We have just spent a wonderful day on Cape Breton Island, and I want to tell you all about it.
This part of Nova Scotia is definitely high on the list for people who love Celtic music and history. It features one of the first permanent settlements in Canada by the French – the Fortress of Louisbourg, a National Historic Site of Canada. It was founded in 1713, and has been restored beautifully to its original glory, after the British destroyed it in 1760. In the summertime, costumed actors portray life as it was in 1744. I wish we were here then – someday!
We set out from Sydney in the morning. On our way towards Louisbourg we stopped in Sydney Mines to visit the Cape Breton Miners’ Museum. Alas, because it’s only March, things aren’t very open here (too early in the season, and only we crazy BCers would be visiting at this time of year!). We had lunch in the parking lot before we went in, and John spotted a local fox looking for some lunch as well.
We were the only visitors to the museum, and the director had to turn on the lights for us (but not the heat!) so we could see the displays. Cape Breton has a long history of coal mining, something I learned about through working with Lawrence Chrismas for a couple of years, writing songs about Canada’s coal mining history (this was the last project I did before I started writing about quilting). I was fascinated by the tales of miners following the coal seam – right out under the ocean! There’s a story of a coal mine so far offshore that the miners could set their watches by hearing the toot-toot of the ferry, rounding the islands overhead!! Many of the seams were only about 3 or 4 feet deep, which means the miners spent most of their work days on their knees.
It’s a dangerous business, but coal miners are smart, loyal to each other and very proud of what they do. In 2001 the last underground coal mine here closed, leaving many skilled men out of work. A great many of them have had to travel far to find replacement work. This museum describes how it was then. I was moved by the wall of helmets. During the tourist season, retired miners conduct tours underground and presumably everyone wears one of these hard hats.
The museum features concerts by the magnificent folk group of ex-miners: “Men of the Deeps“. They used to sing with Rita MacNeil, and tour extensively. If you ever get the chance to see them, you won’t regret it! They enter in the dark, with only the lamps on their hard hats as illumination. It’s very moving.
We hugged the coast until we arrived in Louisbourg. It looks like there are a lot of summer cottages, but many people live there all year round. We saw piles and piles of lobster traps, ready for the season, which starts May 16th here. All the boats are still ashore, so there’s a lot of work to be done before May.
It’s easy to see that lots of tourists arrive in Louisbourg every year: not only are there lots of shops and B&Bs in town, but the first entrance to the park is over 3 kilometres from the fortress! That’s a long walk in the winter when it’s only 2 degrees C – with nobody else in sight! The area is out on the end of a small peninsula, quite exposed. We were allowed into the site, although it’s not technically open until June 15th, but we couldn’t go into any of the buildings. There is a lot of construction going on to prepare for the season, but we were excited to walk around and see the buildings. I took a lot of pictures, thinking I might turn some of the “artsier” ones into quilts.
During the summer, this place is overrun with tourists and costumed interpreters. It must be very exciting, and I would love to eat in the restaurants or see how they baked bread or listen to their music. It was great to imagine everything happening around us.
We wanted to drive through Marion Bridge on our way home. It’s a song that made us do it, one of the most beautiful songs in the English language. It was written by Allister MacIllivray, and recorded by, among others, Anne Murray, and it’s called “Song For The Mira”. Here’s the chorus:
“Can you imagine a piece of the universe
More fit for princes and kings?
I’ll give you ten of your cities for Marion Bridge
And the pleasure it brings.”
Here is Marion Bridge
It turns out there’s a quilt shop in Marion Bridge. (Are you surprised?) We drove by and I made John turn around and go back!
I walked into the shop and was immediately surrounded by laughter and the sounds of a successful class at the end of the day. I felt right at home! Jacquie Gillis owns Mira Stitch ‘n Post. There are lots of bolts of fabric, lots of rulers and notions, a long-arm machine, a kitchen and a nice classroom area. She and her employees know everyone’s names by the end of their visit, and seem really really helpful. She sells Husqvarna sewing machines to the area. If I lived here, I’d be hanging out at this shop all the time! I was delighted to see my friends’ Susan Purney Mark and Daphne Greig’s book on their shelves. Here’s Jacquie showing it off.
It turns out that Jacquie based her shop on one that I’ve just discovered in Florida: Quilting by the Bay. We stopped off there on our way to the cruise in January, and I was really impressed with them. It had the same frisson of excitement when I walked into the shop as I felt in Mira Stitch ‘n Post. I’ve decided that shops like these are the community builders – where people love to hang out and support the shop because it’s just so much fun to be there! I was very happy to discover them. Turns out that Jacquie was at our last show in Cape Breton, in Port Hawkesbury two years ago, and she remembered us. She is now carrying my CDs there, so if you want some, stop by and tell them you heard about her here!
We drove back into Sydney for the night, which is where I am now. Sydney is a cruise ship port, and if we ever do a quilting cruise that comes here, I’ll be very happy. (For one thing, Louisbourg will likely be open!!!) This is what you will see if you ever cruise here. It’s right at the cruise ship dock, and speaks loudly to what’s really important here in Cape Breton.
I hope you can visit Cape Breton someday. You’ll find the people warm and welcoming (everyone waved at us from their cars and from the sidewalks), the laughter infectious, the beer local, the sights well worth the stop, and the quilt shop just like home.