My very last visit in Virginia was nothing to do with wine, but was fascinating and important none the less, what is more even on a wine trip you need to get away from the stuff every now and again and see how people actually live. I was taken into Williamsburg which served as the capital of the Commonwealth of Virginia from 1698 until 1780 when Governor Thomas Jefferson moved it to Richmond to avoid the state government falling into the hands of advancing British troops.
One reason for it becoming the seat of government was that it was on high, well drained ground which was readily defensible against the natives and seems to have enjoyed a less humid and swampy climate than nearby low lying Jamestown, which was the first capital of Virginia.
In addition, in 1693 Reverend James Blair founded The College of William & Mary on this attractive and healthy site, then called Middle Plantation. So, when the government needed to find a temporary home when the Jamestown House of Burgesses burnt down, for the second time, they moved into the fine buildings of the college. They seemed to like it there and soon built a new capital just to the east of the college, and named it Williamsburg in honour of King William 111.
Since the 1930s one part of town has been designated as Colonial Williamsburg and is a living museum celebrating life in the colonial and revolutionary period. The roads have been laid out just as they were in about 1770, original buildings have been restored, others, including the impressive Governor’s Palace have been recreated and in some cases old buildings have been relocated to stand in for buildings that have been lost over the centuries.
I must say that I was sceptical at first, but it was so well done and so interesting that I soon got into the fun of it. It was genuinely like stepping back in time – you could easily film a Jane Austin or Thackeray novel in the wide main road, Duke of Gloucester Street.
I really enjoyed seeing the reconstructed House of Burgesses , the local ‘House of Commons’, where in 1765 luminaries of the coming revolution had defied the British by adjourning to nearby Charlton’s Coffeehouse as a protest against the Stamp Act. This breakaway group eventually became the Virginia House of Delegates, the successor to the House of Burgesses. Many members of Robert E. Lee’s family sat in the House, as did George Washington and Thomas Jefferson from 1769.
The street has many shops and stalls along it, some give a glimpse of how a silversmith or milliner would have been in those days, while some sell books, gifts and souvenirs – all surprisingly classy at that. They had a good line in wooden toys, traditional sweets and chocolate made according to traditional recipes and techniques of the time. I have to admit that I simply could not resist the opportunity to buy a tricorn hat, who could!
A real highlight was lunch, which we enjoyed in the King’s Arms Tavern, this was founded in 1772 very near the legislature and would have been a hotbed of political debate right through the revolutionary period. This is reflected in the inn’s name which went from the loyalist Kings’s Arms to simply Mrs Vobe’s, after its owner, during the war and the patriotic Eagle Tavern once victory was secure.
As often happens in Colonial Williamsburg we were greeted by a character, someone dressed the part and living the part of someone who lived and worked in the town. I had already chatted to the milliner and someone at the coffee house, so took being asked how I was by a strangely Irish sounding Mr Abraham in my stride. He was from the Carolinas and had come north to evade General Clinton’s British troops and was seeking work. He had a great line in patter too and asked everyone where they were from. When a young couple replied, ‘Florida’, he said,’ ah, Spaniards from the swamp is it?’
Goodness knows what he would have said if it had been Utah.
The menu, or Bill of Fare at the inn was very well done with as much as possible being the sort of thing they ate then, or reminiscent of it anyway. The speciality starter, which most of us tried, was ‘Peanut Soupe’ which was very moreish, rich and tasty and was served with ‘sippets’ which seems to be the English word for crouton.
Main courses included some very good pies, or ‘pye’, as well as the classic fried chicken and mashed sweet potatoes.
Although they have a list that includes a few local wines, the majority hail from California and, despite the extensive Sherry, Madeira and Port list, I felt that the setting and the meal was better matched with one of their many traditional beers and so I tried the refreshingly zesty Golden Wheat Ale.
After that we went back outside and were treated to some street theatre of marching Colonial Militia and speeches about the dreadful behaviour of the British. Far from being offended, everyone of us seemed ready to throw over our allegiance and to fight for the original ideals of the fledgling republic.
All in all I think Colonial Williamsburg is a lovely place to visit, very enjoyable to stroll around, it is full of splendid sites and things to see, the buildings are astonishing and it is very educational about life back then as well as the happenings of the American Revolution and the context in which they happened.
It was a fitting finale to my Virginia trip, which helped to put some of the excellent wines and local wine culture that I experienced into a historical context.
Much more information is available about Colonial Williamsburg here.
I’ll have the chopped beefsteak – sounds amazing!