A Ramble ‘Round Northern Suburbs

Reverend Connell’s writings for the Victoria Colonist newspaper (1936-43) are a vast and yet virtually unknown treasure-trove of local history, natural history, and settler-era folklore for the region. Full of fascinating information and anecdote, they concisely and intelligently- though not without a poetic sentiment- represent a crucial and transformative period in the collective cultural past for Victorians, as well as for the wider Euro-Canadian society. At times nostalgic and reflective they are, however, for the most part without excessive superficiality or posturing and give an open, honest, and interested view into the Life of the age.

For my first post and as an intro to the blog this article, I think, provides a good example of the tenor of Connell’s work and personality, while also introducing the breadth of his interests and outlook. As World War 2 raged in Europe and a rapidly industrializing world transformed the landscape around him he sought peace elsewhere, looking to Nature and his environment for understanding and clarity.

*Note- articles may be edited solely in order to maintain a local focus or to increase clarity for a modern audience. No additional text will be added unless shown in square brackets.

From the Victoria Daily Colonist, August 3rd, 1941.

After a three-hour ramble round the northern suburbs of the city I am glad to report that there is still a pleasant rural aspect about them. It is true that I came only once upon what [John] Burroughs calls “our rural divinity”, the cow, but even one cow has an extraordinary influence in keeping alive our recollections of country life and making our town life more wholesome. It is not so long, I understand, since the cow was publicly milked by the curb of one London street and its milk sold and consumed on the premises. However, I think more than one cow grazes on the vacant land of Oaklands.

A dairy farm near Victoria c1900. BCA Image.

West of the Jubilee Hospital I went where the old and the new meet together very characteristically. Old fashioned, substantially- built houses with just that touch that dates them stands beside the new bungalows, but the old predominate. I like these houses of an older generation that look so spacious and comfortable. You can imagine people living in them contentedly in the days before the automobile made the joy of life consist in getting as far away from home as possible. Then a buggy ride was an excitement and a bicycle a luxury. The old fashioned gardens and orchards that still survive show the interests of the dwellers. Some of the finest trees in the city rise above and around the old homes, Victorian in period as well as in locality.

Occasionally an orchard occupies what is now just a vacant lot, wild and unkempt, and it is interesting to see how many of the fruit trees flourish among the tall growth of grass and weed. Apples, already coloring, peep from the dense foliage, bronzed pears hang invitingly from the top to bottom of lofty trees, plums and cherries are invisible from the street and in modern parlance may have been “protectively annexed”. The old orchards were often planted with varieties of fruit trees now for the most part quite out of fashion. I remember Mr. Campbell, who had an orchard below Mount Tolmie forty years ago, made a great bonfire of apple trees whose fruits were no longer in demand: pippins and russets and codlins and such like old-fashioned fruits, the very mention of which will make some mouths water. Up they went in flame and smoke to make room for larger and more brightly-colored kinds.

An Ancient Notice

I was greatly taken with a notice on a garden fence: “Beware of the Dog!” Truly this is on elf the world’s classics. Roman householders displayed it on their walls. A celebrated one is that on the house of the Tragic Poet in Pompeii. Only they, of course, wrote it: “Cave Canem!” And generations of schoolboys learned to call “Cave!” when a master’s approach threatened. It is a good notice if you have a dog not be trusted with strangers or if you want to protect the property of your dwelling and its surroundings. Some years ago I acted as a guide to the late Bishop Watts-Ditchfield when he made a very brief visit to this city. I took him to the house of some old London friends on Richardson Street. On the front door step lay a dog. He asked me to find out if they were at home, while he stood on the sidewalk. When I came back after getting no reply, Dr. W-D said: “You may wonder at my not going up the door with you.” Then he told me that in his great London parish he once stepped up to knock at a door before which a dog lay. The animal immediately flew at him, threw him down, and tore his back and shoulders very badly. “If you saw the scars you would understand why I have never since been able to face a dog at a door”.

The incredible 2000+ year old “Cave Canem” mosaic in Pompeii, Italy.

Not far from the notice I saw a beautiful specimen of the Spanish chestnut tree. This is the source of the edible chestnut whose roasting and eating was one of the joys of youth, to say nothing of its association with the hot chestnut vendor, once a well known character on the streets of British cities. The tree is a singularly beautiful one with its sharply-toothed shining leaves and its clusters of slender flower spikes that look like so many little fountains. It seems to be one of those trees that suffer not at all from insects, etc., and I often wonder why it is not more commonly planted as a garden and boulevard tree. The American species is subject to a serious fungus disease, but the true Spanish species has been in England since the time of the Romans, who brought it there and so far as I know has not suffered. Some years ago there was still one known to be three centuries old in the reign of King John, and still a magnificent tree.

Cemetery Hill

The long valley which forms the heart of Fernwood, lying between Spring Ridge and the uplands of Hillside and Oaklands, I crossed by Fernwood Road. This road passes through two pairs of stone pillars that mark the outbreak of the pre-war land boom. The pillars were erected by an enterprising American if I remember aright about 1907. The valley was until then a fine stretch if grazing land where herds of cattle roamed as happily and picturesquely as one an Alberta ranch, and more conveniently too. The two rows of trees that run between the sets of pillars are therefore not more than a little over thirty years old, and it is interesting to see how large they now are with a minimum of care, at least in their early and most impressionable days.

At the top of the steep hill the old Cedar Hill Road is met coming in from the north with the curves that tell its history, and Fernwood Road now merges its identity in it. Here on the left by the side of the old highway where it swings off to the right at a sharp angle is the Jewish Cemetery, at one time one of the familiar landmarks of the city, for in the really early days Cedar Hill Road was one of the main thoroughfares leading out of the city. For seven and a half years I travelled this road once or twice a week regularly. The three outstanding points along the townward way were the McRae dairy, the Jewish Cemetery, and the Red Lion Brewery. The cemetery has become even more picturesque with age and the consequent growth of the oaks, but it was always a place suggestive of withdrawal and apartness in peace from the busy world. As I thought of some I knew in years gone by who are laid there I made a sketch of it with the old oak that seems to extend a protecting arm against the spirit of Fascist-Nazism and anti-Semitism.

The Jewish Cemetery, Old Cedar Hill Road by Robert Connell, Nov. 7, 1941.

The road curves gently round past houses and gardens, some of which were not new forty years ago, for this part of Oaklands is an old suburb, as you can see from the style of some of the houses. One of these round the next bend is hedged by a wonderful growth of Spanish broom whose yellow flowers glow in the July sunshine. Like many shrubs about old places these seem to have escaped from the confinement of the garden to spread themselves for the delectation of the public. Just beyond is Gosworth Road, where I once had a mild accident significant of the times. Driving home from town with my wife one night I came along this short street, as I often did. It was lit with an arc light at each end with the result that when you were in the middle part you were so blinded that no object could be made out. Now in those benighted days lamps were rarely carried and so you had very little warning of approaching traffic. As we jogged along behind our slow old horse we were suddenly brought to a standstill with no small shock. Climbing out, I found that the right wheel of my conveyance had gone between the shaft and horse of another, and consequently we were for the time being in a position that made progress impossible for either of us. Some unloosening of harness soon straightened things out and as no one was hurt we went on our respective ways. The sequel was that I bought a small carriage land and henceforth avoided even such mild collisions.

Circumnavigating Smith’s Hill 

A road to the left begins the circumnavigation of Smith’s Hill, where Victoria after the experience of the insufficiency of Elk Lake in two widespread and disastrous fires made a gallant attempt to improve the water pressure. Just off to the left a long line of trees shows where one of the old places used to be, so much more conspicuous in days gone by when houses here were few and scattered. I remember when these trees as I looked at them from Cedar Hill Road were quite small; now they are well grown. And looking across the landscape to the north the covering of trees is greatly thicker. What were cubby little oaks have now attained to the tree size and the firs are quite forest like. Mount Douglas looks far away in the Summer haze and its lower half is cut off by the high ridge which culminates in Oak Hill on the opposite side of the valley from Mount Tolmie. In spite of streets and houses the countryside is still very evident. Here are rocks standing out boldly by the roadside and overhung by the oak and broom and there is a hollow drained and dry with clumps of rushes and a twisted willow, and with several holes that plainly are full of water in the rainy season but into which you can now step and see the black peat of their sides, peat that tells of an earlier time when it was a true swamp.

Glimpses soon come of the Goldstream and Sooke Hills, every detail lost in the hot quivering air, and of the lowlands across Cloverdale towards Swan Lake. Nearer at hand when I work South along Fifth Street I come on a very interesting piece of rock. It is near Quadra Street School and on the left had or east side of the street. The curious complex foundation rock of the district, a mixture of fine and course diorite cut by pale veins and showing much shattering, has been so bared of earth recently that the glaciated surface is wonderfully plain and distinct. The north-south movement of the ice is clearly displayed but in addition it can be seen how it acted as a truly plastic body curving and twisting as it pursued the lines of weakness in the tough diorite. Thus while the main grooving and scratching is north-south there are curves and grooves that run across these, just as in a rocky river bed the main course of the stream is unmistakeable, but there are all kinds of minor flows and currents that looked at separately and without relation to the whole would seem to tell a different story.

At Topaz Avenue I turned up the hill to get a closer view if the Sikh Temple, so conspicuous an object of the Summit. The flight of stairs looked very steep from where I stood, but the general impression I got was that the temple is well looked after and evidently an object of pride to the worshippers. Then I worked my way to the top of Seaview Avenue, where I looked out on the Olympics; and very, very far off they seemed, almost lost in the haze. From vantage points like this the cities outline is much changed from its older one of thirty or forty years ago. Old buildings, some of them of some architectural value have gone and new ones have come. On the whole the sky-scraper type looks rather better, I think, at a distance than near at hand. Sometimes, especially at eventide, one of them looks like an old and roofless border-keep against the sky. Still, however, the mountains and the sea dominate the Victoria scene, and they- let us be thankful for it- are, relatively to us, unchangeable.

Through Haultain Flats

When I came down by Cook Street to Hillside Avenue and turned my face up the hill I was greatly astonished at the height to which the oaks have grown on the south side of the street where the bank rises to the ridge on which the Protestant Orphanage stands. Ordinarily I would not have noticed it, but two young women in their bright summer dresses were walking in the shade and immediately I saw with their heights as a standard how tall the trees are. It seems only the other day they were merely so much oak scrub. It is but a short piece of street, but beauty is not to be judged in terms of size.

From Hillside I went over the hill and down into the area through which Haultain Street runs and which I may therefore pardonably call Haultain Flats. At this season so much of the green of Spring and early Summer is gone and so few wild flowers entrust themselves to the dry warmth that it seems unlikely that the plant-lover can find much of interest on his walks and least of all within the city’s bounds. Yet here in these flats I noticed one or two things of more than passing interest. The blocks that are practically houseless are not unoccupied. As you look over them you notice if you have an eye for color that these open fields are more than a dull stretch of tawny yellow. Here grow great masses of the Canada thistle and this weed, so hated by the farmer, possesses a very soft and pleasing lilac in its innumerable small flower heads. Then there are masses of wild carrot with heads of tiny white flowers and they are in full bloom. The ripened seed vessels of the sorrel rise in narrow pyramids of red and gold above their neighbors, breaking the general level. The dark purplish brown areas are made up of the ripe seed pods of the common hedge mustard, close pressed one against the other against and around the tall stems. Nearer at hand the soft brown heads of the wild salsify give an interesting foreground touch, each head with the parachute apparatus of the seeds so arranged in relation to each other that they form a cell-like patter like a great honeycomb. In some of the damper places that pleasing native plant the sneezeweed, or Helenium, was opening its bright yellow flower heads. Altogether a charming study for an artist.

A vacant lot near Haultain Avenue in the 1950s. Saanich Archives image.

Along Richmond Avenue, just north of the hospital, one of the knapweeds like the one I saw last summer on Snell’s Road, Goldstream, has spread over a large piece of ground on the west side, and in spite of the dustiness of the stems so near a much travelled road the many roundish purple-mauve flower heads with delicate but large rays and central florets white and conspicuous not only attract the interested but also make it very pleasant to look upon.

So ends a city ramble and some glimpses of the countryside in part of suburbia.                               

Published by Ben C. Baker

The best stories, I think, are those that connect us to place, and as an historian this is the focus of my interest and work here in Victoria, BC, Canada.

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