04 4 / 2013
We were pretty sure when we looked up Haddam Meadows on the map, that we were in for a pretty short, and rather dull time. There’s no map on the DEP website, which is never a good sign. The park occupies a floodplain alongside the Connecticut River, and was used historically for growing hay and animal pasture. Once The Connecticut River Valley was industrialised it became an excellent spot for transfer of goods, animals and materials onto ships from the less exotic New York City to the West Indies. The park is on the west bank of the river, in perfect position for the deep shipping channel. Today you can see the remnants of these functions in the rather less exciting Higganum transfer station next door, and the small but very popular boat launches maintained in the park. The state obtained the park as a gift in 1944, and has created fishing areas, and playing fields that were full of Little League games, the day we arrived. While a dip in the river may seem inviting on a warm summer’s day, the currents in this region are strong and the urge to dive in should be resisted.
It was pretty late on a warm but blustery Saturday afternoon, and in all honesty I think we expected to be back in the car within ten minutes of leaving it. But Haddam Meadows hides a surprising amount of interesting habitats for wildlife, and a Tardis like trail system along it’s length, that may actually keep you busy for some time. We headed from the middle parking lot along the trail by the shore, where the thickets of spiky plants were just starting to form buds after the winter.
The damage to the shoreline from our recent major storms could also be observed in quite a few locations. Once you pass the boat launch, the trail bends into the woods and you’re surrounded by swampy pools.
These pools are the remnants of flood water, in combination with the high spring water table, and they bring with them piles of nutrients and small animal life. The evening we arrived these pools were brimming with peepers, which I didn’t manage to spot, despite the crystal clear surface of the water.
A little further on the trail takes a sharp bend around a rather grotty looking human created inlet from the river. As we were walking past the surface of the water was disturbed, and when we looked closer, a small group of rather large fish was hanging out in the shade down there. No idea what they were, they had a very square nose and were over a foot long, and looked like it might be swarming time. That was pretty awesome. At the far south end the trail turns into a vehicle road popular with fishermen, and we turned around to retrace our steps.
In addition to the amphibious noise creators and the fish, this park is also supposed to be awesome for birdwatching (as it much of the Connecticut Riverfront). I was certainly pleasantly surprised by the place.
04 4 / 2013
There it is, hiding in the shadows. But we still can’t get to it, because it’s in the middle of the Connecticut River. One day we will acquire flotation based transport and revisit all these waterlogged Parks we’re skipping.
10 3 / 2013
I’m just going to say it outright. Gillette Castle is completely mental. It’s an absolute monstrosity of a mansion. Whoever describes this as a “medieval” style castle lifted from the banks of the Rhine must have been taking some serious LSD at the time. Commissioned by William Hooker Gillette, a turn of the century actor most famous for giving Sherlock Holmes his deerstalker hat and “Elementary, my Dear Watson,” it took 5 years to build entirely from local stone. The frame is made from steel, and the exterior can be described as, well, a total mess.
I think it’s supposed to look dated, but it looks like a five year old stuck some rocks in playdough and then his dad did a half assed job of trying to straighten it up. The balconies are an attempt to be ornate, perhaps a little mediterranean, but they’re also ham fisted and clunky. The north east side of the mansion is extremely dark, with teeny tiny windows that looked that they’ve imprisoned at least a couple of mad women in the attic. It’s a little bit gothic, but a really low budget eastern european version of Dracula as opposed to a shiny Hollywood version.
Gillette was known as a great eccentric. On the Connecticut Riverboat tours they tell of the elaborate ruses he would perform on guests - making them take his personal train up to the estate from the car park to arrive at Grand Central Station.
Each door inside is closed by an elaborate, hand crafted and unique latch system. He picked a beautiful spot to build his castle, and I admire his use of local materials. But I just don’t know what was going through the architects head at the time. When Gillette died he left a clause in his will prohibiting the purchase of the castle by any “blithering sap-head who has no conception of where he is or with what surrounded” (thanks Wikipedia), and so the Governor took control, changing the name of the property from “The Seventh Sister” to “Gillette Castle,” and creating a new State Park.
We’ll be back after Memorial Day when the house and Visitor Centre are open for tours, as the few photos I’ve seen suggest that the interior is a little more easy on the eye than the exterior. The place is definitely worth a visit, if just to marvel at the sheer cheek of it. There’s trails and things aswell but really, you don’t come to a place like this for a good hike. And don’t worry - if you promise to have fewer than 50 guests, you can get married here too. Bonkers, awesome and awful all at the same time.
10 3 / 2013
It’s a bit weird that there are two State Parks named after men called George, but of the two, George Dudley Seymour was definitely the most auspicious, at least where State Parks are concerned. This George worked as a patent attorney in New Haven in the late 1800s, and used his patenting wiles to acquire numerous bodies of land in Eastern CT for the State to preserve, including the awesome Bigelow Hollow. He was therefore a pretty big thinker in this field, and when the state finally acquired this parcel of land in 1960, naming it after him was a no brainer. Despite his standing in State Park History, this is a rather undeveloped park. The DEP site speaks of interpretive panels in meadows, but we managed to miss all of these. The trails are unblazed, and there’s not even the familiar brown sign to welcome you to the car park. In fact, there’s a dodgy looking blocked up bridge over a stream and a whole bunch of private signs, so the whole thing feels a little seedy at the start. After checking we were in the right place about twelve times whilst waving our phones like lunatics to get phone reception for google maps (Dad would have despaired), we finally set off across the bridge and took the tarmac road off to the left, towards the Meadows.
After 15-20 minutes of roadway through pretty standard woodland (again looking lovely in the bright white snow):
…you come to a field which looked like it used to house a car park before the bridge got too dodgy. We took the trail off to the right, which leads you to the flood plain of the Connecticut River via some marshland which looks like excellent birdwatching territory.
Where the trail joins the flood plain lies the remains of the Clarkhurst Estate, a mansion and machinery testing station for the family cider press manufacturing business which ran until the early 1900s. This large estate was impossible to maintain for the single owner who took it on afterwards, and fell into disrepair. There’s now a few stone foundations and steps, but not much else. Apparently this is covered on the interpretative panels that we never found.
From here, things went a bit south for our little trip. We should have taken the flood plain (which has native grasses from the 1600s and bald eagle sighting), but instead we tried to take the unmarked trail to the north to do a loop through Hurd State Park. We quickly lost the trail in the snow and ended up hiking across a couple of quite steep gullies in highly unsuitable footwear, then bashing through some pretty serious mountain laurel aiming to hit the power line that marks the northern edge of this park. We managed eventually but it was a little strenuous, so we stuck to the sunshine under the power lines until the trail back to the car park.
In the snow this was not clear, but our trail based scooby senses picked up a slight dip in the snow which rapidly turned into a pretty good sized track. All in all, more of an adventure than we had anticipated, but we feel like George Dudley Seymour would have approved.
In conclusion, the DEP really needs to commission some better maps, Contours would have massively helped in the absence of trail blazes. Not likely in these sequestered times, I presume.
10 3 / 2013
There’s two reasons we’ve been putting off visiting this state park. The first is access, having been significantly snowed out of the woods for the last month now here in CT. We’re not the most graceful cross country skiers and snow shoes always seemed a bit pointless, so trudging through two feet of wet stuff was not appealing. The second reason is emotional, as to get there we would have to drive through Sandy Hook for the first time since December. I don’t wish to dwell on the events of late last year, but thinking of them still, and likely always will strike me cold. It’s barely possible to imagine a more idyllic location with cute houses, plenty of open forests, and friendly faces. As we drove through today, sunlight reflecting off the snowy gardens, many mailboxes and welcome signs held purple balloons to remember Dylan Hockley, who would have been 6 a couple of days ago. A beautiful and poignant reminder of an event of the kind I hope I never hear of again. Feeling subdued, we carried on through the town to park up by George C Waldo State Park on Purchase Brook Road, and stomped off down the main track.
There’s not much in the way of trails to be found here, a gravel track down to the edge of Lake Lillinonah and a mountain biker created winding trail, around the outskirts of park territory. As these trails usually are it’s winding and undulating, but adds significantly to the park as it means you can do a looped visit.
The pretty average forest looked spectacular with snow on the ground and stupendously bright sunlight. Stone walls are littered somewhat randomly across the property, and there’s a few hills with stony outcrops throughout.
The real highlight of the visit is the shore of Lake Lillinonah, a beautifully calm spot with views for a couple of miles. The Lake looks a little more like a wide river, and it’s actually man made, dammed by the Shepaug dam in the 1950s.
Today the Shepaug dam is a great place for bald eagle watching in the winter until mid March, though the skies were quiet the day we visited. Unfortunately, the dam is also the first real squeeze point for the river, and in the summer the lake tends to turn a sickly looking green. These algal blooms likely result in an accumulation of phosphorus from sewage plants in Danbury, and the DEP are trying to figure out ways to get round this habitat damaging event. It’s a real shame, as in summertime this would make a great picnic spot, though it does look like you might have to fight the local teenagers for the prime spot.
We returned along the bike trail, cutting corner when we could see the orange blazes turn back on each other, and it looks like a fun trail for novice mountain bikers, plenty of direction changes and nothing too technical. There’s nothing particularly spectacular to see, but the woods are pleasant and we enjoyed the warm breeze wafting through the trees. We lost the tracks a few times, losing them completely around quarter of a mile from the end, and stomped through the woods back to the main gravel trail.
So who was George C. Waldo, and why is there a park named after him? Wikipedia tells me that George was a lawyer in the late 1800s who practised in New York but went to school and was buried in Scotland, CT. Not really sure why that warrants a state park, but it’s a lovely parcel of land and I’m glad it was preserved.
08 2 / 2013
It’s a few weeks since CT A to Z visited Gay City State Park. Real life got in the way of the write up until today, when I find myself with a few spare hours having been sent home pre Winter Storm Nemo. The storm hasn’t really revved up yet, but we already have a couple of inches of powdery stuff. In fact, it’s pretty similar ground conditions to our Gay City visit.
Gay City used to be the sight of a small settlement, “Factory Hollow”, begun in 1796 that grew to around 25 families, many of whom bore the name Gay. They were an insular bunch of devout MOthodists, and not much inclined to mix with outsiders. Their trade mainly focussed around the building and running of a sawmill. A woollen mill followed, which saw moderate success until trade restrictions imposed by the British preceeding the War of 1812 slowly killed it off. Business finally ended in 1830 when the mill burned down. The families of some of the original settlers, the Sumners, tried to revive the settlement and prevent the flood of people back to urban industry with the construction of a paper mill, but were left without staff when the young men went off to fight the Civil War. Rumours have it that the town also had a major alcohol problem, and When this mill burned down in 1879, the fate of the town was sealed. Gay City became a State Park in 1944. Few traces of the town remain, there’s a mill race just to the west of the bathing pond and a small graveyard by the entrance.
We only scratched the surface of the activities available at Gay City. Along with some excellent hiking in some of the clearest woods you’ll see in Connecticut, there is a great single track bike loop in the south west corner, and more loops are appearing in the south east corner. The CT arm of the New England Orienteering Club hold meets there once a year, and if you’ve recently accepted God into your life, a mass baptism is held in the lake there every Fall. It’s also very popular with believers in the supernatural, although unfortunately I forgot the website address of the guy there who wanted to show me his orb photos this summer. As you can see, it really does attract all sorts!
Dropping in to Gay City on a crystal clear, icy cold weekend however, you have to park in the winter lot, right by the 85 between Bolton and Hebron. It’s a short walk from here to the main attraction of the park, a lake with bathing in the summer months, and a lovely picnic spot. Today though we chose to stick to the outer loop trail, a red blazed trail of around 4 miles that hugs the circumference of the Park.
It’s not the most exciting of trails unless you’re a woodland junkie like me, and in the depths of winter it’s almost eerily quiet, with only occasional signs of life.
Many of the main thoroughfares had frozen into thick ice sheets, which were great for sliding downhill on your bum.
As always, there’s some hefty glacial erratic boulders, and the partially frozen streams looked fantastic as the ice sheets splintered above them.
19 1 / 2013
It was a bit of a coup for the State to get their hands on some waterfront property near the town of Salem, in the form of a small strip of land abutting the southwestern edge of Gardner Lake. The problem is, it’s such a small bit, and the neighbours seem so desperate to keep you out, that the whole thing is a bit of an eyesore. I’m sure that on a summer’s day, when you can launch your boat and move out on the water, it’s a lovely spot (although google suggests it may be rather busy on the best days, and perhaps a bit of a mess). But on a harsh winter’s afternoon, just as the light is fading, the thing that strikes you most about the park is this…
Which is a bit of a shame really. The lake is natural, but the depth has been augmented a little by damming. The Gardner family used to own a large amount of the land in the area, but these days it’s parcelled up into lots of tiny private beach fronts and boat launches. Squeezed in between is the state park, with since 2008 has had hard standing parking for 54 vehicles and a concreted launch.
Somewhere in the lake there’s a sunken house, after a silly chap in the late 1800s tried to pull it across the ice to move the hard way. As one might have envisaged, it got a bit stuck, and was used by the locals for fishing and playing for quite a few years. Had he tried this winter things would have been over before they begun, with the ice sheets occupying the only the edges, and breaking up into tiny sheets already. So after a quick game of ice boules (R. won), we headed home. We were a little perturbed whilst we were there at the number of cars parking up by the water, sitting for a few minutes, then driving off again. Could it also be a local cruising spot?! We shall return in the summer, when the place is more populous, hopefully with seafaring equipment, to investigate the State’s smallest State Park, Minnie Island.
14 1 / 2013
The second of today’s Forts is more modern, but saw no battle action since it was built. Finished in 1852 it’s an enormous tombstone of a building, impenetrable looking and lacking in any ornate detail. The architecture is supposed to echo an Egyptian style, which it certainly achieves in grandeur alone.
The Fort forms part of the Third System of Defence, built to protect the vulnerable northeastern coastland from attack by sea. Once WWII came along and the major threat switched to the air, the Fort has taken on a few roles, many of them research based for the Navy and Coastguard, including the rather exciting sounding Magnetic Silencing Facility, which is still on the seafront today. This facility plays a vital role in detecting the size of the magnetic fields of ships in the harbour, ensuring they are small enough to avoid drawing magnetic mines in combat situations.
Again, there’s a museum at the site, but it’s only open in the summer, so we were left to explore with the help of the information boards. Next to the car park there’s the Officers Quarters and some barracks, and a route round the back of the fort itself.
The gates into the main fortifications are well barred,
but you can see some of the northern battery…
and a tiny store house built to house 50 men in time of combat.
If you wander round the back from there you face the river front, and you can walk down to a pier and stroll along the sea front.
The whole place is more imposing than Griswold but a little less interesting - all the exciting bits to explore are locked away. On the southern battery there’s some remaining cannons to investigate, and the walk must be very pleasant in the right kind of weather. We may be back in summer!
14 1 / 2013
Sunday brought a double whammy of military history (actually a triple, as we combined the parks with the Submarine Force Museum in Groton - definitely worth a visit) to CT A to Z, with a couple of Forts alongside the mouth of the Thames River. The mouth at New London is seriously deep for an outlet, making New London a critical location for trade and defence on the northeastern coast. Possession of New London was an enormous tactical advantage in the heady days of sea faring, and to this day still houses an outpost of the US Navy. When we visited, the foul foggy conditions of the previous day continued continued, so we were unable to fully appreciate the visual advantages these two locations provided in the defence of this key location. A grand day out was enjoyed nonetheless.
Fort Griswold is the older of the two locations, to be found on the Eastern Coast of the Thames River. This one saw some real action in 1781 during the Revolutionary War, when the turncoat Benedict Arnold led the British on a dual pronged assault of the river mouth. The attack was revenge for the seizure of an enormous amount of taxes for King George by the Confederacy from the boat Hannah earlier in the year. The outpost on the Western side was taken quickly, but Fort Griswold enjoyed a steeper aspect and proved a slightly more difficult nut to crack. The battle ended after a moment of confusion, when a flag was knocked down and the British believed that the Privateers had surrendered. When they found more retaliation as they advanced further towards the Fort, hackles were raised and the defending Privateers were massacred, resulting a large defeat. New London was sacked and burned, and civil buildings in Groton were destroyed. A way more detailed version of this story can be found here.
There’s a small Museum on site but it’s only open during the summer months, so we just got to explore the fort itself. You can see the fortifications well, some of the only remaining revolutionary earthworks in New England. There’s a cool little passage through the walls,
and a dugout trail from the top fortifications…
down to the lower battery, which would have housed serious cannons.
There’s a shot furnace where cannon balls were heated to an extreme temperature so that they’d set fire to attacking wooden ships, and a reinforced powder magazine where all the ammo was stored.
It’s a really cool little site with plenty to investigate, and I imagine on a better day, pretty good views of the river too. Well worth a visit.
14 1 / 2013
Well, it’s been a while! CT A to Z spent the last month or so frantically beavering in the lab, before heading back to the homeland for a while. When we returned to CT things were decidedly British, foggy and damp, with icy patches all over, so it was with trepidation that I headed out on the Farmington Canal Trail to test out my exciting new road bike in a traffic free situation.
The Farmington Canal is a wonderful resource for the New Haven Community. In the summer its packed full of commuters, dog walkers, Chinese power walkers and tiny children wobbling around on bikes. The Canal was first active in the late 1820s, part of the mega canal building craze that gave birth to the massive Erie Canal in New York State and provided a means of transport to burgeoning industry, linking New Haven on the coast with Northampton all the way up in Massachusetts. It wasn’t the speediest form of transport, boats being drawn by mules led by humans, and with unpredictable patches drying up in hot summers, but did allow for relatively easy movement of heavy loads. Within only 20 years though, the canal had been supplanted by the faster rail industry, and a track was even built right on this site, which was active until the 1980s.
Strictly these days the State Park bit only goes from Todd Street in Hamden north to Cheshire. Annoyingly, by the time I got to this bit it was pretty badly iced over, and so I actually didn’t make it.
The photos therefore, are all from further south. The trail is pretty innocuous, mostly not in the most spectacular of locations. It runs behind lots of small businesses, cuts through patches of woodland and provides a quiet route as an alternative to the bustling Whitney Avenue.
There’s a couple of dramatic cuttings where it heads through little hillsides, but it’s mostly a well surfaced, safe place for recreation of all kinds.
For this, it’s a wonderful resource, and well used. On a good day you can see the head of Sleeping Giant, and stop at the amazing Wentworth’s ice cream (but not on a Sunday).
But what struck me on this distinctly dull day was how this trail quietly tells of Connecticuts more modern history. There are many stark reminders of the financial history of the past few years, with warehouses turned into gyms (including the awesome True Athletics) and Zumba Centres, and “lifestyle centres” turned to wasteland.
When the sun comes out again, I hope to get up to Cheshire and see the restored locks that can be found there, and perhaps explore some of the sections further north (not yet joined up) that form the rest of the Greenway.