TRAVEL: IN SCARLETT'S FOOTSTEPS

The spirit of the Deep South before the American Civil War lives on, in mansions converted to exclusive b&bs. Juliet Clough visits Natchez, Mississippi, the queen of the crinoline cities

IN Natchez , Mississippi, America's preoccupied tunnelling into its roots comes up against a seam of bedrock. The Monmouth Plantation Inn dining table, gleaming confidently with candelabra, Sevres porcelain, family portraits and silverware of its very own named pattern, seems the ideal setting for the kind of conversation on which I am idly eavesdropping through a haze of jet lag and mint juleps.

Bud, resplendent in a silver-tipped bootlace tie, is describing his thwarted struggle to become a member of the blue-blooded Mayflower Society. Despite tracing five generations of unimpeachable Pilgrim Father ancestry, Bud (my private candidate for ownership of the stretch Cadillac outside, the one with the Texas number plates saying "Judge") has run up against "a dragon in Plymouth, Massachusetts" and yet more research is required.

His buddy Gene can afford to be sympathetic; the product of eight generations going clear back to Myles Standish, the mainstay of the Mayflower colony, he is home and dry. These things matter in an America increasingly obsessed with its heritage. And where do I come from? "Would that be Scotland, South Dakota or Scotland, Eur'p?"

Whoever coined the term "antebellum", to describe the buildings of the Deep South that have survived the American Civil War of 1861-65, should be congratulated on a flash of genius. "Antebellum" confers classical gravitas plus a hint of southern- belle glamour, resonances altogether lacking in mundane equivalents like "pre-war" or "19th century". With more than 500 antebellum houses - sorry, "gracious homes" - surviving, Natchez is queen of the south's crinoline cities.

It owes this piece of good fortune to simple pragmatism. Before the American Civil War, Natchez boasted more millionaires than anywhere in America, save New York. Most were cotton nabobs, reaping fortunes from slave-operated plantations across the Mississippi River in Louisiana. When Confederate Mississippi seceded from the Union in 1861, Natchez saw which side its bread was buttered and quickly surrendered to the advancing Unionists, the older families throwing open their mansions for balls, garrisons and hospitals. The town was thus spared the pounding meted out over the next four years to neighbours like Oxford and Vicksburg. Natchez lives today to repeat the tale of days when porches came garnished with Corinthian columns and "being all in a bustle" meant something involving 17 yards of taffeta.

Cottoning onto the possibilities of antebellum tourism began by chance in 1932 when, during an annual open day, bad weather obliged the ladies of the Natchez Garden Club to open their houses not their grounds. The public flocked in and Natchez has never looked back. Some 35 private homes throw wide their doors during annual spring, autumn and, from this year, Christmas pilgrimages.

Sixteen of the stateliest mansions are open year round and for those seeking total immersion in the American dream of past glory, many supply bed and breakfast as well as a respectful look round. A new guide to historic properties offering accommodation in Mississippi lists no less than 33 in Natchez.

Bed and breakfast here inevitably means a four-poster and hominy grits. One of my Monmouth friends caused hilarity by ordering "a grit", difficult with maize porridge. Even when enlivened with cheese or poppy seeds, porridge may have limited allure for anyone from Scotland Eur'p. The real magic of a southern breakfast for any northerner is its reckless way with papayas and pineapples. Like fried catfish at Cock of the Walk or smoked beans at the Pig Out Inn, it all helps you realise just how far afield you are.

Breakfast at Monmouth is set out in a pavilion separated from the main house by a winding walk under pecan trees and magnolias full of flitting red cardinals and the sound of mockingbirds. Bullfrogs croaking in a distant bayou and huge oaks bearded in Spanish moss give the surroundings of this and many Natchez mansions an air of venerable melancholy.

Monmouth has been voted one of the top 10 most romantic places in the US by Glamour Magazine and USA Today. Like many Natchezian old-money stately homes, the Burn and Dunleith (which also offers b&b) included, Monmouth has been rescued by new money, in this case by a California developer with a passion for history and a wife with a penchant for interior decoration.

Now papered with French handblocked wallpaper to match the White House's, its Waterford Crystal gasoliers once again gas-lit, its furnishings buttoned to within an inch of sanity, this house and its antebellum neighbours demand complete surrender to 19th-century escapism. In my bedroom at Monmouth I count 26 peach satin bows, on drapes and bed curtains, on frilled pillows and on the owners' family photographs. It's gloriously over the top, a fantasy, but not a fossil because it's a lived-in labour of love.

Given long, lazy afternoons in wicker rockers on Natchez porches, there is plenty of time for stories. Monmouth was built in 1818 and came to fame under the later ownership of the firebrand General John Quitman, a hero of the Mexican War and secessionist Governor of Mississippi. Quitman's portrait, together with that of his 15-year-old bride Eliza, hang in the dining room, looking righteous. Eliza was a retiring sort who by all accounts might not have approved of the jolly time being had round her table by Bud, Walt, Gene and the rest of us.

Child brides seem to have been something of a Natchez speciality. Peter Little, the owner of Rosalie, married a 13-year-old heiress and sent her on her wedding day to finishing school in Baltimore. She returned seven years later having been converted (on the paddle-steamer) so wholeheartedly to Methodism that her husband was obliged to build a parsonage for all the visiting clergy who followed in her wake.

The Governor Holmes House, another historic b&b in the old Spanish quarter, is late 18th-century brick, half-timbered, vine-shaded and elegantly restrained. The yarns here are spun by the 71-year-old owner, Bob Pully, who went to school with Shirley MacLaine, started working life as a dancer with the Metropolitan Opera in New York and later worked for 33 years at the Algonquin Hotel: "I knew them all: William Faulkner, Tennessee Williams and Lord Olivier - when he was just Larry, of course".

Among the stateliest b&bs, Linden is American Federal in style, built around 1800 with the full-width porches that are the setting for so much of the Southern scene and a doorway copied for Gone With the Wind. Monmouth is Greek revival, the architectural craze felt appropriate to Mississippi's mid-century commitment to a new democracy. Pressed for the difference between Federal and Greek revival styles, Marguerite Guercio, Monmouth's kindly mistress of the revels, searches for a definition. "I guess Greek revival is kind of squidgier."

What nearly all antebellum homes have in common are converted slave quarters. While slaves made up half the population of Natchez in 1860, and while just over 50 per cent of today's citizens are black, the well-oiled nostalgia machine makes no more than a few token stops in acknowledgement of their contribution to the town's air of settled prosperity. Melrose, an unusually complete estate house, includes a reconstruction of a slave cabin. However, the Natchez Museum of Afro-American History and Culture is a meagre affair which largely ignores the whole painful issue in favour of home, church and school, plus a depressing account of the "slow walking and sad singing" times of the civil rights movement.

In a state which now boasts more black public officials than any other in the Union, the emphasis is on reconstruction, according to Laura Godfrey, director of PR at the Natchez Convention and Visitor Bureau. "We've righted a wrong. The South is leading the way in racial tension relief," she says.

Antebellum Natchez also had a high proportion of "free persons of colour", many of whose likenesses hang among the enchanting studio portraits of the Natchez elite on display in Stratton Chapel. Among them, elegant in lace and stiff collars, are August and Sarah Mazique, former slaves who founded their own planting dynasty and whose descendants are still prominent in Natchez business circles. Their grand house, China Grove Plantation, is another open as a b&b. The house of the free African-American barber and antebellum diarist William Johnson is also being restored.

Rummaging round historic homes is almost always done under the eagle eye of a lady who, if not a Daughter of the American Revolution, is at least likely to be a member of the First Families of Mississippi or of one of the all-powerful Garden Clubs. Many of them carry on hostessing into their nineties and even without the crinolines obligatorily, nay, enthusiastically donned during the three annual pilgrimages and city pageant, they are a formidable presence.

The guide at Longwood is visibly unimpressed with my halting efforts to translate "punkah", "spittoon" and "jalousies" for bemused French visitors. At Rosalie, I feel on safer ground with a prie-dieu, but stand firmly corrected: "It's a pray-dew".

Keeping historic Natchez tethered to correctness is a serious business. Bob Pully's predecessor went to jail for arbitrarily adding a fifth bedroom to the Governor Holmes House. And Canadians David and Fern Ross are locked in legal battle with the Natchez Board of Aldermen for painting their Orleans Street house bright blue, mauve and sulphur without consultation. How did Glen Auburn get away with blackcurrant fool, one wonders.

For, here, the past is a valuable asset, not only preserved and exhibited but reinvented as part of the trendsetting present. While downtown antique shops constantly recycle the fallout from the sales of old houses, several contemporary design companies pay royalties to the Historic Natchez Foundation for a licence to market copies of wallpapers, stucco, jewellery and furniture under the Historic Natchez Collection label.

Becalmed on its crumbling river bank, Natchez has capitalised on remaining a true backwater. Interstate 55 gives it a wide berth. Today's river barge- men mostly ignore the former haunt of iniquity that was Natchez-under- the-Hill. If you don't come here by paddleboat, the best way to arrive is to drive down the beautiful, moss-hung Natchez Trace, which is an old Indian trail and trade route that stretches as far as Nashville Tennessee.

Making it to Natchez is a bit like my Texan friends' social aspirations. As Laura Godfrey puts it: "To get here, you've got to want to be here."

TRAVEL NOTES: GETTING THERE: KLM fly daily to Memphis via Amsterdam, with connections from 16 British airports. Fares from London Heathrow to Memphis from pounds 409; Jackson (Mississippi) and Baton Rouge are the airports nearest to Natchez. KLM's code-sharing agreements with Air UK, Transavia and Northwest Airlines means many UK and American destinations can be linked on one ticket: for example Edinburgh-Jackson via Amsterdam and Memphis with Air UK, KLM and Northwest costs from pounds 517 (seven nights). KLM Reservations, tel 0181 750 9000.

STAYING THERE: Accommodation at Monmouth Plantation Inn, 36 Melrose Avenue, Natchez, Mississippi 39120 (a member of Small Luxury Hotels of the World) can be booked in Britain on a toll-free phone number: 0800 964470. The phone number in the US is 001 601 442 5852, and b&b rates range from US$110 to $190 per room.

FURTHER INFORMATION: The Mississippi Tourist Information Line in Britain will supply a guide to b&b mansions in Natchez and elsewhere; tel 01462 440787. So will the Natchez Convention and Visitor Bureau, PO Box 1485, Natchez, MS 39121, tel 001 601 446 6345, fax 001 601 442 0814. For general inquiries, contact Mississippi Tourism, PO Box 849, Jackson, MS 39205, tel 001 601 359 3297, fax 001 601 359 5757.

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