Across the Links to Oak Hill

Take a ramble with Reverend Connell across the Cedar Hill golf links and through the pastures and woodlands of North Dairy farm to the summit of Oak Hill overlooking the Shelbourne Valley.

From the Victoria Daily Colonist, March 29th, 1942.

Under a gray March sky and with a pleasant coolness in the air for walking I started out by Shelbourne and Lansdowne for the top of Oak Hill, the rocky height that looks across Cedar Hill valley to Mount Tolmie. Where the open fields first touch Shelbourne on the right I listened by the fence to the noises of the skylarks, but of the birds themselves I caught no glimpse. A robin or two and an occasional flicker and, of course, the inevitable gulls were the only birds I saw in this part of my walk except for a single crow which, having found some morsel of food, was chased by a small dog and flew to the top of a telephone pole with it’s booty. I turned onto Gosworth Road and just after reaching Cedar Hill Road and passing Lang Street I came upon the solution to my problem [which was]: how to get to Oak Hill’s summit. According to my map all the area ahead of me was primly laid out in streets and blocks, but my eyes assured me that all was open country without any insuperable obstacle to a pedestrian. I saw no ploughed fields to be traversed, and apparently no fences to be painfully negotiated. It seemed too good to be true, and the key to it was a neat little sign board which pointed to the Cedar Hill Golf Links. So I went down a bit of road to the left and found myself at the entrance. No players were in view and so I struck out in high spirits to the north.

The McRae farm- now Cedar Hill golf course and recreation centre- in the 1950s. SA Image.

The North Dairy Farm

An old and now grass-grown road runs through the middle, descending into a little hollow and then rising to a rocky ridge ahead. In the bottom of this small dip a newly cut drain gives a view of the soil, and its rich black colour shows that it is of the same nature as the truck garden area across the fence. This is by no means virgin soil, for here in the early days of settlement the Hudson’s Bay Company established one of its farms, and the extensive clearings we see are the fruit of long hours of agricultural activity.

“By the Cedar Hill Golf Links in mid-March” by Robert Connell (1942).

The rocky ridge is composed of gneissic rock cut by dykes of almost white aplite and pegmatite. The banding of the gneiss is easily seen and the rock of all kinds is well exposed because the ridge has been partly burnt over. In the soil at the base of these exposures and on the rocks the vegetation is well advanced, for the rocks raise the temperature in their immediate vicinity. So here I came on satin flowers hanging their large purple bells and on fawn-lilies with their leaves of bronze and green, and some with their flower buds like slender white teeth, just ready to open. Hairy saxifrage was quite plentifully out, and here and there I saw the pink flowers of the wild stork’s-bill. Conspicuous higher up in the little soil-filled niches among the rocks was our old friend the sulphur weed.

Just beyond this ridge, on its north side, a little brooklet comes down from some natural reservoir among the willows and small as it is I found it, like all clean running water, fascinating to watch and listen to. It’s voice was proportionate to its size and reminded me of beads or small pebbles being poured into a bag rather slowly but steadily. It must be a streamlet of some considerable age to judge by its course, which it has marked out in the rocks over which are tumbles or around whose corners it swings. I was particularly interested to see that in one or two places the water flows over a parapet of rock cut and moulded by the glacial ice in far distant days. So the old and young meet as they do in human life. Below where I crossed it falls more steeply, making very attractive angles in its course below catkined willows and oaks. The grass by its border is particularly green, a fact due as much to its kind as to the moisture, and the mosses and algae are quite brilliant.

New and Old

Here I must confess that in all my years I had never before set foot in these particular fields. The reason for this is that when I lived at Cedar Hill and passed the North Dairy farm every time I went in and out of town, what is now the golf links was either under cultivation or being used very intensively as a pasturage for the large herd of cows kept by Mrs. Macrae, the then occupant. I had indeed been in the upper part under Oak Hill, and that in the fall when the maple leaves were reddening as a watercolour sketch testifies. But for the rest– well, I was walking over a new ground and enjoying it to the full.

Looking across the Cedar Hill/Shelbourne Valley towards Mount Tolmie in the early 20th century. Saanich Archives image.

Best of all, I knew in the old days the woods lying southwest of the Cedar Hill Cross Road, ahead and to the left. They were entered nearly opposite the old Cedar Hill schoolhouse and after traversing one of Henry King‘s fields you came to a trail which went through woods and over rocks and fences till it came out on the road between Quadra and Cordova Bay [Blenkinsop Road]. It was a wonderful place for the rambler in search of wild flowers, and it was there I first became acquainted in a very elementary way with many of them.

Where the Ducks Resort

On the King farm where the aforesaid trail entered there was in winter and spring a large pool or slough in a field and it came into my mind when I left the links. The north side of the links ended in a narrow strip of ploughed land, crossed by convenient stiles, and choosing the one where the soil was least wet I crossed and found myself on the side of another little valley. It differed, however, from the one first seen in the links in that it had half a dozen ponds, pools, or sloughs in it, all reflecting the grey sky in their clear water. One of them was much larger and longer than any of the others, a second was fairly large, the rest quite small. Still they held water and water is a precious thing in a landscape. Such sloughs are resorts for certain birds and tiny animals, and for many succulent plants such as water-birds love.

The air was full of the cries of the Killdeer plover, of which there must have been half a dozen pairs. While the familiar cry of “kill-dee” was particularly prominent it was associated with softer calls of “dee-dee”, so that all together the performance was at once more varied and sweeter than usual. The birds were in beautiful plumage, and one may go a long way and see many birds without coming across more smartly dressed beings than the killdeers. No wonder their calls suggest that they think well of themselves.

A killdeer attracting attention away from a nest. Wiki image.

On the largest slough was a great company of wild ducks, I should say about 150, for I counted up to 100 and there must have been at least half as many more. It was a little difficult to get close to them, but I saw that they were baldpates and the whistling cries they made as they rose on the wing decidedly confirmed it. They flew to and fro over my head as long as I stood watching them, often quite near to me; so near that I could hear the soft beating of their wings as they wheeled.

The Fringing Woods

The wildfowl, the plover, and the shallow ponds with the treeless grassy valley and its irregularities of surface, all combined to suggest a prairie scene, and took an effort to recall that all this had been patiently carved out of the original forest. As the base of the Oak Hill ridge is approached, a glimpse of this forest is afforded.

I found the land on the other side of the valley rose rather quickly to the woods. First came a belt of broom making crude arches overhead along the path. Then came balsam firs, with their dark and shining foliage so much more ordered and regularly disposed than that of Douglas fir, and consequently so much the better able to provide a shelter from the rain for man and beast. On the outskirts of this evergreen forest were oaks and one large old maple, but these deciduous trees seemed to have suffered; four among the living branches were dead ones and one tree lay, long decayed, on the ground. Here I saw the green leaves of ocean-spray quite out. A few oaks even grew out into the valley below, and I think it would be found that a good idea of soil and water could be derived from attention to their positions. It would be found that the places occupied by the oaks were gravelly ridges running out into the clayey lowlands, for these trees are not lovers of either rich or moist positions. I followed a distinct path up to the hillside, at one place running through a little stony pass. Scrub oak and shaggy broom partially concealed the rocks from below, but there was a clear division between the summit and the valley below with it’s slopes. Through the tangled maze of oak thicket glimpses of the last ridge came and in a few minutes I had reached the actual summit.

Looking west from Mount Tolmie with Cedar Hill Cross Road running past Oak Hill in the middle distance, c1900. Saanich Archives image.

Views in Time and Space

Coming out on the bare backbone of rock was to me more than merely reaching the top of another hill. Thirty-five years had passed since I last stood on it and looked abroad upon the varied scene. During the five years previous to that last climb I had been up it many and many a time- morning, noon and eve- and the landscape all around the horizon was as familiar as it can be to one who feels compelled to jot down with a pencil what he sees. So as I looked out on the changes in human settlement- the new roads, houses, schools, the motor cars, greenhouses, all the appurtenances of modern life; and upon old buildings gone, many with historical interest, some associated with old friends now departed – my thoughts were not wholly taken up with landscape or natural history.

Oak Hill might also be known as Craigandarroch. The former name was given to me by the late John W. Tolmie of Cloverdale, the latter is it’s Gaelic equivalent- literally the “Hill of the Oak”. The same name is found shortened in “Craigdarroch”, the name of the section of Victoria which was once the late Mrs. Jean Dunsmuir’s estate with its house, the present Victoria College. The best known Craigandarroch is a hill just north of Ballater in Aberdeenshire. This Scottish prototype is higher, but according to authentic descriptions its slopes are clothed with oaks in a broad belt below and firs on the highest parts.

The actual summit of our hill, 300 feet above the sea, is a dyke of the same whitish rock we have already met with, a pegmatite showing in broken specimens large crystals of felspar and a fair amount of silver mica. The latter has often been mistaken for silver. The contact of the dyke with the dark diorite into which it has been injected is very distinct and makes a good object lesson for the student of rock formations. Once in those long past years I picked up just below the summit a piece of granite containing a large crystal of black tourmaline. It was a fragment of glacial debris and I often wondered where it originally came from.

The view from the summit is on a clear day very fine and even on this cloudy day of March it had its charms. Mount Baker was invisible and San Juan Island little more than a patch of grey, but to the west and northwest the panorama of hill and valley, from William Head to Mount Wark [Work] and the Malahat, was very impressive in its different planes and tones of blue and grey. Looking towards the southern section many changes were of course obvious, but it was chiefly in the Cedar Hill Valley that the new order manifested itself. Old farms and orchards seemed to have suffered a kind of interruption which has almost though not quite hid the familiar features. It is curious how some old things persist.

Old barns in the Cedar Hill/Shelbourne Valley in the 1960s. Saanich Archives image.

There is on the east side of Shelbourne Street an old prune orchard planted at the time of the land boom half a century or so ago. It never flourished. Among the grass that grew rampant the young trees became permanently dwarfed and they are there to this day, but whether now dead or alive I cannot say. Once they figured photographically in a certain pamphlet as “young orchard at Mount Tolmie”, and they were middle-aged then. Fortunately, a great part of the landscape is little changed. The forest is ever-growing, the hills measure their years by millennia, the sea and the clouds endure in ceaseless interchange. As in Emerson’s “Earth Song”, the Earth says:

Here is the land, shaggy with wood,
With its old valley, mound and flood.
But the inheritors? Fled like the floods foam.

How am I their’s if they cannot hold me, but I hold them?

Postcard image showing “Young fruit trees” in the Shelbourne Valley in the early 1900s. City of Victoria Archives image.

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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