– Words by Susan Lundy Photography by Don Denton
When former Oak Bay mayor Christopher Causton started walking to work at the municipal hall in the mid-’90s, he decided to take the route less travelled. Today, three decades later, Chris is certain he’s walked almost all of the municipality’s dozens of back alleys, pathways and walkways.
Back in 2006, when an Oak Bay walking group asked Chris to host a back alley tour, he happily obliged, creating a route that started at the Oak Bay Recreation Centre. Expecting a group of about 25, he was stunned to see over 200 people lined up for the tour. He also didn’t anticipate that this would become a regular event held each June for the next several years, even after he retired from his role of mayor in 2011.
So, on a sunny Monday in late February—the kind of day where it feels like spring could sprout at any moment—I set out with Chris, my husband Bruce, our dog Zorro and Tweed photographer Don Denton, to find out what all the fuss is about.
“The alleys in south Oak Bay go back 100 years,” notes Chris as we head out on foot from our meeting spot at the Monterey Recreation Centre. “They have a lot of character and, like fine wine, have had longer to develop and age than those in central Oak Bay, which date back, generally, to development after the Second World War.”
There are very few classic alleys in north Oak Bay, he adds, and these are mostly cut-through-type paths or pedestrian connections.
“I’ve always been curious,” says Chris, and indeed, this becomes apparent as we slowly wander through the crisscross of peaceful Oak Bay back alleys: it’s this inquisitive eye that takes the seemingly mundane, gives it a kaleidoscope-like spin and produces a view that says, “Oh, that is interesting!”
In our first laneway, we peer through a fence to the back of a house where an ancient-looking stone building lies partially hidden by foliage. This, it turns out, was once the creamery where Oak Bay’s first milk was produced.
“Everyone makes the front area of their home attractive,” Chris points out. “But looking at the back of houses shows their real character. There are things here you’d never see otherwise.”
Unlike roadways, there are no standards for the alleys. Some are paved, others gravel and, unexpectedly, at least two are grass. Some are wide enough to handle a large truck; others are narrow, some are merely footpaths. Juxtapositions abound: there’s an aging Toyota Corolla parked adjacent to a gleaming Porsche; new garages perched next to ancient or converted garages.
We discover a hidden swimming pool, a chicken coop, a wall of solar panels, wooden panels, aluminum siding and a wooden drain pipe attached to wooden soffits and gutters. In one back alley, we wander over one of Oak Bay’s only speed bumps. At times, it’s like stepping into a bygone era, where tiny garages once large enough to house vehicles are now relegated to garden sheds with large, gleaming SUVs parked nearby.
As we stand looking at one laneway garage, pointing out a couple of birdhouses attached to its front side, the homeowner, digging in the garden, pops her head up and tells us that this particular structure is called The Toy House.
“A playhouse for the grandkids?” I wonder to myself.
Not quite. Chris knows the homeowners (as an aside, he knows pretty much everyone we encounter on this tour), so we’re offered a peek at the toys inside: the upward swish of the garage door reveals two gleaming, classic cars.
At another point in the tour, we pass through a laneway intersection where houses representing four different periods of history—and covering at least the past century—live as neighbours. From here we slide into an almost-hidden pathway, and skirt past a yard where the late poet Robin Skelton apparently held seances.
(This prompts my own recollection of Skelton, who was one of my creative writing professors at UVic. For his classes, he did nothing but read his own poetry and assign two essays per term. According to creative writing department lore, Skelton graded essays by weight. I can’t confirm this, but I was a prolific word-producer and did receive excellent marks.)
The few times on our trek that we emerge from the laneway matrix and walk down a street, the difference is striking: the width of the street, the polished yards and humdrum concrete sidewalks suddenly have me yearning for the intimacy and intrigue of the laneway routes.
How, I wonder at the end of our journey, could this adventure not bring to mind the poet Robert Frost? For on this day, we took the road “less travelled by”—and it made all the difference.