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4 - 17 July 2016 Virginia

Monday 4th July – American Independence Day - Sandy has her stars and stripes collar on.

Heavy rain overnight. Like the UK, it always rains on a holiday Monday! We packed up camp and headed east towards West Virginia on the I-64.

Known as the Mountain State, West Virginia sits within the tree covered Appalachian Mountain Range area. In the south is the large Pocahontas Coalfield discovered in the 19th century. In the north-east is Harpers Valley where the Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers meet and Robert E Lee captured John Brown when he attempted to raid the United States Arsenal.

It was a damp misty morning with low cloud and showers as we headed towards Charleston, the state capitol of West Virginia.

Crossing over the Kanawha River the dome of the State Capitol building came into view.

As we continued east towards the Appalachians there was low cloud covering the heavily forested hills. From the interstate we could see small towns and communities nestled in the valleys down below the road level.

At Sandstone Mountain we hit 7% downgrades. Crossed the New River which is in fact one of the oldest rivers in the USA and looked down into deep gorges.

We soon crossed the state line into Virginia and the George Washington National Forest.

Virginia is a state full of history. In 1607 the first permanent British settlement was established in Jamestown. The American Revolutionary War and the American Civil War both came to a finish in Virginia where the decisive last battles were fought. Plus, seven presidents have been born in Virginia, including George Washington.

After our six hour drive we arrived in the Shenandoah Valley and the Walnut Hill RV Park, situated just outside Staunton near a little place called Mint Springs. Nearby is some very pretty farmland and substantial looking homes.

The campsite sits between the Appalachian and Blue Ridge Mountains on an old walnut plantation. The site is lovely with plenty of trees, a small creek running through the property, a fishing pond and a swimming pool.

Tuesday 5th July

We unpacked and set up our new kayak today. A twin hull Sea Eagle. The kayak is inflatable, making it light weight and easy to store.

We seem to have this area of the RV Park to ourselves. Everyone has gone home after the holiday weekend.

Sandy is enjoying the dog park.

Took a drive into Staunton. Nice town with houses built on the surrounding hills overlooking the town centre. Reminded us very much of an English market town.

Stopped off at the Byers Street Bistro.

Wednesday 6th July

Wimbledon, watched Andy Murray and Jo-Wilfred Tsonga. Five set match which Murray won for a place in the semifinals.

Thursday 7th July

Weather is very hot with 76% humidity. Went into Staunton to the Redbeard Brewing Company this evening. They have a simple tap room next to the brewing area and we had a very social evening. Ali, who was serving behind the bar, was delightful and gave us lots of information about the town and surrounding area. Several locals came in and we sat around the bar chatting,

Friday 8th July

The Shenandoah National Park is in the heart of the Valley where the Blue Ridge Parkway and the Skyline Drive converge. We had driven a few miles of the end portion of the Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina, today we would start at its beginning. However, instead of going south onto the Parkway we turned north into the Shenandoah National Park and along the only road through the park, the Skyline Drive which, like the Parkway, continues along the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

The National Park opened in 1936 and has the Shenandoah River Valley to the west and the hills of Piedmont Virginia to the east. The 105 mile drive has 75 overlooks with fabulous views over both sides of the ridge. The area was populated before the park opened with farms and there was a logging industry. It took 10 years for the people who lived there to re-locate and gradually the land returned to its natural state and the wild animals returned.

We stopped off at our first overlook and as we got out of the car the fragrant smell of wild flowers was in the air.

Back in the car and approaching Blackrock Gap, a tiny black bear cub ran out of the forest across the road in front of us, followed by Mother bear and then another little bear and then yet another little bear.

We couldn’t believe our eyes. We came to a stop and wondered if there was any more to come but no this was a family of three. They all landed safely on the other side of the road. Mother bear stopped to have a look at us before disappearing into the forest. Two of the cubs shimmied up a tree and peaked around the trunk to check us out.

No wonder the speed limit on this road is 35 mph.

We continued on along the winding parkway climbing to just user 4000 feet. Stopping to see the marvelous forest and valley views on the way.

There are also many trails to walk suitable for all levels and the Appalachian Trail passes through the park.

We stopped off for a sandwich lunch at a nicely shaded picnic area.

At Thornton Gap we came off the Skyline Drive onto highway 211 to make our way to the I-81 and our journey back south.

Called into Staunton for a walk around. Passing the Augusta County Court House we climbed the hill to the old rail station.

Continuing on past Victorian terraced houses we turned at the end of the street down the hill and into Byers Street.

This area is known as The Wharf and back in the 19th Century many warehouses were built along this street that have now been renovated for mixed use businesses. By now we were in need of refreshments and stopped off at Byers Street Bistro, where we shared a plate of Pork Belly Nachos.

Saturday 9th July

We met up with Tidge and Doug (husband and wife town tour guides) outside the Woodrow Wyatt Library and Museum in the centre of Staunton. They were both born in Staunton and have a wealth of knowledge about the place and its history. At one time they lived in Northfield, Birmingham where their daughter was born. Tidge taught at Edgbaston High School for Girls and Doug was studying architecture at the University of Birmingham. Another example of the ‘small world’ syndrome.

Staunton is one of the oldest towns in the area. The first settlers arrived in the 1720’s from Pennsylvania, Maryland and east Virginia. There was a mixture of German speakers, Northern Irish, English and African Americans. Strategically placed on one of the travel routes to the west, the town became a centre for trade. In 1854 the arrival of the Virginia Central Railway increased commercial activity and by the late 19th century the town had grown in size and prosperity. Many fine homes and public buildings were erected during this time.

During the civil war Staunton played an important role when the fertile Shenandoah Valley acted as the ‘breadbasket’ of the Confederacy.

Our architectural tour started in the Gospel Hill district of town. An area of shady streets and elegant homes with a variety of architectural styles which Doug described.

We came across a yard sale taking place outside one house.

On to the Beverley area, down a steep hill into downtown Staunton and the main 19th century shopping street. This smart street of well-preserved or restored buildings has a mixture of small business, restaurants, theatre and the National Valley Bank, featuring a magnificent oval stained glass skylight. One 1911 building designed in Venetian Revival style has a white façade made of terra cotta panels which were shipped in from New York.

The Marquis Building is a familiar looking late Victorian Romanesque Revival style corner building with a tower.

Next to the Newtown district - although the area was deeded to the city in 1787. Here we saw Trinity Episcopal Church dated 1855. Early Gothic Revival architecture makes it look very English parish church with its surrounding graveyard. Inside it boasts twelve Tiffany Studios windows.

As we moved through the residential area of this district two very enterprising young girls were out in their front yard selling homemade lemonade. They did a roaring trade from our group of hot and tired tourists.

We thanked Tidge and Doug for an informative and interesting tour. Made all the more interesting by anecdotes and stories about characters that have lived in the town. We have certainly learnt a lot about Victorian architectural styles, and do feel as if we have got to know the town a little more.

Sunday 10th July

Managed to watch the Wimbledon final before leaving the campsite. We were due to leave the site at 1200 and therefore disconnect the cable TV. The match finished at 1200 (eastern-time), perfect timing.

Set off for Robertson Lake to try out the new kayak. The lake is about an hour west of Staunton down the I-81 near Lexington.

We got onto county road 251 towards Collierstown. Travelling along rural roads past farmsteads

and along creeks and streams

we came to the lake which is off the beaten track on the eastern slopes of the Alleghany Mountains, a beautiful quiet rural spot.

Our pitch is spacious and has a field opposite for Sandy to run around.

We were met by the camp host Ron who gave us a nice welcome and said to just ask if we need anything.

Had a walk down to the lake.

Monday 11th July

Took the Kayak out on the lake today. As it’s a fishing lake we couldn’t try the engine out but the kayak handles very well.

Back to camp for barbeque.

Tuesday 12th July

Stayed around camp enjoying the nice weather and peace and quiet. There is no traffic noise here, we are far away from any main roads and the camp is not busy. The only sounds were from the birds and the insects. We heard rumbles of thunder though throughout the day and had heavy rain this afternoon.

We lit a fire hoping to have toasted marshmallows but even after our efforts to keep the wood dry, it was too damp to stay alight long.

Wednesday 13th July – Happy Birthday Cerys

Weather very warm and pleasant this morning, 24 degrees but the humidity is 84%. Thunder and lightning with heavy rain showers this afternoon, the humidity went up to 91%, everything feels just a little damp.

Thursday 14th July

Thunder and heavy rain showers about again today with fork lightening. Everyone was cleared from the swimming pool and another day when it was not safe to take the kayak on the water.

Late afternoon the sun came out and the skies cleared allowing us to get some pool time. The campsite has a large swimming pool with a lovely mountain backdrop.

Friday 15th July

Walked along the lake trail this morning. Lots of wild flowers in bloom and wild fruit ripening.

Saw a turtle on the trail digging into the soil, maybe laying eggs but couldn’t see any.

Nice views from the campsite.

We packed up camp at lunchtime and made our way back to the I-81 along the winding country lanes, past shallow creeks and small communities.

Arrived back at Walnut Hills RV Park near Staunton.

Our neighbour has got a very nice original Ford Model T. You don’t see many of those about.

Went into town after we had set up camp. On the way called into the cute little Post Office in the small community of Mint Springs.

Went to the Redbeard Brewing Company taproom for an early evening drink. Outside was a food truck selling El Salvadorian food. We ordered something from the truck and sat at the bar eating a very tasty snack, The bar had an end of week Friday night buzz about it as we got chatting to everyone sitting around the bar. The Redbeard is a real local’s bar.

Saturday 16th July

This evening we enjoyed a night of theatre at the American Shakespeare Centre in Staunton where there is a recreation of the Blackfriers Theatre. The play was King Lear but despite that we did have an evening of fun and great entertainment.

Arriving thirty minutes before the start we got seated and the actors - most of whom could sing or play an instrument - entertained us from the gallery with a selection of contemporary music. A great way to get everyone in their seat on time. But it did look comical with them all wearing Elizabethan costume singing the Beatles.

The audience sit on three sides of the stage with some seats placed on the stage. The play is performed with lights on, as it would have been in the original Blackfriars Theatre. All this makes for a more personal experience and you feel part of the action. This is a young and lively theatre company and the action was fast and furious at times. I heard it described as ‘serious fun’.

The theatre is beautifully built and designed with an oak wood interior.

After a wonderful night at the theatre we had a stroll down Beverley Street – main street. Unfortunately the Indian restaurant was closed.

The Marquis Building at night with its unusual corner doorway.

Sunday 17th July

Woodrow Wilson the 28th President (1913-1921) of the United States was born in Staunton.

I knew very little about this president as I stepped inside the Woodrow Wilson Museum building.

Next door on one side of the museum is the Presidential Library and on the other side, the house where Woodrow Wilson was born.

I joined a tour of the house which was led by tour guide Jody. The twelve roomed house was built by the Presbyterian Church as the manse or minister’s home. Woodrow Wilson, the son of a Presbyterian minister was born there in 1846. Although he left the house when he was just a baby he always thought of himself as a Virginian, he had a saying, ‘it’s the roots that count not the leafage’.

The house is in excellent shape and is kept and furnished in keeping with a Shenandoah Valley house of the mid-19th Century, it was just unfortunate we could not take photographs inside. The tour started in the kitchens and scullery on the lower ground floor,

in the 1850’s the household slaves would have worked there. I managed to get one picture of a rather grand looking black lead stove. Gradually we made our way up into the living area filled with period furniture and family artifacts.

The museum chronicled Woodrow Wilson’s life and rise to president. Educated at Princeton he trained to be a lawyer and later joined the Democratic Party. He was president during World War I when America joined the war after the sinking of the Louisiana. In the basement of the museum is a replica first world war trench, complete with the lights and sounds of trench warfare At the end of the war he played a prominent part in putting together the League of Nations and won the Nobel Peace Prize. He suffered two strokes in 1919 and a couple of years later retired from the Presidency.

On show in the museum is a Pierce-Arrow limousine which was on loan from the company for him to use during his presidency. He was fond of the car and five of his college friends bought it for him when he retired.

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