When we arrived in Winchester, we felt as though we’d started a holiday from our holiday – it was definitely a different phase. After nearly three weeks in park lodges and (very) small towns, we felt we’d hit the metropolis. It’s really not – it has about 26,000 inhabitants – but the historic centre of the Old Town Mall, four pedestrianized blocks on Loudon Street, was buzzing and it was good to head for a Thai restaurant on our first evening. We always really miss spicy foods! You can pick up a variety of walking tour leaflets at the Visitor Centre on the edge of town and we spent a lot of time just wandering and admiring the buildings.
There are also several good museums. The Civil War Museum is housed in the Old Courthouse, which was originally built in 1840. Upstairs, exhibits told of Winchester’s role in the Civil War when it see-sawed between Union and Confederate and the Court House served as a hospital and a prison for both sides at different times. You can actually see graffiti that some of them left behind. More than 7066 Civil War soldiers are buried in Winchester (more later), of a total of 600,000 who died. Sobering thought: that is more than have died in all other wars combined in which Americans have fought. The equivalent percentage of the current population would mean 15 million Americans dead or wounded! I’m really interested in visiting Civil War sites, but no wonder I always come away feeling drained. Downstairs is still set out as a courtroom. The portrait is Judge John Parker who presided at the trial of John Brown and sentenced him to death – this links back to the very first stop on our tour at Harpers Ferry where Brown’s raid took place.
George Washington spent time in Winchester when he was a colonel in the Virginia militia, building a fort to protect the colony from the French and the Indians. The log cabin which he used as an office in 1755/6 is preserved as a small museum to his early career.
You can also visit the house that Stonewall Jackson used as his headquarters in 1861/2. Here we had probably the best guide of the whole tour – Brian I think – who really made Jackson come alive. Bonus fact: the house was once owned by the great-grandfather of Mary Tyler Moore.
Winchester’s Mount Hebron Cemetery is huge. It’s really several cemeteries, including both the Stonewall Confederate Cemetery and the National Cemetery for the Union soldiers. The large, fancy tomb is that of Judge John Handley. On his death in 1895, Handley’s will provided money to build educational facilities for local citizens and a public library (more below).
And this is the Library built with Handley’s legacy between 1907 and 1912. You know I can’t keep away from libraries! The large apple, one of several in town, shows Handley on one side – the significance of apples is that Winchester used to be known as Virginia’s Apple Capital because of the number of orchards surrounding it.
The biggest museum in Winchester is a bit outside the centre: the Museum of the Shenandoah Valley. A large, modern building was opened in 2005 and has extensive displays on the history and geography of the Valley. Your ticket also allows you to explore the house and gardens of Glen Burnie, a restored plantation home with parts dating back to 1755, standing on the site of the original homestead of Winchester’s founder, James Wood. The last of his descendants to live there was Julian Wood Glass, Jr (1910-1992) and it was a condition of his will that the house be open to the public. His partner, R. Lee Taylor, created the gardens and continued to live at Glen Burnie even after his relationship with Glass ended in the 1970s, serving as curator of the gardens till he died in 2000. The men were great entertainers, with tea parties in the Pink Pavilion and soirées on the terrace which were reproduced in the main museum, so we loved wandering round the real places afterwards.
Our base in Winchester was the George Washington Hotel, dating from 1924 but recently restored. My favourite quirk was the old-fashioned letter box with a chute running from each floor. It was a comfortable, and central, place to stay.
From Winchester, we headed for our last stop (sob!) – Alexandria.