Paul Sparkes: Challenging landscapes

The Grates, wind and rock

Published on March 20, 2017

A view toward the horizon at Grates Cove. Photo taken in late summer 2011.

©Paul Sparkes photo

The winds of March 11, 2017, hit 170 kilometres per hour at the tip of the Avalon Peninsula. I haven’t heard that we have lost Grates Cove, so it is likely still there. With its abundance of beautiful, age-old and weathered rocks, it will take time, and not wind, to erode that finger of land. It is our peninsula’s leading northeast point.

Harsh laws authored by Devonshire “ship-fishermen” are the reason, according to historian Daniel Prowse, that would-be settlers in the late 18th century avoided the more popular harbours and chose to fish from less accessible places such as Grate’s Cove. Prowse says this is how Torbay, Pouch Cove, Bonavista (and “Grates”) were settled. But, of course, in the case of the first three, they in turn became popular and, presumably, could then stand on their own two feet against self-serving “laws.”

There is a phrase, courtesy of John Guy where he is in the course of his journey from Cupids to Trinity Bay — “doubling the Grates” — and I am guessing it means to sail around that point of land. Perhaps that was like doing a 180-degree on a modern ramp road.

“The Grates” sound like a natural feature. Perhaps here an incautious ship might scrape bottom. The name does not sound like it springs from a settler family, the source of so many of our place names.

Smallwood is credited with the information that Grates Cove was “first founded probably in 1790 by three families from Lower Island Cove and one from Old Perlican.” And Seary (Place Names of the Avalon Peninsula, 1971) quotes the English Pilot 1693 and Cook & Lake, 1770, with “Point of the Grates” and “Point of Grates.” Of course, we also have Grates Point today. Archbishop Michael Francis Howley (1843-1914) loved exploring Newfoundland place-names. But I could find nothing on Grates Cove among the bits and pieces of his copied work that I have. The place seems to have been called The Grates from the earliest days of its christening. Removing ‘The’ and appending ‘Cove’ certainly helps its lose its cachet.

When I visited Grates Cove for the very first time, nearly six years ago, I found it awesome in terms of chilling, even dramatic: a God-given setting for a tragic play, or a moodful oil painting.



Thick ice, severe cold

I have a battered little geography book from the reign of George III (died 1820). I bought it in a junk shop and it seems to have been used in a junior school somewhere in Atlantic Canada. It is signed inside the front cover: Andrew Burns His Book 1808. Typical of a school kid, Andrew signed it not once, but four times.


I do not know the title of the book; the first few pages that would have introduced it, are missing, and as its cover is of plain, brown leather, rubbed and crumbling, it bears no title.

There is a section in the book on New Britain which, in the days when the book was new, would have embraced northern Quebec and most of our Labrador. It was a little-known stretch of land and what was known of it at the time was learned through the knowledge of those who had gone looking for a northwest passage. Consider – this book dates from some 35 years before Sir John Franklin’s tragic mission. He set out in 1845 to find said passage and he knew next to nothing about the region.  

Read what your great-great (and several more times removed) grandfather had to learn about that landmass away to our north:

“New Britain is remarkable for the extreme severity of the cold in winter which is greater than in any other part of the world in the same latitude. The ice on the rivers is, then, eight feet thick; port wine freezes into a solid mass; brandy coagulates and the very breath falls on the blankets of a bed in the form of hoar frost.*

*The regions towards the north-eastern coast of North America are, by many degrees, colder than the countries under the same latitude in Europe; one cause of which is supposed to be the wind passing over a vast extent of land from the north and west before it reaches those parts; another cause is the uncultivated state of the country.

 “All the quadrupeds are clothed with a close, soft, warm fur and even the dogs and cats from England, when carried into Hudson’s bay have, on the approach of winter, changed their appearance and acquired a much longer, softer, thicker coast of hair than they originally had.

“In summer, there is here, as in other places, a variety on the colour of the several animals. When that season is over (which lasts only for three months) they all assume the livery of winter; and every sort of beasts, and most of their fowls are of the colour of the snow: every thing, animate and inanimate, is white.

“The soil, in the parts that are known, is poor, but the coast abounds with large, convenient and safe harbours.

“So far as is discovered, Labrador is generally hilly and even mountainous. The natives are mountaineers and Esquimaux, the former resembling gipsies; the latter resembling the Greenlanders.”


Paul Sparkes is a longtime journalist intrigued by the history of Newfoundland and Labrador. Email: