The homes of New Hampshire

By | Category: Travel destinations

Celia's gardenAs we drove through the villages of New Hampshire I was struck by the colourful clapboard houses: azurite, cinnabar, malachite, verdigris, dove grey and bone black are just some of the traditional paint shades still in use. Some houses were genuinely old, dating from the early 1600s when this area was colonised by the British, but even the more recently built ones have stuck to a simple, pleasing siding or shingle design.

Our destination on this drive was Portsmouth, the biggest town on New Hampshire’s 18 mile seacoast – and for me it was love at first sight. This little town had everything that I desire of a holiday destination; craft studios, fashion boutiques, pretty gardens, theatres, galleries, bookshops, restaurants serving local specialities – the best of which is fresh boiled lobster served with melted butter and new season’s vegetables – and almost too many interesting things to do. All linked by a free hop-on-hop-off bus service.

My first stop was at the Moffat-Ladd House which overlooks the wharves of the Piscataqua river where nowadays mountains of salt from Mexico stand ready to spread on the snowy highways in winter. The house with its odd chiaroscuro black-and-white wall paper, is full of atmosphere but what particularly delighted me was the large old-fashioned garden. Most of the colourful summer flowers were the same as we find in here but the white-painted trellises, pergolas and round-backed seats immediately stamped the garden as American.

Still musing on the differences between American and British historic houses (I had never for example, seen salvage bags in England, these were sacks provided by insurance companies so that when fire threatened these mostly wooden houses, owners had something to hand into which to chuck their valuables) I refreshed myself with a spectacular frozen yoghurt before making my way to the Warner House, just around the corner. Dating from 1716 this is the earliest brick built urban mansion in New England and is remarkable for strange, painted murals, the earliest in America, which include naïve depictions of “Queen Anne’s Indians” the two Iroquis who were presented to the British court 1710.

While I was in the house it had begun to rain but true to Mark Twain’s dictum, “If it rains in New England, wait a minute…” by the time I emerged it was sunny again and I cut through Prescott Park, one of the most attractive little public parks I have ever seen, into Portsmouth’s most important attraction, Strawbery Banke Museum.

Shaker village

Shaker village

This aims to tell the story of a part of the town previously known as Puddle Dock, through the memories of the residents of over 40 houses and shops which date from the earliest colonial days to the nineteen fifties. The majority have been restored in situ and each building is interpreted by a costumed guide who plays the part of the original inhabitant. I usually find such role-playing artificial and embarrassing but here it works brilliantly. At the Shapiro House, home of Jewish immigrants around 1919 I was welcomed “Sarah Shapiro” who proudly showed me photographs of her young daughter Molly, telling me how bright she was and how well she was doing at school. When I went upstairs and learned from the display that after all their struggles, Molly had in fact died having her first baby, tears came to my eyes. Not many museums can evoke such a response. I even felt like asking her ‘mother’ why she hadn’t warned me – but of course ‘in character’ she couldn’t see beyond Molly’s childhood. Strawberry Banke gives the visitor from abroad a very special insight into the American way of life.

I could happily have spent a day there but in fact I had come to the seacoast region of New Hampshire on an entirely different quest: to visit Celia’s garden. The American poet and artist Celia Thaxter who died in 1894 had created a tiny garden bright with annual flowers on the rocky island of Appledore, one of the Isles of Shoals off the coast of Portsmouth. This she had immortalised in her book An Island Garden and although after her death the garden was abandoned and Appledore taken over by the US Army during the last war, I knew that the island was now leased by the Shoals Marine Laboratory, which had restored the garden and now organised public visits to Celia’s garden.

I was a travelling aboard the boat of a friend (but organised tours are available –see information) and I felt that wave of pleasure which only comes from being on the sea. The weather for the journey was perfect; sparkling seas, azure skies, seagulls screaming and cormorants diving amongst the buoys marking lobster pots. On the way our captain made the exciting announcement that pilot whales had been spotted ahead. Even the official whale-watching cruises rarely see pilots, so we stopped for fifteen minutes for us to enjoy the experience.

On reacheding Appledore we were soon scrambling up the rocky path past groups of marine students swimming, diving and manning boats. We were welcomed and told how at one time this island, now unoccupied in winter, was of major importance to the fishing industry and home to 900 souls; how in this unlikely spot the Thaxter family built a huge and enormously successful resort hotel (of which not a trace remains) which, as Celia was by then an established poet, attracted New England artists and intellectuals. These included Frederick Childe Hassam, the foremost American Impressionist who depicted the island in over 400 canvases, many of which were inspired directly by Celia’s garden.

prescott_park-1Hard as it was to believe as we basked in the sunshine, nothing much survives Appledore’s incredibly inclement winters and in those days the island remained unoccupied until spring when Celia would bring seedlings (some planted in egg shells) over by boat. Now seedlings are raised in the greenhouses of the University of New Hampshire and a team plant up the garden with poppies, cosmos, hollyhocks and masses of bright annuals according to the plans in Celia’s book. Celia’s house with its parlour in which the literati gathered, burned down and so this tiny garden, only 15 x 50 feet, stands alone as a unique memorial to this woman who wrote, painted and gardened with such joy. Peter Randall has just made a documentary film about this garden and you can order the DVD by e-mailing Visits to Celia Thaxter’s Garden sailing from New Castle on NV Gulf Challenger are organised by Shoals Marine Laboratory from June-August

Visiting the Isles of Shoals was the high point of my stay but it by no means exhausted the pleasures of New Hampshire. The northern region is famed for its wilderness areas of woods and lakes but as I drove inland up the Merrimack valley through forests of syrup maples and the tall white pines at one time valued for ship’s masts, I encountered few cars and as I drove through farmland and past village greens with houses clustered around neat white clapboard churches, the atmosphere was incredibly peaceful.

So too was my visit to the Shaker Village in Canterbury. Shakers did not believe in procreation and so it is hardly surprising there are only three left in America. Canterbury village is now a museum offering visitors a glimpse of the lives of these serene and productive folk who believed in devoting their, “Hands to work and Hearts to God”.

The last Canterbury sister died in 1992, and although it is reputed that before doing so she commented that she did not wish to be remembered as a chair, the wonderfully simple Shaker artifacts are undoubtedly a magnet for collectors and visitors – as is the food, all home grown, served in the village– the rosewater ice cream memorable.

It is the sea-coast region however, to which I dream of returning. The sight of poppies and hollyhocks against the blue sea, the delicious taste of fresh dilled clam chowder, the cries of the sea birds, the scent of herbs growing amongst the rocks and the cool spray of salt water on my skin are just some of impressions which will surely draw me back.

For further information on New Hampshire, click here.

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