BACK IN NOVA SCOTIA
I drove off the Canso Causeway and headed along Highway 7 in the direction of Antigonish, being pursued the whole way by a cement mixer lorry whose driver obviously thought that driving within the speed limit was illegal. He was clearly interested in the contents of my boot, and if I had happened to have touched the brakes, he would have been in there with them.
I'd quite liked the look of Antigonish when I was here a couple of days ago, and I knew there were motels there, so this was where I had decided to spend the night. This would put me well on the way to Halifax where I planned to spend the next evening, and my early arrival would give me some time in the daylight to have a good look around and do my Christmas shopping.
So here is Antigonish. the home of the Highland Games. It was a neat, pretty town - first one I'd seen that had a real town centre, with a good assortment of shops with people out and about shopping and so on.
I really liked Antigonish. It was originally a mi'kmaq settlement, the name meaning "the place where bears break branches off the trees to collect beech nuts". The French tried to settle here in the 1650s but were driven off by the mi'kmaq and it wasn't for another 80 years or so that another serious attempt was made by Europeans to settle here.
In 1784 a permanent settlement was established here and named "Georgetown", and later renamed "Dorchester", the name reverting to "Antigonish" sometime between the 1820s and 1842. The "Highland Games" were established here in 1861 and in 1865 a small university - the St. Francis Xavier (or "St. Efex) Univesity, was granted a charter. The railway arrived in 1880.
The town has other claims to fame in that it was one of the pioneer centres for the Nova Scotia Co-operative Union movement, and that it has a really decent restaurant in which I had a superb vegetable curry.
The next morning I felt awful. It was the worst I'd felt for quite a few weeks. If I'd have been at home, I'd have stayed in bed. It was all I could do to get into the car. Out of the question to get out and take photographs.
I remember very little of the drive to Halifax that morning as I was definitely having a relapse. The road I took though was Highway 7 out of Antigonish across to the southern shore of Nova Scotia, and then along the coast to Dartmouth.
But dont worry if you think that you are missing something of the journey. I was back in Nova Scotia in 2010 and during that visit I took the opportunity to retrace my steps along the Nova Scotia coast to revisit the area that I missed.
First place I visited was the Macdonald Bridge. I'd been here once before but it was dark, so I was glad to get here in the light and have another look.
You probably know all about the bridge and the docks area having visited the site of my previous visit, so I won't bore you again.
One thing I didn't tell you though was that there's a mi'kmaq curse on the harbour, which states that any attempt to span it will meet with three disasters - one in a storm, one in the calm, and the third with a great death toll. In 1887 a railway bridge collapsed in the middle of a tremendous hurricane. A replacement bridge fell down for no good reason on one of the calmest nights ever recorded in the area. Next time I come here I'm bringing a canoe.
After the Macdonald Bridge, it was into the town for the shops. I eventually found a bookshop and bought a few books as Christmas presents for folks back home. Then it was motel-hunting time.
It took me absolutely ages to find a motel for the night. Anyone would think that a town like Halifax would be crawling with reasonable accommodation, but could I find anywhere? I saw a lot of the area while looking around, though.
Eventually I found a "Johnson" motel, but it was closed for renovation, so I asked in a nearby petrol station. The guy there was very helpful and pointed me in the right direction. So eventually I had to drive out almost to Bedford, where there were three or four quite close together on the expressway.
I chose the Wedgewood Motel, which set me back sixty dollars, and was quite "correct". No complaints from me. But it was far out of the town, and meant a long drive to get back to the centre and I was really not feeling well. I was sorely tempted to stay in my room and send for a pizza, but I'd come all this way to see Halifax and, ill or not, I wasn't going to stop now.
Halifax is another favourite place on my list, and it's not hard to see why. For a North-American city it's absolutely steeped in history and still retains much of its traditional past.
Named Chebucto by the mi'kmaq, Halifax was settled by General Cornwallis in the 1740s as an English naval base (due to the magnificent harbour here) to counteract the French naval base up the coast at Louisbourg, and due to its superb setting, the English preferred to destroy Louisbourg and develop their port here. Haligonians claim the harbour to be the second-biggest natural harbour in the world. Probably the most famous of Halifax's sons is, typically, the steamship tycoon Samuel Cunard, born November 21, 1787.
Its heyday was in the mid-1800s from when many of the magnificent buildings here date. High tariffs in the latter part of the 19th century diverted much of the trade to the U.S. ports. Nevetheless the city, whilst still maintaining an important maritime tradition (especially with the British and later Canadian Navy being established here) had developed sufficiently as an industrial centre to be able not to notice the slow decline in maritime revenue.
In 1912 the "Titanic" recovery operations were co-ordinated from here and many of the victims whose bodies were recovered are buried in several of the local cemeteries. Swissair flight 111 was lost off the coast here in September 1998 whilst trying to make the International Airport to deal with a fire that had broken out on board.
The area was a major assembly point for North-American shipping to assemble in both World Wars in order to form convoys to cross the Atlantic. I mentioned the Mont Blanc - Imo explosion of 1917 when I was here last time.
It is also home of the world's oldest joke.
"My husband is a sea captain. He works for Cunard"
My husband is a builder's labourer. He works quite hard, too".
I spent a couple of hours wandering around the old Victorian centre of Halifax in the dark, soaking up the atmosphere (of which there was plenty) before having an enormous salad in a Greek restaurant. After that, I returned to my motel. I was feeling really ill and the drive was a nightmare, but I'm glad I had returned to the city. I really liked Halifax. Each time I come here, I see a little more of the city, and each time I get to like it a bit more. And each time I promise I'll come back. And each time something happens that I never ever get to see enough of it.
However, no such issues in 2010. I was down here on my way back to Toronto after having fulfilled my lifetime's dream of travelling The Trans-Labrador Highway (yes, I don't 'arf take some famous deviations in the name of keeping my audience entertained, you lucky people).
I timed my arrival for the Saturday evening so that I would have a whole day Sunday to prowl around the city and I was treated to one of the nicest days that I had ever had in Canada. Consequently, when you read my account of my exploration of the city you will be just as impressed as I was
Back in 2003 however, next morning I felt worse that ever, and added to that, the weather had broken and it was snowing quite heavily. I was in two minds as to whether to stay here another day and go back to bed, but eventually decided to press on.
My route took me northwards along Highway 2 out of Halifax in the general direction of Truro and points north. Last time I'd been here, I'd taken the the expressway, Highway 102, so this time I reckoned I'd stay on the traditional roads. There wasn't a lot of traffic about, and the traffic became less and less as the snow came down heavier and heavier.
Slowly and carefully I drove to Truro - another place I had an intention to visit, but I just couldn't get out of the car. Pity.
Well, not quite. I did leave the car at the Canadian Tyre depot here as I needed some screenwash. I'd run out and I could no longer see through the windscreen for the dirt. Of course up here in these temperatures you have to put neat stuff in as water will instantly freeeze. But I digress
Truro is one of the oldest "European" towns in Nova Scotia and was built on the site of a mi'kmaq settlemnt called "Cobequid". The Acadians were the first to settle here, in the early seventeenth century, but after the expulsions on the 1750s, it became an "Irish" town. The mid 1800s saw the establishment of a teacher-training college, and from here teachers were sent to the villages and communities of rural Nova Scotia to man the one-room schools.
So, enough of Truro. Time to move on. Highway 4 due west. First thing I noticed was a "Mini" bodyshell sitting in a field. I didn't know they'd exported Minis to Canada. You live and learn.
Over the Cobequid mountains, and what a disappointment. There was snow to be sure but I didn't really notice that I'd gone over them until I arrived in Oxford. They certainly weren't the mountains and the roads I was expecting to see, having been lured on by names such as "Folly Pass" and the like. I certainly didn't see any problem at all with driving over them despite the snow that was falling. I'm really curious to see what some of these North American writers would make of some of the roads I know back in Europe.
Or maybe it's just me. I dunno. When I was here before, I'd taken the highway from Halifax to Amherst. The section that goes over the Cobequids is a toll road, and I don't suppose they'd put a toll over an area that anyone would be able to by-pass with an easy drive.
At Oxford, I turned off the Highway and headed for Springhill. For two reasons, really but driving into Springhill I saw what I'm sure was what appeared to be a "Sprite 400" caravan - another item I didn't expect to be exported to Canada.
By now I was feeling a little bit better so I was able to leave the car and take a photograph or two. Here's a shot of Springhill. Not a particularly inspiring town, as you can see. So what are the two reasons that bring me here? Well, it's the home of famous mining disasters and of Anne Murray (she of "Snowbird" fame).
The Anne Murray visitor centre is up the road ahead and on the left (you can see it at the top of the hill in the enlarged photo), whereas the mining museum is behind me down a side-road on my right.
The High Street that you can see in the photograph has been badly damaged by fire on several occasions, notably in 1895,1931, 1957 and 1975.
The area was first settled by Europeans at the end of the 18th century as there were several springs of fresh water on the hillside here (hence the name - "Spring Hill"). It was primarily an agricultural settlement until 1830, when coal was discovered. This coal was exploitated on a small scale at first, but in the 1870s large-scale mining commenced. In a matter of twenty or so years, 1300 people were employed here and more than 200 tons of coal were being mined each day.
Experts said that the coal was inexhaustible, which is more than can be said for the people who worked here. There were few safety standards and minor accidents were legion. Hardly a year went by without at least a couple of deaths. Then, in 1891, there was a disaster.
For much of the month of February 1891 there had been an uneasy feeling in the mine, so much so that on the 20th of February a safety inspection was made. This pronounced the pit safe and free from gas. The next day, 21st February 1891 a violent explosion tore shaft number 1 to pieces and 125 men and boys, some aged 12 and 13, were killed.
A second explosion took place in pit number 4 on the 1st of November 1956 and 39 were killed. The pit had to be sealed off in an attempt to extinguish the fires. The media was much more pervasive in society of course, so this explosion was much more notorious.
A third disaster occurred on 23 October 1958. A shaft collapsed in pit 2 at a depth of 13,000 feet, and 75 miners lost their lives. Some of the survivors were not rescued until 1st November, and Peggy Seeger (half-sister of Pete, wife of Ewan McColl and step-mother of Kirsty)'s song "The Ballad of Springhill", otherwise-known as the U2 song "Springhill Mining Disaster" refers to their plight.
There was also a serious underground fire in 1916
The mines were finally closed in 1971. One thing though about the abandoned mines is that the warm water that has inundated them is now being tapped for its geothermal energy.
The mining museum was, as you expect, closed. Although not entirely unexpected, it was still a shame, because apparently you can actually descend some way down into the mine itself. I've never been down a coal mine before.
The Chatterley-Whitfield colliery museum in Stoke on Trent abandoned its descent in the 1980s after the Miners Strike of the late 70s and early 80s caused the pit to be flooded. In any case, I discovered when I was in Stoke on Trent in 2006 that the museum had now closed down.
The Anne Murray Centre was opened in June 1989 in Springhill, the town where this Canadian singer was born on 20th June 1945. And much to my surprise (and to yours, too, if you've been carefully following these pages) the Centre was open. Well, at least the gift shop was. The exhibition however, was closed. I wasn't really sure exactly what there would be in the exhibition - I mean it's not as if she's on the same level of stardom as many international superstars. Good singer though she undoubtedly is, most people remember "Snowbird" and nothing else.
However, I spent a pleasant 15 minutes talking to two members of staff who were there, one of whom had recently been visiting family in England.
So that was Springhill. Now it was time to move on. Next stop Amherst, another town I'd visited on my previous expedition.
Amherst was named after the General Amherst who distinguished himself at the capture of Louisbourg, and who accepted the surrender of Montreal in 1760. The town was however originally called "Cumberland" and the name wasn't changed until 1841.
One thing I've not been able to work out is how come I've been here twice and each time I've forgotten to take any photographs.
Not so a few miles further down the road where there's the "Nova Scotia Visitor Centre" just this side of the border with New Brunswick. Again, there wasn't a lot going on here - the place seemed to be pretty deserted.
It wasn't worth hanging around - I couldn't even get a cup of coffee here - so I set off to drive the mile or so and cross the Missiquash River into New Brunswick.