12 May 2017
Our last stop of the day was the city of Barrie. On the map it looked like a huge sprawling thing, at least in comparison to Gravenhurst and Orillia. According to the sign we passed it had a population of 136,000, a little over half the number of people living in Southampton. There’d been precious little time for proper research so we really had no idea where to go or how easy it would be to find somewhere to park. More by luck than judgement, we ended up driving right into the centre of town where we found a car park on Lakeside Drive.
Right away I could see this was more big city than small town. There were skyscrapers on the edge of the lake and more traffic than we’d seen in Gravenhurst or Orillia. It wasn’t always like this of course. Two hundred years ago this was an aboriginal transportation route, the Nine Mile Portage. It was an important place for First Nations people to rest on the long journey from Lake Ontario to Lake Huron. During the war of 1812 it became a detour where British supplies and troops could safely bypass U.S. Forces on their way to Canadian military posts. When the war ended the cluster of storehouses and homes grew into the town of Barrie, named after British Admiral Sir Robert Barrie who was in charge of naval forces in Canada and commanded troops on the Nine Mile Portarage route.
We were standing on the edge of Lake Simcoe at Kempenfelt Bay. It is here in Downtown Barrie that the old town has its origins. The streets around us, Collier, Bayfield, Owen and Poyntz, were all named after British officers. The first settlers were mostly from England, Ireland and Scotland. The growing town was also the final destination for a branch of the Underground Railroad, a network of secret routes and safe houses used by slaves to escape their bonds. The British Imperial Act of 1833 abolished slavery throughout the British Empire, including Canada, then called British North America. Ontario became a popular destination for escaped slaves and many settled there. Here they settled a little way along the bay, just outside the town in an area still called Shanty Bay to this day.
Although a walk by the lake would have been nice, especially as the little black flies didn’t really seem to have invaded Barrie just yet, food was our first priority. It was after one and the little cake and coffee in Orillia seemed like a lifetime ago. Hunger took us away from the lake towards the shops and restaurants. Across the road we found ourselves in Memorial Square where a bed of red and white tulips and a cenotaph honours the fallen veterans of Barrie.
There were plans to expand the square, close the semi circular road running around it and make the whole area ten times larger to increase the capacity for memorial events like the Remembrance Day Ceremony. The beautiful cenotaph was going to be moved to a more central position. The Stanstead granite monument topped by a Barrie granite sculpture of a soldier was built in 1922 by McIntosh Co. of Toronto. Weather and time have taken their toll and the plan was to reinforce the structure at the same time. It was all supposed to be done and dusted by this spring but, while there seemed to be a lot of building work going on on the waterfront, the Memorial Square project turned out to be more costly than expected. It is now planned to be finished by spring 2018 in time for the hundredth anniversary of the end of World War I.
Of course I couldn’t pass by without stopping to take a photo. The soldier sculpture in particular captured my attention. The pensive look on his face and the detail in his uniform alone were worth capturing, along with the wreath he held in his hand. It seemed I was not alone in wanting to record him for prosperity. As I got my camera ready a young man laid down on the ground in front of me and began to take photos of his own. He seemed to be taking quite a lot and we were too hungry to wait for him to finish so he ended up in my picture.
There turned out to be quite a lot of different places to eat so we walked along Dulop Street looking at the menus outside each one trying to choose. At the first intersection I spotted an interesting looking triangular building, Bourbon Restaurant, a little reminiscent of the flat iron buildings we’ve seen in many cities. This, it turned out, was the historic Five Points Intersection where an explosion and fire in December 2007 destroyed the hundred year old Wellington Hotel and wrecked several neighbouring buildings. The lot, to the west of Bourbon, is empty to this day.
This part of town is no stranger to fire. Between 1870 and 1880, there were a series of them, one of which destroyed the entire north side of Dunlop street from Bayfield where we were standing, to Owen, a block to the east. Like most buildings in North America, the burned buildings were mostly wood framed. After the fire a bill was passed prohibiting building with wood. The replacement buildings were made of brick and became the commercial centre of the town.
Still searching for somewhere to eat we walked a block or two in each direction. There was so much choice it was hard to come to a descision but, in the end, we did what we often do when we can’t choose, we went for the place with the most amusing name. This turned out to be Hooligans, opposite Memorial Square where we’d started out. Hooligans seemed to be a rather unfortunate name for a sports bar and restaurant but it piqued our curiosity. Inside we found bare brick walls, rustic tables and huge screens on the walls showing everything from snowboarding to soccer. Luckily it was fairly quiet and the made-in-house food was very good.
Not wishing to spend all our money in one place we opted to have our after dinner coffee in another place with a humourous name. While we’d been looking for restaurants I’d noticed the Barrie Bean Counter or BBC, a coffee shop. Now we went back to it for coffee and a small cake by way of desert. The coffee was very good, as was the cake, and the service was excellent. If I lived in Barrie this would certainly be my one of my regular haunts.
By now we’d been in Barrie for almost two hours and had barely done any sightseeing at all. There was never going to be time for any really adventurous exploring but a wander along the waterfront to walk off some of the food we’d just eaten seemed like a good idea. Our first stop was an interesting looking sculpture that had caught my eye as soon as we arrived. It was a massive metal affair standing atop a small hillock right at the water’s edge, a three legged semi humanoid figure with outstretched arms and what looked to be wings. Something about it put me in mind of Antony Gormley’s Angel of the North in Gateshead.
Gettng to it wasn’t as easy as we’d hoped. There were large metal barriers everywhere where the redevelopment work was going on and we had to reach it by a roundabout route. It was worth the extra walk though. Later I discovered the sculpture had taken the same route as us. It started off in Vancouver as part of Expo ’86 and was moved to Barrie in June 1987. It is the work of Ron Baird and is called Spirit Catcher or Dream Catcher. The piece was created specially for Expo ’86 and took six months to sculpt from a special non corrosive steel. The Helen McCrea Peacock Foundation in Toronto purchased the sculpture once the Expo was over and donated it to the Barrie Gallery Project. It took two flatbed trucks to move the seventy foot tall sculpture and two days, two cranes and a host of volunteers to install it on Lakeshore Drive.
The quills on the wings of the piece are kinetic. They move back and forth when the wind blows. A few months after it was moved to Barrie concerns were raised that the unpredictable winds blowing off the lake could cause the quills to fall. Obviously this would have been a disaster and potentially fatal to anyone underneath. Ron Baird stepped in and, with the aid of Mike Davies, the retired president of advanced engineering at de Havilland, redesigned them. Whether they still move or not I couldn’t say as the wind wasn’t blowing while we were standing beneath it.
Right behind the sculpture is the City of Barrie Marina. The regeneration that blocked our way earlier is part of a revamp of the area around the marina. Hopefully the improvements won’t impact too much on the quiet beauty of the willow trees or the Canada geese living there. We stood for a while watching the geese giving their goslings a swimming lesson and the little boats bobbing on the water.
There was a tree lined walkway along the marina wall that would have been a pleasant walk but time wasn’t on our side so we turned back towards Spirit Catcher on its dandelion sprinkled hill. The recycled sculpture was so popular in Barrie it became the catalyst for the installation of numerous other pieces of artwork around the city. With more time it might have been fun trying to find them all.
Instead we headed back towards Heritage Park and our giant car. It was a slow walk along the shore, taking in the gazebo, the duck pond and the gardens crowded into this tiny park. Beyond the park there’s a trail all along the shore to Shanty Bay. It was yet another thing we didn’t have time for.
Before we left there was just time to see one more piece of art, although the fencing of the regeneration work meant we couldn’t get too close to it. It was another of Ron Baird’s steel sculptures, Sea Serpent, also created for Expo ’86. Like Spirit Catcher, it also moves with the wind. After the expo it was purchased by Jean Sellers for her Oro-Medonte Township home. When she died her son, Alexander, moved it to his lakeside estate in Kingston where it watched over his orchard for fifteen years. In 2016 Alexander donated the beautiful piece to the city of Barrie. Ron Baird oversaw its installation.
It was now half past three. Mindful of the hundred kilometres we still had to travel and the possibility of rush hour traffic when we got to Toronto, we knew we would soon have to leave. Even so, we sat for a few minutes on a bench overlooking the park wishing our Canadian adventure could go on just a little longer.
All good things must come to an end and no amount of wishing was going to make the clock stand still. It was time to go back to the giant car one last time and make the long journey to the airport. This wonderful country has completely stolen our hearts. We might have been going home be we were saying au revoir, not goodbye.
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