Under History’s Spell: A Slice Of Canadian Heritage In Kingston

Role-playing actors breathe life into an intriguing past.  
Fort Henry Kingston Canada
Nineteenth-century military life and the exploits of Canadian troops come alive through the animated retelling of stories at Fort Henry. Photo: Arco Images/Schoening/Dinodia

Perched on a cliff, Fort Henry rises above the cerulean waters of Lake Ontario, keeping a watchful eye over the harbour of Kingston city in southeast Canada. Despite the wind whipping around it, the 200-year-old limestone structure looks barely ravaged by the elements, as if it sprang up just yesterday.

Walking into the fort, I see a hulking soldier, dressed in the distinctive red coat of the historic British army, fuming at a junior for misconduct. A schoolmistress in a long, voluminous dress with antiquated puffy sleeves, passes them and smiles at me. Turning towards the click-clack of shoes to my left, I see five soldiers pulling an old gun carriage. A bright-eyed woman wearing an army uniform approaches, baton in hand. She introduces herself as Corporal Emily Coyle, my guide for the day.

Role play and performances are vital to experiencing Fort Henry, which is part of the Rideau Canal UNESCO World Heritage Site. Kingston was a much-coveted port in the early 1800s, and Canada’s British colonizers were anxious about an attack by the U.S. They built the original fort during the War of 1812, but Kingston was never attacked and the fort fell into disrepair. It was reconstructed in 1837, manned by the British Army until 1870, and then garrisoned by Canadian soldiers until 1891.

As Corporal Coyle takes me around the fort, I feel like I’ve stepped into a time loop, with stern-faced, moustachioed army men for company. Since 1938, the Fort Henry Guard, a military re-enactment organisation, has role-played 19th-century Canadian life in the fort’s vast parade square. The reenactors are students from Kingston’s colleges and high schools, rigorously trained in parading, and British Army infantry and artillery drills. Some students play civilians, such as the wives of soldiers, or schoolmistresses who taught their children. A group of soldiers load a small amount of gunpowder into a cannon with swift, controlled movements. A military tune fills the square and a thrilling demonstration ensues, complete with orchestrated gunfire and marches, the kind I’ve only seen on television. On closer inspection, I notice bright yellow earplugs peeping out of the soldiers’ ears.

City Hall Kingston Canada

Built in 1844, the magnificent City Hall is the cynosure of Kingston. Photo: Henry Georgi/All Canada Photos/Dinodia

Devoid of any ornamentation, the limestone ramparts of Fort Henry look austere compared to most large Indian forts, which often also functioned as palaces. But the stories contained within these walls draw me into the past. With her shoulders pulled back, Corporate Coyle never once slips out of character as she relates tales of treason and bravery. The booming voices of officers provide the soundtrack as I tour the privies and hear about German soldiers who escaped via drainage tunnels during World War II. Walking through ominous, dimly lit passages that lead to the Fire Chambers that housed defensive guns, I peek into the Married Quarters of the Canadian troops. Nearly a century ago, four couples lived in each of these small rooms with frayed curtains drawn between them for privacy. In the Cookhouse, giant cauldrons, pots, and pans look ready for a cook to come in any minute to prepare the boiled food, beef stew, and soup that soldiers ate.

These stories bring the old fort to life in a way that plaques and conventional tour guides never can. I’m not surprised when, after the tour, Coyle tells me that she used to be a sociology student, but after conducting 400 tours of Fort Henry over four summers, she decided to pursue a master’s degree in heritage conservation and urban planning instead.

Street Performers Kingston Canada

Street performers are a common sight on the broad pavements of Kingston. The city even has an annual four-day festival, the Kingston Buskers Rendezvous, celebrating this form of entertainment. Photo: Kareena Gianini

Returning to the Kingston waterfront, I find the spell of history lingers in its broad walkways and the heritage limestone buildings that inspire the nickname “Limestone City.” Kingston was Canada’s original capital and is now a delightful patchwork of old and new, as I discover on a short, guided trolley tour through the historic downtown area. Next to Ontario Street’s neoclassical City Hall are hip art galleries and cafés. A modern glass hotel abuts the red-brick Victorian fire department building. I spot an elderly patron snoozing on the porch of the Prince George Hotel, built in ashlar limestone in 1809. In a quiet leafy lane, my guide points out Bellevue House, an Italianate villa that was the home of Sir John A. Macdonald, Canada’s first prime minister.

Later that evening, I nibble on fish and chips at Sir John’s Public House pub, located in what was the politician’s law office from the mid-1800s. I find that Macdonald is quite the local celebrity even today. Even the seats are upholstered in red tartan as homage to Macdonald’s Scottish roots. Outside, a group of local theatre artists are immersed in a performance of their play, In Sir John A’s Footsteps. And, the owner tells me, there was a big celebration for Macdonald’s 200th birth anniversary last year. As I sip on local beer, looking up at a stained-glass portrait of the former prime minister, I experience a fondness for a historical period I knew nothing about, as if I had actually lived through it.

Appeared in the June 2016 issue as “For Old Time’s Sake”.

The Guide

The city of Kingston is a 260 km/2.45hr drive east of Toronto, in Ontario, Canada. Fort Henry is a 4 km/10 min drive from Kingston’s waterfront (www.forthenry.com; open daily 9.30 a.m.-5 p.m.; entry, which includes a guide, CAD18/₹920 for adults, children under 6 free).

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    Kareena Gianani is Associate Editor at National Geographic Traveller India. She loves stumbling upon hole-in-the-wall bookshops, old towns and collecting owl souvenirs in all shapes and sizes.

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