Sunday, February 04, 2007

Grates Cove

february 4, 2007
One week last August, while I was still out at my place in Trinity Bay, the wind blew fiercely from the north. The sea roiled. Pounding waves echoed in the cove, bouncing off the cliffs and into my house. For nights my sleep was interrupted, raw, unrestful. I decided to drive up to Grates Cove, a small community I’d not visited for some years. But of course located at the pinnacle of the peninsula, many metres above the sea, the place was being battered by a noisy ocean. Winds whipped across its barren old fieldscape. The sky was grey and white with battling clouds, the ocean white and indigo in swirling choas. It was hard to breathe. It was magnificent.

Grates Cove is a National Historic Site, a designation earned for its miles of dry stone walls. (Imagine the wonderful hands that would have moved and piled these rocks.) These beautiful artifacts cover an area of 65 hectares. The rock walls enclosed pasture land, gardens, and graveyards, used to make root cellars and wells. Many of the enclosed spaces have names, such as
"Moonlight Garden," "Grandma Warren's Spelling Rock," or "Dancin' Place."

There are a few storyboards around the site, some that describe how the walls were constructed:

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 multisized 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.

But other than a few plaques there's little to tell the visitor about the treasures that lie around the community. And while Grates Cove has been recognized for its national cultural significance, it does not appear to be mentioned in many places.

Looking at the ocean that day, kayaking was far, far from my mind. But someone will have to paddle around the tip of that peninsula, to help complete KNL's Circle the Avalon challenge. Probably won't be me.


Michael said...

Wouldn't Wendy Killoran have paddled that coast? I think she was listed as part of the Circle the Avalon paddlers, but don't know whether she was ever given credit for the parts she did.
Imagine the work that went into those walls, even the simplest of them. Mind you, there was never any shortage of building materials...

Alison Dyer said...

Michael - yes, Wendy would have gone around that coast, but it probably didn't fit the criteria - i think you have to be within 500 metres or something like that of the coastline. So it's still up for grabs (as is most of Trinity Bay which I hope to fill in this summer).
You're right about the walls - not only the length, but the height & breadth of them is boggling - so much work but, as you point out, no shortage of materials.
It's great to see stone walls - for decorative and/or landscaping use, coming back in in St. John's. One company can't keep up with the demand and gives workshops on making them. ALison

David said...


Grates Cove is a magical place for me, one of my ancestral homelands (the Bensons came from there). Thanks for the photos. I have heard that the huge breakwater in Old Perlican was made with stones from the Grates Cove walls, so they must have been quite the spectacle in their time.

Thanks again,


Alison Dyer said...

Hi David. be interesting to find some photos in the archives, but of course they'd only go back so far.