It was April and Charleston, South Carolina was bathed in warm sunshine – perfect weather for exploring. Anna Hyman set forth to find out what this historic, enchanting city had to offer.
‘I think I am going to move to Charleston’, I said one morning to the delightful waitress, ‘I love this city, it’s really special’. ‘You are right’ she said ‘it is special. But it does get hot and humid in high summer – come over and spend more time here in our cooler months?’
‘Charles Town’ dates back to 1670
Charleston, originally called Charles Town – in honour of King Charles II, dates back to 1670 and was so named by the early colonists from England who had had settled on the west bank of the Ashley River where it meets the Atlantic ocean.
They had the right idea, but not the right location for within 10 years they had relocated Charlestown to a strategically better spot on the peninsular of land lying between the Ashley and Cooper Rivers.
Charlestown or Charleston
In 1780, during the American Revolutionary War – the war when the British were fighting the Thirteen Colonies who had claimed independence from the Crown – Charlestown was seized by the British. However, within two years they were forced to withdraw; and in 1783 when independence had been won Charlestown was officially renamed Charleston.
It was to witness fighting and cannon fire again, when in 1861 the first shots of the American Civil War were fired.
It became a busy and wealthy sea port with ships plying backwards and forwards from its deep harbours carrying cargoes of rice, sea island cotton and indigo to England and beyond. Fortunes were made, and merchants built their palatial homes here and in the surrounding countryside. Plantations like Lowndes Grove with grounds running down to the scenic river Ashley.
Festival of Houses and Gardens
We were visiting in spring, our visit coinciding with the city’s month long Festival of Houses and Gardens. We took a tour to the Old & Historic District where we not only admired the lovely and beautifully maintained different architectural styles including colonial and antebellum houses with their pretty manicured gardens, but were also able to see inside some of the private properties and learn their history.
Nathaniel Russel House
The Nathaniel Russell House with its superb elliptical free-flying, three-storey staircase has to be one of the grandest of the neoclassical houses.
It was built in 1808 by Russel, originally from Rhode Island, who made his fortune as a slave trader and shipping merchant.
The house on Meeting Street is now a museum-house maintained by the Historic Charleston Foundation and is actually open throughout the year.
Another memorable museum-house we toured was the antebellum Aiken-Rhett House with its slave quarters, and carriage block, plus the gracious living quarters of its owners not altered since the mid-19th century.
We also toured magnificent 21 Legare St. It was on the property market for well over $5million. It was lovely, but at that price tag there was no point in us making an offer! But we could dream.
King Street shopping
Back in the world of reality I discovered the shops of King Street. I loved King Street. This was my kind of street. It is divided seamlessly into three parts. Upper King Street (from Marion Square where our hotel, the lovely Hotel Bennet, was located) down to Spring Street is the section noted for design – a tempting selection of shops selling fixtures and furnishings.
Carry on along the street to Middle King Street for fashion – interesting little boutiques and shoe shops, whilst in Lower King I found the antique district. Along all the sections are interesting mixes of places to stop for coffee or maybe something more serious to eat.
Millers and High Wire
Two of my favourite places to eat on King Street were Millers All Day – tasty food and friendly service.
And another, chiefly because of its lovely and welcoming staff, was Virginia’s on King – next door to, and owned by, the Hotel Bennett.
Also on King Street we found the small High Wire Distilling Company. High Wire produces an award-winning gin, and a silky smooth bourbon made from an heirloom corn – Jimmy Red.
The short tour takes about 20 minutes but the guides, or certainly the one I was talking to, were excellent and there was a tasting session at the end of it!
Horse-drawn carriage tours
Something had gone wrong with our booking for one of the horse and carriage tours that take weary visitors along the cobbled streets of the city centre; disconsolately we wandered into the covered market but weren’t in the mood to buy, and turned our attention for somewhere for coffee.
We found the Irish Pub
We found, close by the market on Church Street an Irish pub – Tommy Condon’s. The coffee and beer were good, the welcome warm. We wished it was closer to lunch time, the menu was tempting. Evidently it is the place to be in the evening when the Irish band strikes up. If the delightful Rachel is behind the bar – give her our best please.
The Holy City
The city was noted for its religious tolerance and attracted scores of settlers, hence the number of churches still in evidence today – Charleston’s nickname is The Holy City. Very useful those church spires are too. Hotel Bennet was just across the road from St Matthews church; when lost I just headed towards its spire.
Four corners of the law
A guide told us that all the laws we would ever need could be found at the cross streets of Broad and Meeting. On one corner stands the US Post Office (federal law), on another the Courthouse (state law), on the third the City Hall (civil law) and on the fourth St Michael’s church (God’s Law).
Incidentally the bells of St Michael were cast in London, and have been back and forth across the Atlantic several times for repairs.
Historical Society Museum
One morning under the instruction of Charlie – the hotel’s wonderful concierge – I headed off to ‘do’ some of Charleston’s museums.
‘‘You must go to the Slave Museum,” he told me. “It is a sobering experience, but it has a story that must be told, and whilst you are in that area head over to the South Carolina Historical Society Museum”.
I found the latter on Meeting Street and spent ages there learning more about the early days of Charleston history. It is a fascinating museum, not very big, and beautifully laid out, even the building itself is interesting. It’s called the Fireproof building – because it is – it was designed that way to keep city records safe.
The Old Slave Mart
From there I wandered round the charming cobbled streets looking at the smaller but still beautifully maintained buildings until I found the Old Slave Mart Museum. Charlie was right it was a sobering experience. Some 40% of all slaves brought into the United States came through Charleston to be auctioned here. The last slave was sold here in November 1863.There are not a lot of exhibits but the informative posters make interesting and thought provoking reading.
Later I was to visit the terrific Gibbes Museum – the city’s art gallery in the city centre. It is a stunning gallery, and one well worth a visit. Along with the permanent art collections dating from the 18th century (I loved the Japanese collection) new exhibitions are held on a regular basis.
Don’t miss the Charleston Museum on Meeting St – one of the oldest museums in the United States – with historic exhibits, natural history, fine art, furniture, etc. There are lots of interactive things for children to enjoy too.
Another gallery that intrigued me was the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art in Calhoun Street. With changing exhibitions, independent films, and a research library – it is a fascinating concept. On display on my visit were photographs accompanied by poems and music.
The Halsey aims to create interactions between current artists and communities; ‘art must be provocative’ I was told as I was shown around. And provocative and fascinating the Halsey most certainly is.
In several of the museums, shops and restaurants I kept coming across the word ‘Gullah. It intrigued me. Gullah, it turns out, refers to the language and culture of the descendants of enslaved Africans. And it was in the market that I spotted several Gullah bowls and baskets that had been intricately woven from local sweetgrass.
We were warned to be a bit careful and make sure that if we bought one of the intricately woven items that it had been locally made and was not imported from Asia.
I have a ‘thing’ about visiting the beautiful plantation houses of the south, and Middleton Place was on my ‘must get to’ list. It has a fascinating story to tell – a story of wealth and of slavery, and stories that echo the founding of a new country, of war, fire and earthquake.
Lying about 20 miles outside Charleston on the banks of the Ashley River are the remains of Middleton Place. The family history dates back to the back to the late 1600s and the first Carolina settlers. The grounds, which sweep down to the river, are stunning, arguably the most important gardens in the USA, and certainly America’s oldest landscaped gardens. There is also a good restaurant.
Whilst fire and earthquake took their toll on the main house, in the grounds is the delightful House Museum dating from 1755 with family furniture on display along with portraits, elegant silver and beautiful porcelain. Also in the grounds is Sarah’s cottage which thought-provokingly displays the names and prices of the 2800 slaves that the family owned between 1738 and 1865.
As a change from window shopping and museums I wandered down to The Battery to see where the waters of the Cooper and Ashley rivers intermingled – I had caught glimpses of water from the windows of one of the Open Houses we had visited. It was enticing. One of the friends I was with thought so too and took herself off for a harbour boat tour.
Learning to shag
Another friend opted to join a lesson in how to shag!
I am not quite sure from his demonstration that he had quite grasped the necessary footwork for Charleston’s and South Carolina’s official dance, but as he said it would be something of a conversation stopper when he told the folk back home of his latest accomplishment.
More time was needed
I was beginning to realise that there was far more to see and do in Charleston than I had first thought and that maybe the notion of spending some serious time in this fascinating city one winter was actually a very good one.
British Airways: Charleston is now served by direct twice a week flights from London Heathrow to Charleston. britishairways.com/en-gb/destinations/charleston/flights-to-charleston