After a lengthy debate about whether it would be worth paying for admission tickets, or if we should simply wander around the historic area, Tom won and we handed over the money. (This often happens when we’re travelling, and in fairness it’s almost always worth it – I should try to remember that next time…!)
I know I’m not the first person to describe Colonial Williamsburg as Disneyland for historians, but it’s completely true. At first glance, you could be somewhere in the southern English countryside (although the streets are much wider than in your average English village) – with small clapboard cottages and bigger brick houses set amongst trees and small gardens.
Actors and craftspeople dressed in appropriate attire helped to complete the picture, and you never needed to look far in order to spot somebody in period clothing. (You could also hire your own outfit for the duration, although we declined.)
It was a beautiful day, too, which helped – I can’t imagine it being quite so nice in the rain. They make good use of their outdoor spaces, and we watched (and participated in, somewhat reluctantly on my part) a couple of dramatic enactments too – the only non-historic element being microphones worn by key players and the sound system cunningly concealed in nearby trees.
The setting is just before the Revolutionary war, so the genial atmosphere is a little deceptive – tensions are rising and disgruntled factions are grumbling, but for the most part Virginia is still proud of its status as a British colony.
One particularly interesting factoid we picked up was that when Cromwell demanded that the colonists swear allegiance to him, the Virginians chose instead to surrender and remain loyal to the monarchy.
As well as a few major attractions for which you had to join a tour – the Capitol, Governor’s Palace and Wythe House – many of the smaller buildings were open for visitors to wander in and out as they pleased.
Most of these are set up as typical shops and businesses of the era, complete with workers and tradespeople who were only too happy to engage visitors in conversation and describe their work.
We finished our day at the museum (which helpfully stays open until 7pm), where we saw a very interesting display on the archaeology of the coffee house, as well as an exhibit about the parish church, a couple of galleries of harpsichords, spinets and pianos of the era, and a collection of metal and china homeware.
The museum is essentially a collection of stuff which is too valuable to keep in the historic properties, and provides some additional context to the site.
I could write so much more about our day there (don’t worry, I won’t!), but I think probably the most delightful thing about the place is the attention to detail.
The shops were selling (for the most part) items made onsite, clothing was made by hand in suitable fabrics, and there was an interesting information board in the market square describing a new restoration project that they were undertaking which is currently waiting as its component parts are being made.
And was it worth the money? Absolutely. You don’t have to pay to walk around the village, there are some shops and taverns which you can enter without a ticket, and you would probably catch a couple of open-air re-enactments too, so you could definitely pass an hour or two quite enjoyably on a sunny day, but so much of the pleasure came from stepping into the various buildings and interacting with the characters therein.