Category Archives: American history

May Roadtrip: The Historic Triangle (again)

Shenandoah turned out to be a washout this time. The weather closed in and by morning there had been a power outage and the kitchen was getting by on what seemed to be a temperamental generator. Happy at least to have seen a bear(!), we returned to the road and headed for the Virginia historic triangle (Williamsburg, Jamestown and Yorktown).

This was a repeat trip for us (we visited in 2014) and for R’s mum too, who had visited back in the early 1990s when R was young. We all enjoyed the canon demonstration at Yorktown, and the audience participation at Colonial Williamsburg; R and I were drafted into a militia and marched down the main street to be inspected by a General. We were due to march on Yorktown at dawn the next morning, but I’m ashamed to say we deserted at that point as we had already been to Yorktown and wanted to visit Jamestown Settlement.


When we had visited in the autumn of 2014 we had visited Historic Jamestowne – the actual site of the colony and the museum of the archaeological findings. However, the archaeology of Jamestown was only really uncovered in the late 1990s, and before this the place to visit was the Jamestown Settlement, which is a mock-up of what they believed the colony might have looked like, built in 1957 for tourists. It includes a mocked up Powhatan Indian town, and historic ships. This time, we visited the mock up, but were pleased to see that you can just make out the real site of Jamestown across the river.


If you ever want to visit the historic triangle a useful place to stay is the (Marriot) Courtyard Williamsburg Busch Gardens Area. There’s also a surprisingly good restaurant, The Whaling Company, in walking distance. However, if I ever return here with kids I’m definitely going to be looking at staying in Colonial Williamsburg itself.

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March-April 2016

As Spring gradually came to DC, R and I got the chance to explore more of North Carolina, Virginia and West Virginia. First there was a conference in Asheville I just had to go to, and this time it was R to tag along. I wrote about this road trip, and the craft beer, at the time: Conference in Asheville? Roadtrip!

Then in April we finally made it to Great Falls Park, which is so close to DC that I don’t know why we didn’t go sooner.


We walked along the Virginia side of the Potomac. The Billy Goat trail on the Maryland side is apparently the better hike, but from where we were standing it looked rather like a long, stationary queue of people, so we were pleased with our choice.


Apart from the breath-taking scenery, there’s also a lot of interesting history in the park. It was the site of one of Washington’s pet projects – a canal to bypass the falls and make the Potomac navigable all the way to the Ohio River Valley, which began construction in 1785. The remains of a lockkeeper’s cottage and various earthworks can still be seen.

The Park is also home to an abandoned village, which was part of the reason I wanted to visit. I’d read an article on ghost towns in the US (there’s an idea for a road trip!) and discovered that were some close to home in Virginia (see for a list). There’s not much left of this town, which declined in 1828 after the company building the canal went out of business. But the remains – foundations here, a hearthstone and chimney remnants there – as they appear in the undergrowth take you back to another time.

We also made it to Harpers Ferry in West Virginia – another town that was significant in Washington’s plan to use the Potomac to improve transport and trade with the more western parts of America (it was also connected to DC by the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal in 1833). We marvelled at the awesome natural beauty of this confluence of the Potomac and the Shenandoah river, which had in turn inspired Harper, Washington and Jefferson.


This was also the place that Lewis and Clark kitted themselves out for their mission to map the United States; they bought weapons and had a collapsible iron boat constructed at the US Armory and Arsenal. And as if that wasn’t enough history for one little town, this was also the place that John Brown, the radical abolitionist, was captured and executed after his raid on the arsenal. The John Brown museum trod a careful line, posing the question, was John Brown a terrorist, but never really condemning him as such. There was also some interesting treatment of his daughter who accompanied him to Harpers Ferry and looked after him and his men as he planned his attack.


Our visits in April were made even easier as it was National Parks Week, which meant that both weekends we benefited from free entry. So if you’re planning a trip to the States this year, you might like to aim for the weekends of 15-16 and 22-23 April.

Related posts: Asheville roadtrip

Asheville: the Vanderbilt Estate


Thanks to my conference’s organisers, R and I were able to get about $20 off price of entry each, otherwise we probably wouldn’t have visited Biltmore House, the home of the Vanderbilts – the normal entry price is $50 per adult.

As with a number of historic houses in the US, they allocate ticket-holders time slots in which you can view the house. We had enough time before our slot to check out the grounds, but there were also restaurants where you could have spent the time – or the estate also includes a winery, in an area called ‘Antler Village’, where you can also find accommodation. The whole estate is 125,000 acres, so it’s best to visit by car – take care to read the signs for directions to the house, or you might find yourself headed the wrong way on a one-way system of slow estate roads…

Anyway, we eventually made it to the parking lot for the house and gardens, and went for a wander. While we were visiting in what was still pretty much winter, there were some things to see in the gardens.


It took us about an hour to while our way down to the Bass pond and back to the Italian Garden and South Terrace, walking through the Shrub Garden, the Spring Garden, the Azalea Garden, the Walled Garden, the Rose Garden and the Conservatory.



While the azaleas and roses weren’t out, there were plenty of Spring flowers in evidence, and some beautiful magnolia trees. We also saw Cypress Tree ‘knees’ for the first time! Of course, the Conservatory had plenty of flowering plants in its tropical-house atmosphere; it was clearly designed to display wealth – I’ve never seen so many orchids in one place.

As we walked up to the South Terrace and Italian Garden we began to appreciate the beauty of Biltmore’s setting. Asheville is located on the western Blue Ridge Mountains, but its also just to the east of the Great Smoky Mountains. Biltmore has panoramic mountain views, and some lovely terraces from which to enjoy them.


The house itself is a sight to see. We had been told that it was ‘crazy’, but we thought that might be in part because Americans are less used to stately homes. Biltmore is the largest privately owned house in America, at 178,926 square feet (thank you Wikipedia), but R and I respectively grew up near Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire and Penrhyn Castle in Bangor.

But it’s true. Biltmore is crazy. As we walked along the South Terrace we encountered the almost French Chateau style towers, with their strange diagonal windows, its Tudor chimneys, and Gothic crenelations, and then we walked through the Italian garden with its faux Roman/Greek statues. It was a bit bewildering.


As we followed the self-guided tour around the house we became confirmed in our view that this place is really a monument to a family with a lot of money and no taste. We couldn’t help but compare this palace to the modest homes of Washington and Jefferson. Biltmore was just crammed with as much treasure as could be seized from the Old World as possible. The thing that most amazed me was that one of the ceilings had been painted by a Renaissance Italian painter – they had transported the entire thing from Italy! They also had Napolean’s chess set…

The Vanderbilt who commissioned the house was not the famous industrialist and ship builder, Cornelius Vanderbilt, but his grandson, George. Born into the Vanderbilt fortune, his brothers managed the family business while he whiled away his time in study, building this house, and the pursuits of a country gentleman. We found it very strange that the dining room of Biltmore was decorated with flags from the war of independence, for this family that seemed to be intent on reproducing the British class system in the new Republic.

Apart from the sheer amount of treasure, the house did just seem like a turn-of-the-century British stately home; American fans of Downton Abbey must love it. The things that stood out for us though were the expensive modern touches that British families hadn’t been able to afford in the early twentieth century as war, social change and economic downturns altered their way of life. At Biltmore, in this period, the Vanderbilts and their other rich friends had plenty of fun. There was a games room with not one, but two billiard tables, a bowling alley, and an indoor swimming pool and gym complex, complete with changing rooms!

It took us about an hour to tour the house, and by the end we were a little shell-shocked, and in need of our beer and oysters (see my last post). Overall I found Biltmore a little much. But I certainly wouldn’t have minded waking up to those views every day.

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Western Road Trip: The Badlands

It isn’t that far from Murdo, South Dakota, where we stayed after Wisconsin, to the Badlands. This is really the only reason to stay in Murdo, which is a strange little town of motels, two relatively ok restaurants/bars and kids driving around in pick-up trucks. We were quite happy to get back on the road from here.

We headed to Wall, which is one of the gateways to the Badlands National Park. All the way there we saw the billboards advertising Wall Drug – a drugstore and mall that became famous because the guy who owned it bought lots of billboards… But we weren’t interested in shopping – we had a national park to see!

Now I knew the Badlands had some impressive earth formations, but what I didn’t know was just how huge the area was. It took us over an hour to drive through the national park, though that was partly because we were pausing to take in the view, walk about a bit and stopping for Bighorn sheep crossing the road.

The walking around was limited, partly for fear of rattlesnakes which are pretty common in the Badlands – they love rocks. Still, in or out of the car it was an amazing experience being in this bizarre landscape.

The rock formations were made by erosion, and all the colours are differently aged fossilized soil. The yellow earth (not quite come out in these pictures) is 67 million years old(!) and was originally black mud from beneath the sea (which used to fill the area between the Rockies and the Appalachians). Each tower of rock is called a Butte, and these occur in quite a few parts of the West, but the Badlands is the biggest and best example of this kind of eroded landscape.

The National Park is actually in a few sections, with two sections based in the Indian reservation, so we only saw a fraction of the area really.

However, we made up for this by visiting two bonus museums that we hadn’t known were there till we drove past. First was the prairie dug-out house, which might have been my highlight of the day. As a child I was a massive fan of the Little House on the Prairie books and now I actually got to visit a real-life prairie house like the one Laura Ingalls lived in. I remember that in one memorable episode their cow came through the earth roof, and I can quite imagine how that would have happened now.

This prairie dug-out belonged to the Brown family, who moved to the Badlands area around the turn of the century. The Homestead Act at this time let homesteaders settle on 160 acres (with a requirement that 5 acres must be plowed for crops) for a $20 application fee. After 18 months they were entitled to buy the land for 50 cents an acre. However, many families couldn’t survive on this poor land (it’s since been determined that 160 acres in the Badlands area will only support 8 cows) and abandoned their claim land and buildings. The Brown family didn’t do too badly though and was able to extend their home using one of their neighbours’ abandoned cabins. I loved being able to walk around their old home, and watch the chickens and prairie dogs in the yard (or, in this chicken’s case, in the house).


The second museum was in the middle of constructing its exhibits but they let us see the work in progress, which was fascinating. This was the Minute Man missile museum. It turns out that during the Cold War there were three missile bases built underneath the Badlands area, and that these were active until relatively recently. It was pretty surprising for R, as this means that they were probably active while he was walking around on top of then when he visited as a child.

It was all quite sobering. The sketched out exhibits all did an excellent job of explaining the process of launching and detonating the missiles, and really brought home to me how mankind really was teetering on the edge of total destruction during this time. There was one panel that listed the near misses – using Russian as well as American sources. These sources suggest that the Cuban Missile Crisis was an even closer call than I’d been taught. Also that the film War Games is based on a true story… Scary stuff.

How to build a museum exhibit!

As we drove on our way, through the edge of the Badlands national park we had a lot to digest. I was awe-struck by so much of what I had seen and learnt. The ancient landscape, with earth millions of years old preserved the fossils of creatures that had either died out or survived through struggle and adaptation. As I stood on a walkway looking up at one of the more impressive formations, the stillness and hush reminded me of standing in a cathedral. I completely understood how native Americans could see this as sacred land, before they too had to struggle to survive, reduced to living on reservations and working out deals with the national parks service. The Homesteaders too impressed me. Imagine traveling by wagon from Nebraska, into the unknown of South Dakota and arriving to such an unimaginable sight as the Badlands. It must have been tough, scratching out a living in this isolated place. And then, less than a century later we came close to destroying it all. Well, we almost brought about human extinction; the Badlands were here long before we were, and I imagine will remain long after we’re gone.

But there was little time for such thoughts. We were back on the road, heading to the Black Hills!

Guest post: autumn adventures in DC and Shenandoah

Welcome to my first ever guest-post on 18 months in DC! This was written for me by my good friend Kate (who also writes a great blog about books, over at about her ‘vacation’ with us last autumn.

“I’ve got friends in low places, where the whisky drowns and the beer chases my blues away” the growling refrain came up on my iTunes recently and I was immediately transported to the back of a car on Skyline Drive with four grown adults giggling uncontrollably and trying to sing along.

But that is, perhaps, getting ahead of myself.  Last autumn E and I were very excited to head to DC to visit R and A, two of our best friends, who have decamped from London to live in DC for a few years.

I was unexpectedly charmed by DC.  In its own, low-key way it is quite lovely. R&A live in an area called Adams Morgan which is home to a classic American diner, a number of great restaurants and a degenerate bar called Madam’s Organ.


Our first encounter with Madam’s Organ involved a riotous night of karaoke of which one of the highlights was a performance of ‘Friends in Low Places’.  I had first come across the piece during a summer spent working on a ranch in Wyoming so when I heard it again it was like rediscovering an old friend. If you aren’t familiar with the song, you can listen to it here: and it would be excellent background music for the rest of this blog.

Other highlights of DC were canoeing on the Potomac in the autumn sunshine, watching the Washington Wizards in action, R’s informative and beautiful walking tour of the war memorials and hours spent in DC’s brilliant museums.  Watching E scrambling through air ducts in the spy museum will stay with me for a long time.

Vietnam memorial
The Vietnam Memorial in fall.

However, that wasn’t the main point of our trip.  After a few days in DC we headed off on a road trip taking in Virginia, Shenandoah and Skyline Drive.  We visited the sites of the original English settlers, learnt a lot about Pocohontas and the civil war, talked to lots of people dressed up as settlers and gorged on the fascinating history of this new nation.

Colonial Williamsburg (guests at the hotel are 'drafted' into the militia)
Colonial Williamsburg (guests at the hotel are ‘drafted’ into the militia)

I also had grits for the first and last time; collared greens and catfish were much more to my taste.

Then we headed off to Shenandoah, which was the highlight of the trip for me.

Skyline Drive is a road that weaves along the mountaintops through the Shenandoah Forest.  It is a stunning drive that we hit at sunset on the first day when the fading sun brought the autumn colours to life in a spectacular, fiery display.  We were there on the last week in the season and it was the perfect cold, crisp, clear weather – perfect for hiking.

So we stayed the night in a log cabin and the next day tied up our hiking boots and set off on a spectacular walk that that involved some time on the Appalachian Trail, waterfalls, startled deer and more autumn colours than I’ve ever seen.  ‘Beautiful’ doesn’t do autumn in Shenandoah justice.  It really is one for your bucket list.

Shenandoah Shenandoah 3 Kate Shenandoah 2

Those of you who have taken my advice and listened to the suggested soundtrack to this blog will have noticed two things a) it is quite long and repetitive and b) that it is an earworm that you will be humming for the rest of the week.

It was after a week of us humming this song, singing snatches here and there and that some members of our merry band couldn’t take any more.  So, when halfway up Skyline Drive, another rendition started up, one particular passenger turned the radio on in protest… only then to find that the song they were playing on that radio station at precisely that moment was…Friends in Low Places.  At which point we all dissolved into giggles.  There is no escape!