Day 82 – Harbour Light nr Pictou to Antigonish via The Crombie House

Day 82 – Today was another great day on this trip. I mentioned in the blog yesterday that I had a plan to try and see a private art collection near New Glasgow, and it turned out to be a totally breathtaking experience. I still can’t quite believe the works I saw there.

  • Today’s Distance (miles/km):  / 90
  • Time in saddle: 4h
  • Max/min temp (°c): 33°/10°
  • Climb/descend (feet) : 2011 / 2058
  • Calories used: 
  • Cafe (& Gallery!) time: 5h 15

The breakfast menu at Sharon’s Place yesterday had definitely caught my eye, so by 7am I was happily tucking in to plate of cinnamon french toast, eggs and coffee and listening to the locals chatting quietly as the sun rose over Pictou harbour.

After breakfast I left town and rejoined the Trans-Canadian Highway to cross over to New Glasgow, but then got off the highway straight away to cycle along a beautiful, quiet, riverside road. After a few minutes I saw this sign, and knew I’d found the place I’ve looked forward to visiting for at least two years:

As you see, The Crombie House is only open on Wednesdays, but I had noticed that you could view the collection “by appointment”, so I’d taken the plunge and booked myself a visit for 10am today. When I checked my watch I realised that I was an hour early, so cycled in to have little peek around:

It was a large house, but by no means grand. The gardens were exquisitely laid out, in the style of a Japanese tea-garden:

I suddenly had that feeling that I was being watched, and looked round to find a young deer looking warily at me over its shoulder. We stared at each other for some time, and once again I wished that I had a decent zoom lens, but this will have to do:

As I leant on my bike I heard a voice call out, so wheeled myself back to the front door, to meet Pam, the curator of the collection. This house is owned by the Sobey family, of supermarket fame, and houses Frank H Sobey’s private collection of Canadian art. And what a collection. The centrepiece is their Group of Seven room, but they have many works by Kreighoff and several other important Canadians.

Back in early 2015 I was trying to find a couple of images of Group of Seven paintings painted on the route I was planning to cycle (the Lake Superior paintings I mentioned all that time ago in the blog), and the name “Crombie House” cropped up on a google search. A few clicks later I was trying to work out why on earth there appeared to be a significant collection of Canadian art in a very quiet corner of Nova Scotia, bang on my route through the Province. I sort of filed it under “might be interesting”, put a note in my calendar, and left it at that. I found that whenever I mentioned the Sobey collection people looked surprised, or even dubious, so I began to think that it might an internet crossed wire. The thrill of finding it to be everything it claimed to be was worth all the effort of getting here, and one of the greatest joys of this journey. It reminded me a little of a museum in Holland., the Kroller-Muller. Everyone goes to the amazing Van Gough museum in Amsterdam, but hidden in the woods 100km away, east of Utrecht, is the most staggering collection of his paintings that you could ever wish to see, When I last visited, there were no cars permitted in the woods, so you either walked or borrowed a bike and got pedalling. This is Canada’s Kroller-Muller. Toronto has the wonderful AGO Group of Seven colllection, but a mere 1,187km east (16 hours in a car) is the Crombie House.

It turned out that Pam didn’t mind in the slightest starting our tour early, and straight away offered me a cup of (excellent) coffee and some delicious snacks (more on these later) which she disappeared to sort out whilst I took a look around the paintings displayed all around me. I really don’t think I can fully do justice to them in a normal blog post, so I’ve decided to do an extra posting of just the art for those who are interested. I’ll get that online as soon as I can.

This marble-floored wing was added a few years ago to give the paintings the setting they deserve, and if you look closely you can see the outline of the old wall marked in a perfect mosaic of marble on the floor.

Whilst we sat in considerable comfort (I felt a little out of place in my lycra, but Pam put me completely at my ease. I had ditched my cycling shoes at the door so slid about happily on the marble floors) we talked a little about the background of the gallery. The Sobey family have a always had a huge commitment to Canadian art, and sponsor an annual award for young Canadian artists, worth $50,000 for the winner. (This is where we started the tour)

Pam guided me through the main Group of seven collection, with many interesting details about the artists and the context of each work. My journey has passed through many of the locations made famous through their art, and I found it almost surreal to be thinking to myself “oh yes, I went there”.  She pointed out one work in particular, which was sited next to their most iconic canvas, ‘Moonlight’ by Tom Thompson:

The painting she wanted to mention in particular is called ‘Winter’, by Tom Thompson. Pam told me that it’s the least known masterpiece by any of the Group of Seven. It’s been in private hands since it was painted, and very few of those, and when she tried to research it online she found that there was not one image of it available on the internet. So, dear readers, just for you, here is the one and only online image of a beautiful painting by Tom Thompson of houses in the snow beside a near-frozen river, somewhere in Ontario I believe. I checked that the Sobey family wouldn’t mind if I posted this in the blog, and Pam assured me that they’d be delighted:

One other painting I’d like to include here is CrossingCanada2017-related. This is the view I’ve had countless times on this journey, but with updated monster-machinery!:

Before heading upstairs I met Harvey, Pam’s other half, with whom she runs this whole place. Harvey is from Ireland and spent many years running the Wexford Theatre Royal next door to the famous National Opera House. They are such great people, and have a gift for making you feel like a welcome guest. We talked about music and cycling and so on, and could have spent a happy hour or two but there was more of the house to see!

We headed upstairs, where there are several bedrooms and studies, all full of the collection. 

Pam also showed me a very special item in their possession – a high-fidelity stereo reproduction system (! – aka record player) called the Clairtone Project G2. It is as iconic a design as the Bang & Olufson systems were in Europe, and Pam put a record of Mahalia Jackson singing I Believe, which I didn’t know. This is only the second model ever produced, made specifically for Frank Sobey, with its extraordinary globe-shaped  speakers at either end of the unit:

After we’d finished the tour, we got some pictures together in front of one of the collection. Pam pointed out that we’d finished at the same time as the 10am tour normally does, but starting an hour earlier. What a service!:

..and as if just being here wasn’t enough, Pam gave me a bag full of strawberries and the delicious snacks that she’d prepared for our coffee earlier, to take on the road with me. (I stopped whenever I possibly could for the next 80km or so, just to enjoy this gift):

They waved me off and I felt very sad not to have had the time to stay and take them up on their offer of B&B in the house. Next time:

Dear Canadian friends – this house is a national treasure, it’s free, and it deserves to be much better known. Tell your friends, or better still, go there yourselves. Pam & Harvey are great hosts, obviously enjoy running the house (Harvey is also the gardener and they are immaculate) and Pam has a huge knowledge of what she’s showing you. The Sobey family want you to come and see these works!

As I cycled down to New Glasgow, the first shop I passed was, appropriately enough, a Sobeys:

Getting Rid of One Thing Every Day – people do ask occasionally about whether I’m still doing this, and yes, I am. Here’s today’s haul for the bin. I’ll be flying now:

And a sign spotted near Antigonish (pronounced anti-g’Nish, I can now tell you, after numerous corrections from locals):
I just need to find a place called “Youcannot Causeway” and this will become funny.

And finally, remember that July evening out on Black Sturgeon Lake, when a paddle wasn’t to be had for love, money, or uke? Well they leave them lying around on the road in Nova Scotia:

34 thoughts on “Day 82 – Harbour Light nr Pictou to Antigonish via The Crombie House

  1. hello uncle ben ,
    was pam called pam sobey? and what was your favourite painting? Lastly, could you tell me, was the building pam and harvey owned a house or gallery
    Love Millie

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hello Millie! Welcome to the blog – I think you must be the youngest person to make a comment so far! So, I’ll answer your great questions. Pam isn’t one of the Sobey family, but it’s her job to live in the house and look after the pictures. My favourite painting was one from Lake Superior where I cycled, but I haven’t put it in the blog yet. Last one, it’s a house really, but they’ve built a new huge room just for the paintings. Are you still at our house? Lots of love uncle Ben 😘


  2. An amazing coincidence here! When I was in Canada we were talking about the fact that my father, in his industrial design days, designed the buttons for the Clairtone. There are very few of them in existence, I think. I’m sure other members of the family (especially the man himself) will provide more details…
    Susie x

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Louise – I’ve loved seeing your summer photos on FB too! Yes, I felt very privileged having the whole place to myself, but said I’d plan a short concert programme for them in the subject of “Moonlight”. I’m having a coffee right now before crossing the causeway to Cape Breton Island. Very exciting. Bx


  3. What a wonderful collection of paintings, and a great find – your private tour must have been a really special experience. It reminded me of places like Kettle’s Yard where you see the tastes and interests of the collector, and everything in situ. Loved the Alex Colville roadworks painting.

    Another aspect of your blog I enjoy is the mix of place names – a sort of informal history of Canada. So many familiar Scottish place names at present, of course. I counted at least two Glencoes on today’s map photo.

    Looking forward to the special art edition of your blog.

    Best wishes, Stewart

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Stewart
      As well as love of poetry I share your love of Kettles Yard – a very special place.Its been shut all year and we’ve really missed it – a big gallery extension etc going on – but I’m confident nothing will spoil it’s unique atmosphere

      And Hi Benblogger!
      We’re home from Italy and trying to catch up with your map- have got a bit lost around PEI- but amazed to find that compared to the distance you’ve travelled, the last bit still to go looks about the same as a walk round the garden
      . Fascinated to read about the art collection, looking forward to the art blog.Very much like Winter, all those bruise tones yellowgreys

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I’m working at getting the gallery uploaded as I write but hampered by waiting for technology to charge up! I’m just reading instead, which uses very little power except brainpower. Glad to hear your safely home again, and can’t wait to hear all about it. Bx


  4. Hi Chris, Kettle’s Yard is indeed a special place, and I remember my visit there very clearly, even though it was quite a few years ago. My god-daughter’s sister was working there, as a curator, I believe, but I am not sure if the is still there. Must make a return trip next time I am back in the U.K.

    Meant to say I loved your choice of Westron Wynde for Ben’s poetry request – one of my favourites – so much misery and homesickness captured in a few lines.

    Ben, fond memories for us too. You do seem very far away, so it’s good to have your blog each day.



    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi again Stewart
      Yes poem says so much in so little.I read somewhere that in Victorian times it was edited for the sake of propriety to read ‘OR I in my bed again’ instead of ‘ And I in my bed again.’

      Ben how about we look for some homecoming poems?


  5. Loved the pictures of the artworks., thanks , and I’m looking forward to seeing the separate post…

    You keep reminding me of yours!!:

    Utrech – LIGHTS!!!

    Liked by 1 person

      1. I was just yelling ‘lights’ at cyclists the other day in rememberance of that trip!

        I don’t know why but I’m put in mind of the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia and its unparalleled collection of impressionists. The setting is nothing like the forest setting of the Sobeys but something about the passion invested in the private collection and the recently built gallery (it had been moved from the old Barnes house) brought it to mind.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Yes the Bermuda/Philly trip was great actually, and that was a highlight! There was a big snow storm that missed Philly but everything had shut anyway just in case so we had the steps and the statue to ourselves…

        Liked by 1 person

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