Driving through much of New England you notice the beautiful architecture. The charming and tastefully colourful timber homes have space and large heritage trees around them. I can’t tell you how much I adore this care and keeping with the historical style of the region. This is the very antithesis of the many ultra modern, box-upon-box style homes popping up all around where I live.
On the road between Boston and Portsmouth, is one of the earliest-settled towns in America: Salem, Massachusetts, which was founded in 1626. If you Google “oldest buildings in the USA”, you will find that many of them are still standing and well preserved in Salem. It is indeed remarkable how much has been preserved here, and for how long.
Thanks to the infamous “Witch Trials” of 1692, the Town of Salem is also known as a kind of “Witch Central”, with every conceivable style of business; from the legitimately historical, to the tackiest kitsch and everything in between. Once again there are tours for just about every possible connected theme.
Despite it being a terribly wet day which made sightseeing difficult, we still managed to experience most of what we came to see, albeit in a soggier, more urgent fashion! Photos were similarly a challenge.
First stop was the Salem Witch Museum, which provides a very touristy (but must-do) automated diorama style experience. The audience for the session sits around the edges of the room, as the lights and commentary lead the eye around 13 staged scenes high above us on all four sides. 19 innocent people were put to trial and hanged, beginning after a young girl had hallucinations in her fevered sleep. Would I be spoiling the ending for you if I said it all came about through fear, religious fervour and unfathomable ignorance? Didn’t think so.
The walking tour following continued to show all kinds of depictions of witches (including my favourites, Glinda, The Wicked With of the West, Samantha and Endora) as well as modern day Wiccans. It also gave a brief historical timeline of many different groups in society that have suffered ostracism, bigotry, hatred and cruelty because of similar fear and ignorance and how social change and awareness over time shifts that extremism.
We made our way to the world famous House of the Seven Gables, the first parts of which were built in 1668. Think about that. Australia would not be claimed by Europeans for another 120 years, and this house still stands, with tour groups taken through it many times a day.
The home was immortalised by author and frequent visitor to the home, Nigel Hawthorne, who wrote the classic American novel of the same name, in 1851. I bought a copy in the Museum gift shop to read later at home. The gardens are also wonderful, and sitting right on the shores, the view to the sea is glorious. Stories of early settlers, dangerous sea voyages, harsh winters and home furnishings and gadgets really gave us a feel of how people lived hundreds of years ago. We were even taken through a narrow door and taken upstairs via a secret passageway*- the steps of which were so narrow, the woman in front of me got her hips stuck. With her rear in my face, I refrained from giving her a helpful push!
Later, I finally made the acquaintance of my hero(ine) Samantha. Her statue caused a bit of fuss with the locals, not all of whom agreed she should become a town fixture in 2005. The honour was not merely in recognition for being a witch, but for bringing attention to the town through the Salem episodes shot on location in 1970.
I absolutely loved finally having my day in Salem and only wished the weather had allowed us more freedom.
*Added after the novel was written, to explain a mysterious plot point.