WICKFORD, R.I. -- The two cheery volunteers in the Chamber of Commerce tourism office just outside the center of town gave me simple advice for my first visit to this historic village tucked on Narragansett Bay's western shore.
``Just realize Wickford's really a state of mind," said June Gardner . Her friend Isabel Hayes chimed in , ``Park the car -- it's a delightful place to walk."
Both pieces of advice turned out to be valuable.
It's as if invisible walls had been erected around this little town to hold in all the history. Homes from the 18th and 19th centuries -- and some even older -- have been restored in loving detail on narrow tree-lined streets that cars have to squeeze down. The Old Narragansett Church, built in 1707 and the oldest Episcopal church north of the Potomac River, is home to what is believed to be the oldest organ in use for church services in the United States.
Locals like to brag that the 1987 movie ``The Witches of Eastwick," with its portrayal of a quintessential New England town, was modeled on Wickford. They may even be correct, since John Updike, the author of the book on which the movie was based, used to summer in Wickford and some of his ancestors hail from here.
I easily found a parking spot on Main Street one recent Sunday morning and set out to track down the only bit of trivia I ever heard about Wickford: that it once was called ``the Venice of New England."
After an hour, I could see that there is a lot of water in and around Wickford. But Venice? I couldn't see that.
No matter. I meandered down shady streets and admired lush home gardens. I rested for a while on a bench at the town dock and admired the many sailing ships and boats anchored in the still harbor. Then, before the stores opened, I window-shopped along Brown, Main, and West Main streets, the key arteries in this village that encompasses barely a square mile.
Wickford, population about 3,000 , is a village of North Kingstown, a much larger, sprawling community of about 26,000 . Yet, people in Wickford have always held themselves sovereign. It was incorporated in 1674 and though off the beaten path, it is, like so many places in Rhode Island, on the water.
The town's preserved 18th-century architecture is stunning, and its preservation has its roots in the difficulty wealthy families had getting to Newport in its heyday. Families from Chicago, New York, and elsewhere would have to take trains to Providence, and then find their way to Newport, says Tim Cranston, Wickford's unofficial town historian.
Weary of the grueling trip, and the unpleasant experience of dealing with heavily industrialized Providence, a set of wealthy investors including Cornelius Vanderbilt, financed the construction of the Newport & Wickford Railway & Steamship Line in 1870 to provide more direct access to Newport, Cranston said. Now there were trains to Wickford Junction, another to Wickford, and a steamship to Newport. Families like the Vanderbilts didn't even have to change trains at the junction -- their private rail cars would simply be switched over to the other line.
Soon, some vacationers wearied of Newport's crowds and began appreciating peaceful Wickford, with its bayside breezes and beautiful vistas. They began buying up grand old sea captains' homes that were falling into disrepair, and initiated the tradition of restoration that continues today.
``This is a Colonial village the way it really was," said Cranston. ``It survived when so many others didn't."
Smith's Castle , about a mile out of town, has survived, too (though it is not a castle).
Richard Smith, an original settler in Plymouth County, set up a trading post on Narragansett Bay around 1637 and built a large house that was probably fortified to earn the castle designation among the locals. In 1675, during King Philip's War, more than 1,000 Colonial troops were housed on the castle grounds before launching an attack on the Narragansett tribe living nearby. A bloody battle ensued, and the castle was burned in retaliation. Smith's son rebuilt the structure by 1678.
Today, tours of the castle offer a step back in time that help s visitors understand the area's history and how it was lived.
Hungry after my morning walk, I stopped at Wickford Gourmet Foods, a lovely deli with artisan cheeses, olives, and homemade foods, and seating outside and upstairs. I chatted with a couple who were raving about their paddle that morning in the harbor with kayaks rented from the Kayak Center of Rhode Island in Wickford. The center has extraordinarily popular moonlight tours, but anyone can rent a kayak for a few hours to explore Wickford by water.
Main and Brown and West Main streets are lined with more than 40 friendly boutiques, galleries, and stores. A dog bowl filled with water sat outside the Blue Hydrangea, a gift and home accessory shop. There is a knitting cruise sponsored by the store And the Beadz Go On . . . Locals like to hit the salad bar at Ryan's Market, a rare independent downtown grocery store, and sit on benches at the harbor to watch the boats go by.
Locals joke that Wickford's boundaries keep expanding as more people try to associate themselves with the village. ``That's why I say it's a state of mind," said Gardner, the chamber volunteer. ``People love it and want to say they live in it, even when they aren't close to downtown."
I walked around town a bit more, then drove, stopping at the restored greenhouse and eye-catching displays at Wickford Flowers to buy some day lilies for my garden.
I came back the next week. As I walked around the now familiar streets, I realized Gardner had called it just right. A peaceful retreat best experienced on foot, Wickford is indeed a state of mind.
Contact Beth Daley at email@example.com .