Across the Atlantic to another Yarmouth
Three thousand miles from Yarmouth in Norfolk lies its namesake – the municipality and town of Yarmouth on the eastern shores of Canada. Are there connections to our seaside town? Marie Kreft flew to Nova Scotia to find out.
It's not often that I travel across the world looking for a piece of home. But in Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, where the salted harbour air carries cawing seagulls and the faint smell of herring, it's hard not to think of Great Yarmouth in Norfolk and draw imaginary spot-the-difference circles on either side of the Atlantic.
At first it's hard. The language is the same. The climate feels temperate like ours. The Sweeney Fisheries Museum, celebrating the men and women who left an indelible mark on Canada's maritime heritage, could be twinned with the Norfolk town's Time and Tide. Another east coast, another town shaped by the sea.
But I also found many circles, many differences. Even by name, these two Yarmouths are distant cousins. Yarmouth in Nova Scotia did inherit its name from our Norfolk coastal town (meaning 'at the mouth of the Yare'), but indirectly, via Cape Cod planters who probably had Yarmouth, Massachusetts, on their minds when they dropped their shallop's anchor in Canada in 1761. Or perhaps they were thinking of the 'very agreeable' Countess of Yarmouth, a mistress of King George II.
By the mid-1800s, wealthy Americans were sailing to Nova Scotia for summer-long vacations, via steamships into Yarmouth from the eastern seaboard. They endured the bumpy crossing in order to escape the sticky heat of Boston, New York and Philadelphia, so advertisers of the time extolled the health benefits of Yarmouth's fresh sea air. A 1920s tourism pamphlet claimed 'visitors are immune from hay fever' while another proposed marketing campaign – eventually rejected – would have flaunted the region's notorious fog as being good for one's complexion.
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Thanks to the affluence of its heyday – the county once had more millionaires per capita than anywhere else in Canada, as well as more divorces – Canada's Yarmouth possesses a genteel quality that feels worlds away from our Golden Mile. In the P-shaped area downtown, now designated the Collins Heritage Conservation District, you can wander along streets flanked by horse chestnut trees and creamy popcorn flowers, admiring the gingerbread charm of former sea captains' homes. They have painted clapboard fronts, spindlework verandas and 'widows' walk' cupolas from which it is said lonely mariners' wives would stare out to sea. Nearby in Parade Street, the Lovitt House has two small round windows above its wood and glass tower which look spookily like eyes.
These buildings are reminders of Yarmouth's eminence during Canada's great age of sail, many of them lovingly restored by their present owners. Around the corner in Willow Street, you can stay in a once-condemned Victorian mansion, fully revived by property developer Michael Tavares and hotelier Neil Hisgen. While the grand parlours of the Mackinnon-Cann Inn are now decorated in authentic Victoriana, each of the seven guest rooms commemorates a different decade, from the 1900s to the 1960s. I slept soundly in the 1950s room, the walls painted Robin's Egg Blue in homage to I Love Lucy.
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Remaining in the Collins district, a former church built in the gothic revival style houses Yarmouth County Museum with treasures including ship paintings and a runic stone thought to have been engraved by Vikings. The museum holds information on Yarmouth's role in the rum-running activities of Canada's Prohibition years, an intriguing piece of history in which many local people are, even now, ashamed to admit their families were involved. Despite this, the town's annual SeaFest, a celebration of life by the ocean, includes rum-running races in dory boats, plus ghost walks, a chowder cook-off, fireworks and a parade.
Throughout 2011 Yarmouth is marking its 250-year anniversary with live music, reunions, parties and contests. While I was there, in mid-July, the lawns of many Yarmouth buildings were playing host to silent and sometimes lop-sided visitors, in the form of mops dressed up as people. Even these 'moppies' hinted at the region's nautical history as mops were essential for swabbing the decks of boats.
The end of the festival on New Year's Eve will see the unveiling of the 'Lost to the Sea' memorial, commemorating the many sons and daughters of Yarmouth County who have died in the ocean.
The people of Yarmouth's palpable pride in their heritage makes what happened two years ago seem all the more crushing. In 2009, the ferry service from the US was cut due to changes in government priorities. Unsurprisingly, restaurants went out of business, a motel owner was forced to tear down half her property and another hotel was converted into retirement apartments. Hundreds of people lost their jobs. But rather than succumb to life as a ghost town, Yarmouth is using this lull as an opportunity for renewal.
Bruce Bishop, destination marketing co-ordinator for Yarmouth's 250th anniversary, is optimistic.
'Losing the service has been devastating in some ways, but in other ways it has made Yarmouth people stand up and think maybe we're more than just a ferry terminal,' he said. 'Often Americans would come over and simply travel on to Halifax or Cape Breton, ignoring this region. So, after our 250th birthday has finished, we'll be marketing Yarmouth as a place for people to specifically come to. We don't have the big casinos, we don't have the hugest shopping centre or the biggest aquarium, but our little B&Bs and inns are all part of the charm. People can have beach parties here with fresh lobsters and clams, and at sunset with a glass of wine you won't find anything more beautiful. And if the fog rolls in? Well that just cools everything off.'
Still hoping to unearth an East Anglian connection, I asked Bruce whether he knew of any official links between his Yarmouth and ours. One of his colleagues thought Nova Scotia may have hosted a 'Yarmouth International' dinner in the 1980s, but no one I spoke to could remember exact details. Bruce said they hoped one day to forge relationships between all the world's Yarmouths.
'I wish we'd had time to bring Yarmouth, England, and Yarmouth, Maine, and Yarmouth, Massachusetts, into our 250th celebrations. We certainly wish them all well and in the future we hope there will be a tie-in.'
Just as you probably wouldn't holiday in Great Yarmouth without visiting the Norfolk Broads or exploring Norwich, there is too much to see nearby to remain in Yarmouth for your entire Nova Scotia trip. Follow the Evangeline Trail round the Fundy coast and you'll find French-speaking villages where wooden clapboard houses proudly fly the Acadia flag (like France's with the addition of a yellow Stella Maris to represent the Virgin Mary, the patron saint of mariners).
In Kejimkujik National Park, a place of spiritual and ancestral importance to the native Mi'kmaq people, you can camp, hike, fish and canoe or, along the coastal edges, watch harbour and grey seals basking on rocks. Families with children may enjoy staying in a cabin at White Point Beach Resort, taking time to kayak on the lake, toast marshmallows over a campfire and feed the resident bunnies.
I loved Cape Forchu Lightstation, 10 minutes' drive from Yarmouth town. Decommissioned due to advances in satellite technology, the applecore-shaped lighthouse stands today as a 75ft symbol of Nova Scotia's cultural and economic bonds to the sea. Tales abound of shipwrecks, storms and former lightkeepers' struggles with kerosene in the days before electricity. You can't climb the tower for safety reasons, but your visit can be amply rewarded with cold lobster sandwiches in the Mug Up Tea Room, which uses produce from Cape Forchu's community garden. If you're lucky, the museum attendant may let you sound the foghorn...
Nova Scotia offers an easier holiday than you might think. Halifax airport is only a six-hour flight from Gatwick and the mere four-hour time difference keeps jet-lag to a minimum. And while you won't find too many reminders of Great Yarmouth in Yarmouth County, you're sure to refresh your senses and strengthen your ties to the ocean.
Between May and October Canadian Affair flies weekly from Gatwick non-stop to Halifax, Nova Scotia. Return economy class fares start from �328 next month. Yarmouth town is a three-hour drive from Halifax, with helpful signposting and relatively little traffic on the wide roads. Log on to canadianaffair.com
Choose your decade by staying at Mackinnon-Cann Inn (27 Willow Street, Yarmouth B5A 1V2). Summer 2011 room rates range from $138-185 Canadian dollars (about �90-120), excluding of 13pc tax – mackinnoncanninn.com or email@example.com
Rudder's Seafood Restaurant & Brew Pub (96 Water Street, Yarmouth B5A 4PG) specialises in local seafood and has it own micro-brewery. Visit ruddersbrewpub.com or firstname.lastname@example.org
Useful links – novascotia.com; uk.canada.travel; capeforchulight.com; whitepoint.com; yarmouth250.com