And I’m still hoping I might, although our scheduled sleeper train from Charleston to New York City is running over 2 hours late due to the storms batterring the south east of America. We had joked about where we might first experience rain and that it was quite possible that we would have snow before any rain. Turns out it can really rain in the south of the United States. My ski jacket was this morning pulled, unceremoniously, from the bottom of my bag a full 24 hours a head of schedule as most of the clothes I had warn yesterday were still soaking and, apparently, pretty unwaterproof. Inspite of the weather, Charleston has still be a lovely city to explore. Likes its sister town Savannah (our previous stop) it is decked out with stunning antebellum mansions colourfully decorated and immaculately cared for, however Charleston has the feel of the older, more established and outgoing sister with its decadent gentrified shopping areas compared to the more quirky, hipster vibe of Savannah.
The way the trains worked out we ended up having almost 3 whole days to explore Charleston compared to just the one in Savannah despite spending 2 nights in both. That was probably for the best as, although I preferred Savannah as a whole, Charleston was more interesting and had a greater number of places to visit. It’s interesting in that it played key roles in both the revolutionary and civil wars in the 19th century and the place is littered with museums and monuments to both historically momentous wars. No more so than the national monument at Fort Sumter, located on an island about half a mile from the harbour in Charleston its the place that saw the first shot fired in the civil war and was held by both the Union and the Confederacy during the war. We got a boat out there, through the fog which had descended on the coast on our second day which unfortunately stopped us from viewing the city, but at least the rain held off. The forts original 3 story building was largely destroyed during the first battle of the war, but the perimeter still remained and many parts were restored to include cannon and other artillery. There were also more modern sections installed as the fort was still used by the US navy up until the end of World War 2. The Museum inside still housed the flags that were flown over Union and Confederate troops over 200 years ago which was quite impressive, the Union flag only having 13 stars, but still relatively well preserved given their age. It was interesting to learn about the build up to the civil war and how it developed over its 3 odd year course.
Charleston was also integral in signing the Declaration of Independence from the British during the revolutionary war, although it was captured and held under British command for most of it. We visited the “provost and old exchange museum” that housed lots of information about the formation of “Charles Town” named after our very own Charles II and its development to Charleston after USA gained their independence. We spend a very interesting although slightly awkward 30 minutes touring the cellar of the old exchange house that was used as a prison for American patriots captured by the British and learning about how Charleston helped in the fight for independence and ultimate victory. I resisted urges to sing “Rule Britannia” at any point as I’m becoming acutely aware that these Americans, as lovely and friendly as they are, don’t quite understand my sarcasm.
Amoungst these museum trips and when the heavens weren’t open we were able to walk along the rows of beautiful houses and through the public parks. Actually our first day in the city was quite warm with the sun shining throughout. We were able to visit the affectionately named rainbow row, a street of mansions all painted a different colour. It made Leyton High Road’s own fluorescent decor seem a bit daft really, but then no one likes a show off. That’s not true, Americans love a show off, no one in England like a show off and that probably because we have Leyton High Road and they have Charleston! It’s all well and good viewing these homes, one after another, form the street. But we were able to go inside one of them, the Aikens-Rhett mansion, one of the oldest buildings in Charleston pre dating the civil war and the only urban plantation still left in tact with original slave quarters. It was brutal to see the discrepancy in how one half lived compared to the others, especially with the fact that over half of South Carolina’s population were enslaved. Most interesting though, were the links drawn to this particular model of slavery (urban, away from cotton plantations) and the use of servants in Britiain around a similar time, of course the major difference being weather a given individual was free to be there, but the way slaves were organised to work imitated large stately English manors. The house itself was amazing, three stories that included a library, art gallery music room and ball room as well as stables and gardens all enclosed within the American urban block system. It must have been well built and looked after as it had few signs of showing its 200 plus year old age.
Before Charleston and the rain we were in Savannah, just for one day, but this was ample time to explore the proclaimed most haunted city in America. As in Charleston we explored mansion filled streets and parks scattered with confederate and civil war monuments. There was an unexpected but welcome (by Martin’s back home mainly) trail of the beginnings of American Methodism, which as it turns out is quite culturally rooted in Savannah before we ended our day with a ghost tour around the city after dark. This was when we first realised we weren’t as close to the equator as we had been used too. As we had left the house in the warm morning sunshine, shorts and tshirts were ample. However, not really expecting to stay out till 10pm looking for ghosts it was a little cold and we looked like the archetypal brits abroad amongst the Americans in warms jumpers and long trousers. Despite the cold the tour was very interesting, although we came across no ghosts, we learnt a lot about Savannah’s history and heard some gruesome tales of betrayal, blackmail and murder and how those tales have lived on through folklore.
We were lucky in avoiding the storms by a few days, high probability tornado alerts have been in place over northern Florida and southern Georgia where we were 5 days ago, the storm is supposed to be tracking north (its following us!) although locals seem remarkably relaxed about it as they are with most things. I think I’m starting to get used to it.