A tribute to Chester, Nova Scotia
Explorer and author Sir Christopher Ondaatje escapes each summer to the shores of Nova Scotia. This is his tribute to Chester.
By Sir Christopher Ondaatje
|Scenes of serenity, such as this one of sail boats in Mahone Bay, are common in Chester, N.S. (Photo: Gary Corbett/First Light)
My heart is not on Highland
Nor that tanned Bermuda island
And remembering Ceylon is hard for me.
And my heart is not on Bay Street
Where the moguls run ’round bare feet
When you’ve been there once that’s all there is to see.
And my love is not in England
I don’t like a Queen and King land
Pomp and circumstance are far too much for me.
And Europe’s just too distant
One can’t get there in an instant
The price for freedom’s much too high a fee.
Give me taste of salt and windswept
Lifting fog and lilting sunset
Sailing down Back Harbour, out but back for tea.
Berry picking on the hillside
Boats moored carefree, low and high tide
And the sound of gulls, that’s where I want to be.
I can feel the mist rise slowly
And the plaintive loon call lowly
Oh! I pray one day I can afford the fee.
Just to buy a one-way ticket
Far from crowded city thicket
Down to Chester, Nova Scotia, by the sea.
— Sir Christopher Ondaatje
(Click to hear Sir Christopher Ondaatje reading his poem, Daydream)
A lot of people know about Chester, N.S.,
but nobody talks about it. They simply don’t want anyone
else to go there. Chester is a tiny village, with a population
of 1,200 people, 68 kilometres west of Halifax. The winters
are terrible, damp and cold, and the springs very wet, but
the summers are glorious, causing the population to grow
to something more than 2,400. The town overlooks islanddotted
Mahone Bay, and is a sailor’s paradise. Inscrutable
weather patterns, with fog and high winds, and seasonal
tides make the yacht racing interesting and competitive,
bringing boats in from around North America to compete
in the mid-August Race Week. When the summer weather
is over — usually around Labour Day in September — there
follows a glorious cool month with plenty of sunshine and
steady winds. Then there is time to recover and think of the
eventful days behind you.
The village of Chester, situated on a peninsula halfway
along the coast of Mahone Bay, is one of the most picturesque
communities anywhere. A summer haven for generations
of Americans and Canadians, and only recently
discovered by the British, it dates back 224 years, when it
was settled by New England planters and fishermen. For
years the New Englanders had sailed from the harbour of
Massachusetts on their annual spring voyage to the local
fishing banks. In 1761, a vessel carrying 18 adults and 10 children first dropped anchor in what is now Chester
Harbour. The early settlers were the first to receive grants
of land in the newly formed township, to which they gave
the name of Shoreham. A blockhouse was built to protect
the village and its settlers from attack. It still stands today
as a summer residence.
The original settlers were chiefly farmers, but fishing
became a dominant industry as the years passed. Shipbuilding
became rather important as well, and the community continued
to prosper. It was renamed Chester in 1760.
Household effects and wooden frames for the houses were brought over in holds of sailing vessels, and to this day
Chester maintains the quiet air of a New England town.
Thirty-six years ago my wife rented an old 19th-century
frame house at the edge of the Back Harbour in
Chester. She picked me up at the Halifax airport where
my plane from England had arrived on a late July afternoon.
A heat wave was in progress, but as we approached
the village an hour later in the early evening, the temperature
dropped considerably. Exhausted from my travels,
I sat on the deck of the house looking westward across
the moored boats at the setting sun. It was spectacularly
beautiful, with the unique tangerine colour so identifiable
with the coastal regions of eastern North America.
I sipped a Schooner beer and, because of the fast-falling
temperature, I watched the fog roll in, obliterating the
sun and very nearly everything else. I could only see a few
feet in front of me. My disappointed wife said, “Don’t
worry, it’s not always like this,” and urged me to get
indoors before I caught my death of cold. But I didn’t
move. I was mesmerized. It was spellbinding. I felt as
though I had died and gone to heaven.
We have been back to Chester every summer since then.
We now live on Meisners Island — a remarkable place that
covers 40 hectares and looks out onto Chester’s Front
Harbour. The island has a unique place in history, as it was
caught up in the war between the young United States and
Great Britain two centuries ago. On June 27, 1813, the
schooner-rigged American privateer Young Teazer was
chased into Mahone Bay by several British ships. The
Young Teazer was about to be captured when one of her
crew members apparently threw a burning coal into the
powder magazine. It’s thought that seven of the approximately
three-dozen American crew survived. The remains
of the ship were towed into Chester and eventually beached
on the island. The hull was sold and used as the foundation
of what is now the Rope Loft Restaurant on the mainland,
while part of the keel became the wooden cross in St.
Stephen’s Church. Sometimes on June 27, though not
every year, a strange blue fire can be seen from the mainland
on the horizon at almost the exact spot where the
Teazer was blown to smithereens.
My wife and I bought Meisners Island 20 years ago, after
I dreamed it was for sale. We go there every summer, as do
our children and grandchildren, who come from Devon
and West Sussex in England, and Los Angeles and
Connecticut in the United States. Over time we have
cleared away the dead spruce trees, created fields of grass on
the three rounded hills that surround the freshwater lake and allowed new spruce and birch to come up so as to create
a haven. But it is Chester, really, that is the paradise.
Many homes still have individual wells and development
in the township has been slow for more than 200 years.
Centuries-old frame houses dot the shore on both the Front
and Back harbours and up the quiet streets leading to the
local theatre and post office. Everyone leaves everyone else
alone. There is an 18-hole golf course that skirts one of the
peninsulas jutting out into Mahone Bay, and the tiny,
quaint tennis club is a centre of activity in the summer
for both local and summer residents. Two antique shops,
a coffee shop and an excellent restaurant are popular meeting
places during the summer. The grocery store, pharmacy
and hardware store are on the village outskirts. The Chester
Yacht Club, however, is the cauldron of summer activity,
hosting not only Chester Race Week, but also lobster feasts
and chicken roasts, and one of the best junior sailing schools
in the Maritimes. Old clothes and docksiders, with “yellows”
for wet weather, are the most popular dress code,
except for the occasional night out at the Playhouse theatre
or a fancy dinner at one of the larger peninsula houses.
It is only a short season, then, all too soon, it is over.
Those who go back to their busy lives in the cities of North
America or to Europe after Labour Day will miss the cool nights and steady breezes of September. But few will forget
about the place that for the shortest time has become their
summer paradise. And fewer still will talk about the secret
they have discovered.