Don’t let the name give you the wrong idea.
Topsmead State Forest in Litchfield has forest aplenty, for sure, but this is not your typical Connecticut state forest. It is better understood as an elegant country park with acres of rolling, open, grassy meadows teeming with birds and wildflowers, all of it framed by forest.
The centerpiece is the former summer estate of Edith Morton Chase, daughter of Henry S. and Alice Morton Chase, he the first president of the massive and now departed Chase Brass and Copper Co. in Waterbury. It is an English Tudor style home with slate roof, exterior wood of cypress, floors in hallways, foyer and the dining room of polished terra cotta. Furnishings are 17th and 18th century English antiques.
The grounds are a peaceful, quiet place for a walk, whether a short trek or long. Following two loop trails it is easy to put together several miles of pleasant hiking, or less if you prefer. No steep ascents or descents, just moderate ups and downs with long stretches of flat terrain, some open, some wooded.
Most people in Connecticut have never knowingly seen a bird called a bobolink. It insists upon tall grass for nesting. In the 19th Century, when Connecticut was all but entirely cut over, there was much more habitat for bobolinks. That habitat has largely disappeared – along with bobolinks, which now are found but here and there in the state.
Topsmead is an ideal place to see this species, the male of which has a black underbelly with a yellow nape and white shoulders and rump above. Dark belly, lighter top? Highly unusual. Distinctive.
Tree swallows are abundant and you won’t have any trouble spotting eastern bluebirds, Baltimore orioles and red-winged blackbirds, among the many species that can be found in meadow and woods.
Wildflowers line the grassy walkways through the seasons. On a late spring day, buttercups with their deep yellow, glossy petals, and ragged robin, with almost finger-like pink flowers, literally lined the mowed trail through tall grass. Mixed in were colonies of cypress spurge, with greenish-yellow blossoms. And all the while, bobolinks soared above or alighted on the grass.
There is no admission fee at Topsmead, and you won’t find crowds, though the forest is popular in its quiet, low-key way. People walk their leashed dogs, maybe do a brisk jog, saunter with camera, sometimes just lose themselves in nature.
Throughout the grounds are benches for visitors to sit, view the surroundings, perhaps just think or even meditate. There are bathrooms and drinking water near the Chase home.
Widely spaced, weathered, wooden picnic tables evoke another time. Typically in the shade of big trees, like an old sugar maple, they are special places for a gracious outdoor lunch or supper. I can think of one where a good tablecloth and candles would not be out of place. Open fires and grills are not allowed.
Edith Chase bequeathed the property to state upon her death in 1972. Tours of the home, with formal gardens at each end, are held during warm weather months. Tours are offered between noon and 5 p.m. on July 13, 14, 27 and 28, and August 10, 11, 24 and 25.