things to do

Stratford tips from Leigh Cooney

Leigh Cooney emigrated to Nova Scotia from Ireland with his family when he was six years old. Upon arriving in Canada he was often bullied because of his Irish accent and being part of a poor immigrant family. In his 20’s, Leigh returned to Ireland but like Canada, he didn’t feel like he belonged there. After returning to Canada, his working life ranged from manufacturing to hospitality until his artistic talents took off.  Instead of creating art for the masses, he chose to work on unique pieces that energized him. You can start to gain an understanding of Leigh Cooney by checking out his Facebook group. The Stratford Free Press is a place for local residents to share topics of interest. In a recent post by Leigh introduces a GoFundMe campaign to  pay an independent journalist to do some impartial investigative journalism. 

WHY STRATFORD?

Small community feel with big city amenities. It’s a place where I could find a very good cup of coffee. 

WHAT HAVE YOU GAINED BY LIVING IN STRATFORD?

Having grown up poor, I hadn’t experienced fine dining and really good, creative food. I was introduced to the world of flavours.

WHAT RESTAURANTS DO YOU RECOMMEND?

Raja’s Indian food is phenomenal. The food is authentic. The menu doesn’t change much, it really doesn’t need to. I also enjoy Red Rabbit. It has a great atmosphere and changes its menu to reflect the season. You never know quite what will be on the menu. It could be octopus or rabbit. The kitchen experiments on traditional foods. The one constant is that whatever they cook, it will be very tasty. 

WHERE DO YOU LIKE TO EXPLORE? 

I’m drawn to older neighbourhoods that are preserved. My favourite time to go for a walk in the city is at night when cars don’t stand out as much. Check out Coburg Street, Water, William and Caledonia. I especially like to lose myself in the old section of the cemetery.  There is so much history there. It ties us to the past and is so peaceful. 

WHAT IS YOUR ADVICE FOR VISITORS?

It only takes a few minutes to get to a really quiet place within the city. Outside of the city, choose a side road and see where it leads. There is so much nature to celebrate within and outside of Stratford. Get to know the local people.

HOW HAVE YOU CHANGED OVER THE YEARS?

Death no longer worries me. My body will turn into dirt and feed the trees. I am also much more active in my community. It’s up to each of us to create the change we want. My store gives artists and avenue to sell their goods with the intent of getting money back in the hands of the people.

Meet Your Maker is a very unique store offering artisanal limited run quality products sourced in Canada the USA. According to Leigh, “the more local, the better.” Meet the Maker is fiercely independent. The shop is definitely worth a visit!

Stratford tips from Collin Gibson

Collin Gibson is representative of the youngish class of creative professionals in Stratford - self assured, bright and passionate for community. He left his native Scotland enticed by a beautiful Canadian girl, the wide open spaces of Canada and the big ideas of a relatively new country. Greener pastures were part of the allure but Collin also points to better customer service where each consumer seemed to matter. Perhaps growing up in the crowded United Kingdom was part of Collin’s inspiration for building their tiny house: an efficient house constructed on wheels. Funny thing was that prior to building the house he had not considered buying an automobile to pull it. He did have a place to park the house and that is what let them to Stratford. In spending some time with Collin, you quickly realize his profound wisdom on humanity’s big issues, softened somewhat by his playful personality.

HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE STRATFORD?

All the essential pieces of a big city without the traffic jams. It is a place built on character. Initially, I was bothered by there not being a Starbucks in town but then I realized that genuine stories form in the local cafes that have been built through the sweat and tears of locals. These cafes are built of brick and the 'warm hugs' of their owners. Stratford is an interesting collision of the railroad and the festival. A collection of technology, arts and food - all things that I enjoy.

WHAT HAS DIRECTED YOU IN YOUR LIFE?

I have learned to stop and pay attention to life's pivotal moments. Even small things can mean so much when we stop, listen and feel. I have also placed a spotlight on friendships. My decisions have been based on God’s peace. A peace of gold my Mom left me with.

WHAT ARE YOUR SECRET STRATFORD PLACES? 

The movement to a throwaway society has made me realize the value of small shops not focused on volume but on the quality of their products and the service they offer. The Artful Badger is a men’s grooming store that I stumbled upon while walking down a street I wouldn't have normally taken. It was immediately evident that the owner knew what the place was all about and that there was no need to be pushy. Instead, I quickly embraced the romantic notion of a vintage razor. It seemed that the owner’s interest was not in selling something but in sharing his passion. I left the store thrilled having purchased a razor and brush set. 

DO YOU HAVE ANOTHER favourite place?

Martingale Vintage is another shop off the beaten path. I recently found it on a leisurely stroll with my young children through the downtown core. On my first visit, I was barely through the door when Kelly, the shop owner, started to entertain my young children - making it much easier for us to browse the racks of curated vintage clothing. I was delightfully taken aback by the no hassle experience. 

WHAT WOULD YOUR PERFECT SATURDAY CONSIST OF?

It would start off with my sketch pad at one of the locally owned cafes - Revel, Edison’s or Balzac’s. Creative ideas would naturally flow while snacking on a croissant and enjoying the flow of the people. In the afternoon, I would hit up a show at one of the five theatres celebrating stage in town. On the way home, I would stop in at Pazzo’s. I love the thin crust pizza and the quality of the toppings baked carefully in a brick oven. It’s as though the toppings were intentionally chosen just for me. They have a private room surrounded by glass walls and wine. How cool is that?

WHAT’S YOUR RECOMMENDATION FOR INTERNATIONAL TRAVEL?

Travel to the extreme, dynamic landscape of Scotland. In Glasgow, search out Saratoga Trunk. It is a weird and wonderful place tucked inside an old riverside industrial area. Once you’ve made your way through the puzzle of getting there, you will be buzzed in. You will come across a massive room with hordes of vintage clothing and other stuff piled to the ceiling.

WHAT IS YOUR ADVICE FOR VISITORS TO STRATFORD? 

Avoid anything that looks familiar. Follow your curiosity. Be inspired to explore new experiences and places by walking down windy lanes and behind buildings.

Collin Gibson is the owner of Collin Gibson Creative, helping clients through the journey of design and the web. Check out some of his artwork at Edison’s Cafe Bar and Inn.

Stratford tips from Abby Campbell

Abby Campbell is a furniture designer and interior decorator extraordinaire. Two of her pieces are featured in the rooms at Edison's. The first is a cement headboard. Yes, cement. Abby, always looking to capture the latest trends, felt that it was time to move on from fabric and barn board headboards.  The cement headboard fits in well with the industrial theme of the Inn. The second piece is a beautiful bench at the foot of the king size bed in the music themed room. The bench is made from a reclaimed beam with steel legs. Since moving to Stratford six years ago, Abby and her family have embraced the small town feel of Stratford while appreciating some of the big city comforts from a wide range of restaurant to world class theatre. 

WHY DID YOU LEAVE TORONTO?

We were on the search for a new home and just couldn't find what we were looking for. It actually had nothing to do with the 30 houses we toured, rather my husband and I both felt that something was missing in our lives while living in Toronto. We just didn't feel connected to the community. In fact, we didn't even know the names of our neighbours and we are both social people. We felt it was a dangerous path that we didn't care to take, especially considering we had two small kids.  

WHY DID YOU CHOOSE STRATFORD?

We both grew up in the area, my partner in Seaforth and myself in Mitchell. We considered Kitchener, London and Stratford as all have trains stops which was important for my husband who works in Toronto. Stratford is just so gorgeous and visually interesting. There is real beauty in the buildings and the city has so many trees in its core. How can walking around the river not put you in a good mood. 

WHAT WOULD YOU SUGGEST A VISITOR DO IN STRATFORD?

Start off by taking a drop in class at Moksha Yoga. Afterwards, head to a cafe - Balzac's, Revel and Edison's - for a coffee and don't worry about changing. You will be accepted just the way you are. One of the best things to do is talk to people while waiting in line for your latte. There are so many interesting people here. Get some exercise by walking around the river. Head back to your hotel for shower and then for some shopping at one of the many great clothing shops - Dana Nicole and Grace Boutique. Drop by the Sean Norrie Gallery on the way to the Taverna for cocktails. Taverna has gorgeous lighting. Finally, off to Mercer Hall for dinner. The place is alive with chatter and laughter.  Order the deep fried sushi.  

WHAT EXCITES YOU ABOUT TODAY'S DESIGN?

What really inspires me is flipping through design books and magazines featuring Scandinavian designs. I love the masculine, minimalist and functional approach that they take to furniture. 

HOW IS YOUR APPROACH TO DESIGN UNIQUE?

Many designers and decorators are taking on a template approach - what works for one client will work for most clients. I prefer to explore the unique personality of each of my clients so as to inject their own style into my work. My focus is on original, custom work and on functional solutions.

WHAT HAS BEEN THE BIGGEST CHANGE SINCE MOVING TO STRATFORD?

That we not only know our neighbours but many of them have become our close friends. On our moving day to Stratford, we not only received a friendly welcome from many of them but food as well - delicious morning glory muffins. One of the neighbours later mentioned how much he liked the changes to the backyard. I asked my husband if he had given our friendly neighbour a tour but he hadn't. We found out that he was over at another neighbour's house which bordered our backyard. They were having coffee while enjoying our efforts.

WHAT IS YOUR SPECIAL PLACE IN STRATFORD?

The TJ Dolan Conservation area is a sweet spot in the middle of the city. It is so quiet and beautiful. I can get a 20 minute break in nature just a few minutes away. There is a lovely bridge with a view to the cemetery.

Abby's company is ACampbell DesignThe TJ Dolan Conservation Area is a 15-20 minute walk from downtown. To get to TJ Dolan, cross the Huron Street Bridge on the City's West end, by the courthouse. After crossing the bridge, take the stairs down to a road that runs along the river.  Cross over St Vincent Street and continue down the road. Once you hit the cemetery, turn left across the bridge. The start to TJ Dolan will be on your right. There a number of trails ranging from 3-4.4 kms.

Stratford tips from Alf Humphreys

Acting was Alf’s dream since the age of eight. Once, as a child, he asked God to make him an actor and “in return maybe I can do something for you.” Alf got his wish as he appeared in several movies (My Bloody Valentine, X Men 2, Diary of a Wimpy Kid) and television series (X- Files, Smallville, Outer Limits). Perhaps his most famous role was as Deputy Lester in the 80’s movie First Blood starring Sylvester Stallone. Born in the small town of Halleybury, Ontario, Alf returned with his wife and son to Ontario fromVancouer not long ago.Wanting to be close to his parents and finding a community suitable for his wife’s business, they chose Stratford. Now semi-retired,Alf enjoys meeting people of all types especially over coffee.There’s not a person who goes by without Alf offering a hearty hello.

HOW DID YOU START YOUR CAREER IN ACTING?

In commercials. One weekend I returned home in North Bay, at the time, and was enjoying watching a show on my parent’s black and white television with my friends when one of my commercials came on. I think it was an advertisement for Certs. It was followed by three other commercials all with me in them. I was a star that night, at least in the eyes of my friends.

IF YOU HAD A FREE SATURDAY WHAT WOULD YOU DO?

After coffee at one of the many wonderful cafes we have in Stratford, I would stroll the city taking in many of the details that others may not notice. I particularly enjoy architecture and the many churches in Stratford. I often dream of the medieval ages when I see them.

WHAT’S YOUR FONDEST CHILDHOOD MEMORY?

Being brought up in a small town, I had to rely on my imagination for fun and to keep busy. One day we were told to write a story and then three students were chosen to read them out loud. After the first two stories were read, the teacher asked if the class would like to hear my story. The class responded with applause. I was a popular kid then. Once I finished, the teacher asked for my notebook. She turned it to show the class what I had read.The page was blank. I didn’t need to write a story, I could create a story instantly.

WHAT IS ONE OF YOUR FAVOURITE THINGS TO DO IN STRATFORD?

There is so much to experience here. I have learned to live in the present by accepting many of the invitations this city offers. If there is a bridge, I take it to see where it leads to. If there is an interesting person, I say hello. Stratford is such a fabulous place to experience. It is the photo perfect place.

WHAT ARE YOU READING?

Goners:The Final Hours of the Notable and Notorious. My personal health issues of late have made me realize how tenuous life really is. Reading about the deaths of celebrities makes me feel somewhat at peace with it.

WHAT’S YOUR FAVOURITE STORY ABOUT FIRST BLOOD?

While filming, Rambo, Stallone’s character in First Blood, was supposed to fake an elbow to my head but it ended up being a full blown hit to my right eye. Sylvester was very concerned by the hit and I couldn’t let on how much it really hurt.Worse yet, we had to do a retake.

IF YOU HAD A FREE AIRLINE TICKET, WHERE WOULD YOU GO?

Though I have been to Mount Rushmore, I would go back. It made such a striking connection with me. I would also return to Vancouver where I have such fond memories of acting. I do miss the city and I really miss acting.

ANY ADVICE FOR A TOURIST COMING TO STRATFORD?

We just LOVE Pazzo’s. When our friends come from out of town, we often take them there. Also, the town of Blyth has a wonderful theatre. It is not the commercial success that the Stratford Festival is - which makes it charming.When in Blyth, you should check out the Hyde House - a clothing store with items you wouldn't find anywhere else. In Stratford, wake up early and get outside to see the beauty of the city as the day changes from morning to night. And, don’t forget to visit the swans.

DO YOU HAVE A FAVOURITE ROAD TRIP?

Nothing beats a trip to Lake Huron to experience its sunsets. One of our family members has a cottage close to Goderich. Its reputation as the prettiest town in Canada took a hit when a tornado hit town in 2011.The town has been rebuilt with its core being a place to visit especially on the day of its market.

Notes: Blyth is a 45 minute car ride from Stratford.The Blyth Theatre has performances daily, except Mondays, in July, August and September. Goderich is an hour’s drive from Stratford.You might want to consider a stroll or bike ride along the path to the Menesetung Bridge which is the start to the Goderich to Guelph trail, the Huron Historic Gaol that had three hangings before closing in 1972, the boardwalk at Cove Beach and Courthouse Square.The Goderich Farmer’s Market is on Saturdays between 9 and 1. The Flea Market is on Sundays between 9 and 3.