WILLIAMSBURG, JAMESTOWN & YORKTOWN - Virginia’s Historic Colonial Triangle
Updated: Oct 26, 2020
So the story goes that, years ago, these intrepid Brits set off from their Old World, leaving behind their cucumber sandwiches, Madeira cake and cups of tea (the milk always goes in first, to remind our American friends) to explore a Brave New World. They had heard wondrous tales of opportunity, of unimaginable riches, of bountiful countryside, of colorful peoples and of exciting new challenges. They crossed the ocean and searched for a place to settle, eventually coming upon an area in east Virginia which simply reached out and grabbed them as the perfect place for them to make their home from home. But who were these explorers? You will know them, not from colonial history, but as your two itinerant bloggers, who are still on the road after more than a whole roller-coaster year. Our enthusiasm hasn't waned and we are sharing the same thrilling experience and sense of discovery that thousands of our predecessors felt 500 years ago, albeit in a tad more comfort than our forefathers, when RV probably stood for ‘rotten veg’. The British always like to take a bit of the home country with them. It is an irritating quirk they have. They tend not to do ‘foreign’ terribly well. For example, I can never travel without my Marmite and Colman’s mustard (fortunately available in Publix Supermarkets here). It is in their DNA to seek out new pastures but at the same time still keep their ingrained lifestyle, and the earliest adventurers were no different. They had been looking for some time for a place on this new continent that would remind them of what they had been used to and give them the same comfortable surroundings as they had had back in their tiny island. And they found it here, or thought they had, and called it Jamestown, after King James I of England. The hugely courageous, and slightly potty, pioneers chose what they first thought was an idyllic piece of land on a peninsular, 40 miles inland from the Atlantic Ocean, for their new home and fortress. It was established as the first permanently settled British base and served as their ‘capital’ from 1616 to 1699. It turned out, however, to be anything but perfect. Far from it. Actually, it was a big mistake. Huge. The land may have looked like the old country and been relatively free of hostile Indians but that was because it was actually swampy, plagued with mosquitos, with completely undrinkable bracken water. The Indians had had much more sense than the daft interlopers from across the seas. But from here, the new arrivals eventually expanded their colonial empire, spreading their governance through determination, authoritarianism and occasional ruthless barbarism, north across Pennsylvania,Delaware, Maryland, New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Vermont and Massachusetts and south through the Carolinas, Alabama and Georgia. This was the epicenter of the British development of America, which, as we know, eventually culminated in the uprisings of independence a hundred years later. And hurrah to that say these proud new American citizens. Good riddance we say. So this was a long, long way from being the land of plenty they had sought in the beginning. Mortality was high. Staggeringly high. In 1609 and 1610, no less than 80 per cent of the new colonialists died of disease or starvation. Life was tough. The first supply ship brought some respite as well as a handful of Germans, who with Teutonic efficiency set up a small glass-producing operation. But it was not long before many of them defected over to the local Indians, who by now, having initially welcomed the invaders, were at war with them. The Spanish did have a pop at dislodging their old enemy but their ship was driven off by a bigger one flying the Union Jack. The colorful Captain John Smith ruled supreme here for a while. He was the one who had been captured at one time by the Pocahontas Indians, whose chief was on the verge of chopping off his head when his eponymously named daughter allegedly threw herself over his body to save his life. She later married tobacco planter John Rolfe at 17, bore him a son and moved to England - only tragically to die aged just 20 in the county of Kent to be buried in a town named, appropriately, Gravesend. The whole saga is recorded for posterity by Disney - so it must be true. Today, Jamestown is primarily a state park on the water’s edge with an impressive museum and some reconstructed galleons. Almost all other signs of the old days have gone. Its dramatic and crucial history preserved within elegant new buildings on the banks of the James River.
Williamsburg, a few miles away, was the second major settlement and became the British base in the early 18th century. Today, in complete comparison to its predecessor, it is simply unbelievably, spectacularly beautiful. The whole town is a veritable treasure, restored since 1920 through a Foundation, generously funded by such benefactors as the Rockefellers - not so much a museum as a fabulously preserved and reconstructed piece of living history. This is the Koh-I-Noor in the Crown that was once the English Colonies. It is another of those fabulous ‘only in America’ phenomena. The whole center of the town is just as it was in those old times but still, miraculously, alive, vibrant and thoroughly entertaining. This isn’t Disney but the real thing. It took our breath away.
Merchant Square, Williamsburg on Saturday - market day
The grandeur of Williamsburg
Town center resident
The central ‘road’, a wide car-free avenue, reminded us of the Long Walk at Windsor Castle, along which you would have seen Prince Harry and Megan driving in their state carriage and later in their E-type Jaguar on their spectacular wedding day. Straight as an arrow, lined by noble trees, it stretches into the distance as far as the eye can see.
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To its sides, small white-boarded shops, restored as if still in the 18th century and with costumed staff wearing their tricorns and lace bonnets and aprons, rub shoulders with brick Regency mansions that are set back behind elegant lawns and driveways, completing the regal scene. It is truly a wonder. There are even horse-drawn carriages, (such as I haven’t seen since, bizarrely and anachronistically, in Mandalay, Burma in 1976!). This place is just a wonder and one for the ‘not to be missed’ list. Oh, and there are fields with long-horn cattle in the middle of town.
The third town in the ‘Historic Colonial Triangle’ is old Yorktown, an extremely pretty riverside hamlet some 20 minutes away, which even has its own popular sandy beach. It was here, importantly, that General Charles Cornwallis, after a lengthy seige, surrendered to General George Washington and the French Fleet in the American Revolutionary War. Yorktown is another Crown jewel.
We found yet another, less heralded, gem too. Taking the Jamestown-Scotland ferry across the James River you arrive in the County of Surry (sic) and a twenty mile drive will lead you into the County of the Isle of Wight. Here is a terrific find - Smithfield. The glorious Main Street echoes the charm of Williamsburg and is well worth a visit. Go to Smithfield Station a mile out of town for the best waterfront lunch around. Situated on stilts over the Pagan river, it has stunning food and views. Apart from its exceptional beauty, Smithfield is also famous for two things - pork and peanuts.
The Jamestown-Scotland ferry
Smithfield High Street
A more modern England legacy
We have so much more to explore that we have booked our bus at the back of our wooded camp for a whole month. Sandie has created an outdoor living room so that we can enjoy our sundown gin and tonic with just a dash of Angostura Bitters. Some things, they say, never change.
And finally.... Artie has this strange reaction to seeing a small bird. He is saying something in cat-speak and we think it is very, very rude.