O Beautiful For Spacious Skies

Firstly, I wanted to let you know that I have now had a real PIZZA PIE. I had heard of the phrase before (principally in this song) but always assumed it was something of an affectation and just meant a ‘big pizza’. But it turns out you really can get pizzas that look like pies, with a proper crust and everything. And they are DELICIOUS. Husband and I tried one at this particular joint, just a stone’s throw from our flat, washed down with some nice ‘craft beer’, and even though both of us shared a medium sized pizza, were unable to finish it. Thank goodness for the tradition of ‘Can I box that up for you?’ The photo below was taken the next day when I enjoyed an enormous slice for lunch….


When the moon hits your eye like a big...

When the moon hits your eye like a big…


Secondly, staying with new American experiences, we cannot fail to have noticed that 4th July, with all the significance that brings, is rolling our way. As Brits we’re slightly trepidatious (not to say worried that celebrating it might actually constitute treason….) but this morning at church I especially enjoyed the total patriotic music-fest that came our way to mark the season. Firstly, the Battle Hymn of the Republic, complete with fife and drum…


Glory, Glory Hallelujah!

Glory, Glory Hallelujah!


And, to finish the service, a rousing chorus of ‘America the Beautiful’…


America! America!


Is it wrong to enjoy singing these as a Brit? Especially when one of the lines of the latter talks about ‘heroes proved in liberating strife’? I don’t know but it’s certainly a lovely tune! You’ll have to watch this space to see how our 4th of July (sorry, ‘July 4th’) goes… but I am rather pleased to be getting it off work. That’s one aspect of American independence I can get behind.


'O beautiful for heroes proved in liberating strife...'

‘O beautiful for heroes proved in liberating strife…’


Well, speaking of American history, Husband and I enjoyed a couple of delightful trips to local ‘places of interest’ recently. One of these involved us cycling a tandem to Mount Vernon, George Washington’s estate outside the city. It was where he and his wife Martha lived for 40 years and where he is buried. Every year, something like 8 million people visit what is, it must be said, a fairly modest and relatively unexciting two storey farmhouse. It seems to have become quite a place of pilgrimage. I never knew much about George Washington beyond ‘I cannot tell a lie’ and the stuff about the wooden teeth, but it turns out he IS a fascinating character – in particular because of his extraordinarily statesmanlike decision to give up what had been near-absolute power after the American Revolution was over. He resigned his commission and returned to Mount Vernon once the war was won… and was democratically elected as president later, twice. But he decided to retire at the end of his second term, thus setting the precedent for two term presidencies.


After a long 18 mile cycle (yes, we were on a tandem, and yes, I was on the back seat, but I genuinely pedalled all the time. and there were quite a few hills!) along the absolutely wonderful Mount Vernon Trail, which leads all the way from the Washington Monument to his actual dwelling, we made it to the house, which is set in 50 acres of what was a plantation. There was a lovely bike park nestling among the huge carpark, so that was fine, but then we had a bit of a nasty surprise with the admission price –  $17 each! I think we’re still too used to the French system, which allowed journalists in to pretty much everything for free, whether or not they were doing a story on the attraction concerned! I’m not sure what the old whisky-taxer himself would have made of these prices, but we duly paid up… only to discover that our entry to the house itself, thanks to huge queues, would not be until 3.30pm. It was midday. Never mind, we thought. We had bought sandwiches in Alexandria on the way and could at least have a nice picnic in the extensive parkland, looking over the river, while we waited. But THEN it turned out that it was also forbidden to bring your own food and drink on to the site. Making visitors pay through the nose for entry, then wait around for hours in the heat AND forcing them to spend yet more money on fast food… the ‘land of the free’ this most certainly was not, in either sense of the word.


Still, feeling like very rebellious Brits, we sneaked off down a path into the woods and found a conveniently discreet bench on which to consume our naughty lunch. I rather like to think that Washington would have approved. Thus fortified, we were able to spend the remaining three hours or so taking in the rest of the estate at our leisure. Actually, there is quite a lot to see and do. And although it’s a rather Disneyfied experience, with no audio visual or merchandise-flogging opportunity left un-exploited (we especially enjoyed the 18 minute overblown film about Washington’s life, complete with redcoats with cod British accents, called ‘We Fight To Be Free’, and prefaced by a Troy McLure style infomercial about all the money spending opportunities on the estate) one does end up with an excellent appreciation of the life and times of America’s first President and his family. There is a laundry, a working farm, an accurate-to-the-period vegetable and herb garden, and of course Washington’s grave itself, in a secluded grove to one side of the house. If you want, you can go and take part in a wreath laying ceremony every morning there. We had to queue just to look at it, such is the awe the man inspires. It rather reminded me of the Tomb of Saint James at Santiago de Compostella!


One of the things we enjoyed most was an actor dressed up as the man himself, standing on the ‘Bowling Green’ lawn outside the house and recounting his life story – complete with period pronunciations and words (‘independency’ being one I especially liked) and answering questions in character at the end. I loved how several smart-alec kids tried to outwit him with especially niche questions about his life (such as the anecdote about the Spanish mules) – he triumphed every time! He also asked if anyone in the audience had served in the military. A woman put up her hand and said she had, to which he replied, did she mean her husband? Surely she herself had not served! She said yes, she was in the air force. ‘The air force? What, pray tell, is that?’ Superb!


'Pater Patriae'

‘Pater Patriae’


The house itself has been kept fairly authentically as it was at the time, right down to the furniture, but was undergoing some renovations when we went in. Such are the crowds that they keep visitors pretty much constantly on the move while inside, with guides in each room recounting the salient points about it fairly briefly before ushering you to the next. The whole thing took about 20 minutes and wasn’t terribly exciting – except for the Key to the Bastille, which was sent to Washington by the Marquis de Lafayette and hangs in the downstairs hallway. Husband got told off for taking a photo of it…


The Key to the Bastille (forbidden photo...)

The Key to the Bastille (forbidden photo…)


The main thing to take away from a trip to Mount Vernon (apart from all evidence that you brought your own food and drink and didn’t stop in the self service restaurant or on-site Pizza Hut) is how impressive a personality George Washington really was – an inventor, a soldier, a consumate politician and a true statesman. I can see why Americans find him so impressive.  And the visit also brought out something else I love about this country – how fascinated its citizens are by its own history. That’s in evidence not only in the huge queues for places like Mount Vernon but also the genuine interest people take in each aspect, peering into nooks and crannies, shooting up their hands to ask questions, photographing everything over a hundred years old, signing up for extra tours… it’s refreshing to see such a keen attitude. In Europe, we are so steeped in the stuff that it seems we barely know what to do with it, how to swim through the layers (centuries old amphorae stacked in heaps at Pompeii, priceless tapestries casually hanging in attics in English country houses, French chateaux crumbling in the middle of nowhere and being bought up by Chinese businessmen). Here, there’s not enough of it for that – so whatever there is that is in any way historical must not only be preserved but is also worthy of veneration and keen study. Europeans might get sniffy about American excitement at, say, an 150-year-old church, but how much better it is that that church is cherished and well preserved, and locals all know of its significance, rather than left to decay for lack of funds or care.


This attitude was also very much in evidence on our overnight trip to Harpers Ferry, a small town about an hour and a half’s drive from DC. The town itself isn’t really a town, as such, any more – it’s a national park in its own right, and nobody seems actually to live there – it’s more a living museum, with people in period dress in rebuilt shops ‘selling’ cloth, hats, buttons, lamps etc, nineteenth century style. It’s famous for being the location, in 1859, of John Brown’s attempt to start an armed uprising of slaves. Brown chose the town because it was the site of a local arsenal which held 100,000 weapons. He failed, and was captured in the Armoury Engine House (now known as John Brown’s Fort)  by militia from Maryland and the District of Colombia, but he’s still venerated as an early anti-slavery hero and Harpers Ferry is something of a civil rights centre as a result. You can still look at John Brown’s Fort itself (basically a stone barn with very little in it) – at one point it was actually dismantled stone by stone and shown at an Exhibition in Chicago in 1891. That’s how important old buildings are here.


Husband and I were staying in a delightful OLD guesthouse (and it really was old, even by European standards) called the Jackson Rose, built around 1795 and so named because it was the headquarters of General ‘Stonewall’ Jackson in 1861. I would certainly recommend the hospitality – we had a delicious breakfast that included ‘scones’, sort of like what we know as scones, but breadier and not quite as sweet, with home made gooseberry jam. In the evening, we enjoyed sitting on the swinging chair on the porch reading and sipping on some local Virginia wine (we paid a visit to one of the area’s many lovely vineyards, Doukenie, on our way down to Harpers Ferry – but Husband couldn’t sample too much as he was driving! Still, we tasted enough to be confident in buying a couple of bottles, one of which we enjoyed with our dinner at a BYOB restaurant opposite the Jackson Rose that night!)


Harpers Ferry won its place in Civil War History – the town changed hands eight times during the conflict and much of it was destroyed – partly thanks to its amazingly strategic location. It sits exactly at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers, which means it not only had a lot of water power to drive industrial factories (it was a major centre for firearms manufacture, hence the Arsenal being located there) but is also surrounded on both sides by steep hillsides which make good look-out points and a cunning place to position heavy artillery. Husband decided that on Day Two of our visit we should take one of the trails to the top of the hillside known as Maryland Heights, a 300 foot vertical cliff. In 35 degree heat. I was initially sceptical as to the value of this plan, wondering privately whether it might not be nicer to potter around the tearooms in the town or gently stroll along the nearby C&O Canal, but actually, Husband’s plan (as so often) was wiser. The trail was in the shade of the trees nearly all the way and did genuinely have a lot of interesting history behind it, as it was the very same path used by Federal troops as they hauled ten tonne cannon up the hill. To think that I found it bad enough with only a small rucksack (and Husband was carrying that…) The trail takes you past the remains of the troops’ fortifications, with helpful information boards at various points even including excerpts from letters describing what it was like living up on the mountain in tents in the freezing cold (not much fun, in case you’re wondering).


And then, of course, the view from the very top is WELL worth the aching legs. Thomas Jefferson wrote (about a slightly different view actually, but the point holds) that the sight was ‘worth crossing the Atlantic’ to see. And as the two rivers collide, with the town nestling in between and the densely wooded hills looming down on either side, you really can see and appreciate that ‘purple mountain majesty’ and the ‘spacious skies’ Americans enjoy singing about.


America The Beautiful



About wash01

I'm a British broadcast journalist, whose British broadcast journalist husband has just been posted to D.C. I'm along for the ride! Both of us have just spent three years living and working in Paris and are keen to see how the American Dream compares to La Vie Française.
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5 Responses to O Beautiful For Spacious Skies

  1. When I used to listen to aforementioned song I was sure it was an Italianised version of ‘piece of’. That’s how cool I am.

  2. I have a chum thinks Washington is so cool he has Washington Crossing the Delaware tattooed on his shoulder/arm. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Washington_Crossing_the_Delaware_by_Emanuel_Leutze,_MMA-NYC,_1851.jpg

    He currently lives and works in London. 😉

  3. pam says:

    My husband and I visited Mt. Vernon a few years back and although I thought I knew a lot about Washington I came away very impressed with his genius. I had no idea he was so knowledgeable about everything from gardening to canals to politics. And while I agree that all the merchandising is obnoxious, it is the money that allows the upkeep of places like Mt. Vernon. A necessary evil perhaps?

  4. Sue says:

    What a great post. I appreciate the American enthusiasm for history – it’s important to celebrate heroes/heroines from the past. I felt like I was there with you on that expedition. Thanks.


  5. Simon at Stuck in a Book is sending his readers over here to encourage you to update your blog. I heartily urge you to do so. It’s enlightening to see ourselves as others see us and you mention a dozen things in your posts that I never for a moment thought about as unusual — all the street signs, the pill ads on TV, and the veneration for the “old” for example. (I live in an “old” house, built in 1923.)

    I realize you are a journalist and I hope you have found a good job in the DC area. You deserve to be paid for your writing. But your blog is so interesting I hope you are able to find time to get back to it from time to time.

    I apologize for Mt Vernon. I had no idea it had become what you describe. While living in northern Virginia (for 35 years) I must have visited there two dozen times and more, sometimes by bicycle from Old Town Alexandria. It used not to be so expensive nor so commercial. You will have noticed that the federal museums are free (paid for by our taxes instead of by the visitors and their gift shop purchases.) Mt V is run by the Mt Vernon Ladies Association and they charge what they need to charge to stay solvent and what the public will bear.

    I do hope your stay in the US continues to be as rewarding as the first year has been.

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