The Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia

Trip Start Sep 06, 2009
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of United States  , Virginia
Saturday, October 24, 2009

The day we left Washington, the clouds miraculously lifted and we saw blue sky and sunshine for the first time in what seemed like ages.  It felt like divine intervention as our route was to take us along the famous 'Skyline Drive' which runs along the top of the even more famous Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia.

We thought we’d finished our ‘leaf peeping’ antics when we left New England, but of course the Autumn leaf changes sweep southwards and, unwittingly, we had timed our drive along the Skyline perfectly for the leaves to change to their Fall hues.

The Skyline runs for roughly 100 miles through the Shenandoah National Park, an area which was once populated by farmers and dotted with small holdings.  Now, however, it has all been returned to its natural state and the trees have reclaimed the land.  It was lovely – not spectacular, it has to be said – but it certainly had its charm.  The children were thrilled by the fact that the rain we had enjoyed in Washington had fallen as snow here and during a walk on part of the Appalacian trail (which runs from Maine to Georgia) they took the opportunity to have a snowball fight!

We stayed the next couple of nights in Charlottesville, home to Thomas Jefferson’s mansion: Monticello.  We were very impressed by the house and by its presentation.  I have to say that we have been really struck by the pride, passion and almost reverence that Americans appear to have for their historical sites – the guides we have had have always managed to impart their interest in and love for the places we have visited and this was no exception. 

Monticello provided a fascinating insight into life in late 18th Century America and into the man who built it.  A self-taught architect, Jefferson was very much the Renaissance man but also a somewhat contradictory character:  the same man who wrote the wonderfully idealistic Declaration of Independence in which he stated "all men are created equal" and that all men had the right to “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”, continued to own, buy and sell slaves all his life…

We were very lucky with the timing of our visit there.  We happened to be at Monticello on the opening night of a two-day exhibition of one of only 26 remaining copies of the broadsheets printed to spread the news of the Declaration of Independence throughout the colonies.  We were mooching about in the gift shop at closing time when an announcement was made that there was to be a special presentation to mark the occasion together with drinks and snacks.  Well, needless to say, we didn’t need to be asked twice and we spent a very pleasant evening chatting to one of the curators and were given out-of-hours access to  an interactive area designed for children which we hadn’t had time to see earlier in the day, so the children were pretty pleased with that.

The following day we were due to continue our drive along the ridge of the Blue Mountain range but decided to stop first at a quirky little open air museum called The Frontier Museum.  Here they displayed 18th Century English, Irish and German farmhouses which they had bought, dismantled, shipped and reconstructed on a large site together with examples of early American houses to demonstrate what early immigrants had left behind and how the melding of these various influences created the American homesteads of the 19th Century.  It was surprisingly interesting and we all loved it.  Amongst other things, we were shown how flax is turned into Linen – the 18th Century way – and we all had the chance to try stripping the stalks down to the fibres which are then spun into the linen thread.  Brilliant - and quite pleased to have introduced an educational element without the children realising it!

On our way back to Washington for our flight to Florida, our route took us through a small town called Appomattox Court House near Fredericksburg.  I'm guessing that the majority of you will not have heard of this little place, but to Americans it is a highly significant historical site: some would say "the birthplace of the nation".  This is where the Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered his troops to the Yankee General Ulysses Grant, which effectively signalled the beginning of the end of the American Civil War.  Visiting it helped us put together the various strands of knowledge we had been laboriously piecing together since arriving on the East Coast and we now feel that we have a much better understanding of the key historical events which shaped this enormous country.

Our brief foray into Virginia was at an end.  Whilst the much vaunted Skyline and Parkway drives were lovely, it was the area just off these drives which particularly impressed us.  Virginia surprised us with its beautiful rolling hills, immaculate and manicured homesteads and estates and the richness of its history.  We loved it and would love to return some day.

Next stop: the joys of Disney and Florida.
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