Digging out stories for my television series Escapes with Nigel has taken me further afield in Ontario than usual.
Our mandate is to find interesting places to go and unusual things to do and allow people to escape from the city, hence the title of the show and my unseemly interest in Barrie, Ontario. For most people this is a place to whizz past on the way to the cottage or the ski hills. It’s a small town on the shores of Lake Simcoe, notable for boating in summer and for ice fishing in winter, but it has some treats in store.
The first time I drive up the highway, very early in the New Year, the snow is blowing off the highway and making driving conditions treacherous. I’m grateful for the all-wheel drive on the car I’ve rented as my light-weight aluminium-bodied rear-wheel drive over-powered Jaguar XK sports car would be fish-tailing all over the place. Checking the locations we plan to shoot requires plodding around in snow boots and wearing my big Canada Goose parka. As I look out over the lake at the hardy souls who are ice fishing, I fervently wish that by the time we come back the weather will be kinder.
In fact, the dreadful weather persists and we’ve had snow again by the time I return with the television crew in tow, but cameraman Doug Munro is from Alberta and knows how to deal with the cold. In addition, the kind folk at Grand Touring Automobiles have been very generous and have provided a couple of sturdy Land Rovers for the production. These were the Brits’ utilitarian post-war answer to the equally utilitarian American army Jeep. My Dad had a restored World War II Willys Jeep in Benghazi, Libya, the vehicle I learned to drive on. Later, in Kenya, we had a succession of Land Rovers that went anywhere one wanted off-road. Splendid vehicles and I’m glad for their boxy company on horrible roads in worse weather.
We’re here to track down the folks at a craft brewery, the Saturday farmer’s market and an art centre, where I hope to join in a painting class. Not much remains of the historic downtown and it’s rewarding to see the art centre housed in the former public library. Across the street, the old City Hall was demolished to make way for a hideous modern concrete building, but the rotunda makes a good home for the market, which in summer moves outside to the square. Just round the corner, on the bustling main street, sits the brewery, in a handsome old brick building.
This is our first stop, where an interesting group of people have gathered for a beer tasting at the Flying Monkeys Craft Brewery. Upstairs is a bar resplendent in wood and brass, and sitting around drinking beer, reminds me quite of days of old in English pubs. As I write this, I’m actually sitting in a pub in England, and the experience is not quite the same, in fact. Real English pubs are stained by the memories, spilled beer and smoke of ages. They have an ineffable smell, not unpleasant, and an indefinable charm. Regardless, the atmosphere at the upstairs private bar at Flying Monkeys is convivial and the company as chatty and companionable as one would want. We try five beers. One is really hoppy and I like it best, as it reminds me most of an English bitter. One is a chocolate flavoured stout, as dark as Guinness, but with a distinct chocolate taste. Not for me, that one, but others seem to enjoy it. I only have a sip or two of each, as I have to make sense on camera later, but the other folks chug the samples back with gusto.
Peter and Andrea Chiodo are our hosts. He’s the beer expert and she’s the queen of marketing and takes me, first, through the brand and how it all developed from their original purchase of the Robert Simpson Brewery in Barrie. Peter walks me around the plant and shows me how beer is made and we have a companionable hour climbing up a gantry to the top of the tanks and peering into various bits of machinery. It turns out Peter has been making beer since his student days, from recipes his grandfather, who made basement beer, passed on. After various careers, Peter has been able to turn a love of brewing into a sound business. However, there are no monkeys in the place, flying or otherwise.
After overnighting in a local travellers’ motel, about which the less said the better, we head out early the next day to the Farmers’ Market, held all year round on Saturday mornings. The City hall rotunda is packed with stalls selling local produce and crafts of all types. Lucy, the effervescent market manager, introduces us to Doug McBride, past chairman of the market board, organic farmer, and long-time stall holder, at his vegetable stand. While his able assistants serve the customers, Doug and I chat for the camera and he shows me his unusual chioggia beets, a sweet Italian heirloom variety, with normal looking burgundy beet exteriors, and fuscia and white striped interiors, just like the gob-stoppers I enjoyed as a kid. I meet other stallholders and taste honey, maple syrup and chocolate, all made or harvested locally. Hurrah for local food.
Before the morning is over we are off across the intersection to the Maclaren Art Centre, where I’m to interview Carolyn Bell Farrell, the executive director. She tells me the centre is housed in the historic former Carnegie public library, a Palladian-style red brick building opened in 1917, joined to a modern extension, designed specifically for the centre. After explaining the exhibitions and collections, which include, very strangely, 23 thousand Soviet era propaganda press photos, and four draft horse prints by Canadian artist Joe Fafard, that complement his horse shaped ploughed field experiment a decade ago, she suggests we also check out the Spirit Catcher, a huge sculpture by artist Ron Baird, which was moved to Barrie following Vancouver’s Expo ’86, where it had been exhibited, and became the first piece in the centre’s permanent collection. Before we leave to check out the sculpture and film the opening and closing to the show beside it’s stark form, I join in a kids’ art session. Instructor Kirsty Wilson sits me down in a kindergarten size chair between two eight-year-olds, in a class of a dozen or more, and together we manage a credible painting of trees in winter, an appropriate subject considering the snow squalls that were coming off the nearby lake.
Almost as much fun as drinking beer with a barrel of monkeys.
Please watch my television series Escapes with Nigel, on Bell Fibe TV1 video-on-demand channels, 1, 1001 and 1217, wherever Bell Fibe TV is available.
This story was originally posted on April 19, 2014.