Washington & Virginia: History, Geography and Oddities

“Robert E Lee & Ulysses S Grant met here, in the Wilmer McLean House, where Lee signed the terms of surrender, effectively signalling the end of the Civil War.”  

I had always assumed that the surrender was at Appomattox Court House, being, well, a court house. But in Virginia a Court House (two words) is the administrative centre for a county, whereas a courthouse (one word) is the place where legal things take place. So the surrender did take place AT Appomattox Court House but not IN Appomattox courthouse.

We were in the National Historical Park at Appomattox, an exact recreation of the original village and battle site, on the exact site where it all took place, being shown around by a park ranger. Not for the first time were we confused, bemused or fascinated by the incredible wealth of history, geography, scenery, wildlife and the bizarre that can be found in this corner of the USA.

We had started our journey in Washington DC, where heavy rainfall had meant that we had had to head indoors and visit the wonderful museums and galleries. The Museum of Air and Space (planes of Lindbergh, the Wright Brothers and Amelia Earhart and the Apollo 11 command module of Neil Armstrong), the National Gallery of Art (paintings by Da Vinci, Turner, Van Gogh, Monet etc etc), and the Museum of American History.

Ruby SlippersIn the latter we encountered all sorts of strange exhibits which one would hardly expect to see in a history museum… Abraham Lincoln’s hat, the one he was wearing when assassinated (though surely he had taken it off to watch the play!), Muhammed Ali’s gloves, Kermit the frog, Judy Garland’s ruby slippers from the Wizard of Oz: worth the entrance fee to see those alone, except that I feel compelled to point out that all Smithsonian museums are free to enter!

Still battling the rain, the remnants of Hurricane Joaquin, we picked up the hire car and headed South, to the adjoining state of Virginia, intending to do some walking in the Shenandoah National Park, but spent the first day underground, in the breathtaking Luray Caverns.

These are hardly on every travellers wish list but they should be. A one and half mile subterranean trail took us through a thousand stalactites and stalagmites. Seen those before? Yes, so had we, but not in the form of a “Dream Lake”, 18 inches deep but reflecting the overhead stalactites in a truly stunning cavern. And not in the form of a “Totem valley”, where ‘tites had met ‘mites and formed naturally ornate columns.

The rain abated and we spent a few days driving sections of the 105 mile long Skyline drive, enjoying the scenery, the nearly “fall” foliage, the wildlife, the sunsets and the walking trails. We walked on a level, walking sections of the 2,180 mile Appalachian Trail, or uphill to peaks and viewpoints, or downhill to a waterfall. Or all three.

BearBut this is bear country and we spent some time memorising the advice, “What to do if you encounter a Black Bear”. Watching the sunset , a fortuitous last minute decision one evening , we did meet a bear, only around 30 metres away, cautiously watching us, watching the sunset. It ambled away quietly and it seemed unnecessarily impolite to “make yourself as big as possible and make as much noise as you can”.

We drove the length of the Skyline drive, seamlessly joining the Blue Ridge Parkway, another stunning 469 miles. We only travelled around 50 miles of it, veering westwards to Lexington, tucked between the Blue Ridge mountains to the east, and the Allegheny range to the west.

Lexington is a charming small town dating back to 1777 and is steeped in history. The Confederate Civil War Generals Robert E Lee and Stonewall Jackson both lived and died here, both are buried here, while Jackson’s house is a small museum. The Washington & Lee University is situated here, as is the Virginia Military Institute. Indeed, there’s so much history here that the local council have deemed it necessary to erect a plaque in one place where nothing actually happened!

Lee’s horse, Traveller is also buried here and the site is close to his master’s tomb. One kindly visitor had left an apple for the long dead horse. I wondered , if we were to sign up for the evening “Ghost Tour of Lexington “, would we stumble across a half-eaten apple?

Horse Grave

The are plenty of things to do not far from Lexington: Walking the Goshen pass and visiting the
“Natural Bridge”, a National historic landmark once owned by Thomas Jefferson and visited by George Washington and Civil War soldiers from both sides, amongst many others.

While the Natural Bridge is well signposted, with a large car park, big visitors centre and, I thought, somewhat over- priced at $18 each, only a mile back towards Lexington. Not signposted, no car park and no charge, is the surreal “Foamhenge”. A full sized replica of Stonehenge made out of styrofoam and erected as the brainchild of some crazy un-named Virginian. It merits just one sentence in the guidebook but has too be seen to be believed.

Stone Henge?

Within an hour and a half’s drive of Lexington can be found Monticello, the home of third president Thomas Jefferson. We visited, expecting to spend a couple of hours at this UNESCO World Heritage site but ended up spending the whole day on separate house, garden, and slavery tours. Jefferson was deep thinker, architect, author, could read seven languages and wrote the Declaration of Independence. Quite how he was able to reconcile his own words: “We hold these truths to be sacred & undeniable; that all men are created equal & independent,” with the fact that he himself documented his ownership of over 600 slaves was beyond our comprehension and not explained by any of the guides.

Heading eastwards via Appomattox, we reached Yorktown, which together with Jamestown and Williamsburg, form the historic triangle:

  • Jamestown which was the site of the first English settlement in 1607 (Captain John Smith, Pocahontas et cetera).
  • Williamsburg,which became the first capital of Virginia as it expanded and now it’s colonial section is preserved. The staff and inhabitants all wear period costume, dispense period goods in the period shops and stage battlefield reconstructions, and
  • Yorktown, where General Cornwallis was forced to surrender to George Washington and his French allies in 1781, thus expelling the English and allowing the establishment of the United States.

Plenty of opportunity to visit historical sites, therefore, and we took a break from these excellent activities to take a trip out to the Great Dismal Swamp, just because… well just because anywhere with the word “dismal” in its title is worthy of investigation.

The swamp, a forested wetland of over 500,000 sq km of Virginia and North Carolina, is a pretty inhospitable place, where the information boards warn walkers that there are “ticks, chiggers and venomous snakes” and not to stray from the walkways. So we walked a careful nine miles on the walkways to Lake Drummond because we didn’t fancy any of those.

The swamp is home to black bears, American bald eagles and ospreys but all we saw was herons, butterflies, frogs and turtles. The story is that escaped slaves known as Marouns hid and lived here, but good luck to them. The numbers surviving the hardships isn’t recorded anywhere. We didn’t find it at all dismal, but rather beautiful— in a chigger-free kind of way.

After a few days in Yorktown we resumed our journey, returning to Washington via a small 18th century mill town, Occoquan. Only around 30 miles from Washington, Occoquan was on the front line during the Civil War, with troops firing at each other over the river. Today the town is a neatly preserved collection of boutiques, antique shops and galleries. It was preparing for Halloween and witches, ghouls and ghosts were everywhere. Very colourful, very professionally made.

In The Secret Garden Cafe I noticed the collection of Downton Abbey teas for sale and asked the proprietor if Downton Abbey was popular in the town. “Oh yes— and we also watch ‘Are you being Served’ and ‘As Times Go By’. We love Judy Dench.” As ever, small town Americans were keen to engage in conversation and discuss all things British!

We moved on back to Washington, with a spare day before the flight home. This time it wasn’t raining and we were able to do the outdoor things. The White House, illuminated at night. Arlington Cemetery, attracting thousands of visitors, with organised bus tours stopping off at the eternal flame of the Kennedy graves. The Lincoln memorial. The Vietnam, World War 2 and Washington memorials. All on a steady walking route.

With a spare hour we just had time for one last history stop. Ford’s theatre, where Abraham Lincoln was assassinated, was just around the corner. We arrived to find that it’s still a working theatre but that we couldn’t do the tour as there was a play on.

“But you can visit the Peterson House across the road,” said the helpful doorman.

“What’s there?”

“Well Lincoln was shot here but he didn’t actually die here… he was carried across the road to the Peterson House and actually died there.”

Again my knowledge of American history had been corrected.

18 days in America. We had walked a lot, seen a lot, eaten a lot (when in Rome!), and learned a lot. Not least the facts that we share some history, we share TV programmes and we share a sense of the eccentric. Can’t wait to return.