Rockwood has become my favorite stomping grounds. I haunt it more than Joe’s old ghost.
It certainly has its charms, has intertwining trails, has a history, has hills and fountains and trees, plus a spooky dark house.
But mainly it is free to enter the grounds and it opens at sunrise.
We have our myriads of parks around here, including scattered scads of rambling state parks of varied ilk. They all have their virtues and vices. But you will find most of these do not open until 8:00 AM standard or daylight saving time.
I am an early riser. I like to be out in to that first dawn air, when the day crackles awake.
Nine months out of the year the state parks charge a $3.00 entry fee per vehicle ($6.00 for out of state intruders). The Powers-What-Be generously allow you to wander free in the frozen-toe months of December, January and February, when you must bundle to your back teeth against the benumbing winds of winter.
Not that ever stopped me completely. Its fun to glide silently through a nice snowfall, but miserable to do slides on the slick roads.
After Thanksgiving I will thankfully purchase a yearly pass and then next year the fee will be a mote point and I may change my pattern of park choice day by day, but for now Rockwood remains my most frequented jaunt.
It is somewhere in the middle section of the great Delaware Northern Greenway and not a far drive from my home. Driving five miles to walk five miles sounds silly doesn’t it? Yes it do. But walking five miles to get there would means walking five miles back, which in total is a ten miles forced march that somehow loses its charm.
You might be wondering what kind of park this is that is called “Museum”? What is with those three chairs sitting up atop the Ha-ha?
For that matter, what’s a Ha-ha?
So as I have occasionally explained (well, at least once so far), we provide an education here on things you should know like history. What did you think we were, just another pretty face in cyber space?
I have a friend downstate whose joy la vie is gardening and landscaping. I am sure he is familiar with the Ha-ha. Perhaps I should request he write a succinct and entertaining dissertation on the subject and send you off to his “Retired in Delaware” blog for advanced education.
Perhaps I should and perhaps I could, but here is an undergraduate explanation of a Ha-ha instead.
A Ha-ha is a trench actually, but a unique and tricky one. If you were standing off to the side you would see how far the ground slopes down into that stonewall. So what we have is a trench in which one side is hidden from view. Besides a decorative feature it acts as a barrier to the livestock wandering your grounds. Why does a rich, retired non-farmer of the 19th Century have big domestic beasts wandering about? Because he owns a very big front lawn and they didn’t have power lawnmowers, so some nice herbivores keep the grass trimmed. A Ha-ha restricts their also trimming your garden and stepping on your toes or stealing your chair.
Here’s how it works. Some hungry sheep comes along having dinner. It walks calmly down the outer slope of the trench and bang, hits the hidden side – hits the wall so to speak – and “Ha-ha, you ain’t going no further”.
Anyway, how did this place, full of Ha-has and gazeboes and outdoor chairs, come to be here on this hill?
Like many such parks and places to visit about Delaware, it was once an estate. Unlike most such parks and places to visit about Delaware it wasn’t built by DuPont’s. Yes, such strange things do happen. This was the retirement home of a merchant banker (obviously a very successful one) named Joseph Shipley. He built his fortune not here, but in some place called Liverpool, England. (I believe there was some long ago rock group from that place, The Beatles, something like that? They got wealthy, too.)
Joseph was born April 12, 1795, the youngest of twelve, in a house at 16th and French Streets in Wilmington, Delaware. (Gee, you’d think he’d been born on Shipley Street, which is a couple blocks up from French.) He was a Quaker, like my own ancestors. He died at his Rockwood Mansion on May 8, 1867. The road bordering the estate is called Shipley Road, isn’t that a nice coincidence?
The portrait above left is Joseph. I have not the artist name or the date. Joe looks relatively young in the painting, late twenties, early thirties perhaps; although it may be the artist just knew how to flatter his clients and left out some sags, lines and wrinkles.
I guess he got to enjoy about a decade at Rockwood. Shipley had the place designed and the mansion built between 1851 and 1854. The builder was an English designer named George Williams, a man who had designed Shipley’s England country home, Wyncote.
The mansion halfway up the Rockwood hill is considered an excellent representative of Rural Gothic Revival Architecture. Ah, Gothic, which I guess gives it that nice brooding dark nature. It could be a stand-in for Poe’s “House of Usher”.
Joseph moved in lock, stock and barrel including Toby, his favorite dog, Branker, his favorite horse, Robert Shaw (not the actor, of course), his favorite gardener and Audrey Douglas, his favorite housekeeper. Hmm, wonder what his wife thought about that last favorite?
After Joseph retired permanently to a new home in the sky, the property came into the hands of his great nephew Edward Bringhurst, Jr. Remember that name Bringhurst, you heard it before in my essays and it will pop up again. The last Bringhurst to possess it was Mary Bringhurst, who died at age 100 (that is Mary’s picture on the left, obviously some years before her death) and left it to her niece, Nancy Sellers Hargraves, who in turn left it to a non-profit organization of no name to operate “for the enjoyment of present and future generations”. Well we certainly are enjoying it, thank you very much, despite the sort of self-aggrandizement of doing such a thing. The county obtained it in 1999, all 72 acres and two miles of walking trails.
And that ends our history lesson for today, students. I hope you took notes.
It brings us back to the trails. Basically we have just reached the top of this entry path up from the parking lot.
It is quite early on a Saturday morning. That is the sun just rising above tree levels so we must be facing east at this point. The air is crisp, around 42 degrees and the sky is clear, in other words, a perfect morning for a walk.
Shipley planted a lot of different things about the estate, including several varieties of trees brought from England.
For my being basically a country boy, I am ashamed to admit being poor at knowing my trees and shrubs. I just admire the mix and am drawn to the unusual in shape.
I do not know what this shrub is or why there appear to be blossoms all over it in the chill of November, another one of the wonders that ROCKwood my world.
And here is one of those weird trees that like to spread its arms near the ground.
Hmm, the trunk reminds me of those haunted humanoid trees in Wizard of Oz or other such films, trees half human with faces in the bark. This one seems to have such a face, the mouth open in a moan at its base, dark eyes just below a shaggy head of leafy hair.
Gothic house, haunted trees, this is definitely my kind of place.
There is a building on the grounds I have never really looked at up close. Let’s check it out this morning.
It is called the Carriage House and by the looks of it, Joe must have had a fleet of conveyances to fill this place up.
These days it is used as some sort of conference center and meetinghouse. On one side is a high and thick wall surrounding a plot called the Kitchen Garden.
You can enter into the garden through this door way.
I suppose the garden is much more impressive in the blooming spring and summer. I know they run garden tours. At this time of year it is fairly plain if not quite bleak.
I go off to the right after entering, but the path, which is a square grid that surrounds and bisects the garden, dead ends into the shaggy limbs of a small tree, forcing me to turn about.
I wander about in the place going hither and yon down the non-blocked walks, snapping pictures as I go.
This is a stone version of a backyard tool shed apparently.
Speaking of tools, I am working on faulty ones this morning. I knew the batteries in my camera had received a workout the last time I went a wandering. It was my intension to bring a couple fresh spares along, but when I checked my battery cache (the glove compartment of my car) I discovered one lone battery remained. My camera requires two AA batteries to function. It was too early to go battery shopping, so I decided to chance it and see how far I might get. I am going to get further than I expected, but not far enough. Later today I will buy a new battery supply and perhaps tomorrow finish my filming journey of Rockwood.
There are three young women wandering about this garden while I am shooting. They are all dressed in skintight outfits, a kind of running suit I guess. I don’t know if these are members of some sort of cross-country team in training or just a group of joggers. I pass some others in similar outfits and of similar age jogging along the trails later.
I suppose the suits were designed to allow for more freedom of movement as well as lessen wind resistance. I hope they keep them warm as well. The suits don’t leave much to the imagination since they fit like a second skin and I try not to stare. (You will note none appear in my photos. I am pretty shabby looking. My outfit is not only not skintight, it isn’t even fashionable. I am wearing an old tan winter coat with a long rip down one sleeve. I probably already look like a suspiciously seedy character, no sense in snapping pictures to prove I am the proverbial dirty old man as well.)
All the ladies fit the suits well. I wouldn’t go out in such an outfit unless I was in good shape; actually, I wouldn’t go out in such an outfit period. But, I don’t mind if pretty young women wish to parade about in such gear. Not all the beauty of nature is found in trees, you know.
Ah, did the mind of the proverbial dirty old man intrude there for a moment?
Shall we take a moment to admire the beauty of nature in trees?
This is the view off the porch of the Carriage House. Eventually we will be down on that path, but that section won’t make today’s photo shoot.
It is just the scene from the Carriage House porch.
Since the garden isn’t presenting much in the way of display right now I leave the young ladies and head back out the little alcove and the door I entered.
Outside is an open space with a group of motley trees and some rocks. On the other side of this tableau is the main house.
I decide to circle it and record it personality from different angles.
You can take tours inside the house. There is a fee for doing that and I have no idea if they allow photography inside. Many of these places do not let you take photos. Some will if you don’t use a flash. It is something we don’t think about, but light even the quick flash of a camera, can damage old objects on display. However, I suspect the main reason for camera bans is to give the administrators sole possession of such images to peddle as postcards.
There is a chain of holly or ivy about the door. Perhaps they are beginning the Christmas trimming. This place is usually lit up for the holidays and preparation must be beginning. We will see if in these tight times they string lights through the trees. Piles of these lights are still on the picnic tables where they were dropped last year. I wonder if these discarded lights still work? I did notice they have large wreathes on the gateway of the entrance.
During the first week of December is an open house. I believe this means people can explore the mansion’s interior for free. If this is the case I might wander in and take a peek.
I don’t believe I ever went inside the place even when I attended the yearly Ice Cream Festivals when they had them. These were nice events. They had live entertainment, booths of crafts for sale, people riding old time big wheeled bicycles and naturally ice cream. Even the trails here have names related to those festivals.
However, the festivals are no more. Our new Senator, when he became County Executive was quick to execute (as in make happen) elevated taxes while executing (as in the death penalty) services to the public, such as the Ice Cream festival and the Holiday Festival over in Bellevue. Now he is off to practice his executing style in Washington. It is a bit scary having a man making legislation for the nation who admitted not knowing the five freedoms guarantee we citizens by the First Amendment of the Constitution. (Hey Chris, they are freedom of speech, religion, press, assembly and petition.)
But I don’t want to spoil my mood by thinking about politicians, a word derives from Greek via Latin, which loosely translates to a “city citizen who smells like a polecat” or something like that.
As you might have noticed Mr. Shipley’s retirement home wasn’t a cottage or even a doublewide. It’s a big whopping hulk of a mansion. When he decided to retire here he purchased 211 acres of land for $17,750. That is equivalent to an expenditure of $514,000 in 2009.
As I said, Mr. Shipley did well as a merchant banker. That is only the total amount he paid to various landowners for their property and doesn’t include the cost of landscaping the property and building the house and other structures.
On the one side of the home is the conservatory, a sort of green house for growing exotic plants indoors. The conservatory was probably set where it got the best light of the day.
Everything seemed to be well thought out. For instance the Carriage House was constructed in a location where the air currents would carry any odors away from the main house. The Shipleys, and later the Bringhursts, could sit out on the lawn, admire the scenery or watch a hungry sheep struggle to climb out of the Ha-ha, without a whiff of the deposits made by the horses back at the stables.
This is the expanse of lawn that confuses the concept of the front yard. This level patch of grass faces the frontage of the property, overlooks a vista of the valley, but technically it is behind the house, so is it a front yard or a back yard?
A path encircles the lawn. It runs along a ledge down where those evergreen trees are. Here is where I began to head out onto that encircling path when my camera started to show the telltale signs of failing batteries. It would snap a photo and then close down.
I could turn it back on for another snapshot, but I knew this wouldn’t work for long. Each time I pushed the shutter button could easily be the last for today.
I stood on the wooden platform at the top of that wooden ramp and turned my camera back on to snap the view from that outpost. It looked down on the parking lot, but back in the 1850s or even the 1890s, when the Bringhursts ruled the roost, there was no parking lot here, just the rolling green pasture.
I’m walking away from that pasture now, going around some trees on the leaf strewn path while my camera again whirls closed.
I press the on button and it again comes to life.
This is how it is going to be as I continue down the path around the yard, on-off, on-off.
I had hoped to come and capture the whole estate with all its paths, rills and rocks, but I know I have about pressed my luck as far as it will stretch.
I get three last shots and then it is done.
I save my camera’s last dying gasp to capture the two fall blazed trees framing my car.