April Squares: Shenandoah

Like yesterday’s photograph, this one is from 2014’s trip to Virginia and West Virginia. Here I am on top of the world at a lookout along the Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park.

Linked to Beck’s marvellous April Squares Challenge – #SquareTops.

Read more: The bears of Shenandoah.

Virginian memories

Could I have any more to say about Virginia? Well, a teeny bit actually. I finished writing up my holiday diaries last week, and I managed to include quite a lot of our 2008 trip where the two routes crossed. I also wrote about our time in the Historic Triangle (Jamestown, Williamsburg and Yorktown) during April’s A to Z Challenge, but there are a few places that didn’t fit into either category. Librarians like things neat and tidy, so here they are.

Civil War sites

I’ve probably mentioned before how eerie I find Civil War sites. Fredericksburg is a case in point. The Union General, Burnside, sent his troops uphill against Lee’s Confederates, most of whom were dug in behind a wall along Sunken Road at the base of Marye’s Heights. The road has been restored to look as it did in 1862 – you can walk along it and climb the Heights from which it’s easy to imagine the soldiers being mown down.

I thought I’d never heard of Manassas until I realised it was the site of Bull Run, which I remembered from school as the first major clash of the Civil War. Again, the site slopes and when you get to the top the Visitor Centre disappears. You are swept back in time, wondering what it would be like to hide in the (restored) houses while the battle raged around you. This is also where Stonewall Jackson got his nickname and his statue is prominent.

Appomatox was where Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant on April 9th, 1865, effectively ending the Civil War. Today, the twenty or so buildings of the old village have been restored as part of the National Park Service.


We stayed a few nights in Charlottesville so that we could visit Monticello, home of Thomas Jefferson.

Monticello is a must-see, and we enjoyed it, but we actually preferred Ash Lawn-Highland built by 5th president, James Monroe, who moved to Charlottesville because of his friendship with Jefferson. It’s a much more modest affair.

Finally in Charlottesville, we took a stroll round Jefferson’s University of Virginia with its Rotunda inspired by the Pantheon in Rome.

I hope I haven’t misattributed the locations of any of these photos – my memory is a bit hazy after 6 years, so that’s perfectly possible. Anyway, it’s now farewell to Virginia – until the next time.

Alexandria and Arlington

In 2008, we started our Virginian travels in Alexandria and in 2014 we ended them there, so I knew I’d been twice. However, when looking for old pictures of Arlington for the second part of this post, I found one solitary picture of Alexandria so I now discover that my first visit was in 1995. We even took a picture of the same house in 2008! Carlyle House was built in 1753 by Scottish merchant John Carlyle, for his bride, Sarah Fairfax. I think you can visit it, but it looks closed in both photos below and I have no idea whether we went inside on either occasion.

In 2008 we spent more time exploring Old Alexandria and the historic houses nearby, whereas this time we used it as a base to visit Washington (which will have a separate post). We stayed in the Morrison House Hotel which was just off King Street, the main thoroughfare, and very handy for a wide choice of restaurants.

The gallery below is from 2008. As you drive into Alexandria, the view is dominated by the imposing edifice of the George Washington Memorial, top left. The red-roofed house at the bottom is Mount Vernon, home of George and Martha Washington. Nearby is Woodlawn (top right), given by Washington as a wedding gift to his adopted daughter, Martha’s granddaughter Nelly Parke Custis. The other two pictures show Pope-Leighey House – just across the parking lot from Woodlawn, but 150 years ahead architecturally. This is the only Frank Lloyd Wright house I’ve visited, and I’d love to see more. Built in 1940, it was intended as a prototype for a house of good design and moderate cost ($7000 at the time).

Flights back to the UK from Dulles leave late at night, and in both 1995 and 2014 we used the day we were leaving to visit Arlington National Cemetery which commemorates the lives of America’s armed forces. As we came out of the metro station at Arlington this year I expressed surprise that it was right next to the cemetery – I was sure we had walked up a main street to reach it on our first visit. Now that I know that we also visited Alexandria that day, I realise I am remembering walking up King Street. Mystery solved, the old memory has been playing tricks. That’s me in 1995 at the top left – it was close to Memorial Day so every grave had a miniature Stars and Stripes.

We spent hours there this time, and still didn’t visit all the areas. One of the highlights was Arlington House (the last picture in the gallery) which sits on a ridge above JFK’s grave. It was built by George Washington Parke Custis, the grandson of Martha, adopted son of George Washington and sister of Nelly of Woodlawn, mentioned above. His daughter, Mary Anna, married a young Virginian named Robert E. Lee, and the couple lived at Arlington House for 30 years before General Lee joined the Confederates in 1861. Federal troops occupied the estate after the family left and turned it first into a camp and headquarters, then later into a cemetery for Union soldiers, partly to ensure that Lee could never return. (When Virginia seceded from the Union in April 1861, Lee was conflicted, but chose not to fight against his home state, even though he wanted the country to remain intact, and despite an offer of a senior Union command. This, presumably, explains the act of spite.) Today, the house has been restored as a memorial to him. As with the Stonewall Jackson house in Winchester, you really got a flavour of the man from the guides and, even though they were both on the “wrong” side, Jackson and Lee came across as fundamentally honourable.

So this was our last excursion of our 2014 Virginian / West Virginian trip – though my holiday diary is not yet complete. Coming soon: Washington DC.

Winchester, Virginia

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.

Roanoke and Abingdon

From Peaks of Otter, we set off down the Blue Ridge Parkway again to Roanoke. It took all morning to do about 30 miles because we stopped so often – at overlooks, at Virginia’s Explore Park (a collection of historic buildings and riverside trails) and at Roanoke and Mill Mountains. The latter mountain has a huge neon star which can be seen from the town – we wished we were staying overnight so that we could see it properly. After lunch and an all too brief walk round Roanoke itself it was onto the interstate and a straight road down to Abingdon for our next three nights.

Our guidebook described Abingdon as a “show-stopping town” and it was indeed very beautiful. We stayed in a self catering apartment this time, Creeper’s End Lodging, though we didn’t use the small kitchen for anything but breakfast. On the first day, we followed the self-guided walking tour of Abingdon’s Downtown Historic District highlighting buildings which were established on the map of 1880. One of these was the Barter Theatre where we rounded off the day with dinner and a show. The theatre was set up by unemployed actors in the 1930s when they would accept produce, livestock or other goods in exchange for tickets, hence the name, but now houses the State Theater of Virginia. Apparently, they also paid playwrights in kind and George Bernard Shaw,  a vegetarian, was obliged to return a Virginia ham and request spinach instead (which he got).  There was also a wolf trail around the town (“Who’s afraid of Virginia’s wolves?”) which was originally called Wolf Hill in the days of Daniel Boone. My favourite was Material Girl.

The second day, we cycled part of the Virginian Creeper Trail, 34 miles of an old railroad bed.  The term creeper in this case comes from the slow speed of the trains which had to crawl up White Top mountain – the lower end was just across from our cottage which explains its name. We did the trail the easy way – hired bikes from a company which took you to the top and let you cycle all the way or half way back. We chose the latter and opted to be picked up in Damascus. Given that I hadn’t been on a bike for 20 years or so, I was just grateful to survive! Along the way, we dropped into the old Green Cove station, now a Forest Service information post decked out as an old shop. The two volunteers running it were about to go on vacation to Scotland for three weeks! Much discussion and swapping of travel tips took place.

On our last evening, there was a massive thunderstorm and tornado warning with sirens going off in the town and high-pitched noises emitted from our mobile phones which gave us quite a shock! Fortunately, it was short-lived and we got on with our preparations for the next day’s journey back into West Virginia.

Peaks of Otter

The Blue Ridge Parkway proved as beautiful, if not more so, than the Skyline Drive and we stopped several times to get out and stretch our legs.

The most pleasant surprise, however, was the Lodge at Peaks of Otter which was almost an afterthought when we planned it. I thought it might be pretty, but wasn’t prepared for the beauty of the mountain and lakeland setting. The Lodge building was attractive with decent food, and the accommodation blocks were built facing the (artificial) Abbott Lake so all rooms had a good view from their patios or balconies.

We climbed Harkening Hill, smallest of the three Peaks, and might have done more had it not been for the spectacular thunderstorms – fortunately we had read the weather forecast accurately and were back from our walk in time to enjoy the storm from our covered patio. We watched as Sharp Peak gradually disappeared – and were glad we weren’t up it!

One of the things I find fascinating on our US travels is the variety of fungi. The two below are from these few days – the orange cluster was in a picnic area just off the Parkway, and the large brown one (with my boot for size comparison) was on Harkening Hill. I find it very strange that you can get clusters on or around one particular tree, but nothing on others nearby. What makes that tree special? Answers on a postcard please.

From Peaks of Otter, we headed back onto the Parkway, heading south. Next up: Roanoke and Abingdon.

The bears of Shenandoah

Big Meadows Lodge
Big Meadows Lodge

Our first holiday to Virginia / West Virginia was in 2008. At that time, we said we could easily come back and travel a completely different route which is exactly what we have done this year. However, there are certain points of overlap and one we couldn’t possibly miss out was Shenandoah National Park which sits atop the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia (cue another ear-worm). The Skyline Drive extends for 105 miles along the ridge and was visionary when it was created in the 1930s by Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps, though I’m not sure it would be acceptable to build now. That’s me at lookouts along the drive in 2008 (left) and 2014.

In 2008 we stayed for two nights and saw a bear every day! The first was at the side of the road the day we drove in, but it ran off into the undergrowth while we fumbled for cameras. We encountered the second as it foraged by a trail the next day, but this bear did not behave as expected – they are supposed to be keen to avoid human contact and making a reasonable amount of noise as you walk should scare them away. This one just kept coming towards us – obviously we were between it and the tastiest food. As it was quite large we decided the best course of action was to go back the way we came and choose a different route. Finally, on the day we left, we heard a lot of crashing in the undergrowth and a small bear shot across the path in front of us and up the other side. It obviously knew the rules.

So would we maintain our bear-a-day record in 2014? This time, we were there for three nights so it was more of a challenge. Read on to find out!

Day 1. We came down Skyline from the North to the Lodge at Big Meadows, about half way along, where we stayed both times. We went for a pre-dinner stroll along part of the Appalachian Trail which runs behind the Lodge where we encountered a large brown object – yes, a bear!

Day 2. We tackled the trail which we had abandoned last time, Dark Hollow Falls and Upper Rose River, and, would you believe, saw a bear in almost exactly the same place, once again foraging for food. The pickings must be really good there and this bear seemed totally undiverted by our presence so we carried on to complete the trail. John is standing in front of the Falls this year, and the photo of me in the same spot is from 2008.

Day 3. We took the Lewis Falls trail in the morning and were disappointed not to see a bear. Was this our record broken? No! In the afternoon, we drove down from Skyline to Luray Caverns (which were spectacular, probably the best we’ve seen – they also have a small motor museum) and saw a bear by the roadside on three separate occasions. Then when we came back, there was actually a bear right behind our accommodation block! We watched it for several minutes and actually got some reasonable pictures. It was really close.

Shenandoah butterfly
Shenandoah butterfly

Day 4. We left the Park, travelling South along the rest of the Skyline Drive. No bear! We had lost our bear-a-day status. However, with 6 in 4 days, we averaged 1.5 which is better than last time, so I call that a result.

In 2008, we turned east at the end of the Skyline. This time, we continued along it as it morphed into the Blue Ridge Parkway. This was an old friend which we’d travelled in North Carolina a few years ago. However, we didn’t know the Virginian section so we were setting off on new adventures.

Coming soon – Peaks of Otter.

Y is for Yorktown

Yorktown is the final point in Virginia’s Historic Triangle. (See also J is for Jamestown and W is for Williamsburg.) Although the 13 American colonies had declared their independence in 1776, the last major battle of the Revolution was here in October 1781 when George Washington’s army defeated the British under Lord Cornwallis.

The large brick house below is considered one of the finest examples of Georgian architecture in Virginia. It was built in 1729 by a Scottish merchant, Thomas Nelson, whose grandson was one of the signatories of the Declaration of Independence. The smaller Cole Diggs House is Yorktown’s oldest brick residence (c1720). As you can see, it served as a café when we were there (2008) – I remember having a very good lunch! Always important when travelling.

W is for Williamsburg

Williamsburg is part of Virginia’s Historic Triangle which encompasses the whole of America’s colonial history – see also J is for Jamestown and Y is for Yorktown. Colonial Williamsburg, its Historic Area, has been recreated to look exactly as it did in the 1770s, when the town served as Virginia’s capital. Staying there is like living in a great big museum.

J is for Jamestown

Jamestown is part of Virginia’s Historic Triangle – see also W is for Williamsburg and Y is for Yorktown. It’s the site of the first permanent English settlement in the New World (1607) and the place where Captain John Smith, the colony’s leader, was rescued by Pocahontas. Next door to the original site is the Jamestown Settlement, a living history museum of the type that the Americans seem to be so good at – and, just 20 miles away, you can see where the colony came to an end at the Battle of Yorktown in 1781. So much history contained in such a short distance.