South Carolina - Charleston

Ladies and Gentlemen, the South


A balmy evening, a cool veranda, a whiff of chilled lemonade, the faint chirp of cicadas and crickets, we were in the South alright.

We stayed in Charleston, South Carolina in a beautifully restored 150 year old building, originally owned by a Frenchman (I don’t care who owned it but the lady on the front desk made a point of saying ‘previously owned by a Frenchman’ with a raise of her eyebrow that implied a ‘need I say more, he had exquisite taste, the man was French, fortheloveofGod!’). One plump bed awaited our tired bones, my “No chaise longue?” fell on deaf ears, the 3 of us piled into the sumptuous folds, Dom found Bee Movie on the telly which buzzed us all to a big sleep.

Everything is bigger in the South, when we landed into the Carolinas in the evening time, there were slim pickings on the rental car front, we ended up with a veritable monster truck! I had to do a chin up just to get into the flipping contraption.

Charleston started life as Charles Town named after King Charles II of England who gave his 8 best mates (Lord Thisnthat) the Carolina territory and they first settled it with English from the Bahamas, how random. Charleston was considered a wealthy city with an aristocratic air. In fact it was the leading city in the South from the colonial era to the Civil War. That would be impressive except for the fact by 1770 half of its population were black slaves. No wonder America’s scars run so deep, especially in the Deep South.

Pina Coladas are on me!

After a tremendous sleep, we hit the streets, ambling down to Waterfront Park to snap a pic of the famous Charleston Pineapple fountain (you don’t see many of those). Onward in the rising November heat through the charming French Quarter to the Battery. There were serene views out over the sea, ancient southern mansions lined the promenade, cannons and relics in White Point Gardens marked the city’s involvement in the Civil War. Charleston was living up to its hype as a historic genteel Southern city.

We wandered through the cobbled streets gawking at the antebellum houses dripping in Spanish moss, history leaking out of every pore. Two young boys were sitting on the street making 'roses' out of reeds. They pushed one on Róisín and pressed for money in return. Gotta love their entrepreneurship, plus Róisín does mean “little rose” in Irish, of course I had to buy it. In fairness, the rose was expertly made. We found out later roses made of reeds were often given by girls in the South to their Sweetheart as he headed off to war. Obviously, the reeds lasted longer than delicate petals would (in fact the reed rose probably lasted longer than the Sweetheart did!).

Hey, I'm walkin' here!

We headed to the Charleston City Market, it was where the slaves came to buy food for the plantations. I was hoping to be knocked out by smells of sweltering veg and exotic spices but it was clean and airy, packed full of tourists and high priced trinkets. That said I love pottering through markets so I enjoyed the mild chaos. Every second stall was manned by a large African-American women selling handmade sweetgrass baskets -a tradition handed down from generation to generation based on West African roots.

The baskets were flawless and each seller out did the last with design ingenuity, but they ain't cheap, the average price was $150. I opted instead for a $10 cross made from sweetgrass (still in perfect nick many years later). We grabbed lunch and drifted down to the nearby King Street which is known for its antiques. It was all high end wish-list stuff, and it made the baskets’ price look like chump change.

"Have you got a basket for my basket?"

Charleston is all about taking it slow and paying attention to your surroundings. We happened upon a tour group stalled at a crossroads. “Here lies the ‘Four Corners of the Law’,” announced the guide “Four opposing street corners nicknamed the Four Corners by Mr Ripley -of Believe it or Not fame- because they contained all four legal influences: Federal (Federal courthouse), State (City Hall), Local (County courthouse), Ecclesiastical (church).”

The things you learn while waiting for the lights to change! Although, by and large, not one of Mr Ripley’s more interesting titbits. I was hoping for an ending like “and out of these four legal influences walked the world’s tallest man with four heads and each head chomped a corner out of each building, and those corners now make up the traffic lights that amazing woman is standing beside”...something along those lines.

Looking sharp

We did some more rambling about, picture taking, plaque reading because it's the kinda town you can do that in.

I was very keen to visit a plantation and learn more about the history of the South. We decided not to go with a restored plantation as we had done that before in Tennessee (for that tale – read here), instead we wanted to visit a Ghost House. I’ll admit, I strongly pushed for this as I may have thought that meant the house was haunted, it actually means a house abandoned during the Civil War -ya win some, you lose some.

We headed out of town with a house in mind, bumping over swampy back roads, bugs smashing into our windscreen with such rapidity and noise, it felt like a hail storm.

Drayton Hall was the only house that survived the Revolution, the Civil War, earthquakes, hurricanes, and seven succeeding generations, in near original condition. It contained no furniture, nothing has been gussied up, it was the real deal. With nothing much to work with I feared our guide would be as empty as the house but the docent (American speak for ‘volunteer guide’) was a natural; young, knowledgeable, engaging, interesting and funny.

Drayton Hall was owned by the Drayton family, an English family. It avoided being burned to the ground by Union troops (as they burned all the nearby houses) because it had yellow flags on the driveway which meant illness or hospital, the troops stayed away (we don't know if it was a ruse on Draytons part or true!). At certain points the Draytons abandoned the house due to money issues, war, etc, but they kept coming back over the generations.

To the Manor born

With all the furniture gone, to examine the bones of the house in the glory of its birthday suit, as God intended, was a surprising joy. I don’t know much about architecture but Drayton did, to keep with Italian style symmetry the house had two matching sweeping staircases leading up to the main door. The symmetry continued within every room of the house. He also was a fan of the Greek style, doric plain columns on the 1st floor indicated family only, corinthian ornate columns on the 2nd floor indicated entertainment. I liked this guys code, upstairs for dancin’, downstairs for sleepin’.

Each room was as naked as the day it was born, but the over mantles, cornices, mouldings, etc, told the tale. The more ornate the more important and formal the room. The less ornate were the bedrooms. If you compare this to our modern times, I feel like people's entertaining rooms are casual and informal and their bedrooms and bathrooms get all the fancy attention. Drayton, I’m with you, let’s make the ‘common area’ uncommon!

Europeans may have designed the house but it was slaves who built it. A lot of the slaves were brought over from West Africa because the climate was similar and they would be experienced with growing rice (the Draytons grew rice and corn). As we know from the shame and disgrace of history, slaves were an integral part of plantation life, from working the fields to raising the white children. The same slave woman raised 3 generations of the Draytons, running up and down a narrow steep stairwell that brought her from the basement of the large house to the children's rooms at the very top of the house. She couldn't even use the main staircase, there was a poky tight and winding secret staircase that led from the kitchen in the bowels of the house up to the kids bedroom at the very top of the house. When she retired at 90 she was sent to be a housemaid to another house! Disgraceful treatment of a human being!

To finish the tour, we were brought into the basement of the house where the cooking took place, this was where the slaves would come together. They would have been from different parts of Africa, speaking different languages with different faiths and belief systems, but they had to communicate. The creole language and culture called Gullah was born. It was a mixture of African languages with French and English words mixed in.

I will respect your space

We left the empty house full of knowledge from architecture to history to slaves' lives. As we walked across the wide estate away from the haunted house and towards the rippling river, the Spanish moss hanging from the trees around us, the guide warned us to be careful of the river as a 15 foot alligator had been spotted there 2 weeks back! Pushing Dom and Roisin out of the way I ran like hell back to the colossal car.

I felt like we had only tapped on the vat of history that is Charleston and South Carolina. But it was time to get on the road to Georgia and see what history Savannah would throw at us. Unexpectedly, we were about to find out Savannah was more Irish than Boston!