An Englishman visits Almonte

An Englishman visits Almonte - 1979/1980

Excerpt from the Almonte Gazette Newspaper;

Editor’s note: Adrian Arnold and his family have just returned to England after a brief visit with friends and relations in Clayton and Almonte. The following letter, written by Mr. Arnold last week, vividly describes his impressions and views of our country.

Dear Sir,

It is 18 months since, with my daughters Susan and Sarah and son Robin, I last visited the Bolger’s of Clayton and the Mathesons of Almonte – in fact my sisters Rene and Pat and their families.

Duly warned of the sub-zero temperatures as announced in England before we left on the 19 December, the day before my birthday, we were fully protected with thermal underwear, topcoats, balaclavas, etc – and sweated our way through the first two weeks of Indian summer and your first green Christmas 1979 and New Year 1980 with my friend Veronica Tippets and her daughter Claire.

We had our glimpses of the Mississippi on our way between Almonte and Ottawa on several shopping sprees, somewhat surprised that it was only part frozen and that no log-booms were visible. It is however the vistas that impress after the patchwork green fields and small streams of England.

The seeming carefree nature of Canada is quickly evident as one mixes with the Canadian people. After the careworn atmosphere of strike-torn industry, race-relations problems, a slump and diffidence about Great Britain’s place in the European economic community, Rhodesia, etc; it took time to become adjusted to the problems of Canada, the war-cries recommencing twixt Clark and Trudeau, the old scores between Francophiles and Anglophones.

But we were on holidays for Christmas with two sisters and their husbands, Willy Bolger and Ian Matheson, and cares should be put on one side. We were to enjoy that rustic charm of the farm, the splendid meals of that redoubtable chef, Ian, the snow-covered forest, the ice-covered lakes, the blending of all in the frost of winter, but still those striking wooden facades of buildings well removed from the highway and now Christmas lights outside rather than those more discreet indoor fairylights seen behind those lace curtains in England.

A full family visit, twelve of us, to St. Pauls church for the celebration of Holy Communion on the Sabbath and the Christmas Eve midnight service helped to introduce us all once again to the people of Almonte, whom we have come to expect to give us all a grand welcome. On this last occasion both daughters, Susan and Sarah, were invited to boost the choir alongside their aunt, Pat Matheson, while we all increased the decibels with, I regret, some discord from the congregation. The laughter clearly heard from the vestry, when the door closed behind the choir at the end of the recessional hymn was not irreverence, but simple reaction to an error in the final descant!

On our first visit to Hill Top Farm we were again much impressed by the rustic simplicity of Clayton and district, with both Willy and Howard Bolger hard at work outside, cutting logs from trees already cut down by beavers or dead in the beaver lake now under ice. We were soon introduced by young Billy Bolger to the novelty of the beaver house, their runway, stick surrounds, main and emergency entrance, and dam.

This was followed by a good introduction by Bolger experts into the damage caused by these animals to maple, pine, cedar and birch and loss of good agricultural land. Later we were able to inspect the beaver closely, struck by its size, that strong rear paddle and those enormous yellow front teeth. One easily imaged Indian people and early settlers keeping a watchful eye on these animals, which can be both delightful and yet verminous with their crazy houses and habits.

So Rene Bolger was to sit three families around the table for a meal and party to follow with photographs of the four members of the older generation of Bolgers (Annie, Herbert, Willy and Howard) on the chesterfield and three generations (19 of us in all) around that very warm "Findlay" kitchen range, now in its 100th year and more.

Our children meantime tried out the skates on the beaver pond, the snowshoes and skis in Almonte, where there was more than enough snow for beginners, while young Billy and Connie made a magnificent racket with their friend Susan, careening around on ski-doos. It was all exciting and so different from our previous summer visits when the porcupine and skunk held our attention in the orchards.

It was good to meet so many other on the weekly egg-round with Rene and Willy Bolger; so many like Mrs. Gunn on the 6th line wanted us to share their hospitality, Mrs. Gunn in fact recalling the gift of a small steer from Willy Bolger 50 years ago, when the latter was a mere stripling of 15 years!

We visited your Parliament in Ottawa, being given the extended tour once again. The sculpture gives a fitting and gracious tribute to the mother of Parliament, yet maple-rich and sweet and rugged in its own right, symbolizing what with sweat and humour has been hewn and what with skill and promise has yet to be carved.

There is a strong measure of independence here as regards children also, including their careers, education and finance. We have been struck by the number of students given a loan by their bank manager to be repaid in the summer by vacation work, rather than the nigh total reliance on parental and government grants, which is the norm in England.

Certainly Calabogie and the Whipple Tree there became the centre of attraction for the younger generation during the weekends. In spite of limitations of snow there was sufficient artificially created for the various skiing skills to be tested out on the beginners slop, the "Express" and even the "Tiger" for the intrepid, though none of our party were to descend the "Tiger" successfully! Instructor Bruce Buffan, Andrea Matheson’s fiancée, proved to be a most capable guide and leader to the fumbling British party; the "apres-ski" each time however was completed more successfully!

Then came shopping day at Lanark, several items being bought from the Kitten and shoe factories there. It was of great interest also to be kindly shown around the old mill and automated looms; likewise we were to see the maple syrup camp back at Clayton the next day – nothing automated here, however, and resembling more the illicit stills of Southern Ireland or the outer islands of Scotland.

That evening Ian Matheson proudly presented the CBC film on "the Foreign Legion" filmed in fact by himself also for family and guests such as the Mortimore’s of Stittsville, who also entertained us handsomely at their New Year’s Eve party until the early hours of 1980! It was also with Geoffrey Burrows and his wife Margaret and family of two promising lads, Michael and Patrick, power skating and field hockey respectively, and their figure skating sister, Anna. Geoffrey, I was to learn, was captain of field hockey at Cambridge in 1948, two years before I held the same position in the same college (St. Catherines) – happy memories!

As a prison governor in UK, it was of interest also to receive several calls from past friends in the service now working in the Canadian Penitentiary service or connected through the International Prisoner’s Aid Association.

Thus also it was a bittersweet occasion at "Mamma’s" in Almonte on Monday night, when 19 members of the family, three generations of Bolgers, Mathesons and Arnolds met with wives and friends once again through the generosity of Rene and Willy Bolger at the end of another (our eighth) visit to the family in 25 years. We adjourned for further refreshments to Howard and Valma Bolger’s house in Clayton to complete the additions to the family tree and further photographs by their son Brian and Carmel and family.

1979 was called a green Christmas by Canadians; it was whiter than white by British standards! Indeed it was of the essence of a Christmas card Christmas!

We return then to England with a kaleidoscope of the various worlds of ski, ski-doos and skates, of friends and friendships, of values that are worth the keeping, and traditions stills at the stage of greening, but firm-rooted in hospitable soil.

Another chapter of Canadian life is closed; we move into the 1980’s; we return to England for another year or two; we wish you all well and thank you once again.

Yours truly,

Adrian Arnold and family,

Dorking, England.