We felt we had to visit a colonial mansion during our stay in Virginia and decided on the Berkeley Plantation because it was the one which seemed to be most heavily advertised, and it was recommended by the Tourist Office in Richmond. It’s advertised as the most historic and the most visited plantation in the area. Both these claims might be true, but it's certainly not a graceful chocolate box mansion like you see in Gone With The Wind. The original mansion is a Georgian building completed in 1726. It has five or six rooms downstairs and two upper floors retained for the current owner's occasional private use. There are smaller buildings on either side of the mansion, one formerly for guest accommodation, and the other the kitchen and laundry. More than 100 slaves worked here in the first half of the 19th century, but none of the buildings which accommodated them survive.
The visit starts with a very informative 20 minute film on the history of the house and the owners, and is followed by a guided tour of the ground floor rooms, given by a very knowledgeable guide in period costume. Both the film and the guide tell of the major part the house, the estate, and the family which lived here have played in Colonial history. The first Thanksgiving on American soil was celebrated here when British settlers came ashore at what became known as Harrison's Landing in 1619, 20 years before the Pilgrim Fathers landed further up the coast at Boston. Benjamin Harrison, three times Governor of Virginia and one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence lived here, two Presidents were born here, and each of the first ten American Presidents visited and were entertained here. The entire 140,000 strong Unionist Army of the Potomac camped here in 1862 during the Civil War, at which time President Abraham Lincoln came to review his troops. Whilst the troops were stationed here, one of the officers and his bugler composed the American bugle call “Taps” which is now played every day by American troops throughout the world to signify “lights out”.
The gardens and lawns in front of the house are terraced and tiered down 5 levels over a quarter of a mile to the James River, but because of trees at the boundaries of some of the levels, you can hardly see the river from the mansion, and vice versa. I’d imagined that there might have been a sweeping view of the river from a raised verandah on the house, but no such verandah existed. And I didn’t see any cotton or tobacco fields. So although this plantation was educational and good value for money at $11 admission (10% discount for seniors), we came away feeling a little disappointed because it didn’t look or feel like our stereotype. The Berkeley Plantation may be historical but I felt it would have more significance and interest for American tourists than British. This visit wasn’t a highlight in our tour of Colonial Virginia.