01 October 2006

A leader first, a gardener at heart

I honestly didn’t know what to expect when I arrived in Ottawa, en route to visiting Kingsmere, Willam Lyon Mackenzie King’s estate, located in the heart of Gatineau Park, across the river from our nation’s capital. I had no idea that King, prime minister of Canada through three separate terms between 1921 and 1948, had been a lover of gardening since a young child, and at one time had wanted to be a landscaper. However, his parents also instilled in him a desire to serve his country, and hence his venture into political endeavours. We know that MacKenzie King was a dedicated Liberal who did much for this country—and I can’t help but think he spins in his grave when he sees what that bunch of Alliance wolves in cheap conservative clothing is doing to the country that he loved and served so well. Not a perfect leader, of course, as none are. When he died in 1950, King left his estate to the people of Canada.

After a not bad luncheon (though the service was abysmal) at the Moorside Tea Room, located in one of the summer houses on the estate, I went with my guide, Annie, around part of the estate. This area is at the top of quite a steep hill, much loved by cyclists, joggers, cross country skiers, and other outdoorsy types, and encompasses some 600 acres in total, some of it woodland, some of it resembling an English gentleman’s country estate—as King was a great fan of all things British, but more of a Romantic in tendancies than a late Victorian or Georgian. The houses didn’t particularly interest me, as architecture and old dishes, etc, aren’t particularly my thingbut I did, of course, love the typewriter, on which King wrote many of his speeches.

What won my heart, where this interesting gentleman was concerned, was the wonderful stone walls throughout the property. King had these built during the depression, hiring local, unemployed individuals to do the work and earn a wage they would have otherwise been unlikely to find. The walls feature local indigenous rocks, mostly igneous in type, though I am no geologist so can’t really say what all of them are. Just that they were beautiful with rain on them.

Yeah, did I mention it was raining? Fortunately, Annie had provided me with both a jacket and an umbrella, but at times my lens did get smattered with water.

The perennial borders at the property are past their full glory, but still showing good colour, especially against the flaming backdrop of the hardwoods, which are just beginning to get really beautiful. This is a wonderful place to visit, to stroll across well kept grounds with all sorts of mature trees, as well as interesting stone ruins and relics and statuary that King had brought to the property and added to the landscaping. One long garden especially delighted me. At the top of it, (as it sweeps down a hill) is a massive piece of igneous stone, part of the local geology of an escarpment—a primitive, millions of year old nod to the country’s natural history and beginnings. Then there is a long English style perennial border, acknowledging that country’s place in our country’s development; a stone archway which is a window on the woodlands looks down at native plants and natural plantings and a wonderful rock garden featuring alpine and hardy rock garden plants.

After this part of the tour, I was met by Francois LeDuc, who squired me around much of Gatineau Park proper. The park is over 380 square kilometers in size, with all kinds of landforms and geography, flora and fauna. At several places along the roads, there are incredible lookouts, the most dramatic one being at the top of the Escarpment looking down into the valley around Hull, Gatineau, Ottawa and Aylmer. And there are serious foliage fireworks happening—wow!
We took a drive to Meech Lake—yes, THAT Meech Lake, site of the failed accord—and followed the winding road along the series of three lakes in a chain. (there are something like 50 lakes in the park). Harrington Lake is site of the summer home of the prime minister, but we didn’t go up to the gates. Just as well, as I’d have had to show some sign of disrespect for that squinty eyed thug from Alberta…What struck me, once Francois drew it to my attention, was the careful pruning of the trees along the shores on the far side of the lakes…

…which, of course, is not pruning at all, at least not by human hands, but rather, by the teeth of deer. We saw a doe and two fawns on the roadside as we came down from the King estate, incidentally, as unconcerned about us as if we weren’t even there.

While I enjoyed this visit very much, I was also happy to get on the train again and head off down the road to Toronto. I’m so totally impressed with the service of VIA Rail—especially in first class. Let me give you all the menu from supper between Ottawa and Taranna—

Appetiser: melon and proscuitto; your choice of bread roll (with butter, not slimy margarine)
Main course; choice of three; I opted for braised beef, with tiny roasted potatoes, and a vegetable medly of fennel (delicious!), green beans, parsnips and red peppers; wine was an Ontario Riesling, I think (I forgot to write that down)
Dessert—an apple caramel cake, and then this chocolate in a chocolate cup—divine!
The staff came with wine several times, and then with liqueurs, even—Grand Marnier, cognac, Baileys, Tia Maria….I declined on that, but next time…I may treat myself.

And the staff is simply fantastic. This is an awesome way to travel!

Stiill, this is a hectic pace. Three gardens down, three cities to go.


  1. Wow - what a trip. Sounds wonderful. Enjoy your column(found it through Doug Green). Had quite a giggle about the 'squinty eyed thug'. Hope he doesn't last too long! Please you write you column all winter - our gardening seasons are too short. Regards, Jean (Tweed, Ontario)

  2. Thanks for the update on your trip. Looks like it was terrific. What a terrific time of year to travel. Welcome home.

  3. When exactly were you in Ottawa?

    F. Leduc
    PS:May have been me.. ;)

  4. Francois: I was in Ottawa in late September/early October--I can't find my itinerary from that trip, so I'm a bit vague on dates. And it WAS a whirlwind tour...you took me to the train station, and another of the staff met me in the morning...I really enjoyed seeing Gatineau Park and would like to return in summer. Merci beaucoup for your kind hospitality. (Your card is here somewhere in my files, too.)


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