Time, graves and a cool beer

2 May 2017

We found the clock and watch shop at the exact moment we were about to give up and turn back. Every inch of the walls was filled with clocks, from huge and ornate wooden monsters to quirky plastic film themed timepieces. The sound of their combined ticking added to the illusion of being in some kind of bizarre dream where night was day and day was night. Other than the clocks the shop was silent.
“If they all chime at the same time,” I whispered, “it will sound just like the beginning of Pink Floyd’s Time.”
After ten surreal minutes, during which nothing chimed and the ticking threatened to send me to sleep we left, a few unfamiliar plastic notes lighter with a working Garmin. 

Now we’d had to find our way back to the hotel but first we needed food. In Vancouver it was still only half past eleven but, to us, especially our stomachs, it felt far later. The first place that caught our eye was a typical North American diner of the type we see on TV all the time at home. The food was plain but good and the staff were friendly.

Feeling better for our meal we headed back the way we’d come. When we reached the gate to the cemetery we’d seen earlier Commando suggested a quick detour.
“We might be able to get out the other side,” he said.
Part of me was worried we might also get hopelessly lost but the pull of a Canadian cemetery was too great so we went inside. The grass was neatly clipped and everywhere we looked there were blossoming trees giving the place a jolly air despite the graves dotted about. This was Mountain View Cemetery, although we didn’t know it at the time.

Mountain View was opened in 1886 and the first burial took place on 26 February 1887. Poor Caradoc Evans was just ten months of when he died.  But for a string of disasters he might have been the second person to be buried there. Someone else was due to have that dubious honor in the January of 1887 but the weather was bad, the road outside the cemetery was new and the wheel on the wagon carrying his coffin broke, in the end he was buried outside the cemetery and reinterred some months later.

Unlike the cemeteries I usually wander around, the graves here weren’t crowded together. Each stone seemed distant from its neighbour and all were standing straight and firm. Something about the distance made me wonder if the occupants were a little lonely. Most of the graves are grouped by religion, nationality or affiliation to groups like the Freemasons so at least they have something in common with their neighbours however distant they may be,

Of course these graves were far younger than many I’m used to, their inscriptions all clearly legible. With more time I’d have enjoyed walking around reading their stories. Had I been able to do a little research before our impromptu visit I’d have discovered there were a few famous graves to be found to. Along with victims of the 1918 SS Princess Sophia, the 1910 Rogers Pass slide disaster and a locally famous streetcar wreck, I might have found the grave of Robertha Josephine Marshall, survivor of the sinking of the Titanic.

As it was we just strolled along the wide path, stopping occasionally to read a name. If we passed some of the more famous occupants we didn’t realise at the time. Later I discovered that somewhere amongst all the graves was Malcolm Alexander MacLaren, the first mayor of Vancouver, William Carey Ditmars, who brought the first automobile to Vancouver, Charles Edgar Edgett, warden of the BC Penitentiary and Chief Constable of the Vancouver Police from 1931 to 1933,
Laurence William Herchmar, fifth commissioner of the North-West Mounted Police, Harry Jerome, Olympic runner and Sara Anne McLagan, first woman newspaper publisher in Canada.

Along with being widely spaced, the stones all seemed far larger than those at home. Most were simple blocks but, amongst them, we spotted obilisk like structures, large crosses and a few huge tombs. Oddly, there were none of the angels or cherubs that grace our English graveyards. Perhaps Canadians don’t go in for that kind of thing?

An odd looking structure, a little like a stone bookcase, drew me off the path. Beside the shelves were two large stone urns and there were more shelves behind them. As we got closer I noticed bunches of flowers on some of the shelves. Further still I could see there were inscriptions too.
“Perhaps this is for people who were cremated?” I deduced.

Between the urns and shelves we found a raised round pool with what looked to be a pebble filled fountain in the centre, although no water was flowing from it. The circle was surrounded by small, blossoming trees and, behind, were yet more rows of shelves and urns disappearing into the distance.
“I wonder if those urns are filled with ashes?” I said.
“They could be,” Commando agreed.
As it happens, I was right on the first count and wrong on the second. What we’d stumbled upon was a columbarium a structure for holding cremated remains but the ashes were not in the urns, they were hidden in niches on the shelves. The urns, it seems, were for decorative purposes only.

We left the columbarium and carried on along the path until we came to a crossroads. The path we’d been following through the centre of the cemetery carried on a little way then veered to the right, beyond it we could see the backs of houses and the distant, snow capped mountains. As far as we could see there was no gate or any other way out. We’d reached a dead end. If we’d turned right we could have found a continuation of the path going towards the mountains and another gate out to the road. Of course we didn’t know this at the time and, rather than head off in the wrong direction and get completely lost, we turned left and made for another path, parallel to the one we’d been walking on, that would lead us back the way we’d come.

Although our walk in the cemetery hadn’t led us quite where we wanted the detour was no real hardship. The day was sunny and warm, the sky was blue and the combination of green grass, pink blossom and distant mountains made for a pleasant stroll. In this part of the cemetery odd cylindrical marble stones resting of small plinths seemed to be popular. Several of them were dotted about the grass and they were like no gravestone I’ve ever seen before. Something about them made me think of cut logs and I wondered if this was what they represented. There is an awful lot of wood in Canada, it’s used for almost everything including houses. Perhaps these were the graves of lumberjacks or carpenters?

On our way back towards the gate we came upon a small plot filled with war graves. The white marble slabs were unmistakable and, from the dates in the inscriptions, we realised they were from World War I. We paused for a moment to read a few inscriptions and remember those brave men who sacrificed their lives so very young.

Although we didn’t see them there are three granite stelia, placed in the cemetery in 1983 by the New Chelsea Housing Society and the Department of Veterans’ Affairs as a memorial to all Canadian military members. The cemetery also contains more than twelve thousand Canadian military graves, some in the special soldiers plot we found, others scattered elsewhere.

By this time we were not far from East 41st Avenue, where we’d entered the cemetery. The boundary was enclosed by a thick hedge at about head height for me. As we walked we kept our eyes open for any gaps or gates. We found no exits but we did see plenty of blossom and one stone statue on a plinth, albeit minus it’s head. We also found another row of war graves, this one standing in the middle of what looked very much like a flower bed.

We reached the far end of the path and were about to turn back towards the gate when Commando spotted a gap in the hedge near that far corner of the cemetery. Whether we’d be able to get through and back onto the road wasn’t clear at first but we decided to investigate further. As it happened there was a wire fence but someone had already tramped it down so we took advantage, saving ourselves a little distance in the process.

We were soon back on East 41st Avenue and, when we came to the next junction, I noticed the road was called Prince Edward Street.
“I’m sure we crossed this earlier when we were on our way to Queen Elizabeth Park,” I said. “Perhaps, if we follow it, it will lead us back to West Broadway and save us going back the way we came.”
Commando agreed this was a good idea so we turned and began to walk along the quiet, tree lined street beside the boundary hedge of the cemetery. As the streets of Vancouver are more or less all a grid and West and East Broadway extend across almost the whole of the city, we were bound to get back there sooner or later if we kept heading towards the mountains.

Before long the Cemetery hedge was replaced by houses and gardens. As we walked we talked about which of these houses we would buy if we won the lottery. There were plenty to choose from, including one with a rounded tower of a porch topped by a balcony and another in pale yellow with a matching letterbox house outside on the grass verge. Then the houses on our side of the road gave way to a hedge and, on the other side of it, there were more graves.
“I wonder if it’s the same cemetery or another one?” I said.
“I should think it’s the same one,” Commando said. “It would be odd to have two so close together.”

Quite a while later we were still walking beside the cemetery. We passed several entrances we might have used earlier had we known it went on so far.
“This is such a huge cemetery you’d think everyone in Vancouver is buried here,” I said.
In fact I wasn’t far wrong. Mountain View Cemetery is the only cemetery in the City of Vancouver. It stretches between 31st and 43rd Avenues, covers one hundred and six acres and holds more than ninety two thousand graves. The section nearest the mountains is the oldest. In 1901 land to the north was purchased from a developer called Horne. Nine years later yet another plot, once the Jones farm, was added between 37th and 41st Avenue. The flu epidemic after World War I lead to further land between 41st and 43rd Avenue becoming part of the cemetery and, in 1922, more land to the west of the Horne expansion joined it. The final addition came in 1941 with a piece of parkland. It was named after Nonus Abray who, for many years, squatted there, grazed his cattle and tended the orchard. Nonus died in 1949 and is buried in the cemetery, although not on the land he tended for so long.

Finally, at East 31st Avenue, we reached the far edge of the cemetery. On the corner a gnarled and twisted tree caught my eye.  The shaggy looking bark was liberally sprinkled with moss and it had two large bumps, like eyes just below the point the branches met the trunk. Obviously I had to stop to take a photo.

A few blocks further on there was another stop to photograph a tree overflowing with blossom with a swing attached to one of the lower branches. Like many of the streets we walked along in Vancouver, this was lined with blossoming trees. The blossom might be short lived but it made for a beautiful walk while it lasted.

So far we’d been walking straight towards the mountains following Prince Edward Street but, after we passed East King Edward Avenue, I began to have doubts. Perhaps this was the road I remembered crossing and not Prince Edward Street at all, the names were similar after all. We carried on for a while but the  doubt kept nagging at me and I was worried we might end up missing West Broadway completely. When we reached East 15th Avenue Commando consulted the map on his phone and agreed we needed to head left, at least for a little while.

This turned out to be a wise move. Had we kept going forward we would eventually have reached East Broadway  but we’d have missed some wonderful graffiti on the Burgoo bistro. This was so good I had to stop again for photos, although Commando, growing a little impatient with me, walked on.

Another thing we would have missed was Heritage Hall. In a city filled with mostly wooden buildings the brick and stone construction stands out like a sore thumb. It looks a little like a church but it was actually designed by A. Campbell Hope as a post office and built in 1915 at a cost of $92,000. Quite why it is so ornate with its fancy clock tower, high hipped roofs and decorative sandstone mouldings is subject to much speculation. Some say it was an attempt to stimulate commercial growth in the Mount Pleasant area of the city, others think it was created as a landmark because it was opposite the street car station. Whatever the truth of the matter it is one of the oldest official buildings in the city and is now a designated heritage structure.

When the post office closed in 1922 the building became the Dominion Agricultural Building. Then, between 1965 and 1976, it was used by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. When they relocated the building fell into disrepair and was empty until 1982 when charitable organisation Main Source Management Society was formed to turn it into a community and cultural resource. They raised funds and did a wonderful job of restoration. These days the basement is used by the Vancouver Little Theatre and the upper floors are used as offices by social services agencies.

Thanks to the handy grid system and a little bit of looking at maps on Commando’s phone we did find ourselves back on West Broadway. As we headed back towards our hotel there was one more piece of graffiti to stop me in my tracks. It was on the side of the Japanese Noodle shop and the cherry blossom and blue sky seemed to perfectly reflect the walk we’d just taken.

My birthday had been eventful but I’d had a lovely walk, even if it was a little longer than I’d planned. Our jet lag was slowly receding and we were getting used to the city of Vancouver. Before we went back to the hotel to freshen up for our evening meeting with cousin Jen we stopped off for some well earned refreshments in Rouge Kitchen and Wetbar. For me this meant a nice cup of coffee, for Commando a cool beer. It felt like the  perfect end to a wonderful walk.

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Writer, walker, coffee drinker, chocolate eater, lover of nature, history and the little things that make me smile

4 thoughts on “Time, graves and a cool beer”

  1. That cemetery is what ours look like, to give you an idea. Ours don’t seem to be too heavy on cherubs either. The stones that look like logs I’ve never seen.
    I wonder if all of the blossoming trees were crabapples. They’re used extensively here and are blooming right now.
    I think the two bumps on that tree are burls.

    1. I thought of you when i was walking around the cemetery and wondered if it was like yours. Most of the blossoming trees in Vancouver are ornamental cherries. They seem to have planted them everywhere and they make the city really beautiful to walk through, if only for a short while. I thought the bumps on the tree might be burls, they made me smile because they looked so much like eyes.

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