Granite State of Mind, #74: Stratham Hill Park, Stratham
Stratham Hill Park is a special place for those of us who grew up in town, a place so close to our hearts that the 1991 microbursts that devastated the hill's forest cover felt like a personal wound. For some, in the literal sense: three people were killed and eleven injured as those high winds leveled the old wooden pavilion they sought shelter beneath. The Hill itself has been recovering in the quarter-century since, but our children will never know the treeline as we knew it in our youth. The story of that Park is change, though, mirroring the changes to the Town itself in the last few decades.
Time was that Stratham was just a pile of sticks between Portsmouth and Exeter, an unremarkable stretch of dairy farms with a few thousand residents. We had the Fair, of course, which I'll talk about another time - too many stories to cram into this one. Besides, the Park itself has enough tales from the rest of the year to warrant its own inclusion here. I've played softball and baseball on its fields, begun 5k races there, and walked or run there many times from my folks' house less than a mile away. I've hacked through the hillside woods with a machete to help Dave Emanuel's Eagle Scout project. That trail leads to the top of the Hill, my favorite part of the Park. There's a very cool old round viewfinder that tells you where to look for sights from the modest summit, but the very best part is the old fire tower that perches atop the crest.
Built in 1931, the fire tower reaches 53 feet into the sky (the platform is at 45 feet), so when you climb the slick steel steps you reach a point almost 300 feet above sea level. Not particularly high, but the views are surprisingly rewarding. Great Bay spreads out in its full splendor, and Portsmouth is in full view, even the Atlantic itself on clear days. Even Maine clambers into sight when conditions are right. The little platform at the top used to be an enclosed wooden hut with windows, its interior walls etched with the scrawled graffiti of previous visitors. That edifice burned down in 1997, replaced by the open-faced steel structure there now. I love standing on that platform (then, now, always), and soaking in the panorama of the seacoast on all sides. There's a visceral connection to place and people, to home and heritage, that I only feel in a handful of places, and that's one of them. It's a heck of a thing to be able to stand above the trees and know that everything you see is who you are and where you belong.