I attended the Canada Conference in St. John’s in 1999, representing a non-profit organization I was chairing. On the 50th anniversary of Canada joining Newfoundland (or vice versa) a speaker Elizabeth Davis (no relation) referenced a Newfoundland fisherman who moves forward by sitting backwards while rowing a punt. He doesn’t look ahead, but back, so he knows exactly where he came from in an effort to get to his desired destination.
Studying and reflecting and learning from our pasts are very important in planning a future. It’s also important to realize when you are learning from the past or stuck trying to live in it. Looking back to landmarks helps to get a reference point to know if one is moving forward in the right direction. I thought a lot about directions and navigating this weekend.
When Zita Cobb and her Shorefast Foundation began planning a luxury Inn to be located on Fogo Island, I decided I’d be spending a night just to say I had. I thought it was an exciting venture and hoped it would be successful but honestly wondered if there would be more than me willing to support it.
I was looking for bragger’s rights and if you have read much of this blog, you’ll know I boasted about the beautiful experience. We went excited and hopeful that it was going to be a positive experience as it was a substantial rate to spend a night only two hours from home (with family in the same community who have lodged and fed us on visits for years). We certainly weren’t disappointed with our decision.
That first morning a crew of shiny new reception staff greeted us as we headed to breakfast. As we chatted and raved about how the Inn was surpassing any expectations, the lovely Zita Cobb appeared from the dining room. In my euphoric I-slept-at-the-Inn state, I accosted the poor woman, called her a rock star and told her I couldn’t afford two nights at the Inn at once but that I could definately do it twice, one night each, annually.
She was very gracious and quickly realized I was a relatively harmless fan.
I asked about the engraving on the tiles in the shower area of my room. She offered me a copy of Wadham’s Song, explaining that the engraving in Room 15 was one of the stanzas. She told us that each bathroom featured a different stanza.
Using my top notch critical literacy skills honed by two Masters Degrees and a number of comprehension stategies including inference, I quickly realized to read the whole poem, one would have to stay in all 29 rooms. She laughed and said yes, they would.
“I intend to be the first”, I announced saucily.
I was joking at the time.
Within a month of our June 1st stay, I booked a weekend in October just to have it on the calendar to look forward to. We booked two nights for the Thanksgiving weekend and were given a returning guest rate. Our two nights changed to three and our navigation began.
Wadham’s Song is not a song at all. It’s a recitation, in the style of story telling and preserving history and knowledge through oral tradition. Documented in the 1700s, the stanzas were used by fishermen to travel from Cape Bonavista to Fogo Island Head. The rhyming stanzas aided illiterate (by our standards) fishermen to memorize the poem or the parts necessary for their particular area. These men had only the landmarks and the stars to assist them where technology is used today for everything from charting courses to fish finding.
On that first Inn visit, Mr. Peter Decker was at the Inn and quickly recited a number of stanzas after Zita’s explanation. This is still a living document, known and used by some who were fortunate enough to have been taught. It’s age, evidence of the existence of Fogo Islanders for hundreds of years and it’s presentation in the Inn demonstrating the importance of history and culture in the vision of a changing economy and landscape.
I have 24 rooms left to have read all of Wadham’s Song in the Inn. On each visit, we experience the hospitality and culinary experience of the Fogo Island Inn but I also continue to develop my appreciation for the traditions of the Island. Going back moves me forward in my appreciation for history, culture and traditions.
At Christmas at the Inn we were treated to local musicians and in my 27th year as a Newfoundland resident, I saw mummering for the first time ever!
I’d heard about it. I’d seen the famous Land and Sea episodes about Simani and Mr. Young in Twillingate. I have beautiful hand crafted mummers by Denise Chippett in Leading Tickles and just was given accordion player Uncle Si by Bonnie Crummey in Western Bay but I’d never actually seen real, live mummers.
I learned at the Inn that mummering only takes place during the 12 days of Christmas. Over my years here, I had already learned that the tree didn’t come down until after Old Christmas Day, January 6. Living in ‘urban’ Gander this tradition of visiting houses while disguised was not part of the Christmases I’d experienced. Mummering starts on Boxing Day. I understood that at the Inn. We’d always gone home on Christmas Day on our numerous holidays spent in Joe Batts Arm.
In addition to seeing mummers, we got to dance with mummers and could even be dressed as mummers to continue to travel with the group that visited. I was delighted to have a great dancing mummer and only after did I find out it was my brother-in-law who hadn’t let on when we were visiting him earlier that day. Mummering is also about keeping secrets and having fun trying to guess the names.
Only 20 years into the relationship, I’m still hearing stories from Leo about his childhood and often about his father.
One course of our meal on Boxing Day night was “leggy cooked in a paper bag”.
Leo reminisced about his father cooking leggies. Leggies are whole, salted cod. They are also called rounders as opposed to a split fish. (Ask a real Newfoundlander, they’ll explain it.) The leggy was cooked by putting it in a paper bag and throwing it in the fire box of the woodstove. His father would then take it out, scrape off the char and it would be ‘soaked in a bit of water to soften it”. Island Harbour version of fast food, I guess. It was an interesting insight to growing up with 9 brothers in a little house where the stove was put out each night for fear of a house fire.
Still learning where he comes from and how he grew up. Thanks for the leggy course Chef.
The music of Aaron Cobb was my discovery on an overnight in March. In addition to traditional songs, Aaron sang original songs and songs written by his father, the late Chris Cobb. Chris Cobb was a singer recorded by Colin Low on National Film Board of Canada film project in 1967. The link below is a short video featuring him and his wife Amelia (Witcher) Cobb.
Like the landmarks for the fishermen, there continue to be forces steering people to Fogo Island. Through our series of visits we have realized that the lovely waitress from the west coast of Newfoundland is now living in Tommy Butt’s house. Everyone knows Tommy Butt’s house. He had 8 daughters raised there. We wondered who had it when we saw signs of habitation.
On this evening we find out she is niece to Aaron and his wife Ivy and she actually has history and family in Fogo Island. I made the connection that Chris Cobb was her grandfather. (All those university courses paying off.)
She’s another generation of story tellers and writers from a long line. With a journalism degree and a smile on her face she is an example of the future of this place. Welcome home Amanda! No wonder you fit so well.
Aaron knows where his songs and traditions come from and honors his father and his history by carrying on his music and recitations. He sings easily and we listened for a couple of hours until he finally put down the guitar. He was, after all, an Inn guest this night although he does also play as part of the hired local musicians who entertain here.
A retired teacher, he eagerly recited his father’s recitation, “School days in Barr’d Islands .. 1910” I have to wonder how his knowledge of his father’s school experience influenced his own style as an educator. I’m sure recitations written about him will be much more favorable than how his father’s teacher was portrayed.
Having a large collection of Newfoundland and Irish music I was surprised I heard so many songs I’d never heard before. Some specific to Fogo Island and others about such tragedies as the Sealing Disaster and the loss of the Southern Cross. I found that song particularly moving and only realized after that both events happened in the same storm. I’d read Cassie Brown’s Death on the Ice 27 years before but only just learned of the Southern Cross. A few days after first hearing the song we commemorated the 100th anniversary of both events.
My recording of Aaron singing the song was not great quality but hearing the song from him helped me appreciate the significance of this version, sung by descendants of a sealer lost on the Southern Cross.
Our Easter trip brought me new insight again to the traditions and culture of this place and more specifically of Leo’s history. We happened to be staying on the same night as one of Leo’s cousin, Geraldine. They visited a bit while the musicians Brent Walbourne and Ev Brett played.
On Easter morning we sat and chatted and then decided to move to the dining room together. We talked about our enjoyment of the Inn and like ourselves, Geraldine and Jack travel around Newfoundland enjoying being tourists at home.
I’d heard Leo talk before about the number of children in addition to his 9 brothers, who would hang out as his house. She talked about the ghost stories told by Leo’s father and how he would have the cousins so terrified, he’d have to walk them to their individual homes in turns because they were afraid to go alone. Leo too has told stories about being sent up to the ‘shop’ after dark for something and running all the way afraid someone would get him. Those must have been quite the stories!
As a child, Leo had 100 children to play with in the ‘garden’ as the area around a house in Newfoundland would be referred to. The garden would have taken in the area of about a half dozen houses and the children would have come from those houses and a few more nearby. Nine of the boys would be his brothers, of course. The other 91 would be first cousins on either his mother or his father’s side!
We drove to Island Harbour to visit family and as we went around the end of the point another truth was revealed to me. Copying!
Newfoundland’s own version of extreme sport, copying, copsying or tipping pans is apparently a right of passage for outport youth.
Like the mummers, I’d seen it as topics of art work and heard lots of stories but I couldn’t really imagine it. Even as I write this, I’m realizing this was practice for young boys eventually wanting to go on the seal hunt, not just a daredevil adventure, though I’m sure there was lots of daring involved. Each community or area had a name for the activity but I suspect every mom also had the same rule. Don’t be at it!
Even as I watched these boys, I feared one had realized it was taping and was looking to do a bit of jumping to show off. I turned of the camera because I was afraid he might take too many chances.
Later in the weekend I asked Leo if they would have had a dozen kids out on the pans. He laughed and said there’d be dozens and often two on a pan due to the number of kids!
A friend managed to post pictures a few days later of over a half dozen boys on the ice in Island Harbour. I wonder if they’d heard they’d become a youtube sensation?
Looking at the video with Inn staff they each had stories of either having done it or being too afraid because others in the family got in so much trouble. There were tragic consequences too and stories of kids who drifted off and needed rescue. When you fell in, you just kept at it because once you went home wet, you wouldn’t be allowed out again. One lady said she’d throw away her socks and hide her boots so her mother didn’t know she’d being copying and fell in.
Her name is protected because her children are also banned now, by her, to be on the ice.
As we talked with Geraldine she also had stories about copying and the number of cousins growing up in Island Harbour.
Talking about the details of the Inn she told us her father could recite parts of Wadham’s song and when her son saw one of my pictures, it was the sight of Dean’s Rock that made him homesick. She also told us she hopes to spend another night at the Inn because it was so wonderful.
You have to keep looking back to know if you are going ahead properly.
There are so many ways to honor tradition. The Winds and Waves Artisan Guild is located in the LOL hall in Joe Batts Arm. Here too, looking back is very important to the preservation of traditional crafts but also in developing new designs as well as maintaining traditional patterns and traits.
The Guild lady working on this day was sewing little cloth envelopes to house the Fogo Island Inn playing cards. The cards are sold in locally made bags. The beds are covered in locally made quilts. The food is served on locally made cutting boards. The crib board was locally made.
Studying local designs in boat building and architecture, the various designers employed by Shorefast used local skills and shapes to create unique furniture and fabric designs. In turn, the local crafts people built, knit, hooked and sewed the comforts of the Inn.
Shorefast has recently published a book called Furniture of the Fogo Island Inn. The 142 page text discusses furniture, textiles and wall coverings designed for the Inn. I loved learning about the details of the Island that inspired the designs. The lambswool fabric on the pouffe and blue chair in my ariel shot was inspired by the cladding on the Brett House in Joe Batts Arm, for example. Now I have to visit Brett House!
In addition to the book, Shorefast has a lovely series of short videos featuring their furniture. You can view the Punt Chair here.
Another new publication is a beautiful poster of the elevator map featuring the houses and communities of Fogo and Change Islands on a map. If every child Leo played with wanted one to see where their house was in Island Harbour, that would be a hundred sold.
Because he’s an enabler, the Inn manager has graciously rewarded us with some lovely upgrades and allowed us to stay in a different style room on each visit as an upgrade to our booked rates. I joked with a reception worker that I needed to start a list of rooms we’d stayed in and she assured me they have my list started.
The real coup of all of this is that each time I look back on a trip to the magical Inn, I look forward too. I look forward to another stay, to trying some of the community hosted events and to the sense of relaxation we get on our mini retreats.
24 rooms to go.
We might well be the first to navigate Wadham’s Song.
For my Foodie friends, here are the pictures you are looking for!
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