Williamsburg in Winter
I moved to the East Coast from California several Decembers ago. Lucky me, it happened to be a winter filled with minus-twenty degree wind chills. By February, I was so frozen stiff that I demanded a vacation. I headed to celebrate Washington’s Birthday where my historian’s heart had always dreamed of visiting – Williamsburg, home of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Patrick Henry. Land of impeccably restored eighteenth century architecture, peopled by historical interpreters, and dotted with fine restaurants and good shops.
Even better, surely it was far enough south to feel balmy, right? Well, we did step out of the car to find mid-twenties temperatures during the day, swept across our faces by forty mile-per-hour winds. We reminded ourselves this was warmer than where we had left and sallied forth.
In the summer, Williamsburg’s streets swarm with tourists and historical interpreters shout at them like barkers to catch their attention, in hopes of focusing their fickle attention on a story from the past, or a building to enter, or a recreated treat. It’s as vibrant and alive as fish leaping and dancing in a crowded river.
But Williamsburg during a cold winter is like stepping through a time warp, until you’re walking through streets which still remember what colonial life meant. In the summer, almost every building offers shelter from the weather to a visitor. But in the winter? A pedestrian must clutch her coat – or sturdy woolen cloak – firmly around her, then trot briskly toward her destination, often with her hands hidden away from the biting wind.
We soon realized we needed to study the map long and carefully to see what was open, then plot our route accordingly. We soon learned which side of the road was best at sheltering us from the gale – no, wind – and mapped our dashes accordingly. We visited some tradesmen’s shops simply because they were open and therefore warm – and found ourselves exploring wonderful things.
We grew to recognize the brisk swing of an interpreter’s cloak as he – or she – hustled between buildings. (Or raced to their twentieth-century vehicle hidden at the edge of the Historic Area.) We tried to avoid any dire suspicions about what was under an interpreter’s costume if his cloak’s swing seemed a tad leisurely. Surely nobody with their heart in the eighteenth-century would stoop to modern long johns?
Indoor spaces became measured by their distance from a fire. The blacksmith’s forge felt warm and cozy as soon as the door swung open. It was full of women, too, who huddled around the front counter which was the closest visitors could come to that massive forge. My, could those females come up with questions about how to make wrought iron keys – and stare down their husbands if they dared suggest moving on!
The private dining room at Christiana Campbell’s Tavern, George Washington’s favorite tavern, was a long, narrow space, barely wide enough for two small card tables set diagonally immediately in front of the fireplace. Since my sister and I had the room to ourselves, we sat down with our backs to the blazing fire and soon grew completely warm for the first time all day. We grew hotter and switched sides of the table so that we could stare into the flames, only to find our backs freezing cold. We quickly learned how to slowly rotate our places at the table so we would remain evenly comfortable, a trick which the server assured us had been frequently performed a few centuries ago.
And we enjoyed our dinner, inspired by eighteenth century recipes and eaten in flickering candlelight, so that servants sometimes seemed to appear out of the darkness beyond by magic.
The fine residences had their own charm, especially the kitchens. I’d never before seen beating an egg white with a twig, whose end had been sliced up into a brush. It took a long time and a strong arm – and possibly magic – but when that egg white bubbled and frothed and finally stood erect and stiff in the goblet, everyone on the tour cheered.
The hearth itself, where cooking was done, was actually more like a room than a box. It had a heavy stone floor to conduct heat from the small fires built at various places inside it. (No wonder so many women died from having their skirts catch on fire!) Wrought iron levers and hooks stretched along the hearth’s roof, ready to move pots and pans from one spot to another. They looked like oriental dragons, sinuous and deadly, ready to snake into the flames to do battle.
Upstairs, light stole into the rooms from all sides Often there’d be a window seat on the landing for the stairs, originally designed to catch a welcome breeze to ease summer heat or brighten an impromptu dance in the wide center hallway below. And always, always the incredibly rich slickness of milk-based paint covering the walls, which makes them feel like silk over stone.
I tried to recapture some of those sensations when I wrote “Caught by the Tides,” my paranormal Regency romance, in BEYOND THE DARK. The terror of being out in the dark in the cold, where a sudden drenching could leave my heroine as vulnerable to the storm as my shipwrecked hero. The unexpected magicks to be found in the kitchen, from its warm shelter to the iron hooks overhead.
And, most of all to my twentieth-century eyes, the incredible amount of work required to accomplish anything, a craftsman’s pride of accomplishment, and a rich man’s careless acceptance – even dismissal – of other men’s craftsmanship. My hero is a noblewoman’s abandoned bastard, who abhors being classed with the aristocracy. Learning to accept his right to wear fine clothing is a very large portion of his growth – and I couldn’t have written some of his sensations without visiting Williamsburg.
Have you ever visited a place which made the past come alive for you? Do you have a favorite place to visit when you’re writing a book, just to get inside your characters’ heads?