Is there any other place like a tidy American small town, with its picket fences, main square, and toytown feel? The Big City (in this case New York) may be only a couple of hours away, but it might as well be on a different planet and a thousand years into the future; life really does move pretty slow up here.
In Hyde Park, for example, home to an older and more leisurely New York state of mind, the only noise to be heard on this splendid April afternoon is the murmur of jokey conversation over brunch at the diner and the clipping of scissors at the barbershop with the radio providing commentary on one of the most beautiful sounds in the world: the sharp thwack! of ball meeting bat at Opening Day at Yankee Stadium.
With Hyde Park as our base as we travelled around the Hudson Valley for a week, we found this relaxed pace almost everywhere, and such marvellous names! Red Hook, Peekskill, Cold Spring, Tarrytown (a.k.a Sleepy Hollow of Headless Horseman fame), and my personal favourite, Fishkill.
First things first, though. Hyde Park is still in Noo Yawk, and you are reminded of that every time someone speaks: the vowels are strangled and the tone is direct. On the morning after our arrival, the woman at the motel foregoes the chit-chat and confronts me: “D’you have two dawgs in your room? Cawz we’yah nawt allowed any dawgs he’yah. It’s against the Lawwwwwww. You wan’ some cawfee?”
Cawfee, the great American fuel, comes cheap. The Eveready Diner
, the menu encourages customers to “Think Globally, Act Locally, Dress Casually”. A haven of Fifties kitsch, it serves coffee in a bottomless cup along with good plain American staples like meatloaf, chicken pot pie and Philly steak sandwiches in absolutely overwhelming portions.
For a taste of something a little more upscale, head to the Culinary Institute of America
(or CIA as it’s known). This is the premiere cooking school in America. Its graduates are virtually guaranteed to walk into jobs in the best restaurants in the country, and you can see how they’re progressing at any of the five top-quality restaurants that the students run.
Fed to the point of exploding, we were now ready to take in the area’s other claim to fame, its plethora of stately homes. This is, after all, “Estate Country”, the place where Vanderbilt, Rockefeller and the rest of the wealthy of ‘the Gilded Age’ came to escape the bustle of Manhattan. If you’ve seen the charming Bill Murray movie Hyde Park on the Hudson,
then you know Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt lived there. You can visit both their home
and the Presidential Library to see mementos to the New Deal.
Just a short drive away is the Vanderbilt Mansion
. This is exactly as it was in 1938 when the last of the robber baron family moved out. She was actually having difficulty selling it, so FDR stepped in and bought it on behalf of the State (well, what else are neighbours for?) The mansion nestles in a magnificent park with spectacular views of the river. The more you drive around this neck of the woods the clearer it becomes that all the great houses have amazing views of the river. Frederick Vanderbilt
’s taste ran to the ostentatious and all that Italian marble may be a little overwhelming for you in what was technically “an autumn retreat”.
Fans of architect Stanford White are spoiled for choice in upstate New York. As well as the Vanderbilt Mansion, White also planned Mills Mansion
in nearby Staatsburg
. This humble 65-room house – “a summer place” – says the guidebook, is a home steeped in history. There are documents signed by one G.Washington in the library, and the gun over the hall fireplace was a present from frequent house-guest Napoleon III. And if you’re redecorating and thinking oak panelling would be just the thing, then Mills Mansion might give you a few design ideas. Oh, and there is a private train station in the grounds, where Ogden Mills’ private carriage used to pull in.
Douglas Phyffe was the cabinetmaker du jour
in nineteenth century New york. You can see a truly amazing array of his work at Boscobel
, a restored mansion just outside Garrison
across the river from West Point. It stands as a testament to the American Spirit of Can Do. The house had originally been elsewhere, but by the 1950’s had gone to seed. It was moved, brick by brick
, courtesy of the generosity of Readers Digest founder Lila Acheson Wallace
, one of those billionaire philanthropist/ culture vultures that America throws up every generation. She gave $28 million to rebuild Boscobel; this was pocket change compared to the $400 million she bequeathed to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Boscobel (after bosco bello, beautiful woods) is named in memory of the Shropshire forest where Charles II reputedly hid after his defeat by Cromwell at Worcester. Money being no object to the house’s owner, States Dykman – formerly, a lowly clerk on the British side during the Revolutionary War, he did some creative accounting on behalf of a few crooked generals facing courts martial, got them off and was handsomely rewarded – he arranged to have a piece of the oak tree where the king had hidden brought over and fashioned into a locket for himself.
Such monarchism and Anglomania is common throughout this area, and in spite of the disreputable presence of the largely ethnically populated Sing Sing Prison, there is a distinctly WASP feel to the whole of the Hudson Valley.
Yet the spirit of good old-fashioned die-hard independence survives. In Cold Spring, a charming little town that epitomises every American cliché imaginable: the cute clapboard house with white picket fence; the adorable town hall; the quaint old Post Office; Old Glory fluttering in the spring breeze, stands another hoary old cliche of Small Town Americana: the gun store. Here I have the chance to purchase a Smith and Wesson revolver for as little as $250. The sticker in the window is that old reliable National Riflemen Association creed: “Guns Don’t Kill People; People Kill People.”
After seeing that I decide I need another cawfee.GETTING THERE:
From Manhattan, take the Metro-North
train from Grand Central Station to Poughkeepsie (90 minutes). Taxi service to Hyde Park.