Old Saybrook Circuit, Take 2

From the Sea Turtle I roll south down Seacrest Road, three houses to the road along the seawall.  I’m looking across Long Island Sound, barely making out the far shore through the morning haze.  Today I hang a right along Maple Avenue into a slight cool breeze from the southwest, passing the tranquil, almost glassy water on my left, the empty pier and swimming raft.  At the five corner intersection I stay on Rte. 154, which in rapid succession becomes Indianola Drive and, at the sharp 90° right-hand downhill, Plum Bank Road.

This brings me to the vivid, sun-washed salt marsh of Great Hammock, one of my favorite spots, pure New England.  The marsh, brilliant green and flat as a board, stretches far ahead and to the right, abruptly ending where the land gets higher and roofs are visible among trees.  The marsh is all marsh grass, pure and undifferentiated.  It’s high tide, so the channels that carry the water are inundated, and I notice as I cross the two inlet bridges that the water’s still rushing inland.  The mud flats edging the channels, where herons stalk shellfish at low tide, are under water.  The occasional redwing blackbird hangs on a stalk; an osprey wings overhead to fish the open waters of the nearby coves.

To the left is a row of old-timey cottages, built on a low dune between the road and the beach.  Some have been modernized, but they have in common a cautious construction, knowing that in heavy weather they can become awash.  They face the beach and Sound, so their “back yards” face the street and become “front yards” too.  Somewhere along the way is a public beach, then more shore cottages.  One lone cottage somehow got built on the salt marsh side, and it’s now jacked up above an absurdly high cinder block foundation, waiting final re-setting.  This move was probably a result of the hurricane they had here last fall, which left many heretofore “safe” places feeling more imperiled.

Beyond the bigger inlet the street becomes Great Hammock Road, carrying me out of the salt marsh, along a shady tree-lined route past homes that are suddenly larger, treed, cool with their green lawns and landscaping.  The raw, open intensity of Great Hammock seems suddenly far removed.  The road ends at an intersection with Old Boston Post Road.   Half a block to the left is the intersection with Boston Post Road, Route 1.  The “new” Post Road brushes the edge of Old Saybrook’s town center (calling it “downtown” seems misleading).  The Old Road takes the traveler right smack through it.  That’s a paradigm for the modern age.  The original “Boston Post Road” was one of three routes taken by stagecoaches that ran between Boston and New York.  The Old Saybrook branch went south from Boston to Providence, Rhode Island, and then along the Connecticut coast.  Other branches went to Springfield, Massachusetts, and Hartford, Connecticut.  Then they all joined in New Haven and went along the coast to New York.  Originally it was desirable to go through the center of towns so the coach could deliver and pick up mail and passengers, feed hungry horse teams, and the like.  But with the advent of automobiles came a desire to avoid the traffic, distractions, and delays of the town centers.

I take the Old Post Road to the right.  Here the houses are more elderly, some authentic colonials, and the gardens reflect the lovely old summer “English Garden” style of slightly sprawling, informally grouped clusters of such things as hollyhocks, bee balm, and black-eyed susans.  In this climate and soil, plantings are lush and abundant.  Houses are set closer to the road here, and trees are big and very old.  Where it’s shady, the shade is deep.

The corner of the Old Post Road and Main Street has one of the three traffic lights on my route.  I take a left into a town center that is so old-timey that it has diagonal parking.  It also has two traffic lanes on each side of a narrow center island where streetlights sport American flags for the upcoming Independence Day celebration.  I’m kept so busy watching for cars backing out of parking spaces that I barely see the flags.  But the whole scene, completed by the rows of boutique markets, small restaurants, and specialty stores, seems unchanged from the era of my childhood, except for the style of the cars.  Norman Rockwell would have felt at home here.

Just short of the traffic light where Main Street hits the Post Road, I find the last opening in the center island and make a U turn.  This time I go straight past the Old Boston Post Road and on to the one other traffic light, at Maple Avenue.  I turn right for a straight two-mile ride back to the five-way stop near the beginning of my route.  Maple is a false flat, slightly but steadily uphill all the way out to the shore.  The houses here speak of later development; there are a number of ramblers with that ‘60s or ‘70s look.  But other homes are older, including some authentic old beach cottages on a couple of streets on the left that end after a couple of blocks with sweeping views of the marsh grass meadows that fill the backwater end of South Cove.  There are numerous walkers along this road, about half of them walking in the street on the wrong side of the road, which is to say in my narrow “bike lane.”  Luckily there’s not much traffic, and veering around them is relatively easy.

At the five corners I hand-signal a left turn, and am respected by a car that (properly) yields.  The road is still Maple Avenue, and after a couple of blocks of modest beach homes I am up on the road bordering the sea wall again.  The temperature suddenly drops ten degrees thanks to the onshore breezes that have been picking up since I began the ride.  Being right on the shore makes a huge difference on a hot summer day.

Lynde Point Lighthouse

This time I continue on past Seacrest Road, passing the Knollwood Beach community on my left, then Fenwood, and on for a mile or so to the causeway across the inlet to South Cove.  Immediately before I cross, however, I turn right onto Nibang Avenue, which shortly becomes Sequassen Avenue.  I am going to see Lynde Point Lighthouse, also known as Old Saybrook Inner Light.  There are some pricey homes along a nine-hole golf course on the way out.  As I go past a “Private Property, Do Not Enter” sign (I have been assured this is for cars, not cyclists) the road perceptibly worsens.  There’s much to be said for public maintenance of roadways.  It’s passable, though, and I get out to the end of the point and see the light(house).  There’s a locked gateway into the property, but the tower is still magnificent and evocative of life along the shores of the North Atlantic.  I check out the very end of the road, which peters out in a cul-de-sac of driveways to shingled, tidy, and snug beach houses.  This area is called Fenwick, but I look in vain for the Duchess of Grand Fenwick.  On the way back to Maple Avenue I appreciate the open, windswept lay of the land on the point.  The golfing must be interesting, or at least scenic, here.

The causeway is always fun.  The sidewalk to my right is perennially busy with fishermen, so I stay on the road, which is wide enough and lightly traveled.  On the cove side to my left there is always a large flock of mute swans, fifty or so in all, whose location and activity depend on the wind, the time of day, and the tide.  Today they’re out in the middle of the blue water, just choppy enough to pick up the color of the sky intensely and contrast vividly with the birds.  Technically the causeway is called Bridge Street, and it dead-ends shortly after it makes landfall on the north side of the cove.  To the right is Saybrook Point Inn and Spa, and so I turn to the left, where the road is College Street and heads back to the town center.  The land here is a wide spit between the North and South coves.  It features treed and neatly kept homes, only a few properties deep on the left but several blocks on the right, where elegant residences look out over the masts of a marina.

When I get to the Maple Avenue traffic light, I get in place for a left turn, complete with hand signal.  After the light turns green, I retrace my two-mile path out to the five-way intersection, turn left, and hit the shore road.  Again the temperature drops ten degrees in the onshore breeze.  I’m looking forward to a shower, a drink, a relaxing day at the shore.

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2012.

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