You can’t live in “New” England without being aware of “Old” England and our social, political and organizational links and genealogy to the other side of the great pond.
Despite going on 239 years old, America is still quite young when compared with many other countries. And like adolescents everywhere in this age of digital immediacy, it’s generally more gratifying to focus on the self-centered future than the societal past.
Not today, as I turn back the calendar on my hometown of Yarmouth.
Most people who live in Yarmouth, Maine, are aware that we share our name with towns on Cape Cod and in Nova Scotia, but few may know the history of our identity.
What is now Yarmouth, Maine, was originally formed as North Yarmouth in directional relation to our Cape Cod neighbor in the late 1600s. In 1849, our residents couldn’t resolve disagreements over one group’s interest in farming (North Yarmouth) and the other’s interest in maritime-related industry (Yarmouth), and so they split into the two towns that exist today.
Armed with this historic knowledge, I contacted Steve Cowley, the mayor of Yarmouth, England, last year, suggesting that as respective community leaders (I was chairman of the Yarmouth Town Council at the time), we meet in person during my planned visit to his country. His reply: “Sounds great!”
(Interesting etymology fact: The River Yar is a body of water that approaches the mouth of their harbor, hence, Yar-mouth, or Yarmouth.)
I was joined by my daughter Cammy, on a journey that started on a subway at St. James station near Buckingham Palace, followed by a 136-mile train ride to Lymington Pier, anchored by a short ferry ride to Yarmouth, the ancient town on the Isle of Wight.
Meeting us at the pier was Mayor Cowley and his wife Jill. For three hours we toured the town, visited historic landmarks, spent time with other community leaders at their Town Hall, and enjoyed a wonderful lunch at The George Inn, a 300-plus-year-old building named for King George III.
Some facts about Yarmouth, England:
• It is the second smallest town (in both land area and population) in England.
• Its first Town Charter was established in 1135 A.D.
• In Yarmouth’s seventh and last Town Charter of 1609, King James I granted the population the special right of holding an annual three-day “St. James Day” celebration on, and either side, of July 25. This tradition, still practiced today, includes extending a long pole with an open black-gloved hand outside a Town Hall window to signal a relaxing of the laws so that townfolk might “drink heartily and make merry with the wenches without fear of apprehension or condemnation.”
At the end of my visit to Yarmouth, England, it was agreed that both communities should do more to maintain contact and allow for greater collaboration, along with economic and cultural development; maybe even some type of student exchange program where each summer, one or two students from each community live in the “other Yarmouth” for a few weeks.
The technology age continues to make the world a smaller place for all of us. Air travel provides access to all parts of the globe in a matter of hours, and for those too impatient, Google Earth can take you on a virtual tour of almost anywhere in the world from the comfort of home or office.
And whereas time was once measured most commonly by the pages of a calendar, our time is now frequently measured by nanoseconds inside a computer. The world is smaller and everything happens faster. Often, too fast.
For a few hours during my visit to Yarmouth, England, I was transported to a time and place that was distinctively slow and old – and it was a wondrous experience. Yes, Yarmouth Castle, built in 1547, and the other historic buildings were incredible to visit, but it was my time with Mayor Cowley, his wife and their family that now form the most special and indelible memories.
More than just the name of a town, we shared a sense of community and history; some common, some born from conflict, and some divided by an endless ocean. When I was leaving, the mayor and I shared a mutual hope and optimism that both towns should enjoy health and happiness for our citizens going forward.
Last summer I traveled to Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, with my family on the Nova Star ferry – a wonderful trip – leaving me only Yarmouth, Iowa (the baby of the Yarmouth family) to complete the cycle here in the U.S.
In spirit, we are all Yarmouthians, a spirit that has less to do with the name of our town or city and more to do with recognizing and honoring the people and places connected to our past.
The author, left, with Mayor Steve Cowley in Yarmouth, England.
The Nova Star ferry at anchor in Yarmouth, Nova Scotia.