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red bay strait belle isle newfoundland labrador canada october octobre 2010

And so down the hill I continue until I am presented with a really spectacular view of the Straits of Belle Isle, a freighter therein, and the setting for a village and fishing centre that can only be described as "stunning". And there really isn't any other word to use. You can't get any better than this.

Red Bay is an important port of call for me on my way southwards. This place has quite a history. And when you see places such as The Whaling Station Cabins and all that kind of thing and realise how quickly people are getting in on the act, you'll understand that this area has a major connection with whaling.

A chance find of a document in some archaic and dusty Spanish archives rebounded right across the Atlantic into Red Bay with the force of a hurricane. Or, to be more precise, the force of a major Autumn storm.

I reach the bottom of the hill at 83.8 kilometres since rejoining the highway after Mary's Harbour. And I immediately notice two things. Firstly there's a matching gate to the one up near Lodge Bay. This is where they close the road northwards in inclement weather. And secondly we are on a metalled road - the first that I have seen since leaving Goose Bay, which was about a year ago.

We also have a petrol station, a shop - all mod cons in fact. What with the metalled road and the gate to close off the wilderness, this must really be civilisation. There's also someone with a home-made greenhouse on his plot. Now isn't that what they call optimism? I don't think that you could even persuade a Combrailles courgette to grow around here.

red bay newfoundland labrador canada october octobre 2010

And so let's talk about Red Bay for a while. It is one of the most historic places in the whole of Canada, and yet nothing at all was known about its astonishing past until comparatively recently. And when the facts unravelled itself, all research into its more recent history ground to a shuddering halt.

And that's a shame because its more recent history, or such that I have been able to uncover, is fascinating enough and I wish that there was more information available.

saddle island red bay newfoundland labrador canada october octobre 2010

Just one glance at the situation of the village, clinging to the shores of the sea just here, will tell you everything that you need to know about the history of the area. And that is of course that whatever economic development that there was around here was firmly connected to the sea.

It's hard to imagine that there might be anywhere else along the coast a large bay as accessible as this one and yet as sheltered from the extremes of the weather. There's a large island right across the mouth of the bay blocking the worst of the easterlies, and another large island in the bay itself to give added protection from the wind.

The island across the mouth of the bay is called Saddle Island, presumably due to its shape, being depressed in the centre and raised at each end, rather like the saddle of a horse.

organs island victorian atlantic cod fishery strait belle isle red bay newfoundland labrador canada october octobre 2010

On Organ's Island, the island in the centre of the bay, there are some very interesting buildings. One look at them is all it takes to pinpoint the date of their construction as "early Victorian" and I was right. I was told that they date from the 1850s.

The complex is actually an early cod-drying plant. Red Bay was one of the most important centres along the Labrador coast for cod-processing and it must have been a heaving, vibrant place to be when the cod harvest came home, and I would dearly like to find out more about it.

mv bernier collier shipwreck saddle island red bay newfoundland labrador canada october octobre 2010

But the bay is extremely deceptive and its apparent security can be an illusion. Any ancient mariner will tell you that in November in this part of the world the wind can swing round dramatically and blow heavy gales off the shore and out towards the sea.

Many people have been caught unawares by this, including the crew of the MV Bernier, a ship that looks very much to me like a tramp steamer of the 1920s or 1930s

mv bernier collier shipwreck saddle island red bay newfoundland labrador canada october octobre 2010

She was here unloading coal at the wharf in November 1964 and was suddenly taken in the changing wind. She broke away from her moorings and was driven across the bay to be dashed onto the rocks on the island that is across the mouth of the bay.

Of course, it's a totally uneconomic proposition to salvage her. Getting a salvage crew up here, cutting her up and then shipping out the scrap by road to the nearest smelter, presumably at Sydney on Cape Breton Island, is hardly likely to be a profitable enterprise. The expensive stuff, like the machinery, seems to have gone, though.

I would have been quite happy to have spent an hour or two poking around the Bernier but I didn't have the time - there were other things that I needed to be doing.

And so I mentioned the wind and the contrary nature of the November gales. And this is how our story really begins.

Back in the 1970s a woman doing some research into the activities of the early Basque whalers in the mid 16th Century was given access to the very dusty contemporary Basque archives held amongst the Spanish national records. And in amongst all of the unrecorded papers she uncovered a very lengthy, rambling letter from the leader of a series of Basque whaling expeditions across the Atlantic that had lasted 20 or 30 years. In it he recounted all of the vicissitudes that had befallen his expedition.

The expeditions started out in the 1550s and hunted the Newfoundland Right Whale, which headed southwards through the Straits of Belle Isle in summer. They would kill the whales, drag them into suitable bay where they would cut them up, salvage the meat and oil, and then sail back to Europe in the early autumn with the valuable parts of the animals such as the whalemeat and the oil.

The crews were of course fed almost exclusively on the whale meat and the cry of Vera Lynn, who in her youth was a cook on a Basque whaler across the Atlantic in the 16th Century, became a national byword. Who, having heard it, will ever forget her strident call of "Whale Meat Again!" "are you sure about this?" ...ed

The Right Whale was hunted almost into oblivion after only a couple of years, so claimed the leader of the expedition, and in a desperate attempt to salvage something from a disappointing season's activities, one of the ships lingered in the Strait after the remainder of the fleet had departed for home, in the hope of catching a straggler. But instead of a straggler or two, the crew discovered the start of the migration of the Bowhead Whales.

The Bowhead Whales were much bigger, they were certainly more numerous, and they provided much more oil. The news of this new oil strike, so to speak, spread around the whaling fleets like wildfire and so the next season, the ships stayed later in order to exploit them. But this is when their difficulties really began.

They first enountered the contrary November winds in 1565 when the San Juan, fully loaded and ready to sail for home, was torn from its moorings and driven onto the rocks of an island in the mouth of their bay. In 1574 the Madeleina, "too badly damaged" (although by what cause we do not know) to sail back in the foul November weather, was left behind in the bay to be recovered and repaired the next year. But when they returned, they found that the ship had been caught in the ice and crushed. Another year, a third ship caught fire while being loaded with oil. It burnt down to the waterline and then sank. A fourth ship was also lost later, from an unknown cause, and its cargo lost.

The value of a cargo of whale products could be immense and so the crew members were really playing for high stakes. The risks that they took were enormous. As well as that, staying later in the year caused terrible hardship to the men. There were reports of countless deaths of crew members by exposure, drowning and so on.

As the researcher read on, she was struck by the astonishing amount of detail given in this rambling report. The sites of the lost ships were given with a most extraordinary precision and the positions of other relevant landmarks and points of importance seemed to be recorded with a similar accuracy. So much so that the researcher was convinced that she could identify with ease the likely bay used by the whalers.

One glance at a map of Canada was enough.

Red Bay.

She came hot-foot (or chaud-pied as they say in Québec and I've no idea at all what they say in San Salvador) to Red Bay, went over to a site that she identified as corresponding with the description of where the melting pots were said to be, and immediately started to pull up from the soil fragments of red terracotta roofing tile of a type never known in North America and yet corresponding in every detail with those found back in the Basque regions of Spain.

The rest is, as they say, history.

And so it was with all of this in mind that I had come for a good look around Red Bay. And I had a most extraordinary stroke of good fortune. Red Bay has been proposed by the Canadian Authorities to UNESCO in order that it might be classified as a World Heritage Site, and right at the moment when I arrived, someone from the archaeological expedition here was showing some Government officials around the excavations and giving an informal talk on the subject.

Never one to pass up an opportunity, and seeing that there was only me around here, I quickly blagged my way onto the tail of this impressive gathering and was given the privilege of an almost-exclusive tour of the site, for which I am extremely grateful.

basque whaling station site red bay newfoundland labrador canada october octobre 2010

When I tagged onto the end of this tour, the party was standing more-or-less on this spot. Where all of the stones are is said to be the position of the quay where all of the whales were landed for cutting up. It was here that the roofing tiles were uncovered.

There are no real wooden remains though, and this is hardly surprising after the passage of 450 years or so. Nevertheless, in a marshy bog on the site they discovered some barrel staves and that kind of thing. The acidy, peaty nature of the water in the bog would preserve to a certain extent any wood that found its way into there.

basque whaling station site red bay newfoundland labrador canada october octobre 2010

The view of the same spot from the roadway gives a different perspective of the shore. It is believed, from the 16th Century report, that the coopers' sheds (for they would need to make barrels to transport the whale oil) were built into the bank just here, and the results of excavations just there have given support to this proposition.

Of course there is nothing to see today, but who knows how the project is going to develop in the future?

basque whaling station historic site red bay newfoundland labrador canada october octobre 2010

There's a third photo that I took of that site, from a little further round the bay.

If you look carefully at the surface on the slope behind the large wooden shed on the shore you can see that it is disturbed and there are hummocks and low mounds on the bank. Not that there is anything here in Labrador to set any kind of standard, but if I had seen that kind of disturbance in Europe, it would immediately have suggested itself to be caused by some kind of human occupation.

Mind you, it might be disturbed because it heard that I was coming. That's a possibility.

basque historic whaling station site saddle island red bay newfoundland labrador canada october octobre 2010

There were at least two sites involved with the processing of the whales. The second one is on the island in the mouth of the bay and was roughly where the camera was pointing to take this shot - the depression in the foreground below the wooden pole.

It was over there that the melting pot, or cauldron or whatever you want to call it was kept.

mv bernier collier shipwreck basque historic whaling station cemetery grave red bay newfoundland labrador canada october octobre 2010

I mentioned the enormous casualties that had occurred in the bay during its occupation by the whaling fleets. A cemetery was uncovered - over there on Saddle Island to the left of the Bernier, and 140 graves were found.

The interred ranged from young boys to older adults and the causes of death, such as could be quickly discerned, were numerous and varied. Samples of cloth were recovered and this gave an idea of the apparel worn by the whalers bck in the 16th Century.

Now as if this sort of excitement isn't enough for one day, I was told that there would be an informal meeting at 13:00 at the Visitor Centre so that the Visiting Dignitaries could inspect the artefacts. And seeing as I was here and interested, I was invited to attend.

Now I'm always interested in inspecting anyone's artefacts as you know, and so I duly accepted the invitation.
"Very good - see you in an hour"
"You mean an hour and a half don't you? It's only 11:24"
"No - an hour. We're on Newfoundland time here once you are south of Cartwright"

Well, no wonder people were looking at me strangely at Mary's Harbour this morning when I went down to breakfast. Now I know.

This now has all the air of being a serious inconvenience. I have a ferry tonight at 18:30, I'm already half-an-hour behind thanks to the unexpected decallage horaire, and I've now been invited to an unscheduled private visit around a closed exhibition centre in the company of the curator and some Government Bigwigs. But then again, regardless of ferry schedules and the like, it's still three weeks before I head home and so I'm not going to miss out on this opportunity. There will always be another ferry.

In this respect, it's no good suggesting to me that I ought to come on these expeditions of mine during the tourist season.

I've worked out that it doesn't make any difference whether I come here in the summer or winter. In the summer I can't get into the motels and the tourist attractions because they are all full of tourists and in the winter I can't get into the motels and the tourist attractions because they are all closed. And there's no dividing line between the two either. It's merely a sudden, abrupt and unnoticeable change.

red bay view to newfoundland strait belle isle labrador canada october octobre 2010

And so to pass the time, one of the things that I did was to go right down to the furthest end of the promontory. You can't go any further than this and the whole point of coming here and taking this photo was to prove to the doubters and cynics that even at sea level on the Canadian mainland in Labrador you can see Newfoundland clearly across the Strait of Belle Isle.

And you have to agree with me that the view across the Strait is magnificent in the weather that we are having today. No wonder Archie Fisher was so inspired to write songs about it.

abandoned house declining population red bay newfoundland labrador canada october octobre 2010

But talking of waxing lyrical and all of that, I crossed to the other side of the bay to look at some of the abandoned houses (the population of Red Bay is in decline) and to see if there was a closer view of the Bernier. But I was rather sidetracked.

I bumped into this Canadian couple - a man and a woman. They do all kinds of weird things such as the man sitting amongst the beautiful scenery seeking inspiration and then playing the accordion while his wife films him and the scenery on video. We had quite a chat and they gave me a CD of their music, which was really quite nice of them and I appreciated that.

Somehow, though, it didn't seem to fit in with the environment. Folk musicians usually travel around in derelict Volkswagen microbuses doing esoteric things like this. Doing it in an almost new bright red Dodge Charger seemed somehow out of place.

It reminded me very much of the legendary Rambling Sid Rumpo and his "I been a'rambling and a'wandering and a'gypsying up and down the country-o driving my Continental Bentley-o, dilly dilly daffy down my spong"

spectacular red bay newfoundland labrador canada october octobre 2010

I mentioned that four Basque whaling ships had been reported as being lost in the bay, and that the leader of the expedition had been most particular in his report about the position of the sinking of at least two of them.

I mentioned that the San Juan had been torn from its moorings and dashed onto the rocks across the bay by the November gales and that another ship had burnt and sank at the quayside. Both of the ships were immediately located by divers from the archaeological team, in exactly the positions where they were said to be. Because of the cold, dark slightly acidic water in the bay, their remains were very well-preserved and were easily identified.

And by one of those ironies that happen so unexpectedly, the San Juan foundered at almost exactly the same spot as the Bernier. That is something of a remarkable coincidence, or maybe it is more of an indication of the reliability of the winds and the tides.

basque historic whaling station site original whaling barge rowing boat red bay newfoundland labrador canada october octobre 2010

By now it was time for the visit to the exhibition centre, and I was treated to a very personalised tour. So now I can tell you everything that there is to know about medaeival whaling, as well as a host of other things of interest, including the useful fact that ships in those days were built on the proportion of 3-2-1 - the length was 3, the keel was 2 and the beam was 1.

Now the boat that you can see in this photo here - it is in fact an original Basque whaling barge. The ship that sank at the quayside pulled this boat down with it and crushed it when the landed on the sea bed. It was recovered when the ship was excavated, and reassembled here for display purposes in the exhibition. A couple of other whaling barges have also been recovered.

I had my money's worth here in Red Bay, I can tell you. It certainly was the highlight to date of my voyage. I'm really lucky that I stumbled upon this Government party and that I made the time to stay here for the visit.

But I haven't really finished with Red Bay. Just a quick glance at the huge Victorian cod processing factory, the wreck of the Bernier, the size of the place and the facilities on offer, there must be quite an important history to Red Bay of a more recent date.

And yet the discovery of the Basque whaling station, make no mistake that it is probably one of the most significant finds in the whole of the country, has nevertheless led to the concentration of all of the local resources into that particular site at the expense of anything else in the area. And so who knows what else of an important yet different historical value is being overlooked?

And not only that either. I heard it said in other places that I visited that the concentration of funds into the whaling station has led to the withdrawal of funding for other matters of historical value in Newfoundland and Labrador and is putting these sites at risk.

Other important matters of historical significance in Newfoundland and Labrador are being totally ovelooked. Does anyone realise the significance that the province played in the conquest of the Atlantic? The first successful transatlantic flight took off from Trepassey Bay and there was also the race between five groups of flyers to be the first to make a non-stop crossing. And yet almost nothing is known about any of this.

When Harry Hawker took off on his unsuccessful non-stop attempt he jettisoned his undercarriage, and according to Peter Allen in his book The 91 before Lindbergh, it was handed to a museum at St Johns. I did a tour of every single relevant museum that I could find when I was in St Johns , and no-one had any trace of it, nor even knew anything about it. I remembered thinking that here was another important piece of history that has been lost forever in the excitement.

The work that is being carried on to investigate the Basque whaling station is magnificent and it is quite right that a major national effort should be made in this respect, but I can't help feeling that, just like with conjurers, everyone is watching the wrong hand and has taken their eye off the ball elsewhere.

And I can go on mixing my metaphors for as long as anyone likes, but it's still something that I find a little unsettling.

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