Colonial Williamsburg in the US state of Virginia is about the closest any of us is likely to get to time travel! This extraordinary historical attraction has a huge amount to offer visitors, including a lively taste of 18th century politics.
Everywhere you travel, there’s a palpable sense of nationalistic enthusiasm in the air. From the red, white and blue banners hanging on shop fronts, to the Stars and Stripes in front yards and on bumper stickers on shiny pick-ups, Americans are celebrating their Americaness with gusto — and there seems to be nothing they like better than getting back to their historic roots.
As a kid, I remember with great fondness visiting Old Sydney Town north of Sydney. It was a recreation of Australia’s first colony, complete with a muddy dam that served as Botany Bay and a replica vessel from the First Fleet you could go on board to see where the convicts slept.
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There were colonial buildings to explore, townsfolk in period costume wandering about, and the odd shoot-out with some feisty bushrangers. I don’t recall there being any Indigenous characters in the narrative, but this was the 1970s. Indigenous Australians were still very firmly outside anyone’s narrative.
Today I had to Google to see whether Old Sydney Town still exists. It doesn’t. It closed in 2003.
A search for similar attractions across the country didn’t yield much result either. There’s stalwart Sovereign Hill in Ballarat, a mini Gold Rush town at Dreamworld on the Gold Coast, and a few smaller outfits here and there. That’s about it. What happened? How did the historical recreation fall out of favour in Australia so spectacularly? It certainly didn’t in the USA, which brings me to Colonial Williamsburg — a 70-hectare living museum in the heart of Williamsburg, Virginia.
Williamsburg was established in 1632 and became the state capital in 1699. Virginia originally covered an area the size of eight US states today, so the capital would have had quite a sphere of influence. An array of impressive buildings were constructed, including the Governor’s palace and Congress building.
In 1780 the then-Governor Thomas Jefferson made the decision to move the capital to Richmond for defensive reasons and Williamsburg fell into a deep sleep. Literally. Like Rip Van Winkle or Snow White, the historic township lay in state for a century and a half, waiting for someone with the right touch to awaken it. Enter Rev William Goodwin, who, in 1920, recognised its potential as a heritage attraction. With the assistance of philanthropist John D Rockefeller Jr, one by one the town’s decrepit colonial properties were acquired, restored, and gradually Colonial Williamsburg was born. Today a staggering four million people visit it annually — 95% of them domestic tourists.
As you enter greater Williamsburg, it’s hard to know where the actual town ends and the recreation begins. But that’s part of the magic. Gradually modern apartment blocks and Subway restaurants become colonial homes and taverns. Cars give way to horse and carts; modern dress blends with period accoutrements; and before you know it you’ve travelled back to the late 1700s. There’s no gate or ticket booth to designate the boundary. It just happens.
Approximately 88 of the buildings are original, and the town adheres strictly to the original layout of the capital pre-Revolutionary War. The houses are all occupied. The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation rents them out at market rates (those working at the attraction are given priority for a tenancy). So in effect this is a living, breathing, working colonial town. There are restrictions on tenants — no washing hanging out in public, no kid’s toys lying around the yard etc. The homes and gardens are beautifully maintained by the foundation. It’s quite something.
As we wander along the grassy domain in front of the British governor’s home (this is still an English colony at the time, remember), a commotion appears to be brewing. The townsfolk are unhappy with the governor, who appears to have purloined the colony’s supply of gun power. A large mob gathers (consisting of actors and us tourists), spurred on by headstrong young bucks hungry for revolution. Before long we’re all itching for a fight with our masters from Blighty, but wise words from an elder statesman quell the uprising. For now.
Over at the Capitol Building, another tourist throng assembles for a Q&A with George Washington. These presentations by historical figures are definitely one of the top things to do at Colonial Williamsburg. George has attracted a full house. Now this is no bunch of 5th graders asking a jaded convict what he ate on the voyage over from England on the Sirius. These are hard hitting questions from passionate adults (and kids) about rights, tariffs, taxes, and the legislative obligations of the British Empire to her colonies. Mr Washington is not one to shy away from an argument when a question raises his ire.
I gather up the courage to ask whether he has heard of the imminent establishment of a penal settlement in New Holland (later to become Australia) and if the American colonies currently take Britain’s excess convicts. ‘Most certainly’ he replies, ‘the British delight in exporting their rattle snakes to us’.
I learn that the actor playing George Washington is renowned for his work and in constant demand in this role. He’s built a career on it. I briefly wonder whether you could do something similar back home with Captain Arthur Phillip, but the reality is you’d probably end up doing children’s parties or starve through lack of interest (the latter might be preferable).
We tour the Congress building, visit the fully functioning smithy, and wander the streets engaging with the townsfolk, until gradually the 18th century world blurs and fades away and the transition back to the present is complete.
Our wonderful day at Colonial Williamsburg leaves me wondering if perhaps the historic recreation back home is just sleeping — waiting for someone with the right touch to come along.
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Adam Ford is editor of Top Oz Tours and Travel Ideas, and a travel TV presenter, writer, blogger, and photographer. He has travelled extensively through Europe, Asia, North America, Africa, and the Middle East. Adam worked as a travel consultant for a number of years with Flight Centre before taking up the opportunity to travel the world himself as host of the TV series Tour the World on Network Ten. He loves to experience everything a new destination has to offer and is equally at home in a five-star Palazzo in Pisa or a home-stay in Hanoi.