The children squeal with delight as a piglet clambers over the back of its brother to get a better place in the sun. A huge sow slowly rolls over in the gloopy mud, grunts and flops back into contented slumber. A tussle breaks out as three youngsters nip ears and legs before deciding it’s all too much effort and collapse in a piggy heap on top of each other. Just another day of buccolic pleasure in Upper Canada Village, not far from Morrisberg in Ontario.
Less than 60 miles (90kms) from Ottawa, Upper Canada Village is a unique visitor attraction depicting life in Ontario around 1866, when the pace of life was much slower. Many of the 40 historical buildings were transported here from nearby villages which were flooded to make way for the St Lawrence Seaway in the 1950s. It gives a vivid idea of 19th century agricultural practices including caring for livestock, growing crops and harvesting vegetables. Attractive gardens showcase the plants and flowers that would have been grown in the summer. Staff dressed in clothing of the period carry out domestic tasks and discuss what social life, music, religion and politics would have been like at the time. They demonstrate how cheese, bread, shoes, tin jugs, brooms, furniture, dresses and hats were made.
I’m visiting Upper Canada Village with local travel blogger Cindy Baker of Travel Bliss Now on a day out from Ottawa. It’s a school trip day and lots of children run around the grounds, stopping to pat horses and watch sheep being shorn. Wandering along sunny paths and through shady nooks we pass the Woollen Factory and Saw Mill before reaching elegant yellow house. On the veranda a young woman in a vivid orange dress sits reading a book.
Inside Robertson Home we learn how a well-to-do middle-class family would have lived. The parlour has ornate decor with family portraits and lots of knick-knackery typical of the Victorian era. Further on we find the Bakery where a young man is showing how the bread is made. Later in the day we see the baker’s horse-drawn cart collect the bread; it’s sold on site and served in the Village Cafe and at Willards Hotel.
We have lunch at Willards Hotel, with Customer Service & Corporate Communications Manager Susan Le Clair. Willard’s Hotel is one of the oldest buildings on the site, constructed in the late 1790s and restored to the style of the 1850s. It’s now a restaurant where we are served by costumed waiting staff with food from the period. I have the local bread and cheese platter – very tasty. Susan explains the philosophy of Upper Canada Village. “Our aim is to show what it was really like to live and work in the 19th Century. Many people in Canada have little idea of what that looks like and this place is ideal to teach visitors some of our important history in an engaging and fun way. It’s especially popular with families and people come back year after year. We have a diverse and interesting Educational Program that enable young people to discover their past in engaging and fun way. Although we’re usually closed in the winter months, we do have special events including our very quirky Pumkinferno at Halloween.”
After a delicious meal, Cindy and I go off to explore more of the village. In the distance we catch a glimpse of some people floating by on some sort of craft. It’s the horse-drawn tow scow which pootles back and forth along the village canal from the dock behind Cook’s Tavern to the Tenant Farm. A tow scow is ‘ … a flat hulled barge that is drawn along the canal by a horse walking along the bank. Two villagers (one at the bow, and one at the stern) help steer the scow using long poles. In typical village life, the scow would be used to transport heavy goods to mills and other distant locations.‘ (Upper Canada Village website.)
We climb aboard and listen to the gentle shuck of the boat on the water as we pass the Pier Light. A flock of Canada Geese pecking around in the grass, honking as we pass and overhead birds swoop and dive across the clear blue sky. Time seems to slow down and the ‘real world’ fades away as we drift along. Beyond the canal, the wide open waters of the Saint Lawrence River glitter and ripple as ship sails past; an incongruous reminder of 21st century Canada.
Just round the corner from the church is brick built Cook’s Tavern, which serves Ginger Beer and Sarsaparilla, based on the popular 19th century tonic made from the root of a South American plant (Genus Smilax). Commonly referred to as “root beer”, these tonics contained a variety of roots, such as ginger for tang, sassafras for flavour and sarsaparilla to make it foam. Outside, a few people are waiting for one of the horse-drawn wagons to take them on a 20 minute drive round the village. It’s late afternoon and the school groups have left; the place is quiet, with a tranquil atmosphere very different from the frenetic excitement of the morning.
Exploring some of the back lanes of the village we come across a farm with a large-horned cattle in the fields and a tiny calf in a paddock. I get up close to take a photo and the farmer asks if I want to buy him. We haggle a bit and then I seem to have bought him for a couple of dollars. “Now you can take him back to the barn.” I think the farmer is joking but no; the next minute, a rope is thrust into my hand and I am taking a calf for a walk …
After a full-on day it’s time to go. On our way out, we have a quick look at the gift shop and exhibition centre, which tells the history of the area. Outside the little train that runs round Upper Canada Village is setting off on its last ride. We stop for a photo of the monument commemorating the Battle of Crysler’s Farm, a nationally significant battle in the War of 1812 that halted the 1813 invasion of Canada.
As we drive onto the main road back to Ottawa I can still hear the sound of children’s laughter, feel the soft muzzle of the wagon horse and smell that freshly baked bread. Upper Canada Village is a charming place of sensory and historic enjoyment that magically encapsulates an idyllic moment in Canadian history …
Days Out from Ottawa
This is just one of the many day trips you can take from Ottawa. I also visited Merrickville, a pretty village on the banks of the Rideau Canal, Diefenbunker, Canada’s Cold War Museum, Fultons Pancake House and Sugar Bush and spent a very relaxing day at Nordik Spa-Nature, a luxury spa at the entrance to Gatineau Park.
Many thanks to Susan Le Clair of Upper Canada Village for showing me round and sharing stories about this unique attraction. Grateful thanks also to Air Transat, Destination Canada and Ottawa Tourism for sponsoring my visit to Canada. It was a pleasure to explore more of Canada, a country of unforgettable experiences.
Check out Canada Keep Exploring to discover more about where to go and what to do in Ottawa. Return flights from Gatwick to Toronto from £346 (October 2017) and £349 (May 2018) per person with Air Transat. Canadian Affair offers an 8-day package tour Ontario Taster Holiday which includes 2 nights in Ottawa.