Despite its global celebrity, Prince Edward Island’s north shore remains a largely unknown treasure. With hundreds of inlets, creeks, wharves, harbours, river valleys, hillside views, and quaint communities to explore, visitors who come here expecting to “see the Island” in a day or two are often disappointed. I would not wish our guests to miss miles of white sandy beaches juxtaposed by jagged red seaside cliffs. Everyone should visit the Green Gables house in Cavendish and walk the boardwalk in North Rustico, stopping to eat at one of the artisan restaurants or take a harbour cruise or see a play at the Watermark Theatre. Through federal support of the fishing industry, investment by the arts community, the long memories of old friends, and the slow discovery of a place of beauty, the rugged hills and poverty-stricken lanes that made up my Rustico schoolboy days have been transformed into a village of coastal charm.
I still find my own New Glasgow breathtakingly beautiful. The names “River Clyde” and “New Glasgow,” a fervent religious devotion, a commitment to hard work, and a few tools, books, and household memories were a few of the only things my people brought with them from their farms off the Clyde some 15 or 20 miles from Glasgow. While my great-great-great-great grandfather was apparently not worth taxing in the Parish of Houston, Renfrewshire, he managed to find passage to Prince Edward Island in 1820. And somehow in that connection, he married a Catherine Anne Stevenson, whose father became the pastor at the community church in New Glasgow. Though we late-generation Dickiesons were the heathens to which others would find themselves next door, as a child, I played in the church that Elder Stevenson helped build. In ill-fitting Sunday clothes, I watched the ceiling fan while preachers preached and my grandmother prayed I would be still for just a few moments more. Later, still un-still but eagre, I served that church. My wife and I were married there, ordained there, and it is still a place I think of as home.
10 or 20 miles seaward of my childhood home, there are treasures many miss. Though there are few places as Instagram-ready as French River, Prince Edward Island, Stanley Bridge is a brilliant harbour with a wide-mouth bay, archipelagos of dunes and wooded lands jutting into the sea, and a long, beautiful river to explore. Moving inland and east up Trout River, there are miles of wooded trails with red-dirt roads and the little corner of Millvale. I miss the mill, the smell of sawdust and the busy movement of laughing men working with speed inches from what seemed to me then–and still seems to me today, in memory–to be monstrously dangerous saws.
If you were to leave my old family farm in New Glasgow by car, you would pass by my church–what L.M. Montgomery somewhat disdainfully called the “New Glasgow Baptist Church”–as well as the famous Lobster Suppers and Toy Store. After about 8 hilly miles you would come to Stanley Bridge. Turning northeast would bring you within a few minutes into Cavendish, with the National Park along the shoreline, the Green Gables house inland, and Lucy Maud Montgomery‘s homestead at the centre of the village. A 3-mile drive directly west from Stanley Bridge along the 100-acred lots measured out from the river will take you to what I think of as the New London corner–though I don’t know if that’s its real name. Just 4 miles north of the corner is the postcard harbour of French River, and another two miles takes you to Park Corner, a family home where Montgomery felt love and friendship and the image of “Silver Bush.”
Travelling west and south from New London corner will take you to Kensington, the train station where a fifteen-year-old Maud Montgomery would board a train to the West to reunite with her father. It is an auspicious occasion–not least because she met her grandfather, “Senator” Donald Montgomery, with Prime Minister John A. Macdonald and his wife, Lady Agnes, but especially because the following year in Saskatchewan would be decisive in Montgomery’s personal and literary life.
But on this day, the anniversary of the birth of Prince Edward Island’s most famous author and undoubtedly the Canadian writer with the most global reach, it is important to remain for a moment at New London corner. Like many PEI villages, New Londoners have extended their hospitality to visitors. There is a tea room, places to buy coffee or ice cream, historic venues for weddings, and nearby places to eat. The Potter’s Parlour is worth a visit for its coffee and craftsmanship, and The Table is a gourmand destination, a “Culinary Studio” in a beautifully renovated United Church–a newer building for what had, I presume, previously been a Methodist congregation, established in one of the earliest areas for Methodist preaching in PEI. As the St. John’s Presbyterian Church just a moment’s walk from the corner was built after Montgomery was born, I do not know where she was christened. However, the church captures the feel of Victorian rural PEI life well at the heart of New London.
And, at this same corner, Lucy Maud Montgomery was born on this day, Nov 30th, in 1874, in a small one-and-one-half-storey cottage, adjacent to the store on the corner. Secured by her grandfather, Senator Montgomery, this cozy home was where “Maud” spent her first months of life until her mother, Clara, died of tuberculosis 21 months later. Not long after, Montgomery‘s father would move to the Northwest Territories, Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, following hopeful ventures for financial success. Maud would live with her mother’s people, raised by her elderly grandparents a short walk from the corner in Cavendish.
In the 19th century, when folks were calling this area Clifton, no one could have imagined the global impact this lonely orphan of a child would have. Her early days were as inauspicious as mine, just 10 miles southeast and 101 years later. L.M. Montgomery would go on to be the author of 20 novels, 530 short stories, 500 poems, and dozens of essays. She was a church organist and Sunday School teacher, a director of plays and fund-raisers, a life-long correspondent and journal writer, and a benefactor to her rural Canadian kin. She was a minister’s wife, a friend of farmers and Prime Ministers, a fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, an officer of the Order of the British Empire, and a lover of cats. Montgomery is probably in the 100 million club in terms of books sold, and according to this research, Anne of Green Gables is Canada’s most translated book (in at least 36 global languages, see photos below).
And, recruited by a well-meaning United Church minister in the 1980s, I once gave an underwhelming reading of “And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night….” punctuated by “Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy” shouted with red-face exuberance. In that church some forty years earlier, Montgomery had, in 1942, been laid to rest in a state funeral–a rare occasion in Canada’s far-flung rural reaches.
So, when you have the chance one summer day, I would encourage you to visit the Lucy Maud Montgomery Birthplace museum at Clifton corner. It is an authentically decorated Victorian home, painted white and green as an homage to Green Gables. There is a replica of Montgomery‘s quite tiny wedding dress, as well as a number of her personal scrapbooks where she pasted many of her stories, poems, and personal memories. It is a pretty little place that gives me a sense of what that home might have been.
More than the museum, however, is the north shore drive. That our little Prince Edward Island could produce one of the world’s most transformative modern authors is a complete mystery until you can see what Montgomery saw–the landscapes and seashores and skyways, the stunning geography of land brimming with imaginative possibilities, and the places that Montgomery called home.
So on what Anne might call an auspicious moment, I wish our own Lucy Maud Montgomery a happy birthday, and invite lovers of her writing to come and see the real-life imaginative world behind her works.