Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Day 10: Dundurn Castle & Stoney Creek

The morning dragged from 6am, when my eyes opened and refused to reseal. We had breakfast (a Banana Nut Nutella Muffin for me!) then spent so much time doing nothing that it was soon late enough for housekeeping to attempt a break-in. Then our trials truly began.

The two museums I wanted to visit were only open 12-4pm which already wiped out the morning and made things a bit of a squeeze. We’d need to rely on buses that a Hamilton website assured me were the correct ones.

We left the hotel at 10:30am and looked for Bus 5. It took some wandering around to find it. Then the driver directed us to another road/stop. This other Bus 5 turfed us off; the driver said he went nowhere near Dundurn Castle and we should find Bus 8. Eventually found the stop in question but, unlike in Australia, stops here do not have a schedule, merely a number, making things so confusing.

At 11:15, I returned to the hotel, defeated by Hamilton’s public transportation system and upset that the walk to Dundurn Castle could have been accomplished in this time. We arranged a taxi at the front of the hotel. We were conveyed within minutes to our destination.

Dundurn Castle - worth the angst

It was 25 minutes before opening time so we wandered about, taking in the expansive green lawn that led to a stately 18th century mansion (fashionably called a “castle”). I hunted down earthworks, eventually finding a suspicious ridge at the back of Dundurn, extending over a long drop. A very defensible position by all accounts but where would the earthworks be on the edge?

Baffling earthworks = pretty path

Hamilton’s peculiar ham stench was strongest here and I saw some industrial activity down by the water of Hamilton Harbour. Later in the day I would remember my Canadian Internet friend telling me that Hamilton smelled bad because of this. Mystery solved! It also made my fiancĂ© wonder if the high numbers of people with physical disabilities on downtown Hamilton’s streets were caused by this. I am dubious and still think Hamilton is Mobility Scooter Central because it is so flat.

Anyway, we returned to the gift shop, a separate building from the grand house. At 12pm on the dot (no earlier!) they opened the door and sold tickets to a small cluster of us, promising an instant tour once the last of us had paid.

We were told that this building was the old coach house and had once been wooden, which was considered a bad idea because FIRE. The house itself was built in the 1830s for “Sir Allan” (our guide said his name so fondly and casually - he is Sir Allan McNab), after the War of 1812. Earlier it had been a farmhouse with British soldiers parked behind earthworks. The farmhouse was incorporated into the hella large “castle”. When we were in the basement later, a section of the wall had been left exposed to reveal the old foundations. A house within a house - which may explain the odd levels that did not always match up.

Our guide bypassed the front door by going in another entrance - the curator preferred the main door not to be opened lest it gain too much wear and tear. Dundurn was explained to us as being brick but with the appearance of stone.

As we entered through the side, our guide pointed out skylights in the ground - for the tunnel. It was built so British soldiers could escape beneath the earthworks should they be overrun by Americans. Curiously, there was a building on top of it instead of earthworks. What gives? Dear Sir Allan re-landscaped. It made sense now. The odd ridge at the back must have been caused by the earthworks being destroyed.

Then we were inside. It was a smaller Downton Abbey, but not by much! Sir Allan wasn’t filthy rich so no marble or really high ceilings for him. No, he had the walls painted to look like marble and, following the fashion of the day, had the door knobs lowered because people started figuring out that if you did that, it made your walls look taller and more expensive.

Note the marble-painted wall!

Dundurn has 40 rooms, most of which were restored and furnished. 19 were below in the basement. The library and study were referred to by our guide as a “man cave” because of course women didn’t go in there to read or discuss political matters.

Glass was very expensive back in the day and often broke on the way to Canada from England so twice the amount was always ordered for the journey. 95% of the original floorboards creaked and cracked beneath our feet as we traipsed about, trying to shrink after being told that we should not even touch the walls, lest they be destroyed. Treated handrails were allowed to know the acid of our fingers, probably for OH&S reasons.

Pretty swanky sitting room.

An impressive house, made more so by “technology”. Water was pumped from cisterns for cooking and cleaning. It was fed from the attic to the bath for the men’s bathroom (very cold water for them!). Women of course never wanted people to know when they were naked so they had hip tubs in their rooms. Hot water was brought to them for that purpose.

The bedrooms were small but the beds could comfortably sleep my 6 foot brother. The sitting room was where everything else happened, such as entertaining friends. The two MacNab daughters shared a sitting room. We were told that MacNab’s oldest daughter married some British dude and moved over there with him, eventually becoming an ancestress of Camilla Parker-Bowles, who, our guide proudly said, is the Royal Patron of Dundurn, the only site in Canada to claim such an honour.

Not a bad place for a nap...

We went past the butler’s room and dumbwaiter to the lower level. Our guide claimed that Dundurn would have been quite a good house to work at - hand-pumped water gas lights aaand windows down in the basement! Luxury!

The spices were kept locked up, the key for the chef alone. Spices were of course very expensive. In the kitchen we tried shortbread cooked on the old cast iron cooker. Tasty. The cook there was teaching two summer students. We were told we were lucky the fire had only just started - the place would be hell later. Then we went through the old tunnel (the oldest part of the place) to the wood vault which was actually where British troops had originally kept things that went boom.

We were released into sunshine so traded our crumpled tickets to enter the nearby military museum where I gorged myself on the details of the War of 1812. From here the British sent their forces that night, to the Battle of Stoney Creek…

We walked back to the hotel via lunch. It was 2:40pm. We had to chance yet another taxi to make it in time. Then we were finally at Battlefield House and Museum, marking the area where the Battle of Stoney Creek took place on June 6, 1813.

From what I can gather, no one won land or power in the War of 1812 but it set the Canadians apart from the Americans. The British were outnumbered for this particular battle, but they struck at night to hide their numbers. They nabbed two generals and sent the Americans packing. Canada’s future - in particular, Ontario - was safe!

Having just got there in time for a tour with two other people, we were first taken to a monument built in 1913 to commemorate 100 years of peace with the US. It was like a faux castle with the shape of a stegosaurus’ long neck. Many stairs. We were actually able to see Toronto and its CN Tower from there! It was erected by the granddaughter of the people who lived in the house when it was captured by American troops.

Compensating for something? ;)

We walked down a path lined with greenery to the house that had belonged to the Gage family. First a log cabin in 1796, it became a “storey-and-a-half frame house”. Guessing this explains the bricks inside wooden grids in the walls. Later in the 1830s, while MacNab was splashing out at Dundurn, the more modest Gage family was converting their attic into a second floor to hold the bedrooms needed for their 10 children.

The 400 acres they owed was given - simply given - to them because they said they were loyal to Britain, despite moving from America. There was original stencilling on the plaster. Wow. Such an old leaf pattern and a sign of wealth. Someone was paid to do that - and to paint the fireplace to look like it was made of marble!!

This house: outlasting battles since 1813

The guide passed around an earthy brown block and asked us to guess what it is - an expensive commodity, she said. One of the other people with us said it was cinnamon but I rolled my eyes and said it was tea. I was the only one who guessed correctly.

Later, upstairs, another owner added a ballroom. The floor sloped in a room up there; wires were slowly fixing it. We played skittles, a 19th century game like miniature bowling - it had tiny pins in compartments. You wind string around a spinner, pull hard and watch it go. I scored 100, the highest the guide had ever seen. Everyone else got 25 or 5.

Down in the old basement were hand hewn beams in the ceiling - they still bore the axe marks. Wow. The female Gages were thrown down here when the American troops arrived, turning the building into their headquarters. A neighbour noticed and went to Burlington (now Dundurn) to warn the British.

After the Battle of Stoney Creek, the family went on with their lives. Huzzah. I looked out at the flat, grassy battlefield. A warm, pleasant place to fight in June. Less of a clusterfuck than the Scots’ attempted night battle at Culloden in Scotland.

Picnic spot or battle site?

Later, we discovered that the gift shop building was actually a 19th century house belonging to a branch of the Gage family who donated it. A truck moved it to its current location.

It was interesting to see the difference between the two houses. The MacNabs had water pumps in the 1830s - the Gages kept using buckets and bowls. You can guess who had more money.

We walked to a friend’s workplace nearby. Had dinner with her, then she put us on the right bus to get “home”.

Now in hotel room. There is an annoying vibrating sound as construction is being done somewhere in the building…at 9pm at night. Ugh.

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