Dover has long played second fiddle to neighboring Portsmouth, but that’s changing. Back in 2008, after being repeatedly rebuffed it its efforts to relocate in its own city, the Portsmouth Children’s Museum packed up, moved north into a larger site beside the Cocheco River in downtown Dover, and changed its name to the New Hampshire Children’s Museum. We offered them an old gym for a dollar a year – what a deal! And it’s been a popular draw ever since, putting the town on the map for many families throughout New England.
The museum sits at one end of Henry Law Park, a long lawn and esplanade following the curve of the tidal river. While the museum shares part of its building with the Dover Indoor Pool where I swim, for years the park has been rather nondescript. Then, a few years ago, a hurricane fence went up beside the pool’s parking lot, the old playground was ripped out, and designs for an innovative new playground were posted.
Some of that blueprint had to be modified – the stream meandering through it, for one, simply became too problematic. And the opening, set for summer of 2016, was delayed by a full year. But, oh my, it’s worth it.
Created in a collaboration of the museum and the city, what’s officially called the Dover Adventure Playground is a magnet for kids and their parents and grandparents from all over New Hampshire and neighboring Maine.
Here are 10 of my favorite things about it:
- A gundalow: A kind of flat-bottom barge unique to our region, these boats hauled heavy-duty goods and products from town landings and over inland tidal flats, linking settlements to each other and the ocean. Each vessel had a large sail that could be dropped to pass under bridges, when needed. After new Coast Guard regulations prevented the existing replica from continuing to offer tours on Portsmouth Harbor, Dover officials snapped up the opportunity to bring it to town. After being stored forlornly for several years in the weeds of the public works parking lot, it now sits up in full display at one end of the playground, where children can run along its deck, climb over its cabin, and, best of all, man the wheel. Visually, it defines the playground from the rest of the park.
- A big green tower: The vertical centerpiece of our new playground pays homage to the city’s 76-foot-tall observation tower atop Garrison Hill, a Dover landmark that presents great views in all directions – including the White Mountains to the north. Now the kids have one of their own – it’s the right color and shape, but it’s shorter and safer, with places where they can slide down poles or take other routes beside the stairs.
- Two hand pumps for water: I remember having to use these to get drinking water when we went camping or visited our cousins at the farm. The ones in the park, though, are proportioned for kids – shorter handles, for one thing – and they’re intended as a source for water that flows into hollowed-out logs used as troughs for playing before flowing on to the ground. Go ahead, get as wet as you want.
- The magnificent splash pad: When it comes to playing in water, though, nothing beats this. It looks like nothing more than a cement circle until someone presses the button on a stand at its edge. And then? Hard to predict exactly where or when, but jets of water will start dancing. Maybe one spray over here, and then another over there. Maybe all of them all over the place. Sometimes they’re big and tall, and sometimes, short. And then? Everyone’s surprised when they stop.
- Chimes and drums: Kids like to make noise, and here’s one place they’re encouraged. As a musician friend remarked, all of the notes harmonized. You can’t hit a wrong note. And they send such beautiful sounds wafting over the entire playground.
- An innovative swing set: Forget the old ones. This set has a few of those plus one that allows a little one (perhaps a baby, if you wish) to sit facing a larger person seated below. Another one has something resembling a living room chair, which is good for people with physical challenges. And two swings don’t have seats at all – they’re like big drumheads, where kids can sprawl out, if they like – and these are especially popular.
- A giant granite fish: Personally, my favorite touch. Seems the city had a big block of granite and a local sculptor said if you give it to me I’ll carve something for the park – and that’s how we got this alewife, a much larger version of the little fish that migrate up the river in vast numbers every spring. I love the eye and smile, especially.
- The serpentine brick walkways and related landscaping: Simply nice design.
- The 18-foot-tall brushed stainless-steel humpback whale tail sculpture that’s going to be erected on the roof of the indoor pool. Somehow, I love the sense of humor here … I just wish we can come up with the rest of the whale inside, somehow. A mural maybe, as the aquatics director suggests?
- And, yes, Portsmouth has nothing like this. Nothing at all. In fact, Dover’s becoming the family-friendly alternative in the seacoast region.