I don’t know about anyone else, but I have this mental list of places within driving range that I’ve always wanted to see but haven’t yet gotten to. Gradually, I hope to work my way through them as the fates (Money, Capricious Child and Time) allow. One such was Grates Cove. Now Grates Cove is an itsy-bitsy community with a population of 275, unless you could the folks in the cemetery. Then it would likely triple. You get the picture. Very small.
What put Grates Cove on my mental map, though, are the rock walls. Newfoundland gardeners have, from time immemorial, hauled mammoth rocks out of their plots. We have generally piled them haphazardly along the edges of gardens to delineate who owns what land, define where crops are growing and simply to have somewhere to put the blessed things. Grates Cove takes this to an entirely different level of rockery. You see, all they have there is rock.
When you live in an area devoid of trees (there was a massive forest fire in the area several centuries ago) and bountiful in stones, you find many uses for rock. In Grates Cove, rocks were used to fence pasture, graveyards, property, and anything else that needed containment.
One of the plaques reads:
Grates Cove was settled by fishing families in the late 18th century. The settlement was located in a barren and exposed area with rock laden soils. In order to create vegetable gardens and hay fields, the rocks were painstakingly removed and incorporated into walls that served both as fences and property boundaries.
The tradition of using dry-stonework walls to enclose cultivated land was common in areas with rocky soils in both the British Isles and North America. Rock walls were found in many communities in Newfoundland until the 1950s. Recently, most have disappeared, having been removed for new construction or lost in overgrowth. relics of rock walls are still evident in some places, but nowhere to the extent as in Grates Cove where they enclose 65 hectares.
That’s 65 HECTARES, folks. 161 acres of vegetable gardens, graveyards, backyards, pigpens, root cellars, hayfields and simple property lines. As impressive as that sounds, it gets even more so when you realise that the walls were often several feet high and several feet thick. And built entirely by hand.
Just to give you some idea:
Another historical plaque tells of the uses for rock walls in Grates Cove:
Much of Grates Cove consists of areas of sharp-angled rocks broken from the underlying bedrock ages ago by frost action. Rocks were used in the construction of garden walls, retaining walls and terraces. Until the 1950s, most structures were built on rock foundations and surrounded by rock wall fences. In some buildings, small rocks were poured into walls for insulation and pest protection. Rocks were used in the construction of root cellars and in the construction of wells. Rocks also enclosed cemeteries and other community property.
In Grates Cove many of the the enclosed areas are named and some have special local meaning. The Moonlight Garden was a favourite courting spot while good times are recalled in the Dancin’ Place. Grandmother Warren’s Spelling Rock signals a place for a welcome rest while Broderick’s Mash indicates family ties and use.
So basically, when rock is you chief commodity and material, you use it for everything.
The area is now a National Historic Site and the community nis in the process of developing a series of walking trails around the walls and to various lookouts and spectracular views.
The signage isn’t great, though. We wandered around on top of Big Hill, thinking that it was the trail and view of the rock walls. To be sure, some could be seen, but the real tour-de-force stone-wise was further out on the headland. That we discovered quite by accident. you see, in the Travel Guide for Newfoundland, the Grates Cove Rock Walls National Historic Site and trails aren’t mentioned. The Cabot Rock Memorial is (more on this later in the post), but the most significant social and geographical phenomenon aren’t even spared a listing. Really stupid mistake on someone’s part.
Once you get to Grates Cove, you have to poke around a bit to find out where to go. There are no good signs, no little maps saying “you are here (when you want to be there)” and really, no indication that there might be anything of interest , say, along the main road and off to your left. Once you do go along the main road and off to your left (or you can go straight to the end of the main road – there are several access points) , there’s a parking area, big sign, and a series of history boards telling you about the rock walls.
Below is the start of the walking trail (Wear good shoes, btw. The rocks can move under foot and there are holes in the heath to turn ankles. Also, John found wasps, so long pants might be a good plan.):
As you can see, the walking isn’t difficult and the scenery is beautiful!
Katherine thoroughly enjoyed the rock walls. They were pretty safe for her to play on, but some are a bit high and there are cliffs around, so keep an eye on kids and canines if you bring them. Especially if you go along the trail out past the little pond (there are apparently eagles out there, although we didn’t see any).
Fish nets used to be seen everywhere. Now they’re enough of an anomaly that I thought them worthy of photographing. Rather sad….
Parts of the landscape were gridded with walls. We even saw some halfway down what appeared to be impassible slopes. Probably for keeping sheep in…
There are apparently a number of different ways in which drystone walls were made here. This taken from another of the story boards along the trail:
Rocks are the most striking feature of both the natural and cultural landscape of Grates Cove. To build a house, clear a garden or make a path, rocks had to be moved. A perfect solution was to use them to construct walls. Three different types can be identified: piled (or thrown) walls; stacked walls; and built walls.
A piled or thrown wall: A wall made simply by rocksbeing tossed in a pile to surround a garden. Although rocks varied in size, they were usually arranged with larger ones on the bottom or outside. Natural outcrops and very large boulders were incorporated into the walls and gaps became paths.
A stacked wall: In some gardens more care was taken in sorting, stacking and balancing multi-sized rocks. Larger stones were placed to create a wall 90 to 120 cm (3 to 4 feet) wide. Higher than a pile wall, with wooden gates, it provided good protection from roaming livestock.
A built wall: The most carefully constructed garden walls were 90 to 150 cm (3 to five feet) high, built with interlocking and balanced stones. Many had two faces, with the area between filled with small stones so that water could filter through. The built wall afforded good shelter from driving rains and high winds.
The flora growing in the rocks was sturdy stuff. This bluebell can’t have had much soil to sink a root into:
The other claim to fame of Grates Cove is the Cabot Rock Memorial.
Local legend has it that John Cabot stopped in Grates Cove once in 1497 and was shipwrecked there on his second trip to Newfoundland. There once was a rock that bore carvings perported to be made by Cabot or his son, but the rock was stolen years ago and is therefore not available for study and examination. The locals will all tell you that it is historical fact that Cabot and his son were shipwrecked and killed by indians near Grates Cove. The documentary evidence doesn’t seem to support such a claim, but many things are possible and not all old wives talesought to be entirely dismissed. As Gandalf points out in the two Towers, sometimes old wives remember things that everyone else ought to have. Whatever the truth of the matter, there is plenty of folklore to satisfy and a historically-shaped landscape that never ceases to astonish.
Additional Trip Notes:
- there are no gas stations or food places in Grates Cove. The closest is the Irving in Old Perlican, whichserves good coffee, excellent sandwiches and takes Interac, Visa and MC (as well as cash). You can also buy alcohol in Old Perlican.
- the paved road to Grates Cove is very rough in spots.