A Touch of Europe in Your Own Back Yard

The Nashua Telegraph, November 14th, 1999

Where can you find the following within a half-hour drive of each other: a castle, the home of a world-famous poet, and ancient stone ruins?

If you guessed somewhere in Europe, guess again. You can plan an historical adventure right here in southern New Hampshire with a day trip to Searles Castle in Windham, the Robert Frost Farm in Derry and America’s Stonehenge in North Salem--all within a few miles of Route 111.

Searles Castle sits on the grounds of the Sisters of Mercy Motherhouse in Windham, a serene location for one of the state’s hidden gems. The castle’s exterior evokes fortresses of medieval times, with its wall and towers looking tough to breach. The main house–a lovely combination of New England granite and red Ohio sandstone–overlooks a peaceful green courtyard. If the gate to the courtyard is closed when you visit, be sure to follow the path around back, where the house rises into sight above the outer wall.

Better yet, call in advance and arrange a tour. The Sisters welcome the public to view the Castle grounds at any time, but they are also delighted to guide visitors by appointment through the surprisingly cozy interior.

The comfortable scale of the mansion’s rooms belies it grand exterior. Yet the details are breathtakingly rich: marble hearths (including one from a French palace), a set of doors from Windsor Castle, and hand-carved oak and maple walls, floors, and ceilings.

The Castle was built between 1905 and 1915 by Edward Francis Searles, a renowned interior decorator, and his design touch shows throughout the home. Several rooms still contain their original, elegant furnishings. Others have been redecorated during restoration to match their modern functions as part of a cultural center, often with donated antiques and beautiful floral arrangements.

Restoration is an ongoing process, and the price of a tour goes toward the Castle Restoration Fund.

Take Route 111 east of I-93 to a left on Searles Road by St. Matthew’s church, then follow the signs to the Castle. When fitting Searles Castle into your itinerary, remember that interior tours are strictly by appointment only. The full tour includes a few flights of stairs, but the risers are shallow and easily navigated. Tours are $5 for adults and $2 for children.

Several public events take place at Searles Castle throughout the year. Seminars, conferences, school tours and showers (but not weddings) are also held here. To arrange a tour, or to inquire about private functions and upcoming public events, call (603) 898-6597.

Your next stop is the Robert Frost Farm in Derry, a place which has left an indelible impression on American literature and culture. Though Frost lived here only from 1900 to 1911, at least 33 of his published poems are set here, and the memory of the farm deeply affected him for the rest of his life. In a letter to a friend, Frost called his spare time in Derry “the core of all my writing.”

The tour begins with a video presentation in a barn which is fragrant with old timbers. Next, the tour enters the house, where the New Hampshire Department of Parks and Recreation has restored the interior to its turn-of-the-century appearance under the guidance of one of Frost’s children, Lesley Frost Ballantine.

Where possible the original furnishings have been kept, including the chair where Frost did most of his writing. Elsewhere, period pieces have been used. The result is a rare glimpse of New England farm life early in this century, from the “luxurious indoor privy” to the gigantic iron stove that provided all the heat in the house.

The house’s expansive grounds feature a self-guided nature trail. Here you can view the inspirations for many of Frost’s poems, including the stream that inspired “Hayla Brook” and the stone wall referred to in “Mending Wall.” Devotees of Frost and lovers of nature alike will savor the experience.

To get to the Frost Farm, continue east of Searles Castle on Route 111 to a left at Route 28, then proceed north for about five miles. The farm is on the right; park in the rear. Wear suitable shoes for walking the nature trail.

Tours cost $2.50 for adults and are free for children under 18. The farm is open on weekends from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. in the spring and fall, and daily from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. in summer. For more information, call (603) 432-3091.

Next, your itinerary brings you face-to-face with the mystery of America’s Stonehenge in North Salem. Did the native inhabitants of North America build it? Or was it constructed by megalithic builders from Europe — as long ago as 3,500 years before Columbus? Archeologists still can’t answer some of the questions raised here. Visit for yourself and form your own opinions.

This site has been variously inhabited since 2,000 B.C. Pottery and other artifacts suggest American Indians lived or worshipped on the site for centuries, but some of the stone ruins resemble ancient sites in Europe. A 19th century farmer built his home on some of the original walls, creating yet another layer of history.

What is known for certain is that the site forms a giant astronomical calendar. Standing stones around the perimeter mark the directions of important solar and lunar events, including sunrises and sunsets on equinoxes and solstices.

Today some of the ruins have been carefully reconstructed or restored by researchers, while others already stood intact after centuries, providing a captivating glimpse into ancient days.

A map supplied at the Visitors Center leads you through a self-guided tour. Low stone walls border the path before it opens onto an imposing hilltop collection of stone chambers and ruins. The going is a little rough over this portion of the site, so an alternate path provides access for wheelchairs and strollers to reach a good view from the top of the hill. There on the hilltop, a platform offers an astronomical chart which points to the various standing stones and describes the significance of each. A winding trail leads around the perimeter of the site to view the standing stones close-up.

Follow Route 111 about 3.5 miles east from Route 28 to a right turn at the junction with Island Pond and Haverhill roads. Continue straight, and America’s Stonehenge is less than a mile on the right.

Summer hours are from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily. Call (603) 893-8300 for spring and fall hours and for information about special events on the solstices and equinoxes. Admission is $7.95 for adults, $5.95 for seniors and youths aged 13 to 18, $3.95 for children ages 6 to 12, and free for ages five and under. Wear shoes appropriate to a moderate hike, and while there is a path for strollers and wheelchairs, bear in mind that the site lies uphill.

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