A NIGHT at a Nova Scotia station is one of the more unusual reasons to visit a land that can seem more Scottish than Scotland, writes David Robinson
In all of Canada and the whole of the United States, there’s no place like Jimmy LeFresne’s. It’s at Tatamagouche, and I’m still not exactly confident where that is because I only got there at three in the morning after flying into Halifax on the last plane of the night and getting lost after midnight on the roads of Nova Scotia, which are at that time of night the loneliest and emptiest roads in the world.
Somehow, with only a lying satnav to guide me, I got to Jimmy’s place: the Train Station, Tatamagouche. My first night in Canada and I was sleeping in a caboose.
LeFresne, I should explain, rhymes with train. And because trains and everything to do with them dominate Jimmy’s life, he’s been collecting cabooses (the carriage where railway workers slept) for years, sticking them along the platform of Tatamagouche railway station – which he bought as an 18-year-old after the line closed – and transforming them into rooms for his own completely wonderful B&B and restaurant.
He’d always loved trains. His parents’ house was just across the tracks from the station, overlooking the sea. In his childhood, when the trains were still running, they carried grey sandstone from the local quarries to build courthouses and town halls all over Canada. Some would be carrying grain to the elevator right next to the station. Salt from Pugwash, just half a dozen miles away. Oil cars, coal wagons, refrigerated fish and, all the time, timber.
These were, of course, steam trains: he remembers his mother rushing to take the clothes off the line so they wouldn’t get blackened by a passing “white flag”, or unscheduled, engine. And sometimes they would drop off coffins at the platform, so young Jimmy – who was always hanging around the station as a child, pestering the stationmaster to teach him how to use the telegraph – would know who had died long before anyone else.
The last passenger train along the Northumberland Shore ran in 1960, the last freight train a few years after. And when that happened and the station finally shut, Jimmy bought it. “While other teenage boys were buying their first car,” he tells me over breakfast, “I was buying a railway station.”
He’d already worked as a teenage photographer, and later he trained to work as a nurse. Back then, conservation wasn’t in vogue – the good people of Tatamagouche thought he was completely mad. The railway owners wouldn’t let him use the buildings he was leasing until he pushed through an act of the Nova Scotian parliament. Now he looks prescient: the Train Station Inn, Tatamagouche, is as far as he knows, the only place in North America where you can sleep in your own luxury caboose (each with a bedroom, shower and living room). Even the Chattanooga Choo Choo Hotel in Tennessee is, apparently, just a railway station conversion. The only complaint he ever seems to get is from city folk who can’t get to sleep because “it’s just too quiet”.
What interests me about Jimmy, though, isn’t only the story of his business. It’s the way in which he talks about the place he’s from. Maybe it’s having to endure the long winters together – Jimmy’s cabooses and railcars are only open from May to September – but there’s a wonderful sense of community along Nova Scotia’s Northumberland Shore. Tatamagouche’s 600 residents, he tells me, have 62 voluntary organisations to keep them occupied. His grandparents lived deep into their nineties, and his mother, at 101, is one of four centenarians in the town. Tellingly, only one of them is in a nursing home.
Everywhere I went, along Nova Scotia’s Northumberland Shore, I seemed to be passing through a locally organised festival. At River John, further east along the coast, I spent one glorious day at the free open-air Read by the Sea book festival (“Book lovers never go to bed alone” the volunteers’ T-shirts promised) that offered most of my requirements for paradise (a July heatwave, superb writers such as Guy Vanderhaeghe, barbecue brunches and Alexander Keith IPA at the veterans’ bar. Next night, at Pictou, I ran straight into the 80th Lobster Carnival: lobster dinners, concerts, a parade of beds (don’t ask), boat races and fireworks.
This is a coast with, as everyone will tell you, the warmest waters north of the Carolinas (72F), or at least it is in the summer, when the southern shore of the Gulf of St Lawrence is ice-free. This was the land that Highlanders first saw in 1773 when they disembarked from the Hector, having spent almost three months zigzagging over the Atlantic from Ullapool – a less mountainous land than the one they had left behind, but far more densely wooded, and all to be cleared without chainsaws.
There’s a full-size model of the Hector at Pictou Harbour, and when you see it, with its bow as rounded as a Thames barge’s, you wonder how it ever got across the Atlantic in the first place. Then you go below decks and see the conditions in which 198 Scottish passengers crossed the Atlantic (18 children died en route); only a pint of water per family per day, and family beds, each the size of a large desk, stacked up little more than a foot apart.
Still, those Scots – the 5,756 Scots who made it to Nova Scotia before 1815 and the tens of thousands thereafter – made their mark on the land. Just listen to the names: St Ninian’s Cathedral, Antigonish (“the Highland heart of Nova Scotia”, with Canada’s biggest Highland Games); Glasgow Square Theatre, New Glasgow; the settlers’ museum at Wallace. And that’s even before you head off up to Cape Breton on the ceilidh trail. Here is a country, you start to realise, that is better at being Scotland than Scotland is.
It’s vast, of course, even this tiny corner of it, so vast that people measure distance in time (“about two hours away”) rather than miles, but petrol is so cheap that once you have tuned the radio to CBC, it is easy to get around. And the scenery is, indeed, spectacular.
Don’t just take my word for it. If you come back via Baddeck, drop into the Alexander Graham Bell Museum (take the behind-the-scenes “white glove” tour that allows you to handle some of the artefacts the prodigious inventor left behind: it’s only a few dollars more and well worth it).
Bell, born in Edinburgh, had travelled quite extensively before he settled down to live there. “I have seen the Canadian and American Rockies,” he wrote, “the Andes, the Alps and the Highlands of Scotland. But for simple beauty, Cape Breton outrivals them all.” Extend that to all of Nova Scotia, put in a good word about the people – friendly, always helpful, never met a bad ’un – and I’d go along with that too.
David Robinson travelled to Nova Scotia on an Icelandair flight from Edinburgh to Halifax via Reykjavik. He stayed at the Train Station Inn, Tatamagouche (www.trainstation.ca), and Pictou Lodge Beachfront Resort (www.pictoulodge.com). For further ideas about holidays in Nova Scotia, please see www.novascotia.com and www.keepexploring.ca