The Long and Fascinating Heritage of Charleston, South Carolina

Liz Gill is impressed with the sheer cultural diversity of this historic

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Any European who smugly thinks America is too young to have any history comparable to that of the Old World should spend a couple of days in Charleston. For into the few square miles of this small lovely city on the coast of South Carolina are packed tangible reminders of a colony, a revolution, a civil war, enormous wealth and financial ruin, slavery and emancipation, two World Wars and Vietnam.

In fact, it is so dense it can be difficult to know where to start. Probably the best way is via a leisurely horse-drawn carriage ride through the oldest part, not just to hear about what you’re seeing but to help you wind down and adjust to that slower, gentler pace of life in the South.

The city which celebrates its 350th anniversary next year was originally Charles Town named in honour of King Charles II and founded on the principle of religious freedom. The North East had been settled by Puritans but here all denominations were welcome as were other faiths – it has the US’s oldest continually used synagogue – though only Anglicans could call their buildings churches, the others had to be ‘meeting-houses’.

We learn this from our guide Westin as we roll along Meeting Street; he adds that with 189 places of worship on the peninsula, the highest per capita rate in the States, Charleston is known as the Holy City.

Earlier he has introduced us to Bread and Butter, our two 13 year-old Belgian draft horses, part of the equine team at Palmetto Carriage Works which is at pains to stress the animals’ welfare. Most are in semi-retirement, rescued from dawn to dusk plough pulling to do four or five hours a day, five or six days a week with three months a year on vacation on the company farm. “On average our horses and mules work around 172 days a year compared to a full-time federal employee who works 241 days.” It is, he says, the most highly regulated carriage drive business in the world.

Certainly knowing that each trip’s departure and return is monitored by a municipal employee helps you relax to the gentle clip-clop of hooves pulling you along tree-lined streets, by walls covered with yellow jessamine and past beautifully coloured colonial houses. These are typically one room wide to maximise cooling breezes from the water: the city’s highest point, Westin adds, is only 15 feet above sea level hence the area’s name – the Lowcountry.

He points out another local architectural feature: the privacy door which appears to open into the house but only opens onto the piazza as the outside verandahs are known here.”If it’s open it says ‘come on in’. If it’s closed it’s a polite way of telling people to buzz off.”

A day later we get a chance to go inside a couple as part of the month-long, twice-yearly Festival of Houses and Gardens organised by the Historic Charleston Foundation (the next is in October) where home owners invite the public in for a behind-the-scenes look. It is fascinating on a domestic as well as a cultural level.

One owner tells us how renovating the property involved, on the downside, battles against termites and terrible foundations but, on the upside, the discovery of such ‘treasure’ as clay pipes, a bone toothbrush and a 6lb British cannon ball. We also try out the ‘joggling board’ in the garden, a sort of sideways swaying seat invented by a doctor for his arthritic mother but soon discovered by courting couples who had found the movement edged them close together.

The grandest properties, particularly somewhere like the Nathaniel Russell House, now a museum, with its extraordinary cantilevered ‘floating’ staircase, 24 carat gold leafed cornicing and collection of fine art and furniture, are a measure of the fact that the city was once the richest in America, its wealth stemming from rice, indigo and cotton – and, of course, slavery.

It is estimated that between 35 and 40 percent of all the 600,000 Africans who were brought into America as slaves passed through this port, including the family of Michelle Obama. Some were sold on to owners in other Southern states, others remained to work locally, their enormous contribution now acknowledged – and their dreadful suffering commemorated – by the city and its near neighbours.

At the McLeod Plantation Historic Site, for instance, visitors can learn about the Gullah Geechee people, descendants of the Central and West African slaves who came from different ethnic and social groups, but who forged a Creole language to communicate with each other and to hold on to some of their heritage in the form of arts, craft, cuisine and musical traditions which have influenced everything from jazz and blues to hip hop and soul.

Down a leafy avenue from the family’s ‘big house’ are half a dozen of their little cabins, one a ‘praise room’ from which the community gained spiritual sustenance and social cohesion. The house itself tells the story, through personal histories as well as bare facts, of the Civil War and its aftermath and the long struggle not just for freedom but equality. And our guide John tells us with quiet pride how his uncle overcame prejudice and segregation to become a detective in the local police force.

It is often, I find, the small details that bring home the true horrors of slavery. It is impossible, for instance, to forget the image of toddler handprints on the some of the bricks in the old market place: children as young as three and four spent their days turning the bricks so they dried evenly in the sun. Or the notion that an owner might buy a black child as a playmate for his daughter but not buy her family. Or that in an audit of assets slaves have a monetary value assigned them, first in pounds and then after Independence in dollars.

We see such an audit at Middleton Place, once home to one of the richest and most important families in South Carolina whose fortunes mirrored those of the young country: one Middleton was president of the First Continental Congress, the meeting of delegates from the 13 British colonies which became the United States; another signed the declaration of Independence; others fought the Confederate cause.

The original house which was modelled on an English country house and set in beautifully landscaped gardens – its 17th century owners were, after all, Englishmen – was burnt by triumphant Unionists. Today’s House Museum is set in another old building but all the contents, right down to the last silver spoon, were the family’s and reflect the grace and grandeur of South Carolina’s high society.

It is also at Middleton Place where I first hear the term enslaved peoples rather than slaves. The idea behind its increasing usage is that it emphasises humanity and personhood rather than simply a role.

Visitors who are drawn to more recent history can easily spend a day at Patriot’s Point aboard the USS Yorktown aircraft carrier, the USS Laffey destroyer and the USS submarine Clamgore. I’m no expert in military hardware but the Maritime Museum is also good at capturing the human stories behind warfare – and, of course, it’s got to be a bit of a thrill to stand beside the type of aircraft Tom Cruise flew in Top Gun.

The Vietnam Experience there which recreates some aspects of life in the US Navy Advanced Tactical Support Base during the Tet Offensive in 1968 is also fascinating. So powerful are the sounds and sights in old footage that when it first opened visiting veterans suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder found it unbearable. Aghast, the originators offered to modify it but it was suggested that instead it should be used therapeutically.

Today’s Charleston is a relatively recent reinvention. The Civil War ruined the city economically but saved it architecturally: it was too poor for any modernisation. In fact, it was only after Hurricane Hugo in 1989 that its fortunes began to change. The combination of insurance money, aid and some canny entrepreneurship began a march of recovery to transform the no-go areas and dilapidated buildings into the pretty, buffed up, thriving place it is today with over 40 galleries and museums as well as five beach resorts, 20 golf courses, fishing, cycling, water sports, nature tours, an aquarium, a turtle hospital and a birds of prey centre.

It has also become a foodie destination with restaurants offering new takes on such old Southern dishes as shrimp and grits, soft-shelled crab, fried okra, fried green tomatoes, boiled peanuts, Carolina gold rice and oysters, all served with the charm and courtesy on which the city prides itself.

And if you need to work off some of those calories you could always learn to dance the shag, a sort of smoother swing or jive with eight steps in six counts which teacher Linda and her partner Clive made look effortless but which soon had me stumbling. There is no double meaning to the word here but with an increasing number of British visitors expected now that British Airways has launched the first direct flight from London, Linda and Clive and all the hundreds of other shag dancers are already bracing themselves for the jokes.

Fact Box

British Airways fly from London Heathrow to Charleston from £500 return.

Liz stayed at the new five star Hotel Bennett which has state-of-the-art bedrooms, glamorous public spaces, four bars/restaurants, two roof terraces and a ninth-floor heated outdoor swimming pool. Rooms from £257 a night low season