Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Pilgrim's Progress

So we've seen how the Americans stopped being English colonists and became an independent nation. We've also seen how the people of this new nation drifted apart into two distinct regions and fought battles amongst themselves, in particular over differing views on slavery. But now we're off to see where it all started - where did these Americans come from?

In the early 1600's a bunch of English people had grown unhappy with the way the Church Of England did things and ran off to Amsterdam to create a puritan colony. Eventually they were given permission to create a new colony in America, near the Hudson River, and so they left for the New World. It's probably a good thing that they did - what they would have made of the present-day Amsterdam is anyone's guess!

So they sailed from Holland, back to England, and after some kerfuffle with their original boat, boarded a ship called the The Mayflower. They set off from Plymouth, Devon in September 1620 and two months later landed in... Plymouth Massachusetts! What are the chances? Three and a half thousand miles and they land somewhere with the same name - I'm flabbergasted that more isn't made of that!

Except that they didn't... it isn't true. They actually arrived at Provincetown on Cape Cod. They hung around there for a few months before deciding they didn't like it, so they got back on the Mayflower and travelled across the bay to Plymouth. And in Plymouth, they're so proud that this is where the Pilgrim Fathers (as they later became known) arrived, that they have a fantastic monument to celebrate the fact. 

A rock. Not a particularly big rock. Not a particularly interesting rock. Not even a rock that's still in one piece, or even in its original location. But it's symbolic, and to jazz things up a bit they've built a mini Acropolis around it.

There are only so many angles from which you can admire a rock, so after five minutes of rock admiration we decided to admire the Mayflower itself. Well, not the actual Mayflower, that's no longer with us unfortunately, but in the 1950s a replica of the original Mayflower was built in Devon and then sailed across the Atlantic. They called it "Mayflower II, The Revenge"

You can wander around Mayflower II, which we did, and it's hard to imagine around 130 people existing in such a small space for two months at sea - they must have really wanted to be Americans.

The final stage of our "Pilgrimage" (see what I did there?) was to visit the "living museum" that is the Plimoth Plantation (the funny spelling is apparently the way that the founder of the colony, William Bradford, wrote it). It's a bit like walking in to a virtual reality adventure game - you walk around a recreated village populated with people playing the role of the original English residents, baking bread, chopping wood and generally being "old fashioned".

And if you talk to them they do their level best to remain in character, improvising as necessary. Justine bravely engaged one chap in conversation, asking what he thought of The New World compared to England. He immediately picked up on her accent and (to her horror) asked what part of Yorkshire she was from. Shocked by  the accusation that she was a Yorkshire lass she made some comment about the heat, "how did they feel wearing so many layers of clothing?". The puritan responded, quite reasonably, "How do you feel, wearing so little?". Ouch!

I just took photographs, and tried to look like I didn't know either of them!

Tuesday, 21 June 2011

Witch Way To Salem?

Thanks to the infamous witch trials, Salem will forever be associated with all things witchy and spooky. The trials were an example of how things can get out of hand when an atmosphere of suspicion and fear takes over. As men and (mostly) women were accused of witchcraft, their options were to deny it and be hanged or admit their guilt, in which case they would only face prison, but with a caveat - they had to name some of their fellow witch colleagues. So, some were accused by neighbours who had a grudge, others by people who were trying to save their own necks and by the time everything had calmed down, over 150 people had been arrested and at least 20 had been put to death.

If you visit Salem, you are presented with a wide range of potential ghost tours most of which sounded extremely cheesy, so we'd tried to find a walking tour which leaned a little more towards the historical rather than the supernatural. We met at the starting point of the tour in Salem's shopping precinct - it reminded me of Stockport (for those of you who are familiar with one of the North West's premiere shopping experiences) and it soon became clear that even this tour would have a squirt of cheese on the side.

It would appear that the lady who was to guide us around had been to the Dick Van Dyke Institute Of Overacting and we found it difficult to keep straight faces as she beckoned us to follow her from one historic site to another. As the tour continued she'd build up the tension by recounting part of a terrible murder story and then asking "do you want to know what happened next?". In my mind I'm thinking "oh just get on with it woman, tell us about the stuff like we've paid you to" but I don't think she picked up on my British cynicism as she lowered her voice, leaned in towards us and whispered, "well... you'll just have to wait.". We were getting ham as well as cheese.

We were taken round the town and saw various buildings where bad things had happened. But apparently, nearly all of these buildings had been moved there from somewhere else. As we went on, I began to wonder whether any of the buildings were here originally - there's even a large house which has been imported from China - we've no idea why!

Our guide began to describe one of these buildings (again, it wasn't originally in this location, it had been moved from another part of town where they'd needed a parking lot) and the Dick Van Dyke training really began to shine through as she invited us to look up to where the "chiminies" were situated. The more she said "chiminies" the more vividly I could imagine a chirpy whistling chimney sweep dancing across the rooftops, perhaps with an umbrella-wielding nanny alongside him.

To be fair, we did learn some interesting facts about the witch trials including the fate of Giles Corey who refused to plead guilty or not guilty when he was accused. In order to try and force him to submit a plea, stone weights were gradually placed on his chest by the sheriff. Corey still refused to plead and eventually, as the interesting choice of phrase on his memorial stone shows, he was "pressed to death".

After the tour we continued exploring on our own and saw more witchcraft equipment shops than you could shake a broomstick at. Clairvoyants were occupying office space like estate agents do in most towns, and it was interesting to see that, in a town that once killed people for being witches, they were now actively advertising for them!

Excuse me for a minute, I'm just going in to find out what the benefits package would be. If you get a company cat I might be tempted.

Monday, 20 June 2011

Paul... revered?

"How do you view Paul Revere?" we were asked by an American over breakfast at one of our B&B stops. "Is he considered as much of a traitor in England, as he's considered a big hero here?" I answered, "quite honestly, I'd never heard of him until two weeks ago". I've heard of him now though, in fact I seem to have heard of little else.

Paul Revere, wondering how he'll be remembered by uneducated Englishmen

As we arrived in the USA, potential Republican presidential candidate, Sarah Palin, caused a storm by (depending on who you believe) misquoting, mis-remembering, re-spinning or knowing nothing whatsoever about the events that made Paul Revere a national hero.

As we've driven round the US we've learned more and more about the American Revolutionary War in which the cheeky colonists decided that they no longer wished to be ruled by The King Of England and pay taxes to the Great British Parliament (or Awesome British Parliament, as I'm tempted to call it). No, they wanted "liberty" and "freedom" and all that other stuff that the Americans deem to be so important.

Amongst the incidents which led up to the big scrap was the Boston Tea Party in which the colonists, upset with the taxes which parliament had imposed on tea imports, decided to seize a large shipment which had arrived in Boston Harbour and tip it into the water. Its not clear whether they remembered to warm the pot first - personally I doubt that they appreciated the importance of this small but vital step in tea brewing.

The colonists had built up an arsenal of arms just in case things got a bit tasty. The British decided it was time to nip that sort of thing in the bud and on April the 18th 1775, planned a secret mission from their HQ in Boston, to Concord to seize this arms cache. However, the rebellious chaps in Boston got wind of this plan and sent local bell-maker, patriot, tea party participant and all-round cool dude Paul Revere on an overnight ride to warn the colonists along the route that the British soldiers were coming.

Paul Revere on his "midnight ride"
Now this is where Sara Palin gets herself in to trouble because when asked about this event by a TV reporter she behaved a little like I used to when asked by a teacher about some homework I was supposed to have done (but hadn't) and instead of holding my hand up in admission of guilt, tried to waffle my way out of the situation. So she said something like "Paul Revere rang all his bells and set off the air raid sirens to warn the British that the National Rifle Association were about to kick their butts" - I've paraphrased a little but then if Palin's supporters can attempt to change the wikipedia page on Paul Revere then I reckon I'm entitled to rewrite history in my own blog.

The bottom line is that Sara Palin managed to look and sound like she didn't really know about this crucial event in American history and became the target of mockery and ridicule (although to be honest I think that her statement declaring her support for "our North Korean allies" was far more worrying).

Anyway we were passing Concord so we came to see where we (the British) started to lose our grip on them (the no-longer-want-to-be British). There's a National Park trail between Concord and Lexington and we drove along it stopping at various important locations. We saw the statue honouring the "Minute Men", so called because they were available to fight at very short notice, not because they were incredibly tiny!

The Minute Man statue
We watched a multimedia thing which told the story of Mr Revere's journey as he rowed across the Charles River before jumping on a horse and riding through Lexington and on towards Concord, waking households as he went and passing on the warning that the British were coming. He was captured before he completed his journey but he'd achieved what he set out to do, and the colonists were forewarned and forearmed, ready to repel the British troops.

So now we're experts on the American hero Paul Revere. We've seen the place he was captured, the house where he lived, the church where he plotted, the plot where he's buried, paintings of him, bells made by him, the bottom of a warship clad by him and an original pressing of his first US Billboard top 10 hit single!

Everywhere we've turned he's been there and now, like Sarah Palin, I've "had it up to here" with Paul Revere!

Sunday, 19 June 2011

Bar Trek

The day after Brandon we meandered through more of Vermont, including a brief drive through Manchester - we felt we had to go, but it was about as interesting as our new friends from Brandon had suggested it would be. We did see some more covered bridges (there were lots in Lancaster County, and they're popular in Vermont too it would seem), but we need to be careful that we don't become "covered bridge spotters" as that could turn in to an obsession, and a very dull one.

We'd booked a B&B in Townshend and when we arrived that evening, we were advised to visit Rick's Tavern, out on Route 30 near Newfane, for a quick drink and a bite to eat. Apparently Mick Jagger was in there previously, and if it's good enough for one ageing, successful English rockstar, then it's good enough for this slightly younger (but still ageing), unsuccessful English wannabe rockstar.

We wandered in to the tavern which was almost completely empty apart from one guy sitting alone at the end of the bar. We sat at a couple of stools at the other end of the bar and ordered drinks and two bowls of chilli. Behind the bar were hundreds, maybe thousands, of badges from what must have been every fire station in the US. I was browsing each of these when my attention was diverted by the things that I've noticed at every pub we've been in so far - the TV screens behind the bar. There are usually at least three screens, even in the smallest joints, and often they're showing at least three different baseball games for the benefit of the Bud Lite consumers sitting at the bar. But the event that's being screened tonight isn't really sport, though it's no less competitive. Tonight, live from Vegas, is Miss USA 2011, hosted by our very own national treasure, Kelly Osborne.

So we're sitting in a bar in the middle of nowhere, watching the mother of all beauty pageants with the two barmaids and the bar regular, each of us voicing our opinions on the style of each contestant's evening dress, swimsuit or walking style. As the evening goes on, the coverage delivered by Ms Osborne attempts to give us an insight into the personalities, politics and principles of these lovely ladies. One of the contestants, Miss California, lists her passions as "hockey and space exploration". That's right, you read that correctly, Miss California is "passionate", not about bunny rabbits, pansies and niceness, but about a sport that caused Vanouver's population to rip it's own city to pieces, and… space exploration!?!

The impromptu panel of judges assembled in Rick's Tavern begin an animated discussion, wondering if Miss California has already tried her hand at space exploration - if not, is it something she plans to do soon. Our regular points out that he is passionate about fishing, but space exploration is a far more complicated and expensive hobby. Anyway, she had our vote straight away, although not being US citizens I don't think we were allowed to vote - maybe if we'd phoned Kelly directly she might have been able to sort something out.

Unfortunately, long before we got to the results of the judging, it was closing time and we were ushered out by a no-nonsense barmaid (if you're familiar with Carla from Cheers, you'll be on the right lines). The next morning I jumped on to the internet, desperate for the result. Guess who's the new Miss USA? That's right, it's Intergalactic Starfleet Commander Alyssa Campanella from California. Only a matter of time before she's Miss Universe.