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Virginia’s Historic Triangle

Jonathan Ray succumbs to the charm of America’s past

2 May 2007

1:59 PM

2 May 2007

1:59 PM

They call it Virginia’s Historic Triangle, this tiny corner of the United States bounded by Jamestown, Yorktown and Colonial Williamsburg, and the region has been en fête for months, commemorating the 400th anniversary of the first permanent English settlement in America and thus, in effect, the birth of a nation.

The celebrations will reach fever pitch on 3 May with the arrival of the Queen in Jamestown, where the Susan Constant, Godspeed and Discovery made landfall on the banks of the James River on 13 May 1607. She will spend the night in Colonial Williamsburg, the cultural and political centre of Virginia from 1699 to 1780 — where the likes of Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry and Peyton Randolph clamoured for independence from her great-great-great-great-grandfather’s government, the rotten ingrates, but will sensibly bypass Yorktown where, in 1781, it famously all went pear-shaped for us.

Jamestown Settlement, ‘A Timeless Destination Where the Past Comes to Life’, is a working reproduction, complete with costumed re-enactors, of that original English colony, while the painstakingly restored Colonial Williamsburg is billed as America’s largest live interactive history museum, ‘The World’s Most Beautiful Theme Park’. They both sounded ghastly, and I arrived at Jamestown fully armed with my ready-to-wear made-in-Britain sneer.

I joined a throng of fat-arsed Floridians and credulous Californians wandering round the Riverfront Discovery Area. Actors dressed as Powhatan Indians were splitting logs, preparing fishing tackle, cleaning animal skins and making dug-out canoes, while English colonists pottered about inside the replica fort complete with its armoury, church, cookhouse and half-timbered cottages.

‘Present your piece!’ bellowed a voice behind me. I beg your pardon? I turned just in time to cover my ears as a plump settler ignited a cumbersome matchlock musket. ‘Fire!’ he yelled. A massive explosion rocked the stockade, and as the smoke cleared I saw that the marksman looked just as ashen-faced and shaken as we tourists did. A bit too much priming, I’d say. I wandered around the museum which explained in fascinating detail the background history behind the settlers’ five-month voyage and their subsequent struggles with disease, famine and the Powhatan Indians and found that I was completely and utterly absorbed.

I had a not-bad lunch in the museum cafeteria (crab-cakes and the local speciality, Brunswick stew, since you ask) and bumped into my perspiring, musket-firing friend in the queue. ‘It’s exhausting work,’ he told me as I congratulated him on his convincing portrayal. ‘My costume itches like hell and already today I’ve been a cobbler, a glass-blower, a soldier, a sailor and a musketeer.’

After lunch I took the shuttle bus the mile or so across the marshes to Historic Jamestowne, the actual site where the ships landed and where the pioneers built their stockade, the remains of which are being carefully excavated. This remote grassy spot is where America was born, dammit, and the unsullied reedbeds and wooded creeks can barely have changed since Pocahontas frolicked here with Captain John Smith. I felt a definite frisson as I stood entirely alone gazing down river towards Chesapeake Bay, my fellow tourists being far more interested in the ersatz Jamestown than the real one.

Having put my sneer firmly away, I headed to Colonial Williamsburg and checked in to the Williamsburg Inn (where the Queen will stay). I picked up a map and, just as dusk was falling, made for the central 180-acre ‘Historic Area’ comprising around 90 original 18th-century buildings and several reconstructed ones, built on rediscovered foundations. Here some 70 or so ‘character interpreters’, based on real people from Williamsburg’s past, and 300-odd ‘costumed interpreters’ mingle among the visitors. Hmm.

As I turned into Duke of Gloucester Street I passed three redcoated, tricorn-hatted militiamen warming themselves by a glowing brazier who greeted me cheerily. I felt the faint twitching of a curling lip as I waved back. Moments later a horse-drawn carriage rumbled by, complete with postilions, followed by a gaggle of laughing urchins playing ‘Yankee Doodle Dandy’ on their penny whistles and tin drums. Then two buxom serving wenches skittered by, smiling coyly at me from beneath their bonnets.

In desperate need of a drink, I made for the King’s Arms Tavern. I sat at a wooden bench and ordered a tankard of Mobjack Bay red ale from the barrel. A beaming bewigged chap in breeches joined me, introducing himself as the wigmaker from next door. We had a bizarre conversation in which he remained resolutely in character until, suddenly, I cracked and allowed Colonial Williamsburg to sweep me up in its embrace.

I spent the next day and a half wandering the exquisitely restored streets and houses, taverns, shops and public buildings fully believing that I was in the middle of 18th-century Virginia. Somehow the tourists faded to a blur as the costumed inhabitants, their homes and places of work became entirely real.

Colonial Williamsburg is America at its best, a bewitching place from which both English Heritage and the National Trust could learn plenty. Indeed, so convincing a place is it, Her Majesty might well be fooled into thinking that it still belongs to her.

Jonathan Ray is wine editor of the Daily Telegraph.

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