Monday, January 2, 2017

Bluff Point State Park

On January 1, 2016, a day that feels like last week and also a lifetime ago, I went on a First Day Hike in Massachusetts. This year, Connecticut had some scheduled First Day Hikes that sounded tempting, but I chose to take the concept of the New Year's Day walk and leave the group tour aspect, and instead go on my own hike at a local spot I hadn't been to in years: Bluff Point State Park and Coastal Reserve in Groton.

Somehow, Bluff Point has escaped this blog until now. But it's a hike (ok, fine, more like a walk) that I'm very fond of. This roughly 3.6-mile loop through what DEEP calls "the last remaining significant piece of undeveloped land along the Connecticut coastline" is a chance to surround yourself with what I think of as three distinct environments. The first is classic Connecticut shoreline, with salt marshes and shell-strewn sand and water that changes colors like a mood ring. The second is an almost desert-like world where trees twist into stunted shapes and leaves stay brown underfoot even when winter has turned other landscapes grey. And the third is an old New England forest, where the rectangular foundation of the farmhouse John Winthrop Jr. (yes, that John Winthrop Jr.) built in 1648 still lurks below ground level, and stone walls run for miles like the complex gates of lost cities, and large boulders stand alone in little clearings, as if the woods wanted to give them space.

At the bluff that forms this protected peninsula's southern tip, the inland forest trail and the flatter coastal road converge. Here, several small, rocky paths branch off from the main route and lead you to a spectacular view. Standing above the Sound, if you face the right direction and ignore the other humans and dogs gathered on the rocks, you can imagine for a moment that you've reached the end of the world. And I guess if the end of the world is as beautiful as Bluff Point, I feel a little bit less afraid about its arrival.

Friday, December 16, 2016

East Haddam in Winter


It's not quite winter yet, technically, but Connecticut is absolutely covered in wreaths and ribbons and lights. One of the prettiest places to see some very tasteful seasonal decorations - and honestly, just one of the prettiest places year round - is East Haddam. I wrote a little about the town in my post on Connecticut's best bridges (the swing bridge over the Connecticut River here is one of the state's most iconic) but I've never gotten around to giving it a post of its own. (Though I have mentioned some of its attractions, like Devil's Hopyard.) So here is beautiful downtown East Haddam, looking perfect as usual, on a frigid December day.












Monday, November 28, 2016

Fairfield | Looking Forward

Walk past the Fairfield Public Library, toward the beach and away from downtown's restaurants and boutiques. Instantly, you'll find yourself in an older, calmer Fairfield, where magnificent trees partially conceal historic buildings like the Sun Tavern, above, built around 1780. George Washington probably slept here in 1789; during his visit that year, a decade after British troops under General William Tryon burned the town, he noted that “the destructive evidences of British cruelty are yet visible both in Norwalk and Fairfield, as there are chimneys of many burnt houses standing in them yet.”

A number of houses in the Fairfield Historic District (aka the Old Post Road Historic District) that survived those raids are marked by small white plaques. (The burning of Fairfield is also cheekily commemorated by these guys.) There are many small touches like that here, little details you'd probably miss if you drove by in a car. When you get out and walk around the neighborhood, these details start to pile up, and the startling amount of history packed into these few blocks starts to feel a little overwhelming.

Looking at this busy, upscale town today, it's easy to forget that although Fairfield was rebuilt after the war, it never really returned to its former prominence.

It's also easy to forget, in this enclave of prosperity and picket fences, that Fairfield was targeted by the British because it - along with several other coastal Connecticut towns - was considered a hotbed of resistance.

When British ships were spotted off the coast, townspeople scrambled to prepare. "With feelings of dread and uncertainty," to quote a paper published by the Fairfield Museum and History Center, "residents prepared to defend the town. Livestock was driven to safety. In haste, people gathered their possessions, hiding their valuable silver in wells and stonewall crevices. Some loaded wagons with household goods and food, and took refuge inland. Others stayed to defend the town. A few remained in their homes, believing the British would not harm them. No one predicted the extent of destruction that was about to occur."

Those who stayed fought fiercely, angering Tryon. "In retaliation he began burning homes one by one. The terrifying scene became even more dramatic at night; a lightning storm illuminated the sky, making the flames visible to distant observers. But the greatest damage was inflicted on the following day as the British left Fairfield. A rear guard of German mercenaries had been ordered to cover the withdrawal. In the face of furious inhabitants, they set fire to virtually all the buildings, including the churches and ministers’ homes, which Tryon had given protection."

But the story of this district begins long before the Revolution.

After Fairfield's founder, Roger Ludlow, purchased this land from the Pequonnock Indians in 1639, he and his cohorts divided the town into four squares. "Newton Square contained the parsonage land for the use of the minister; Frost Square was, for the Meeting House, the Court House, the School House, and a third square, Burr Square was for a military or public park with a place for a burying ground, the fourth square contained land for the founder of the town."

The Town Hall building, above, was constructed around 1794 to replace an earlier structure that had been burned in 1799. It was updated in the 1870s and then restored to the 1794 version in the 1930s. As I waited to take this picture, two preppy middle-aged men stood on the front steps, eagerly and obliviously discussing what I imagined was some trivial question about zoning laws, as I suppose the English settlers of Fairfield must have done over 300 years ago.

Ludlow - who Fairfield's official website describes as "arrogant" - first noted the desirability of this land two years earlier, when he managed to take a moment during the Great Swamp Fight to realize that if the English managed to kill or otherwise drive out the Pequot for good, this would be an excellent spot to build some houses that future Connecticutians could drool over on Zillow.

This one, for example, was built either in the 1780s or in 1779. Both dates could be correct, if the home was partly burned, then restored.

Fairfield Academy, also called the Old Academy, was built in 1804. Here boys and girls - a rarity at the time - studied subjects like Greek, algebra, geography, and oratory. A sign on the property describes how they "wrote in ink with quill pens," and explains that punishments for misbehavior included "shaking, thumping the head and pulling the ears and hair." (By the way, Fairfield Academy is the latest historic school to join my collection at OldSchoolCT on Instagram.)

The Burr Homestead, built - well, rebuilt - in 1790, is now a venue for weddings and other fancy events. That's not a drastic departure from its original use. Once upon a time, Thaddeus and Eunice Burr hosted Colonial-era luminaries such as George Washington, Samuel Adams, John Adams and, yes, Aaron Burr, here. A historic marker on the sidewalk notes that in 1775, John Hancock, President of the Continental Congress and first signer of the Declaration of Independence, married Dorothy Quincy here.

But amid all these venerable buildings, perhaps my favorite find here was the space where a building used to be. The Fundamental Orders have been called the first written constitution, paving the way for the U.S. Constitution (and explaining Connecticut's "Constitution State" nickname.) The document itself is dry and intensely Christian. Still, there is something inspiring about a small group of people, representing a few towns in the region "in and upon the River of Connectecotte," gathering to establish an "orderly and decent order and dispose of the affairs of the people at all seasons as occasion shall require."

Before Fairfield and its neighboring towns existed, this part of southwestern Connecticut was called Uncowaye (also rendered Unquowa, among other spellings), meaning "looking forward - a valley." I travel to a lot of historic districts, and, like the nerd that I am, wander around thinking about the history they represent. But all the people who made that history, willingly or unwillingly, by design or by accident, were not looking backwards. They may have recognized that they were living though momentous times, but they weren't thinking of the events they experienced as something that would soon be finished and topped with a plaque. They were looking forward, with hope for the future, or fear. They didn't know if their home would be destroyed, if their family would be chased down and massacred, if they would win or lose the war, or if their nation would survive. Remembering that makes places like this seem a little less perfect, as it recalls the tragedies just beneath the prettily-painted surface. But it also makes them seem more worthy of appreciation now, because it reminds you that they and their memory could soon be gone.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Cove Island Park

I grew up 18 minutes from Cove Island Park (yes I just checked on Google Maps) and I'd never even heard of it until this year. I wasted many hours of my childhood at the Stamford Mall (which hilariously still insists on calling itself the Stamford Town Center), just 8 minutes from Cove Island Park, but I never knew that this dramatic bit of coastline was right there all this time.

I have, however, spent a lot of time at a lot of other Connecticut beaches, so I didn't expect that this 83-acre municipal park would strike me as such an unusual spot. It's not as if the rest of the state isn't full of woods, mill ruins, green open spaces, and perfectly curved strips of sand. But here, all these elements overlap. Marsh grasses and massive rock formations exist alongside shell-strewn beaches, and pure soft sand sprouts unexpected trees. Gracefully grand houses loom in the distance, and hints of the neighborhood's manufacturing days coexist with trappings of leisure: picnic tables and grills, a marina, and a paved walking and biking loop.

Now I live at the opposite end of southern Connecticut, so although I want to go back already, I can't exactly go explore Cove Island on a whim. But if you live close by, or even if you're just passing through, don't neglect this place as long as I did. And if it's not completely obvious, don't wait until summer; go in the off-season, when visitors are few and far between, and entry is free.

Friday, November 4, 2016

Windsor Locks Canal Trail State Park

There are places you can't fully grasp until you look at them on the map. The Windsor Locks Canal Trail, which stretches 4.5 miles from Windsor Locks to Suffield, is one such place. The trail follows the old towpath of the Windsor Locks Canal, built to bypass the Connecticut River's Enfield Falls and completed in 1829. It is, essentially, a narrow road running between the river and the canal, past peculiar ghosts of industries past. And by definition it should be, apart from the beauty of fall's last burst of color and the intriguing glimpses of islands and currents on the river, pretty boring. It is, after all, nothing but a flat straight line.

But look at it on the map, and see how that narrow wisp of land stretches on and on, cut off from the world by water on both sides, and you begin to appreciate the almost eerie experience of walking it from end to end. You can go forward, or you can turn back, but you can't exit, and you can't make another choice. Until you reach the south end, with its looming textile mill buildings, or the north end, with its leafy park, you can only be here, between the still water and the flowing water, on a strip of dirt and pavement.

Is it creepy? Yes, in a way, and fall is the season for creepiness, after all. But it's also fascinating, and occasionally remarkably beautiful. 


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