On Veterans Day, November 11th, we drove to the Hamptons and passed beneath Old Glory, the humongous American free-flying flag — it happens to be the largest in the world — unfurled from the arch top of George Washington Bridge which happens to be the busiest bridge in the world connecting New York with New Jersey. It was an impressive sight – the flag that is unfurled on special occasions like Veterans Day when countrymen honour their military personnel in the US. In the UK on this day everyone wears red poppies to remember the sacrifices made by a few for the many. Remembrance Day. It is a special thing when a nation remembers for not every nation does.
Beds of rust & golden leaves lay thick upon woods that marked the way to The Hamptons, the exclusive playground of the upper echelons of society, where during summer the Serenas and Nates (ref: Gossip Girl) take a break from the hectic pace of the city, where rosé flows like water, and where an Emily Thorne stands upon quiet beaches contemplating the machinations of destruction (ref: Revenge). There is irony in equating Revenge with the Hamptons. For most of the estates were shot in North Carolina except for the exterior of the Graysons’ manor which is situated in the heart of East Hampton.
Now the Hamptons are a cluster of villages and towns. The names keep popping up as you keep upon one straight road, passing by orange fields of pumpkins, houses tucked into woods and a profusion of old churches. Hampton Bays, Southampton, Quogue, North Sea, Bridgehampton, Shinnecock Hills, Sagaponack, Sag Harbor are a roll-call of names that you come upon, some of them obviously Native American in origin. Here there are waterfront properties that start well above a few million dollars, boasting of gently aged modernism. Bakeries which sell loaves of bread that might cost 12 bucks but hey they are organic and conscious about what they put on the shelves. And here they do not encourage Uber. Instead there is a Hampton Hopper, mint green school buses that operate between Montauk and Sag Harbor.
It was frightfully cold when we came upon Sag Harbor, a tiny 18th-century village with a whaling tradition. It was home to John Steinbeck, at least two artists chose to end their life within its beautiful environs — one succeeded, the other did not — and then there are Moby Dick references. Queequeg had arrived in Sag Harbor to acquaint himself with the sailor’s life in the village. There are old whaling churches and broken mast tokens to remember the whalers lost to the sea. It reminded me a wee bit of Synge’s Riders to the Sea though the geographical location in that play ridden with overtones of fatalism was Inishmaan in the Aran Islands of Ireland. We shivered upon the pier of Sag Harbor with its lovely old windmill with plaques to recall the names associated with the village and then carried on to Southampton which was deserted on that phenomenally cold evening.
The oldest English settlement in Long Island, Southampton, had English folk arrive there from Massachusetts in the 1640s. They took over a few square miles in town from the Shinnecock Indian Nation, an Algonquin-speaking tribe, which received corn, coats, areas reserved for their use and the assurance that the English would defend them, ‘the sayed Indians from the unjust violence of whatever Indians shall illegally assaile us’.
We had a taste of Southampton’s old English vibes with the department store of Hildreth’s (the name says it all) which was started by one of the settler families from Massachusetts in the 1800s. Treading the old wooden floors of the store, we scanned the walls with their rows of old deeds and documents, sepia photos of men with sideburns and beards, chunks peeling off from the photos in ghostly whites, and images of horse driven wagons carrying goods from ships that docked at neighbouring Sag Harbor. A long time ago we might have come upon old whaling harpoons and buffalo hides, but today the oldest piece you would chance upon is a 5′ tall coffee grinder that is unlike any you have seen.
The other aspect of its past showed up on the two-lane Montauk Highway with a procession of cigarette shops glinting in the gathering dark, a sudden change of mood from the glamorous to a ramshackle existence. The Indian Reservation in Long Island. And then again the quiet poshness of the Hampton Bays. A runner pounding the pavements on a dark stretch braving the fierce bite of the evening. The contrast never more pronounced upon the eyes of the curious traveller – that life is but about living the gap between the promise and the reality.