My wife and I discovered the western edge of the Eastern Townships less than a year after we discovered each other in late fall 1995.
It was June 1996. We parked our car in St. Armand, a small town near the American border southeast of Montreal, and hit the road on our bicycles, eventually making our way to another small town not too far away, Dunham, where we stayed at a B & B overnight.
When we found our house in the countryside near Dunham a couple of years later, while searching for a place to live outside of Montreal, we felt as if we already knew the area; the villages of Frelighsburg, Knowlton, Sutton, and Bromont, as well as Dunham, all seemed to emit their own charm and self-assured identities. I employed the cliché “God’s Country” a lot back then as we drove through the area looking for a new home; I was truly impressed with the silence, charm, beauty and refined quality of the area.
Fast forward more than 17 years. That house in Dunham? We moved from it, a 30-acre property, to a smaller and more manageable place in Glen Sutton two years ago. We feel that over time we have grown to know the larger area and its distinct character, a knowledge renewed recently as Naomi and I drove to Knowlton to hand out flyers for an upcoming Christmas exhibition she’s showing in.
Frelighsburg, Knowlton, Sutton, and Bromont, and Dunham: their respective populations range from a low of 1,100 (Frelighsburg) to a high of 5,600 (Knowlton, otherwise known as Lac Brome), and 7,650 (Bromont), while the others are in the 3,000’s, so we’re not dealing with big municipalities here.
The largest town around is Cowansville, with over 12,500, in the more or less geographical centre of these satellite villages.
As with little European duchies, people do not know much about what goes on in the neighbouring village. If I were to go to Knowlton, as happened today, and mention to the owner of a tea shop that Naomi’s tea bowls were being sold at a similar store in Sutton, Le Comptoir du Marchand du Thé, the owner wouldn’t have a clue regarding who I was talking about.
This insularity reminds me of what must be the case in rural France where each little village is separated by more than just geography. Sometimes people even speak with different dialects or accents. Of course, that’s not the case here but it is interesting for the more adventurous to observe the similarities and differences of these villages as they’ve changed or remained the same (mostly the former) over the past decade.
Except for Dunham, all these villages possess a charming village centre, particularly Sutton, Knowlton and Frelighsburg. There is a “village” to the village.
Dunham, while known for its apple orchards and for being the centre of the wine-growing region of Quebec, stretches a few kilometers along Route 202; there’s a dépanneur (French for all-purpose corner convenience store with gas station), a couple of bakeries and restaurants as well as some artisan shops. But there’s no “there” there. Still, there is plenty of charm in the byways off the 202, particularly if you’re into cycling up and down rustic gravel roads or looking at the leaves in the fall. The vineyards and apple orchards a very big draw; in the fall the quiet 202 is packed with cars full of people eager to experience the wine-tasting experience nearby. Historical buildings and houses in town are marked with explanations of their history.
Sutton is our new town now, a 20-minute drive from our house down aptly-named Scenic Road and while situated on a highway as well, possesses a real town centre and a fiercely proud and close-knit community, with about 60% of the population French-speaking and 33% English-speaking. Naomi and I love having brunch in the always busy and friendly Cafetière Restaurant. We’ve dined in plenty of busy village restos in our day but this one’s got have the best ambiance overall.
There’s also a nice mix of boutiques and restaurants in Sutton and no less than four art galleries, a place that’s busy over three seasons: summer for the cycling crowd, fall for obvious reasons, and winter for the nearby skiing at Mount Sutton.
Naomi and I go there three or four times a week, for the gym, for groceries and myself to play duplicate bridge.
But when it comes to high-end boutiques, Knowlton looks even better. There’s a nice mix of clothing boutiques, gift shops, garden stores, restaurants and antique stores as well as one great book store. There’s also a certain je ne sais quoi, a more aristocratic aloofness to the shop owners. It might be mistaken for snobbery, but the variety and quality of the goods for sale there make Knowlton a charming place to visit on a quiet fall day with shopping in mind. There’s no buzz there, like you’d find in a mall. A quiet town, nice shops, enough area to stroll around – it makes a nice getaway from the big city.
Knowlton was in the news a few years back as a place in decline. Stores were shutting down. People complained that the strong Canadian dollar had customers going to the States to do their shopping.
On our recent trip we did notice many stores have disappeared with a lot of new stores having taken their place. Not all the shops are occupied yet but with the Canadian dollar at $1.25 American, it’s a wonder why we don’t see more American licence plates on the cars parked there.
What is clear is that the new stores are just as nice, if not nicer, that the ones they’ve replaced.
The interesting thing about Knowlton is that the population is evenly divided between English and French-speaking, which is a rarity in Quebec.
Bromont is a different story; only 5% of the population is English-speaking. Bromont has experienced an amazing population explosion, growing 25% every five years since 1991; it’s become the go-to place for retiring francophone Montrealers. I can’t say that I know Bromont as well as the other villages; it does seem to be, besides the conglomeration of outlet stores on its periphery, a French version of Knowlton, with plenty of fancy boutiques, excellent restaurants and a couple of antique stores. Like Sutton, it has a ski hill nearby, unimaginatively named Mt. Bromont, of course, with its one big drawback, for me: the skiing night lights that drown out any thought of star gazing for miles around.
Bromont, by the way, is where Naomi’s upcoming show, Roche, Papier, Ciseaux will be taking place this Dec. 8-11th (http://www.rochepapierciseauxmac.com/).
This going-around to put up flyers for this show has reminded me of the distinct charms of these little towns in Southern Quebec. I highly recommend to anyone not familiar with them a week or two of exploring, from kayaking in summer down the calm Mississquoi River to hiking Mt. Sutton’s trails, to skiing or cross-country skiing in the winter, to some of the most scenic and bike-friendly cycling in Canada, to the Sutton Jazz Festival in early fall. Look into it and see where these five villages will take you as you also discover “God’s Country”.