I’m generally anxious around this time of year, approaching the end of the semester, but this year I am particularly so: I seem to be uneasy in general and in Salem in particular. The nice weather has kicked off the tourist season earlier than ever, or maybe it never ended? This means large tour groups just outside my house as late as 10:00 at night, with guides speaking about the ancient “ankle breaker” stones along the sidewalk that my neighbors and I installed in the last decade or so. Run, run, to the back of the house, I tell myself, so I don’t have to hear any more, but sometimes I just don’t want to get off the couch—and one guy is so loud I can even hear him way out back. A change of scenery (and perspective) was definitely needed, so for the long Patriots Day weekend my husband and I took off for one of the prettiest towns in Connecticut (a state with many pretty towns): Essex, near the mouth of the Connecticut River. We stayed at the old Griswold Inn, in one of its newer suites, and ate and drank and looked at old houses and the river. It was very foggy, but there were daffodils everywhere, and I do feel a bit cheerier now that I’m back home (or in Salem).
Welcome to Essex, Connecticut!
I started decompressing as soon as we got on one of my favorite Connecticut small roads: Route 169. Well, before, really: right over the state line in Thompson, which has a great common surrounded by wonderful houses (including the resurrected Gothic Revival long neglected by the famous interior designer Mario Buatta). Route 169 leads you through Woodstock, and by Roseland Cottage, to Canterbury, where the amazing Prudence Crandall opened her school for African-American girls (what an amazing woman! I need to know much more about her), to Norwich, where we turned south and drove by the decaying buildings of the long-abandoned Norwich State Hospital which are such a sharp contrast to the shiny Mohegan Sun casino across the river.
The road to Essex: Thompson houses, Roseland Cottage (which I visited just last summer), Prudence Crandall’s school in Canterbury, and one of the derelict buildings of the former Norwich State Hospital (with a glimpse of Mohegan Sun across the river).
I think my husband thinks that Essex is a bit “Truman Show-esque” but it was just what I needed: a lovely town with clean sidewalks that is proud of its history rather than seeking to sell it 24/7. The houses are pretty perfect, but they are not mansions. It’s really all about watercraft in Essex: this was a rather quiet time but its harbor will be full to brimming in a month or so. Essex built a famous warship for the Revolution named the Oliver Cromwell (which was renamed the Restoration when it was captured by the British in 1779!), it endured the burning of 27 of its privateering ships when the British raided the harbor in April of 1814, the storied schooner yacht Dauntless ended her career on the Essex waterfront at the turn of the last century, and famous steamships line the walls of the Griswold Inn. The wonderful Connecticut River Museum, housed in an old steamship warehouse, explores the layers of local maritime history through art, artifacts and narratives in such an engaging way that I really felt the connection of water to land over history and now I’m absolutely inspired to take another New England road trip: a longer one, up the entire length of the River from Saybrook to Canada.
An array of Essex houses (birdhouses are big in this town too); the Onrust, a replica of a Dutch colonial ship, is moored in front of the Connecticut River Museum (my husband John is looking for me, I think); the Turtle, a Revolutionary-era submarine, which was built just up the River. I love the caption of this c. 1860 painting of Captain and Mrs. Samuel L. Spencer: “Captain Spencer of Old Saybrook, shown with the most important females in his life: his wife and his ship. He was captain of Daniel Webster of the London Line of packets for more than twenty years.” The Connecticut River Museum’s exhibition of Watercraft at Work made even BARGES interesting, and among the items I found my very favorite ship name of all time: of the schooner “Tansy Bitters”.