09/15/2014 01:09 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

From Piggy Doo to King Arthur's Avalon: Canadian Odyssey on the Looney Front - Part 13

Now here's a nice phrase to describe divine comfort that the Newfies are especially fond of: as happy as a pig in shit. Actually, at this moment in time Yours Truly is anything but as happy as the aforesaid porker.

It's pissing down chamber pots, the clouds have crapped on the peaks, and I'm meant to be going on a tour to the famed archaeological site of the Colony of Avalon. That's along Newfoundland's Irish Loop, where Erin's brood sought respite from the great potato famine, settling in a dozen or more fishing villages in the 19th century.


Coastal scenes around St. John's

At least the tour's not cancelled like yesterday's. There are only three others in the van, a retired Mountie and his wife, and Mike the driver, a retired school principal whose accent, although he was born here, would make you believe you'd been magically beamed up to Tipperary.

The clouds hugging the hilltops, the mists swirling through the fir forests, the vapours wafting up from the many 'ponds' and across the emerald moorlands give the whole scenic area south of St. John's a mystical feeling, an enchanted aura that sun and clear skies would dispel in a nano-second.


The Newfies ascribe the word pond to what anyone else would call a lake. The joke is that since what everyone else pronounces as leak comes out here as what everybody else pronounces as lake, as in my shoe has a 'lake' in it when there's a hole, and as Newfoundland is full of lakes, they don't want outsiders getting the idea that their beautiful island is full of holes. Hence the expansive use of the word pond.

At our first stop I expect to see a whole herd of gay bulls doing the can-can, with dear old Ferdinand mincing around and sniffing flowers instead of charging a toreador. I really must do something about my hearing. I swear Mike said the town's called Gay Bulls. He swears he said Bay Bulls, and I assume I must defer to him on this.


Anyway, instead of being greeted by toros in tutus, I'm confronted by a freighter and huge reels of cables on the dockside. Bay Bulls, named after the bull bird frequenting its shore, is one of the few villages on the Irish Loop that has not been hit hard by the cod moratorium. It's become a service centre for off-shore oil drilling and is mini-booming as new residential divisions spring up with fine wooden mansions.

Bay Bulls is a hamlet of bullets and saints so to speak. Its residents once had a set of cannons to fend off the French, Dutch and any other nasty foreigners who covetted their land - don't be bothered by the fact that they themselves had filched it from the indigenous Beothuk. Oh no!


As they no longer need the cannons for their original purpose, they thought it would be a divine idea to preserve them by the church as part of their heritage. But the priest was having none of this: cannons mean war and churches mean peace, quothed His Grace.

Even so the townspeople set the four cannons on their bums aiming heavenwards on the grass bluff between the church and the dock, ready perhaps to shoot down any angels that might strafe them. To dispel all idea of war the priest had four little statues set atop the barrels: St. Paul and St. Peter on the centre two, that being the name of the church, with St. Christopher and St. Teresa holding the flanks.


Thus does Bay Bulls have the first physically canonised saints. Laugh line - boom, boom.

It's no laughing matter in Tors Cove, though, the next town along, as we drive through patches of thick fog. The cod moratorium has had such a depopulating effect on the Irish Loop's fishing villages that the bishop is coming through this very evening to decommission the Sacred Heart Church.


To guard against moose-on-driver crashes, the road's verges have been cleared of trees and vegetation, both to make it easier to spot the great antlered beasts and to deter them from approaching the road through lack of edible goodies on said verges. Sensors have been placed on poles in the forests, too. If the sensor senses a moose approaching, warning lights start flashing on the roads.


Sucked in by the mystical mists, twisting along narrow roads that hug the pine-clad cliffs, hills and dales, we reach Colony of Avalon. Here in 1621 Sir George Calvert founded the first permanent settlement, choosing the name to recall the chivalry of King Arthur and his merry men - ah, they're Robin Hood's brood, aren't they - I mean his knights of the round table.


Arthur of course never made it here, although the paradisiacal isle of Avalon, where he was taken to recover after the battle of Camlann, is said to lie in the western seas. Sir George, though, did turn up, spent one winter with his family, found the freezing wet climate nothing like an Arthurian paradise, and moved on south to Maryland to become Lord Baltimore and found his eponymous city.

Other settlers were more stalwart and the place became the principal village in English Newfoundland until those naughty Frenchies destroyed it in 1696 and sent the Brits packing south or back to England in a mini-version of the Grand Dérangement that the Brits performed on the Frenchies. And that was the end of the Colony of Avalon.


Avalon ruins

But it has always remained part of Newfoundland's folklore. Its actual location, though, only came to light a few decades ago when archaeologists found the slate and stone ruins of houses, forges and other buildings, as well as many artifacts, including a Scottish gold coin of James VI, a Portuguese gold coin of John V, a Queen Elizabeth I sixpence, and items going back to the days of the Beothuk.


More ruins

The ruins are more evocative than impressive. The area is now called Ferryland, yet one more Brit butchering of a name - this time Forillon, the French butchering of Fariham, which is what the Portuguese navigators called it, though nobody seems to know what that means.

Be that as it may, the views across to jagged pine-clad islands in the bay are splendidly stark. All in all, I do return to St. John as happy as a pig in shit.


View from Colony of Avalon


Another view

There are also a series of attractive little villages along the coast to the north of St. John's, a main destination being the little town of Flatrock. Here a rock has been adorned with a snow white Virgin Mary, a crucified Christ, several other figures and plaques, and Lord alone knoweth what else.


Newfoundland's Lourdes shrine

A certain Father William Sullivan visited the French shrine of Lourdes in 1954, decided his rock looked just like it, and hey presto Flatrock's Our Lady of Lourdes Grotto was born. A snow white figure looking up at snow white Mary is St. Bernadette, the French miller's daughter who said Mary appeared to her in a grotto at the original Lourdes in 1858.

There's St. Michael, too, and I have no idea why he's loitering around here. There are also the 14 stations of the cross.

Now get this. No miracles have ever been claimed here as at the French Lourdes. It's all the whim of a local priest who may or may not have been over-tippling at the communion wine at the time. Yet Pope John Paul II prayed here on September 12, 1984. A plaque marks the exact spot where His Holiness knelt to give 'a special blessing.' It makes you wonder, don't it.


Plaque commemorating Pope John Paul II's visit


Where the holy knees knelt

Another plaque memorialises 'All babies lost to abortion. May they rest in peace.'


Memorial to the aborted babies

But the coastal scenery is again superb with mist-enshrouded peaks and a succession of rugged coves. Once more I'm as happy as a pig in shit.


Shoreline view


Birds swarm the shore


By the same author: Bussing The Amazon: On The Road With The Accidental Journalist, available with free excerpts on Kindle and in print version on Amazon.

And Swimming With Fidel: The Toils Of An Accidental Journalist, available on Kindle, with free excerpts here, and in print version on Amazon in the U.S here.