And not any old blog post, photos of sunny, beautiful Charleston, South Carolina!  Finally!  It’s hard taking a holiday round here, so much to do when you get back.  And do you remember how appalling the weather was in Michigan in April?  All the stuff we normally do that month like clearing up our large garden, digging over the veg border, stripping and re-staining the deck, washing the windows and putting the window screens back in, etc, etc, just didn’t happen.  So it all had to be done on our return, still not 100% finished, but it also wasn’t helped that I wasn’t at home at all for the two weekends following our trip, so with the holiday, that makes four complete weekends away from home.

Anyway, Charleston.  Lots of photos here interspersed with the history of the city.  This first post is all about historic Charleston itself, look out for another post in a couple of days with other photos of the surrounding area, all photos should be clickable for a larger view.

I’ll readily admit to not knowing a whole lot about American history.  I know about the Constitution, the American Revolution and I’ve heard of the Civil War for example.  I know a bit about the famous early presidents too, like Robert Adams, Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln but really, that’s about it.  Not much is it? So we were pleasantly surprised to discover the wonderful, historic and very intimate city of Charleston.  They always say the South is so much different from the North, it’s more polite, genteel and friendly, and we’ve experienced that before in North Carolina, Virginia and Georgia, but in South Carolina they seem to have taken those qualities to a new level.  The Charlestonians are very, very proud of their beautiful city, and are very keen indeed to show it off.

Charles Towne was first founded in 1663 after a land grant from King Charles II of England to eight of his loyal friends after he was reinstated to the Crown  following Oliver Cromwell’s short lived attempt at over throwing the monarchy and establishing a Commonwealth of England.  Seven years later in 1670 the first settlement was established North of the current city on the banks of the Ashley River by English settlers who moved from Bermuda.  By 1680 they had been joined by more English settlers from the UK, Barbados and Virginia and the city was relocated it it’s current location at the mouth of the Ashley and Cooper rivers that empty into Charleston Harbour.

Charleston continued its rapid expansion and was soon the largest and busiest port South of Philadelphia and the fourth busiest port in the nation, behind Boston, New York and Philadelphia.  It’s main cash crops were deer skins, indigo dye for the textile industries, rice, silk and cotton.  In order to maintain this status and grow these crops in such quantities to be financially viable they needed a huge workforce, and to that end, the single biggest import into Charleston was black Slaves from Africa.  So much so in fact that by 1770 more than half the population of the city was slaves.

As the relationship between the colonists and Britain deteriorated, Charleston became a focal point in the ensuing American Revolution.  Twice the British attacked the city, the second time they managed to successfully capture it in what was known as the Siege of Charleston, which was the greatest American defeat of the entire war.  The British occupied the city from 1780 until finally pulling out in 1782, and it was immediately after this that Charles Towne was officially renamed Charleston.  They city continued to boom after the Revolution in a period known as the Antebellum Era, cotton became the major crop of the area, and during this period the wealth of Charleston rivaled that of New York.  Charleston was still unhappy though and South Carolinians became more devoted to the idea that their state’s rights were superior to the Federal government’s authority and in 1830 they passed an ordinance to repeal any Federally imposed law in the State, thus sowing the seeds for the American Civil War some 30 years later.

On December 20, 1860, following the election of Abraham Lincoln, the South Carolina General Assembly voted to secede from the Union, to become an independent state not part of the Union of North and South, and on 9 January 1861 they opened fire on the Union ship, Star of the West, as it was entering Charleston Harbour.  On April 12, 1861, shore batteries  opened fire on the Union-held Fort Sumter in the harbor.  After a 34-hour bombardment, Major Robert Anderson surrendered the fort, thus starting the war.

Union forces repeatedly bombarded Charleston and blockaded the harbour for the best part of the four year war.  Nothing could get out and hardly anything could get in.  In 1865 Union troops finally moved into the city, taking control of all major sites and the Confederate States of America, which had grown to include Texas, Alabama, Tennessee, Georgia, Florida, Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas, Virginia and North Carolina, were defeated.

The war had destroyed Charleston, the prosperity of the beautiful Antebellum city was shattered.  Freed slaves faced poverty, discrimination and destitution, their masters often left penniless with the plantations destroyed and the grand homes looted and burned, however industries slowly brought the city and its inhabitants renewed vitality and Charleston began to rebuild and its population once more began to grow.

As the city’s commerce improved, Charlestonians also worked to restore their community institutions. In 1865 The Avery Normal Institute was established by the American Missionary Association as a private school for Charleston’s African American population.  The United States Arsenal was converted into the Porter Military Academy, an educational facility for former soldiers and boys left orphaned or destitute by the war and The William Enston Homes, a planned community for the city’s aged and infirm, was built in 1889.

However, the newly restored and revitalised city was to receive a further blow, this time from Mother Nature, when in August 1886 an earthquake measuring 7.5 on the Richter Scale destroyed most of the city.  The quake was so powerful it was felt as far North as Chicago and as far South as Cuba.  Undaunted, Charleston rebuilt itself for the second time in less than thirty years.

One of the things that really appealed to us as we walked around the city and also as we viewed it from the water on the day we went kayaking was one of the city’s ordinances that states that any building in the downtown area of Charleston can not be higher that any church steeple!  It came into affect between the Civil War and the earthquake and still stands today.  What this means is that this stunningly beautiful city retains not only it’s beautiful buildings and Southern laid back charm, but it manages to do so without looking like every other major city in this country with its banks of bland, huge skyscrapers dominating the skyline.  It is truly amazing to see churches and historic buildings instead of mirrored glass high rises.  Because of this, it has also earned the nickname of the Holy City.

The current economy of the region is propped up by the three military bases in the area but also by German industrial giant Bosch, and in 2009 Boeing announced that their new wide body 787 Dreamliner, which is scheduled to go into production in July of 2011, will be built in North Charleston.  The IT market is also very strong in South Carolina in general, all adding to the almost 30% increase in population since 2000.  And of course, Charleston is still a very busy and bustling container port, the 4th busiest on the East coast and the 8th busiest in the United States.  Plus let’s not forget the tourists, tourism is really big business for the South, especially the coastal towns and cities.

The weather while we were there was quite amazing.  It was still in the high 30’s, low 40’s in Michigan with a few lingering snow and sleet showers too while we were gone.  But in South Carolina it was full summer, with the temps ranging from 75F to 86F, with only the one day of rain.  Everything we expected to see in bloom for the Spring was completely finished, instead all the summer perennials that you might see in the UK and also in the Northern States of America, like delphiniums and roses were in full bloom, it truly was the middle of summer.  All the summer blooming annuals were planted up in tubs, planters and baskets everywhere you looked.  Their “winter” is a short couple of months encompassing December and some of January with highs in the 50’s and lows around 45F!!  They had 3.2″ of snow in February 2010, breaking a 20 yr old record.  They are of course at risk during the summer and early autumn from hurricanes.  The worst one being Hurricane Hugo which came ashore in 1989 causing over $2.8 billion dollars worth of damage.  However, thinking back to this years appalling winter, and 18 years of pretty appalling winters actually, I could live with that!!  Have I sold you on South Carolina yet?  I think I’m ready to move, lol!!

It is a semi tropical, fairly wet climate though, averaging a staggering 46″ of rain a year!  Most in the form of sudden thundershowers, so it’s not like it rains for days on end, and all that rain is what helps keep the place so lush, green and verdant.  It was such an amazing experience and it far surpassed any expectations we might have had of the the South, so much so in fact that we’ve already decided we’ll go again another time.  It was completely worth the bum numbing 14 hour drive there and back!!

I’ll be back with another post in a couple of days with some photos from the beach, kayaking and the plantation houses we visited.