Birthplace of a nation

The British laid claim to America at Chesapeake Bay. It's now famous for wilderness, fine seafood and its three former US capitals. Francis Kane explores
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The Independent Travel

A short distance east of Washington DC is a region that contains one of the most remarkable natural features in the United States, as well as the site of the first English settlement in the New World. Yet few British visitors to the US capital are aware of either its geography or history.

A short distance east of Washington DC is a region that contains one of the most remarkable natural features in the United States, as well as the site of the first English settlement in the New World. Yet few British visitors to the US capital are aware of either its geography or history.

Rather like Colchester and Hastings back home, Chesapeake Bay played a pivotal role in chapter one of its nation's history before slipping quietly into the wings. Having witnessed the birth pangs of colonisation, the coastal region shared by Maryland and Virginia got its comeuppance in 1790 when the two states donated territory for the new District of Columbia. The land was distinctly marshy and mosquito-ridden, but from that moment America's focal point shifted inland, and Chesapeake has been out on a limb ever since.

Today, transatlantic aircraft bound for headline-hogging Washington DC make a circular approach over the bay's northern extremities. This is about as close as most visitors get to America's largest estuary, third in fishery production behind the Atlantic and Pacific, that protects several endangered species, boasts three former capitals and the US Naval Academy along its 4,400-mile shoreline, and is spanned by two remarkable bridges.

These spectacular giants, nearly 200 miles apart, help define a circular route from Washington (or its up-and-coming neighbour, Baltimore) that crosses the bay to the peninsula known as the Eastern Shore and returns to the mainland close to the point where English settlers first staked their claim on America nearly four centuries ago.

In 1607, four years after James Stuart added the English throne to his Scottish one, 214 adventure-seekers were dispatched to make a permanent settlement in the New World. Seeking shelter from the Atlantic gales, they passed through two narrow openings at the southern tip of Chesapeake Bay and headed north-west along a river for about 40 miles before disembarking at a sheltered spot on the north bank. Here they built Jamestown, England's first colonial settlement in America.

Jamestown was not a happy place. The settlers were harried by the Algonquins, and the town was accidentally burnt in 1608. The following winter was especially harsh, and only 60 hardy souls survived. They were on the point of abandoning the venture altogether when John Roche, a tobacco planter, married the beautiful Pocahontas - and peace broke out with the Native Americans.

Even then, Jamestown's miserable luck continued. Devastated by a hurricane and twice more severely damaged by fire, it handed the baton of colonial leadership to nearby Williamsburg before the century was out. The new Virginian capital made an altogether better fist of things, and, with Boston, mounted a twin-pronged assault on British rule. But while Boston has blossomed, the colonial part of Williamsburg has done its best to remain exactly as it was 230 years ago.

You make the journey from the modern to the New World along a walkway that starts in a hotel car-park, lifts you over the traffic and winds gently into fields and woodland. Along the route, plaques set into the pavement heighten your sense of time-travel. I sauntered past the 1940s ("You watch no television") to 1879 ("Thomas Edison turns night into day"), paused at 1865 ("You know people who own other people") before reaching the final milestone of 1776, when - horror of horrors - "You are a subject of His Majesty the King". That took me to the colonial turnstiles, where I entered. Depending on your point of view, Colonial Williamsburg is either a living museum celebrating the birth of a nation, or an upmarket theme park celebrating the birth of a nation. Whatever it is it's impressive, with 88 original buildings and numerous homes and shops reconstructed across the 300-acre site. Outside the governor's mansion, I watched a costumed actor whip a crowd into anti-British fervour, before quenching my thirst with a pint of ale served in a tavern by a rosy-cheeked barmaid - also in costume. It has its theme-park moments, but Williamsburg contains five museums, a farmers' market, and a parish church that's been in continuous use since 1715. By American standards, this is ancient history indeed.

Driving clockwise around the Chesapeake Circle, you reach Williamsburg via one of the engineering marvels of the 20th century - a 23-mile crossing made up of bridges, tunnels, man-made islands and roads. It's so long that when you stand at the mid-point both ends are out of sight. You feel as if you're traversing an ocean. In fact, you are.

The Atlantic waves that feed the southern end of the estuary mix with the fresh water delivered by dozens of tributaries to achieve a perfect balance for life. The mixture is brackish, but not too saline, and the result is a gigantic open-air protein factory. The name Chesapeake is derived from the Algonquin for "great shellfish bay". By the 1880s, oysters were so plentiful that their reefs posed a hazard to boats, and although parasites, agrochemicals and the building boom have hit the oyster hard, the bay is still a teeming source of crabs, clams and fish. At St Michael's, one of Eastern Shore's most beautiful harbour towns, crabs are served with a wooden hammer and written instructions on how best to extract the meat.

Another reason for lingering at St Michael's is to clamber around one of only three surviving wooden screwpile lighthouses, which were once a distinctive feature of the bay. The Hooper Strait light, built in 1879, was replaced by an automatic system and moved to the town's maritime museum in the 1960s. The old bell that rang on foggy nights was driven by giant weights that had to be rewound every two hours by the night watch. The traditional skipjack sailing boats are also dying out, along with the oysters they were designed to catch. The annual Chesapeake haul has declined from 2.5m bushels in the 1950s to 15,000 bushels today, and only half-a-dozen skipjacks still operate commercially. These beautiful craft, with their wide decks and generous expanse of sail, belong to the last working sailing fleet in North America. Their survival may depend on enthusiasts such as Captain Ed Farley, who supplements a declining income from oyster catching by organising parties on the water. "Oysters are a renewable resource," he says, "but things change in the world. There's always someone creating a development of some kind that little guys like me aren't aware of."

The authorities appear to have responded just in time. An anti-pollution programme has been running since 1983, and with DDT now banned from farming, ospreys have returned to the bay along with swans, ducks and Canada geese. And it's not uncommon to see the once-endangered bald eagle, the symbol of the United States itself, vying with falcons and herons to land the biggest fish.

Only the oysters are missing. On the May evening when I sailed on his HM Krentz, Captain Farley lifted his dredge only to discover that all but two of the shells inside were broken or empty.

From St Michael's it's a short hop back to the mainland, across the northern Bay Bridge to Annapolis. This is the third Chesapeake town, after Jamestown and Williamsburg, to be named after a British monarch (Queen Anne), and to have been a former capital of America. In 1783, George Washington selected Annapolis as the site of his continental congress, on the grounds that it was "quiet and safe". Those two adjectives still apply. With its old houses, museums, cobbled streets and bustling waterfront, it's also very beautiful.

At the tip of its State Capitol dome is an upside-down acorn, put there to express the hope that knowledge would fly down from the heavens to fill the chamber below. It's the kind of homespun thinking one doesn't associate with the grey men in suits who run the country today.

SURVIVAL KIT

GETTING THERE

The best airport for Chesapeake Bay is Baltimore/Washington International. British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com) flies there from Heathrow for £329 return. Icelandair (0207 874 1000; www.icelandair.co.uk) and Aer Lingus (00 353 818 365000; www.aerlingus.com) also fly to Baltimore, with links from several UK airports, but all involve connections in Reykjavik (£327) and Dublin (£346) respectively.

STAYING THERE

Williamsburg:

Woodlands Hotel and Suites, 105 Visitor Centre Drive, (001 757 229 1000). Conveniently located for colonial Williamsburg. Doubles from $109 (£64), with breakfast.

Governor's Inn, 506 North Henry Street, (001 757 229 1000).

Rooms from $87 (£51), including breakfast

St Michael's:

The Inn at Perry Cabin, 308 Watkins Lane (001 410 745 2200). This luxury country house costs from $245 (£144), including breakfast.

Annapolis:

Flag House Inn, 26 Randall Street (001 800 437 4825). In the historic district, doubles from $179 (£105).

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