Falling for Riverwood

This tiny creek nestles at the bottom of a steep ravine near Chappell House. Oct 29 2017

The Riverwood Conservancy has quickly become my favourite local place to practice shinrin-yoku (“forest bathing”). Since writing about my first discovery of this wonderful urban oasis, I’ve visited many times, usually after a long day at work, to rejuvenate and seek peace. In this post, I’ve included images from September and October. I look forward to experiencing what the property has to offer in all seasons.

Oct 15 2017

So far, I’ve followed new trails and enjoyed the deep solitude of the woods, meadows and riverside. I’ve taken dozens of photographs of the park, and I’ve sat on the back terrace of Chappell House, nursing a cup of tea and feeding the black-capped chickadees by hand. (I usually bring a pocketful of wild bird seed; these cuties are easy to coax to the hand.)

Back garden view of Chappell House, built in the Arts and Crafts style in 1919. In keeping with the artful nature of the park, I’ve given this photo a painterly effect. Sep 17 2017

The gardens, still so full of foxglove, Japanese anemones, hydrangea, monkshood, echinacea and roses in September, are drowsing now, awaiting the first blanket of snow. (We had flurries here the other night, but nothing stuck.) The volunteer gardeners, however, have ensured that shrubs and small trees will provide structural interest – and food for birds – during the colder months.

The Arts and Crafts-style gardens complement the house. In September, Japanese anemones provided vibrant colour. Sep 17 2017

On another part of the property stand the McEwan house and barn, the foundations of which date from 1850. There and in a new building, the Conservancy and Visual Arts Mississauga offer community programs for school children and adults. In the surrounding gardens, there is a raised-bed Sensory Garden featuring plants with different scents and textures, and the Enabling Garden invites disabled participants to pitch in and help grow an amazing variety of herbs, flowers, fruits and vegetables.

Painting in the Visual Arts Mississauga building, where community art classes and gallery shows are held. Title and artist unknown. Oct 16 2017

It is from this area that several trailheads lead to more discoveries, including a grand allée of Norway spruce planted over a century ago to protect the fruit orchards (remnants of which can still be seen) from wind damage. Dotted around the woods are 19 “tree caches”, different species of trees marked with QR-coded tags. Scanning the tags with a phone app brings up a website with all kinds of interesting facts about each of the marked trees, some of which are quite rare.

Scanning the code revealed that this tree is a White elm (Ulmus americana), a rare species in eastern Canada due to the ravages of Dutch elm disease. Oct 16 2017

Each time I go to Riverwood, I have a little quest in mind. The Conservancy’s website hints at structures associated with the 1919 Chappell House, but doesn’t specify where they are. These mysteries eluded me at first, but, in best Time Team spirit, I followed obscure paths and paid attention to archaeological clues, and eventually stumbled across the original stone-lined swimming pool and paved tennis court. The pool is now fenced off for safety (not very picturesque, so no photos), and the tennis court’s remaining bits of broken asphalt are now home to moss, weeds and monarch butterflies – and Tai Chi practitioners. Both are a poignant paean to the privileged life of the early 1920s.

Oct 15 2017

I’ve enjoyed watching the autumn colours come into their glorious own. There’s a particular part of the forest that is incredibly peaceful, full as it is of towering sugar maples (one in particular is known to be over 250 years old), beeches, oaks, birches, evergreens and a number of Carolinian (southern) species. The squirrels and chipmunks are quite entertaining, and I’ve been serenaded by the calls of resident and migrating birds: blue jays and robins, woodpeckers, goldfinches, kinglets and sparrows. The other day, I spotted my first dark-eyed juncos of the season, which means only one thing: winter is coming!

The serene beauty of autum woods. Oct 29 2017


The Secret Garden

Purple coneflower (Echinacea sp.)

The beginning of Autumn is less than a week away, and that makes me a happy little hedgewitch. Fall is by far my favourite season, for all the reasons that most people love it: cerulean skies and crisp, woodsmoke-scented air; blankets and hoodies; the crunch of fallen leaves; blazing colours and bonfires. And yes, pumpkin spice everything!

These past couple of weeks, while other areas of the continent have been ravaged by horrific storms, my own little pocket of the world has been fortunate to enjoy a string of exceedingly pleasant pre-autumn weather. The days are warm but not hot, nights are snugglingly cool, and the air has been still and soft, like a gauzy veil shimmering between the scourge of summer and the cold to come.

I took advantage of this perfection a few days ago when I paid two impromptu visits to a new place for me. For years, on my way to work, I’ve been driving past a large tract of land known as the Riverwood Conservancy. As I’m always in a hurry, I never paid it much attention, but its website says that it’s a city-owned park, free and open to the public year-round, with historic buildings, gardens, nature trails, and a centre offering community art programs. I said to myself, “Self, get thee there one day!” but somehow, I never did. Silly me — now I know what I was missing!

Keeping perfect time!

Last Sunday, I decided on a whim to stop at Riverwood after work to see what it was all about. The late afternoon was fine and there was still lots of daylight left, so I drove down the winding lane leading to the main building which houses the Conservancy’s offices. With only my phone camera in hand, I began to explore the area around the house, with its charming gardens – all maintained by volunteers – secret stairs and pathways, stone walls and old wooden gates, and other interesting architectural features – some of them almost lost to time.

As soon as I saw the place, I was immediately charmed – and fell in love. As Lizzie says at first glimpse of the magnificent Pemberley in Pride and Prejudice (1995 miniseries), “I don’t think I’ve ever seen a place so happily situated.” Riverwood may not be on nearly as grand a scale, but it is lovely just the same.

Known as the Chappell House, the rambling bungalow perches atop the Credit River Valley on 60 hectares (150 acres) of woodland that was once used as trading grounds by First Nations peoples. The house was built in 1919 in the Arts and Crafts style as a summer retreat for the property’s third owners – complete with servants’ quarters, billiard room, tennis court and swimming pool.

Viewed from the formal courtyard with original waterlily and goldfish pond and circular paved driveway, the stone house with its massive chimney, family crest, and service wings is quite impressive:

Chappell House, Riverwood Conservancy, Mississauga, Ontario

A closer view reveals that each part of the building has its own character and makes for delightful little vignettes. One of the wings, for example, which I think must have been family bedrooms, looks like the most perfect little cottage, adorned with clematis and its own tiny garden:

The north wing

There was no one else around and I was surrounded by a still, peaceful forest, quiet but alive with birdsong and the rustle of squirrels gleaning chestnuts, so I felt like I was in my own spellbound world. I roamed about gardens planted with a mixture of traditional English cottage and local species. Here were foxglove, chamomile and David Austin roses, there turtlehead (Chelone), purple coneflower (Echinacea) and rudbeckia. There are also all manner of potted plants, some of them exotic and extremely fragrant, such as gardenia and angel trumpet (Brugmansia). Paths and old wooden gates beckoned to more secret nooks and surprises, and everywhere I looked yielded another delight for the senses.

The lily pond, an original feature of the front courtyard

These stairs lead to disappointment!

The back of the house features the Great Room and the formerly open-air dining porch (now enclosed) which once hosted lavish dinner parties for illustrious guests including prime ministers, lieutenant governors and senators. Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau, for example, once played tennis on the now-lost court. (Apparently, traces of it – and the swimming pool – can still be seen … that’s a quest for another day!) The rear lawn dips down to the edge of the ravine through which runs the Credit, one of the longest rivers flowing into Lake Ontario. I imagine white-clad ladies and gents, shaded by immense old pines and oaks, enjoying an amiable game of croquet on that lawn. At its edge are crumbling stone steps down which I’m sure generations of children scrambled on some adventure or another. I wondered where they led, but they were fenced off. When I came back the next day and walked the trail along the valley bottom, I came across what I guessed were the same ones I’d seen from the top. Curious souls making the effort to climb those enticing steps only to find the way barred will soon find out why another visitor dubbed them the Stairs of False Hope!

Through a glass, humidly

The property is located on the northern edge of Carolinian habitat, and plants normally seen in the American south (e.g. sassafras, pawpaw, tulip tree, black-gum) can be found here. (It is also rich in bird and animal species.) Many of the garden plants are propagated onsite, and the house even has its own greenhouse/potting shed. A glimpse inside, with the late afternoon sun illuminating gardening tools and stacks of terra cotta pots, was intriguing.

The following day, I came back to explore more of the Riverwood property. There are other historic buildings, including an 1850s house and barn, and gardens to see as well as trails to hike, and I enjoyed them all. I have yet to get inside the buildings and am curious to know if any of their original features still exist. There is also an intriguing feature in the woods that I searched for but couldn’t find! Later in the season, when fall colour is at its peak, you can bet I’ll be back for more photography. The property will be lovely at any time of year, in fact, so Riverwood is bound to become a regular haunt for me.

My ramblings on those two magickal days inspired the theme for September and October: Autumn Enchantments!

A view from the Sundial Garden