Matane, Quebec. Mile 1875

Its cool outside and the breeze blowing in off the sea has been rattling our skylight. We have just poured Tom into bed. We all watched Apollo 13 on Harv’s DVD and about two thirds through we realised that Tom was flat out, his sweaty little head squished into the cushion. He had been gripped by the film and kept shushing me and Philippa, but at some point as Tom Hanks was fighting fatigue, Tom Lister succumbed to it. He woke up as we were putting his bed together and immediately put his finger to his lips and said “no talking”. I don’t think he realised the movie had finished.

Its a been the perfect summer’s day. Bright and breezy with scudding clouds and white topped waves on a blue sea. Strictly speaking this is still the St. Lawrence river at this stage and somewhere beyond the horizon is its north bank, but it feels more like the ocean now with big tides, and harbours with shrimp and lobster boats. It could be Cornwall, though with far fewer people. There is very much an ends of the earth feel to the Gaspe; small wooden houses hunkered down against the weather, no-frills towns with hardware stores and machine shops. Matane, where we are now is one of them, but it did have a smashing fish restaurant right on the beach. We sat outside braving the wind and watching the sun make a date with the horizon. Local beer, local shrimp and scallops and big slices of the fluffiest and richest lemon cake. Really rather good.

The driving up here has been perfect for old Harv who was built to cruise at somewhere between 55 and 65. The roads are smooth and wide, rising and falling gently as they hug the coastline. Every so often a white lighthouse with a red cap appears on a distant promentory. There are small squat farmhouses on one side of the road backing on to green fields. On the other, just off the beach, tiny fishermen’s cottages made of weathered grey timber.

At St Flavie we stopped to see a procession of wood and concrete people emerging from the sea. Around eighty of them in fact, erected by local artist Marcel Gagnon. Some are on little log rafts which float when the tide comes in. They were eerie and somewhat disquieting figures and had that celtic look about the faces. There was an explanation but it was written in “modern art”, and thus, impossible to understand by anyone speaking English.

Further on we stopped at the Jardins de Metis and were immediately transported back to some leafy corner of an English country garden. This part of Gaspe has a unique microclimate which allows all manner of English plants to be grown and the gardens had been beautifully set out.

The land was bought in 1886 by a Lord Mount Stephen to use as a fishing retreat, but he eventually turned it over to his neice Elsie Stephen Reford in 1926 who over thirty three years, planted more than three thousand varieties of plants. A path winds around the gardens, through little valleys splashed with brilliant colours, along streams and over wooden bridges, through crabapple orchards and herb gardens. Tom rubbed mint leaves and rosemary  and lemon-basil to get the smells onto his fingers.

At the end of the trail was a sculpture garden which rivalled the Chelsea Flower show. One piece was a recreation of a first world war trench, complete with little birch fences draped with barbed wire, but most were more whimsical; giant ladders leaned against trees little seats at the top, planters on wheels which you could move into place like pieces of a quilt (Tom’s favourite). There were nets which you could lie on to smell the herbs beneath you and a swing which triggered the distribution of seeds. Tom did a lot of seed distribution…

My favourite was a room full of a thousand potatoes, which is the average Canadian family’s annual consumption apparently. They’d been linked together with electrical wire to create a charge which intermittently triggers little electronic buzzers. Entering a room and being buzzed at by a thousand spuds is a hoot let me tell you.

There were sheds too (a British entry) each of which was painted a different colour. One was filled with jars of honey and through a gap in the boards you could see the wildflowers which made it. Another had logs turning into charcoal, another one seemed to be propagating light bulbs. The last was all white and inside it was a table, some paper, a pen and some push-pins, so you could make a picture and pin it aon the wall. Tom did dragons and signed his name.

There were long and incomprehensible explanations written in Modern Art: “Described as an epithet which conveys micro-climatic processes and spatial sensations as linked…” etc etc. I think its OK to sometimes just say “I thought this was sort of fun…”

It was a terrific place though and we found we had somehow spent more than three hours there. Should you find yourself on the north coast of the Gaspe peninsula, go and see it.

The last of the light has finally gone from the sky and we can see perhaps five lights as we look up and down the coast through Harvey’s back window. Up into the wilderness of Gaspese tomorrow.

Author: Richard Lister

Chasing horizons...

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