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Hallowe’en in Hudson

Travel Writing

This article was first published in the Times Online, on October 28, 2004

After 25 years of running The Travel Bookshop in west London, Sarah Anderson sold up and has taken off around the world with books for company. In her second dispatch, Sarah writes an e-mail from the Hudson Valley in New York State.

America takes Hallowe’en very seriously and even though I travel up the Hudson Valley prior to October 31 the shops, markets and houses are heaving with pumpkins of all sizes and shades. They echo the spectacular colours of the trees – one week short of their prime – but nevertheless of an intensity unseen in Britain.

Kinderhook and the surrounding area of Columbia County were the setting for Washington Irving‘s legends about Rip Van Winkle and the Legend of Sleepy Hollow. Irving was tutor to children at Lindenwald, the house where Martin van Buren, President of the United States, lived between 1841-62. Ichabod Crane, the mythical schoolmaster who got involved with the Headless Horseman of Sleepy Hollow, was based on Jesse Merwin a real-life schoolmaster who is buried in Kinderhook.

He lived up a long dirt road and tradition has it that should his original gravestone (taken to the house from the cemetery) be turned over, the Headless Horseman would ride again. Several years ago the old lady who lives in the house decided to defy superstition and got a strong young man to turn over the stone; that night disaster struck – no Headless Horseman but almost as dramatic – with lightning striking the 40ft tree in front of her house.

A visit to Blackwood and Brouwer, the local bookshop at 7 Hudson Street (00 1 518 758 1232) in Kinderhook was a great way of finding out about literature set in an area. Cecile Lamalle writes culinary mysteries – Prepared for Murder (2001) and Appetite for Murder (1999) – and Hollis Seamon wrote a collection of short stories Body Work (2000) about women living in and around the Hudson Valley. Middleton, halfway between New York and Albany, is near Salt Point “a place where, history shows, herds of cattle being driven down from the farm regions upstate to market in the city were stopped and allowed to lick freely at salt blocks, something which cattle apparently love to do, their mobile, almost prehensile, tongues wrapping luxuriously around the roughly textured squares, so that when the herd was stopped again, shortly before New York, for water, they would drink and drink (the same strategy is employed by bars, of course, who serve free salty snacks), thereby increasing their saleable weight by maybe ten fluid pounds and the farmer’s profits by some few dollars..”.

Gore Vidal‘s Burr (1973) the portrait of Aaron Burr (a Founding Father who fought and killed his political nemesis Alexander Hamilton in 1804) also takes place in the Hudson Valley. There is a suggestion that Burr was Van Buren’s father but whether he was or was not, he was certainly his mentor.

Edna St.Vincent Millay lived at Steepletop in Austerlitz, also in the neighbourhood, and wrote much of her poetry about the vicinity, but the region is probably chiefly known for its painters – Thomas Cole, Asher Durand and Frederic Church whose house Olana looks down on the Hudson River. Much of their painting was done on the other side of the river from Columbia County in the Catskills, where the Catskill Mountain House hotel was burnt down by the authorities in the 1960s for being too large. The view from where the hotel once stood is famous – you are perched 3,000 ft above the river and can see an area stretching over 12,000 square miles; it was described by James Fennimore Cooper in Leatherstocking Tales:

“What see you when you get there?”

“Creation!” said Natty, dropping the end of his rod into the water, and sweeping one hand around him in a circle, “all creation, lad … The river was in sight for 70 miles under my feet, looking like a curled shaving, though it was eight miles long to its banks”.

In the early nineteenth century bottles of wine used to be sent down by pulley and basket to a platform overlooking the Kaaterskill Falls. Nowadays you get a good view of the Hudson River, albeit from river level, from the Riverview Café at 48 Riverview Street, Stuyvesant’s Landing (518 758 8950) with its red-tiled floor and comfortable sofas.

The restaurant which has the railway line between it and the river, was opened by Terry Chabot in 2002 and is run by her and her family. It only provides dinner on a Friday night, but the day-time menu has breakfasts and excellent sandwiches and one of the locals is the real Serpico, the New York cop who blew the whistle on corruption and who was played by Al Pacino in the movie.

Hudson, an old whaling town, has started booming again after years of depression and consequently has many new restaurants and antique shops; I lunched at Swoon one day and the Charleston the next (518 828 4990) both in Warren Street, Hudson’s main drag. During the 19th century the Hudson River Valley attracted many British travellers who often arrived by steamboat, but now, at surely one of the most glorious times of year, I didn’t see another tourist.