CANADA

Peterborough, ON

DIY Tour Only Way to See Robertson Davies’ Peterborough

The Peterborough house Robertson Davies lived in from 1951 to 1963

The red-brick, 1884 house at 361 Park St. N. in Peterborough where Robertson Davies lived from 1951 to 1963. No plaque marks the spot.
JOHN MASTERS/Meridian Writers’ Group

ROBERTSON Davies published 18 novels and was short-listed for two of the world’s most prestigious writing prizes, the Booker and the Nobel (twice). When he died, Toronto arts critic Robert Fulford likened his passing to “the abrupt disappearance of a mountain range from the Canadian landscape.”

Davies (1913-1995) lived and worked in Peterborough, a small city 110 kilometres northeast of Toronto, for almost a quarter-century. It was here that he wrote The Salterton Trilogy.

Other writers have associations with Peterborough, notably Susanna Moodie (1803-1885) and her sister Catharine Parr Traill (1802-1899). Their names live on: Trent University’s downtown campus is named for Traill; the city museum has Moodie’s petticoats.

To keep green the name of the man who won a Governor-General’s award (Canada’s highest literary prize), however, there is nothing. Well, one thing. But no plaque, no walking tour. To follow in his footsteps it’s DIY.

Start at 361 Park Street North, the red-brick, 1884 house where Davies lived from 1951 until he left Peterborough in 1963. Gale Fewings, director of the Hutchison House Museum, remembers a friend who as a young girl lived nearby telling how Davies would “sweep past her on his walk to work, dramatically clad in a flowing cape.”

“I think he would be intimidating for most people to talk to,” admits Trent Valley Archives ex-president Elwood Jones, “with his beard and everything.” He adds that, when Davies arrived in Peterborough in 1942, “he thought that the intellectual crowd in town consisted of about three people.” Davies had been educated at Oxford.

He had come to Peterborough to be editor of the Examiner, one of the small-town newspapers his family owned. Robertson’s 15-minute walk to the Examiner offices at the corner of Water and Hunter streets starts on one of the city’s nicest residential streets before entering lower-class neighbourhoods and then the downtown core.

The Examiner is now a modern bank building. Walk south on Water and stop at #380, Scholars’ Bookstore. Used copies of Davies’ books are on its shelves, but their author isn’t remembered fondly. “Perhaps because he was not a nice man,” says the bookseller. “He insulted a woman I know. She was at an event and wanted to talk to him and he blew her off with a look that said, ‘Don’t talk to the great man.’ She knows a lot of people in town.”

Continue south to Del Crary Park, a tip of land looking east across Little Lake to the entrance to the Trent Canal, home to Peterborough’s best-known visitor attraction, the lift lock, where boats are raised or lowered 19.8 metres. It was an engineering marvel when it opened in 1904.

Return your attention to the park. Look down at the section of pavement called the Pathway of Fame. Here, more than 200 bricks are inscribed with the names of people who have “made a distinct contribution to the area’s arts and humanities.” The path was begun in 1998. Davies’ brick was added in 1999, a year after Traill’s and local radio DJ Del Crary’s.

 

ACCESS

For information on Peterborough visit the Peterborough & the Kawarthas Tourism website at www.thekawarthas.ca.