But then I saw her tombstone and mentally congratulated whoever had the idea of emblazoning her name over the entrance. Although internationally acclaimed as an author and loved by millions, the sole achievement mentioned on her headstone is that she was some man’s wife (a man, who apparently, suffered from what was then known as ‘ religious melancholia’, said to be the rapturous transports of prophecy and inspiration experienced by hermit saints and prophets). I ask you! And she died first but gets second billing. Honestly.
It has always seemed to me, ever since early childhood, amid all the commonplaces of life, I was very near to a kingdom of ideal beauty. Between it and me hung only a thin a veil. I could never draw it quite aside, but sometimes a wind fluttered and I caught a glimpse of the enchanting realms beyond – only a glimpse – but those glimpses have always made life worthwhile.
The town of Green Gables itself was closed – mercifully. It’s morphed into a theme town built around a book. It must be horrendous in the summer – oops – in the season – with its fast-food joints, ice-cream parlours, and crazy golf. Just up the road in New London, stands another house – the one in which Maud was born, but we didn’t venture in. We had a bridge to cross and an appointment with New Brunswick. The journey to the south of the island was slightly more colourful; it was lovely – in places – really lovely.
But after Cape Breton and Nova Scotia, PEI just didn’t do it for me. It seemed like its get-up-and-go and got up and gone. Yes, it had its moments. And yes, I’m glad I visited. And yes, it was nice to pay my respects to Maud, but no – I’d not be in a hurry back – except perhaps to cross the Confederation Bridge again – now there’s a piece of engineering. At 8 miles (12.9 km), it’s the longest in the world crossing ice-covered water. It doesn’t even make the list of the top 15 longest bridges (much to my surprise… but then, my world trivia is nearly as bad as my geography….). In operation since 1997, it caused some degree of uproar when the idea of a fixed, year-round link to New Brunswick was mooted. When it went to the polls, just under 60% of the islanders voted in favour and there ya have it. You can take the ferry over to the island (as we did) and ferry back, or take the bridge. Whichever way you do it, you pay CAD45 when you leave – that would certainly add to the expense of a daily commute.
Margaret, you were right. PEI does close for the season. But to be honest, dear, as we were already en route, ’twas a little late to be telling us. Were I to go back, I’d be sure to get tickets to the Anne of Green Gables musical in Charlottetown. I’d definitely have scallops wrapped in bacon at the Gahan House again. And this time I’d try to get a tour of a few lighthouses. That’s now what I want to be when I grow up – a lighthouse keeper.