I experienced a terrific overnight trip to London (Ontario) the other week. An interesting City with some fine architecture and which, but for rivalry between Montreal and Toronto politicians, could well have been Canada’s capital. Good Queen Vicky got involved and pulled a stunner when she chose ByTown – a notorious lumber camp famous for its drunken bouts and eye-gouging – subsequently renamed Ottawa. In the interim, and in anticipation of London getting the nod, land had been put aside high above a bend in the River Thames for the location of the Governor General’s house. Didn’t happen and instead it became the location for Eldon House, the home of John Harris, the King’s appointed tax collector. Some irony in all of this!
Eldon is the oldest house in London and has a remarkable collection of artifacts – but I love it for the diaries of its first mistress, Amelia Harris, née Ryerse. At 17 she was a very determined young woman. John was in the Royal Navy when they met. He was surveying Lake Huron for the King and dropped anchor near Port Ryerse. Amelia spotted him and I suspect the poor man didn’t stand a chance – she likely keel-hauled him! Anyway 6 weeks later they were hitched and in the course of their marriage had 10 children. Surprisingly she still had time to keep her diaries. They read something like a Jane Austen novel with family stories that give insight to life in Upper Canada: a daughter off to a ball in Toronto where she might meet some marriageable males; two such marriageable males who switched their affections mid-courtship; and a poor Doctor who failed, in Amelia’s eyes, to give his patient the correct treatment. There are superb sketches of local characters with references to visitors that included the elite of Upper Canada at that time, names like George Brown and William MacKenzie. The house is full of wonderful treasures chronicling the travels of the Harris family and was eventually bequeathed to the City of London.
The Idlewyld Inn and Spa
Eldon House gives insight to the lives of the well-to-do at the turn of the 19th century, as does the architecture and unique wall coverings of The Idlewyld Inn and Spa which is where we stayed. The Inn has undergone extensive renovations since my last visit but not at the expense of its character and history. The dining rooms, lounges and parlours still retain their ambiance along with the old shutters and pocket doors – restored and in good working order. You can have breakfast on the front patio overlooking the garden and enjoy a drink in the card room, where the game of Bridge is believed to have been introduced to London Society by Charles Smith Hyman, the Mayor and original owner of the house. The chef, Trevor Stephens, is in his element creating a new and intriguing menu. We indulged in succulent seared scallops, shared an antipasto, enjoyed a delicious salmon wrapped and baked in prosciutto and finished off with a delicious crème brulée all accompanied by some excellent Canadian wines. I also slipped away from travel and history for an hour to experience the spa and a wonderful back massage.
The Royal Canadian Regiment Museum
The visit was originally organized to catch one of Cirque du Soleil’s jaw-dropping productions at Budweiser Gardens (affectionately known as the ‘Bud’) but since our timing coincided with the 70th anniversary of the D-Day Landing, it seemed appropriate to visit The Royal Canadian Regiment Museum. It’s housed in the historic Wolseley Barracks and has undergone a significant transformation in recent years for which curator Georgiana Stanciu and the Regiment’s veterans are to be congratulated. The Museum documents the origins of the Regiment from the 1700s and the early Simcoe days when every male settler was expected to serve in the local militia. Over the years the militia groups in the Counties surrounding London were incorporated into the RCR. It’s a history of Canada at War from 1812, through the Riel Rebellion to serving in the Boer War, the two Great Wars and Peace-Keeping missions. Along with artifacts, cap badges and medals (donated or created by veterans), the Museum provides an informative and interesting structure to all these encounters with topographical maps and excellent dioramas illustrating the challenging terrain and strategic battle plans. There is a spark missing in many museums especially when it comes to education, but the RCRM has cleverly woven curriculum related activities with stories that bring the human element into their displays. They have invented ways, from colouring games to artillery comparisons and dressing-up, to get youngsters engaged. I suspect the kids get quite a shock when they put on battle gear and then try to pick up the kit bag.
Georgiana has an almost encyclopedic knowledge of the military and combined stories of the exhibits with human interest stories of members of the Regiment. One such story featured a child, Willie Royal, found by some RCR soldiers during the Korean conflict. His parents had been killed and he was wandering the streets naked and terrified. The soldiers fed and clothed him, found him a home, and when they left Korea, continued to support him and paid for his education. Just a few years ago, Johnny, now in his 70’s and a retired successful librarian came to visit his friends in Canada. It must have been quite a reunion.
Before returning to Toronto on VIA 1, the train being my favourite method of transportation, we had one final indulgence: Lunch at Aroma – aptly named. Felipe Gomes, the owner, has brought the best of Mediterraneane cuisine to London along with a boundless energy and enthusiasm for the City. He’s quite the Ambassador and has covered the restaurant walls with pictures, photos and art that showcase the history of London and unusual events that have taken place. Along with a wine cellar, there’s a Chef’s Club with a Cooking Studio and even an archaeological find adorned with bottles of port (empty I presume). The food is another story. I was torn between Caldo Verde and a Seafood Chowder and an incredible charred shrimp appetizer – and that was before I had even got to the entrées. Upstairs, he has opened a French Café and patisserie. All in all a terrific trip to London and a destination I can heartily recommend.