Spring is in the air, with daffodils popping and the bike path cluttered with dusty bikes out for the first ride of the summer. Wandering just a few minutes from the front door of the Inn brings you to Stoney Beach Woods Hole, affectionately called “Stoney” (as in “see you at Stoney“) by locals.
This stretch of sand facing Buzzards Bay is hidden away in a small residential neighborhood, close to all the laboratories (MBL, WHOI and others) and very popular come summertime. Summer people will be stunned to see I found it empty earlier this week, light waves blowing in and huge puffy clouds racing by for my eyes only.
Now there are many advantages to a swim at Stoney — the prevailing wind from the southwest puts the beach in the lea, so it is often warmer than other beaches in Falmouth. There are two stone jetties from which you can look back and enjoy the beach scape dotted with charming Cape Cod waterfront cottages. Then there is the Gulf Stream water, which on the bay side seems even warmer and delicious in summertime.
Popular with families and children because the sand extends shallow for quite a ways out from the beach, I have always wondered why it is so-named when it is clearly sandy. My pet suspicion is that the clever scientists that discovered this corner of Cape Cod before the turn of the century named it “Stoney” to keep out the riff raff.
Here the hermit crabs frolic, kids dance in the waves and wind-surfers learn to get up on their boards. The older generation likes to swim laps across the bay in their flowered swim caps. Come the late afternoon, someone always seems to be water-skiing or tubing in the distance. Porta-potties, a fresh water shower area and lifeguards make this a very comfortable place to spend a summer afternoon.
Parking is limited, but beach passes from Falmouth will get you in, if you are lucky. Most guests at the Woods Hole Inn choose to walk over, it’s about a half mile or ten minute walk (with your complimentary beach towel from the front desk). You will see plenty of other neighbors doing the same, in fact the back streets of Woods Hole are awash in half-clad beach goers. It is the ritual of summer, walking through town, grabbing something at the Woods Hole Market then settling on the beach with an ice-cold soda.
Woods Hole summer. Yes, it is right around the corner.
I often get asked if I am related to the family in “The Big House” which is a memoir of life on Cape Cod written by George Colt. The short answer is yes. Mary Forbes Atkinson Colt was my grandmother, and George is my first cousin. The central tension of the wonderful book is what will happen to the house, and (spoiler alert!) the great news is that it remained in my family, purchased from my grandmother’s estate by one of my first cousins.
The house was is a state of advanced disrepair when that transition happened, more than ten years ago now. My cousin Forbes and her husband David totally renovated the place. There are many parallels to their process and my purchase of the Woods Hole Inn, not the least of which is the vast amount of work that was needed to bring the structure up to modern building code. Packed with family and friends all summer, I’m sure they sometimes feel like they are running a B&B.
The house is sited in the most wonderful spot on Wings Neck with incredible views of Buzzards Bay. The porch looks over Bassett’s Island; my grandmother called it the verandah. She also pronounced Miami “Mee-ahhmee” and made mayonnaise three syllables (“my-on-aisse”) in a vaguely french manner with a dramatic sss at the end. She and my grandfather dressed in black tie every night for dinner, although by the time I came along this garb from another era was rather tattered, and I had a childish hunch that they were actors in a play I didn’t quite understand. Think Arthur Miller and you have insights that you will learn more about in George’s excellent memoir.
One of the best things about moving to Cape Cod last year was that my father’s older sister Ellen was living at the Big House. I would drive out on Sundays to visit her, and she would fill me with stories about her parents, her life, her childhood on Wings Neck. She remembered my father as a toddler, all blonde curls and little boy giggles, lolling like a puppy in her mother’s bed.
Aunt Ellen was more bookish, she told me, and sometimes felt as if she did not fit in with the other four athletic siblings. She loved playing the harp, and came of age as a teenager in the middle of World War II. Her nineteen-year-old brother Harry was missing in action for over six weeks, during which time they all thought he was dead, but he miraculously returned from the war unscathed. I can only imagine her life as a young person in such tumultuous times.
Ellen battled cancer for 20+ years, and the rumors of her demise had been unfounded for so long, I came to feel she would be with me forever. Even her wonderful nurses seemed prepared to be with her out on the Neck for the rest of time.
Sadly, my Aunt Ellen died in the spring of 2011. How lucky I decided to come to the Cape when I did! I was so blessed to get a winter’s worth of visits before she wandered up to join my Dad. At her service, the most poignant moment was her son’s description of the nurses bathing her in ocean water so she could fall asleep with the tight feeling of salt on her skin as she had done in childhood.
So that is the short answer, and in classic Colt fashion, it’s a decent story but it’s not very short:) If you want more about the Big House, you can see my previous post on this subject here.
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The streets are empty, the restaurants deserted and the air completely still. The last of the ferries hurrying out of Woods Hole getting people to their destinations. There is an odd green hue to the afternoon light, muted with a grey low sky. After moving another set of porch furniture in, making two banana pound cakes and allaying the fears of many guests about the storm situation (which appears to be improving), I grabbed a little “me” time. I walked home past the Eel Pond where many parking meters stood empty like sentinels and I went to Stoney Beach.
It was incredibly flat calm down there, the waves so tiny they made a miniscule little whoosh as they lapped the sand. Dead high tide, moon tide which is especially high, leaving the beach a sliver and the distance to the swim buoy more challenging.
I breast-stroked out and floated on my back, toes in front of me in the water like my Dad used to do, and looked back at the houses that line the beach. Many have boarded up. There are shutters closed, or removed to keep from blowing away. But some houses seem to have made no preparations at all.
I thought about what a privilege it is to live so close to the water that I can walk to the beach for a quick after-work swim. But that this same proximity is a huge disadvantage in a storm like Irene. If the surge comes at moon-high tide, there could be 10 extra feet of water. That would turn my street to a canal, my basement to an oily swimming pool and my lawn to seagrass. Floating, I thought about how amazingly mutable the sea is, one minute calm, warm, embracing; the next roaring, foaming, angry.
I thought about my Aunt Ellen who spent her waning years living in the Big House on Wings Neck (a place lovingly described by my cousin George Colt in his book “The Big House”). She loved to bathe in the sea, luxuriating the in the way the salt crunched on the sheets when she fell asleep. In her youth, much of which was in the Great Depression, the Colt children were not encouraged to wash the salt off after swimming, so for her that feeling became reminiscent of long summer days, childhood games and fresh seafood at supper.
I learned at her memorial service last month that when she became too ill to walk down to the ocean to take her daily swim, the nurses brought up buckets of seawater to gently wash her with cloths. “If you can’t come down to the ocean, we will bring the ocean to you,” one of them told her.
I think I will resist showering tonight, for that swim was so sublime I think it may cradle me in a well deserved sleep where I will dream of my father and his sisters, frolicking in the waters of Buzzards Bay so many years ago. And pray that when the sea welcomes Irene later tonight, that perhaps the memory of an woman bathing in her dying days might mitigate the damage.
One of the finest parts of life in Woods Hole is the warm water swimming. And Nobska Beach is the very best beach in my humble opinion. Cape Cod gets the gulf stream, so the water is really lovely in the summer. And the fall.
I walked to Nobska one memorable morning. You head up the hill from the village of Woods Hole, past Little Harbor where the Coast Guard are stationed. You take a right on Church Street which must be named for the adorable stone church on the left. It was cool under the tree canopy, and the early morning light filtered through the trees and danced on the grassy curb. A few cars whizzed by me, and I smiled at the steady stream of runners and bikers (this being the path of the famous Falmouth Road Race its a popular and scenic run/bike).
Down the hill a little and then the beach emerged, the ancient light house standing guard. A small row of bath houses stands guard, for locals who like to change before swimming I guess. A woman was out in a chair early, reading a book but other than that the beach was empty. I saw the ferries headed across the Sound and the air was so clear it felt like you could reach out and touch the Vineyard.
I was particularly taken with the clarity of the water, swirling the rocks and gently lapping the beach sand. I took the picture above; it seemed to call out to me.
Try this walk some morning. You will not be disappointed.