Natasha Blair visits the city and discovers its fascinating history and heritage
Described as one of America’s prettiest cities, British Airways has recently introduced direct flights to Charleston in South Carolina from London Heathrow. Charleston isn’t big and brash instead it favours its British associations with a ban on buildings over eight stories.
‘Charleston has retained its English connections as aristocracy rather than convicts chose to live here’ said Rob, my guide. The town has preserved its culture with buildings only a few stories high, and buildings over 75 years old designated historic. Joining a walking tour, I discovered the narrow cobbled streets of the old town with their antebellum houses, some painted in pastel colours, built for the very rich in the late 18th century before the American Civil War, all with beautifully kept gardens. Reading the plaques outside some of the houses provided an indication as to who had lived there. A feature of many of the houses of this period is closed in terraces on the first floor designed so that the occupants could benefit from the breeze from the two rivers the Ashley and the Cooper that flank either side of the town. I was able to visit several as they have been preserved as museums and restored to their former glory.
For a month between April and May owners of historic houses also open their homes for charity. In one the owner showed me antique furniture that he had imported from England as well as first edition books signed by Churchill. The history of Charleston goes back to its African origins when it was the centre for the slave trade, and which is now promoted as part of its heritage. I was not only able to see the elegant trappings and décor, but also where the slaves lived and worked. One of the snacks of the region is ‘hush puppies’, the name given to balls of grits that the servants threw to the dogs to stop them barking while serving dinner. Nearby a sign indicates the Old Exchange Building, one of the buildings used for the slave auctions, close to where the boats bringing in the slaves would have docked.
Several of what used to be Plantations have been preserved, and are open to the public. About 20 miles up river from Charleston, I visited Middleton Place, which has the oldest landscaped garden in America. Only part of the original residence remains but it still has furniture and possessions belonging to the Middleton family including a rare facsimile on silk of the Declaration of Independence. In the Stableyards are a variety of domesticated animals including sheep and hens, with breeds documented to have been there more than 150 years ago. In this area too I watched a costumed gentleman demonstrate how plantings of historic crops such as sugar cane and cotton would have been done.
In Charleston, I stayed at the newly opened, and centrally located luxury family owned Hotel Bennett. Although located on one of the cities main thoroughfares, its open-air swimming pool is hidden away on top of the building, secluded from the noise of the street. The hotel faces onto Marion Square where, while enjoying a glass of wine on its patio, I was entertained by musicians busking in the square.
The city prides itself in its culinary offerings, and although hamburgers and steaks are on menus, there are also restaurants where the chefs have won awards. Being near the Atlantic Ocean, the fish is very fresh, with shrimp and grits, corn kernels that have been dried and ground, one of its local specialities.
Charleston is flanked on two sides by the Ashley, and Cooper Rivers that flow into the harbour, and out to the Atlantic Ocean. On the quay, the aquarium focuses on South Carolina’s wildlife and conservation. From here, a short boat ride took me to Fort Sumter on an island at the harbour’s entrance where, in 1861, the first shots of the American Civil War were fired. Exhibits provide an overview of events leading up to the war.
The area along the coast as well as having miles of sandy beaches is made up of numerous islands. Beaufort on Port Royal Island is one of the prettiest cities in the area. Bed and breakfasts are popular in this region, similar to our boutique hotels. That certainly was the case at the Beaufort Inn. Its stylish bedrooms were located in several buildings with courtyards separating them. African slaves in the Low Country created a language called Gullah, and the city now has the largest population of Gullahs, the name now used for their descendants. With the weather warm enough to sit outside at night I, and fellow guests were entertained to music and songs from the Gullah Kinfolk. Horse and carriage tours are a popular way of exploring. In Beaufort I sat in a fringed carriage along with 11 others as we were pulled along by a horse that our guide Randy assured us, was not distressed at doing this. On the contrary, he assured us as he regaled us with stories that the horse was well cared for. Along the way, he pointed out the Palmetto tree, the state tree of South Carolina symbolising the defeat of the British fleet at Fort Moultrie on Sullivan’s Island. Apparently, the fort had been built of palmetto logs, which were able to absorb the impact of cannon balls.
On the island of Hilton Head, the town of Mitchelville was the first self-governed freedmen’s town in America, and last year officially became the Historic Mitchelville Freedom Park. Named after the General who orchestrated it, it became a template for the creation of future freedmen towns. Accompanying my tour were high school students, some descendants, who were being trained as guides.
South Carolina is a heaven for golfers, with many of the hotels having their own courses. The PGA Championship is being played on the Ocean Course in 2021. With miles of sandy beaches, and a multitude of sports activities, the area has lots to offer for all ages. A touch of England but with guaranteed sunshine.
BA flies from Heathrow twice weekly to Charleston in the USA.
Running every fifteen minutes, the Heathrow Express from London Paddington Station takes just 15 minutes. www.HeathrowExpress.com
From 7 – 10th November the Charleston to Charleston Literary Festival which will be held in Charleston, South Carolina will feature high profile authors, thinkers, artists and broadcasters from both the US and the UK. Charleston in the South Downs National Park was the home of artists Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, who were key members of the Bloomsbury group.