Wednesday, April 9, 2014

UK Tour Preview: The Ancient Church Where The Simcoes Got Hitched

This is the Church of St. Mary & St. Giles. It's in the middle of the English countryside. To get there, you have to take the train west from London for about three hours — all the way across the country, out into the rolling hills of Devon. Then you start walking, west some more, along dirt lanes that curve through the green of farmers' fields. An hour later, you'll be in the small village of Buckerell. That's where you'll find this little church, which has been standing on this spot so long that no one is entirely sure when it was built. Probably in the early 1300s. That's back in the days of the Crusades, not long after Robin Hood, so long ago that medieval jousting was still a new fad. At that same time, faaaaaar to the west across the Atlantic, the area around Toronto was home to vast forests and cornfields and to the villages of the First Nations. It would be a few more centuries before the first European made the long trip across the ocean and up the St. Lawrence to the north shore of Lake Ontario. And another two centuries after that before Toronto was founded.

The man who founded it — John Graves Simcoe — used to live in the hills around this church. That was back in the 1700s. In fact, if you visit the church today, you'll find a memorial to Simcoe's godfather inside. His name was Admiral Graves; he was the fellow in charge of the British navy in North America during the earliest stages of the American Revolution. His godson would end up being a hero of that war — as the commander of the Queen's Rangers, John Graves Simcoe brought new, guerrilla-style techniques to the British army, like insisting that his men be allowed to wear forest green coats instead of the usual bright red.

After the Revolution, Simcoe stayed with his godfather for a while — Hembury Fort House was just a couple of kilometers up the road from this church. That's where Simcoe first met the niece of Admiral Graves. Her name was Elizabeth Posthuma Gwillim. Her father had been a soldier, too. He fought with General Wolfe on the Plains of Abraham and died just a few months before Elizabeth was born: during a war with France sparked by the French Revolution. Her mother died, too, in childbirth, so Elizabeth split her time with relatives while she was growing up. Sometimes, she stayed at her parents' old house near the Welsh border; sometime she stayed with her uncle at Hembury Fort House. So that's where she was when she first met Simcoe, and where they fell in love, taking long walks through the countryside. They were married here, at this very church, in 1782. They bought a nearby estate. And a few years later, when Simcoe was named the first Lieutenant Governor of Upper Canada, they boarded a ship to Canada on their way to found Toronto.

The Church of St. Mary & St. Giles is one of the places I'll be visiting on the Toronto Dreams Project's UK Tour. I'll leave copies of my dreams for the Simcoes there, along with other nearby Simcoe- and Toronto-related historical sites. I'll also be writing a few posts about the connections between our city and those few green kilometers in the middle of the English countryside. But I need your help to make it happen. You can support my Indiegogo crowd-funding campaign here. And you can read more posts previewing some of the spots I'll visit on the tour here.

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