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The Shoals of History
May 3, 2000

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Dominic, Annie and I went out, after they arrived. I still wasn't feeling good (in fact, I'm still not feeling good), but I was determined to be a good host for my happy friends. Besides, it was a full out gorgeous day, easily in the seventies and no clouds in the sky. Leaves were bursting on the trees. It was a perfect day to be outside.

We went to Dover for coffee, then went to Portsmouth to wander a bit in the downtown district. I had two agendas, Dominic and Annie had none. I needed a wallet (my old, reliable nylon workhorse, bought a good eleven or twelve years back at L.L. Beans one summer, had finally stretched out to the point that I could no longer effectively keep things in it. Setting it down on the seat next to me in the car meant spraying cards everywhere, for instance) and I wanted some good erasers for my Adventures in Sketching.

In our wandering, we stopped in a lot of stores (including a Celtic Store where I bought a Burns Family Tie Tac for two dollars -- it's the Burns Coat of Arms, and it matches up with all the other Burns Coats of Arms I've seen in my life, so what the heck? I needed a tie tac) before I found my new wallet in a menswear shop. It's one of the three fold kind, with two areas for cards and a middle area for my ID and the like. It's a nice wallet, though I feel badly saying goodbye to the old one. It served very well for a very long time, and it's got no tears even after eleven years of use. That's a good wallet.

"Hey," Dominic said, "We should go look at old houses. My grandfather took me around a few days ago and it was neat!"

"Sure," we said, in eerie unison. And, after some coffee and tea at a tea shoppe™, we were off to Old Portsmouth.

The older streets wind and bend, like the footpaths they once were. As you drive into the older sections of the city (and into Newcastle, which is right next to it), you find yourself surrounded by close in houses built as much for mutual protection as for appearance. Three houses from within forty years of construction (1680 to 1720) might be found nestling up against each other -- bang bang bang. There is a feeling of old village here, of neighborhoods made up of people who would never see anyone else in their lives, so they needed to be close. Of using buildings as natural breaks against the seacoast winds and rains.

The houses are nestled along shoals and jetties on the coast, though there's more of a community feeling than a water feeling here. The land is beautiful and so is the water, but these houses face inward to each other, not outward to the rocks and water. This area is river, not ocean (it empties into the ocean nearby, but there's no smell of seawater here, for example), and the sensibilities of the ocean can't be found here.

We were looking for a particular place -- the Wentworth by the Sea, which was a resort Dominic's Grandmother used to come to at the turn of the last century. Teddy Roosevelt used to vacation there as well, and we joked about Dominic's Grandmother and Teddy, sitting under sycamore trees doing things considered naughty by right thinking people, Teddy shouting "Bully!" all the while.

Well, finding the place was a considerable adventure. The roads are not meant to take you places. They're meant to 'capture the flavor of the old town,' which is to say be quaint. One can see why New Hampshire is the Granite State here, as well. Huge chunks of granite are everywhere. Houses are built along them -- they incorporate them into the design. Depressions in the rocks are used to plant small planters' worth of herbs and flowers. Stone is a powerful force here.

We kept getting glimpses of Wentworth by the Sea as we went. A huge old mansion on a hill. Gorgeous in the distance. We also kept seeing a stone castle -- literally, turrets and all -- in the other direction. This was an old old prison, long in disuse. It was, from all accounts, a Hellhole to be imprisoned in. But, it's an impressive if cold sight. Meant to scare criminals with its presence, clearly.

Finally, we reached Wentworth by the Sea. Now, the houses nearby (though the Wentworth sits alone) are beautiful and well maintained, as are the grounds. Granite benches sit nearby, on garden paths with careful flower choice and landscaping. A small covered arch declares "To The Boat," clearly once having been the waiting station for a carriage to riverside. Many of the houses that the bluffs overlook are newer, and beautiful. Designed to look Olde Style.

But the Wentworth by the Sea is dilapidated. Falling apart at the seams. There's a fence all around it keeping people from getting close, but you can still see it. It looks like the Addams Family House -- not only huge, with beautiful old architecture, but a house in ancient decline. Paint peels off of every surface. Beams and timbers sag. Windows sit in slowly shifting frames, the windows themselves rippled and flowing, more fun house glass than normal now.

It's a powerful sight, this beautiful, stately manor being allowed to go to seed. One wonders why it's happening -- it was still in use in 1900, after all. A century isn't that long -- not for houses in New England, and this is one of the grandest on one of the grandest hills with the finest view in the district. Why hasn't someone bought it and paid to restore it? Why wasn't it kept up all along.

It looks like it should be haunted, now. Ghosts should choke its hallways -- the ghosts of young slips of girls and adventurous presidents romping the halls. Perhaps they do. Perhaps that's who the building has been left to. It still seems strange, though. In an area so devoted to the preservation of the past -- so proud that construction dates are on every building -- why is this grand, beautiful, and most of all prominent building being left to the past so completely?

A police officer was hanging close when we passed by. I expected him to come speak to us, though he didn't. We got out and looked around across the street from Wentworth by the Sea, thinking to take a picture but Annie was out of film. The officer sat in his car nearby, waiting. We looked like the young yuppies we are, so I'm not sure why we were being watched. When we got into the car to leave, the police officer got in his own car and pulled around to the front of the house. As we pulled out, he got out of the car, unlocked the fence and started looking around himself. Maybe he's the guardian of the place, attuned to it. If so, we caused no offense. He just made sure we didn't cause trouble, I suppose.

Still, a grand old place. I hope they fix it up someday.

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