A Beautiful City with a Dark Past

Savannah has got to be one of the most picturesque cities I’ve ever been to. There’s ​an abundance of greenery and every house or apartment building looks very homely or absurdly opulent.

The city was one of the first in the United States to be arranged on a grid system making it very easy to navigate around. There are 24 squares in Savannah, each lush and green, and lined with benches welcoming anyone to take a break and admire the beauty. Most of the squares also feature a statue dedicated to a historic figure. However, one square features no such statue and there are significantly less benches.

Calhoun Square, as pointed out by my tour guide, Jeff – a young man dressed like a cross between Indiana Jones and Keith Richards – is a lot ‘lumpier’ than most other squares and there is no central focal point dominated by a statue. That’s because the square, and 60ft in all directions of it, is the site of a mass grave for slaves. 

The roots of the enormous trees are comparable to the size of the branches. As these roots develop they stir up the earth and push to the surface whatever is beneath. Sometimes this includes bones. In fact, while installing street lights around the square in 2004, a human skull was found prompting an investigation into whether the skull was historic or whether it was more recent and warranted further investigation by the police. The skull turned out to be historic, providing a reminder of Savannah’s dark past.

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Alligator No-Shows

Ben had given up a good job as a civil engineer to pursue his dream of working for himself. He’d decided that the business for him was to run a shuttle been Charleston, South Carolina, and Savannah, Georgia.

“You’ve got the bus to yourself today, I hope that’s not a problem?” Ben said as he passed me a bottle of water.  “Saturday is my quiet day. Usually most people are where they want to be by Saturday. Friday and Monday are busy with people going away or coming back.”

The 2 hour journey to Savannah seemed an easy one with barely any traffic. We’d be passed every now and then by a speeding car. 

“We’ll be seeing him again,” Ben said. Not long after, a traffic cop flew past, sirens screaming. Sure enough, we passed the speeding driver as he waited by the roadside, the traffic cop leaning into the passenger-side window.

I asked Ben how long he’d been running the service and how many trips he did in a day. 

“I’ve been doing this for just over a year and I’m still doing the one round trip. It’s about 6 hours of driving a day; it’s all I can manage without losing too​ much concentration. I like driving but I would like to hire someone else eventually. I feel like I’ve got more to offer; there’s more I could take on to help the business side of things. Right now I don’t really do any marketing so it’s all word of mouth – hey, see this area right here, I saw a couple of alligators here a couple of days ago…,”

To our right was a vast swamp that ran from the horizon right up to the side of the road. Ben slowed to the minium speed limit of 45mph. I stared into the dark brown water and amongst the flora but couldn’t see any alligators.

“… None today,” he said and began to speed up again “But I’m getting more customers this year than the same time last year so we’re slowly becoming popular.”

Our journey ended on Hutchinson Island, from there I would need to get a free ferry service across the Savannah River.

“So you know where you’re going once you get across?” Ben asked.

“Near enough,” I said, “I’ve got GPS on my phone so I’ll find it.”

“My kind of traveller. A lot of folks need a little help.  Savannah can be confusing.  After a few days you’ll know the streets pretty well, it was the first city in the US to be built in a grid system so you’ll get to know the main streets and squares. From there you can find anything. Be glad you’re not driving, there are a lot of one-way systems, especially around the squares.”

Black Sabbath, Truckfighters, and International Doughnut Day

I was halfway through my second doughnut of the last 5 minutes; a salted caramel old fashion which was somewhere between a doughnut and a huge shortbread biscuit (my first doughnut was a maple bacon doughnut because breakfast isn’t breakfast without bacon), when I heard a woman’s voice shout “Black Sabbath!?”

I turned and saw a woman in her 50s approaching me. I realised I was wearing the Black Sabbath t-shirt I bought at the band’s final gig.

“Do you listen to Black Sabbath?” She asked.

“Yeah,” I said.

“Black Sabbath!? How old are you?”

I told her that I was 30 and from the city where Black Sabbath was formed. She told me she was originally from the UK but had moved to Charleston over 35 years ago. She was raised in Africa for the first few years of her life but later moved back to the UK with her parents. She couldn’t get on with the weather in England so relocated not long after finishing school; she reminisced about listening to rock music and skipping class to sneak a cigarette behind the bike sheds.

She asked about my trip and began to well up when she wished me all the best.

“I hope you find whatever it is you’re looking for in life,” she said, “I’ve got to run, I’ve got to pay the meter. I’m about to start crying all over you.”

A few days later, I was heading out for dinner. I’d been to Hominy Grill before, but that was for breakfast on my first full day in Charleston. I was walking up the quiet residential street on which my host lived when I walked past a young woman playing heavy metal music from her phone. A few seconds after she had passed me, I heard her shout:

“Is that a f-cking Truckfighters t-shirt!? Where did you even get that?”

“They played at Desertfest in London last year,”

“That’s f-cking awesome! Have you heard of Red Fang?”

The conversation turned to quick fire questions of whether or not the other person had heard of a particular band until we’d both run out. 

“Have you been to Rec Room? Sounds like it would be your kind of place,” she said.

Too bad I was leaving Charleston first thing in the morning. Oh well, just another excuse to come back. 

Solar Queen

I read the weather forecast in the morning. My host, Tycob, a Hawaiian displaced from his native islands by exorbitant property prices, was expecting rain. Rain meant the lower part of the street might flood and prohibit him going to work at either of his two driving jobs. He was both an Uber driver and a delivery driver for Domino’s pizza.

The rain never came but the kind of humidity that precluded a thunderstorm lingered all day. 

Expecting a wet afternoon, I spent a few hours wandering around The Gibbes Museum of Art. The museum specialises in artwork by southern artists with some works dating back to the 17th century.

Alongside the amazing paintings, photographs, illustrations, and sculptures (my favourite painting was the one above; even up close the child looks like a photograph – the whole picture was created using watercolours!) I found an interesting item in the museum gift shop.

At first I thought this quite random but then I realised why it was there amongst the history books and artist biographies. HRH Lizzie – our Liz – has donated numerous pieces of artwork to the museum for display including watercolour illustrations by artist and naturalist (not “naturist” as I first read it – that’s something completely different) Mark Catesby. These studies are from the Windsor Castle collection and show Catesby’s skill in painting studies of birds, fish, amphibians, and reptiles – including a rattlesnake he found in his bed!

After almost 3 hours in the museum, I decided to head to a converted church on Market Street. It was now a restaurant but not much had changed about the buildings previous occupation – it still possessed the high ceilings of the main hall and stained glass windows. However, I didn’t quite make it there because I got pulled in by the allure of another menu, this time boasting southern fried chicken in a sweet tea glaze! The restaurant was called Toast!.

“I recommend the chicken,” my waitress, Vicki, said, “you get a choice of two sides, right here – Carolina red rice and coleslaw are good, I recommend that.”

Sat in a worn leather booth beside a cabinet filled with cakes of monstrous proportions, and to a soundtrack of horse-drawn carriages outside, I think I found my higher power.

A Higher Power

The tour group was made up of 15 people including myself. Everyone else was American and predominantly from southern states other than South Carolina.

Our guide was a man named Stu who, like many people who lived and worked in Charleston, had moved there from up north. Stu was originally from New Jersey but had since given up work as a stock broker to divide his time between giving tours of Charleston’s most haunted places and writing fiction.

“As you can see, this grave is unconventional in the way it’s been built,” Stu said, “it contains the bodies of three people: a man and his child – a son – who died around the same time and were interred together and, later, the man’s wife. When the man’s wife died, they buried her on top and built this structure. It’s lasted​ 300 years so far and looks like it could be around for 300 more.”

The grave looked like an aircraft hangar made of bricks. It was surrounded by some of the oldest graves in Charleston, their headstones chipped, faded, and covered in lichen. We were encouraged to take photographs around the graveyard in an attempt to catch any orbs but with little success. Stu carried a tablet with him on which he kept evidence of a number of successful photographs from the various sites we visited.

“This is the church that I attend. It’s one of the oldest in Charleston,” Stu had said as we ducked beneath low hanging branches. There was a rainbow flag on the iron railings outside proclaiming all were welcome.

“So you believe in a higher power?” A woman asked.

“Well, erm, yeah” Stu laughed but seemed caught off guard by the question and ready to defend himself. “Why do you ask?”

“I was just wondering,”

“But why? Don’t you believe in a higher power?”

“Of course,” she said. 

This seemed typical of what I had seen of the South. Where we had a newsagent, Starbucks, or pub on every other corner, the South had a church. The residential street on which I was staying had two churches less than 5 doors away from each other. Both churches looked as if they had started as houses but had mutated one feature at a time to look more fitting as a place of worship.

Here is the church during the day:

Its congregation is one of the earliest established in the United States, dating back to 1681. The church in its current form was rebuilt in 1892 after being destroyed by fire. The parish house was built in 1806.

We passed through more sites including a square which used to house the cities gallows. We were told the story of a young woman called Lavinia Fisher who was known to murder travelling salesmen by poisoning their tea. She and her husband were convicted of highway robbery and sentenced to hang. However, at that time there was a law in Charleston that prohibited the execution of married women; this was something that Lavinia pointed out to the judge.

“You’re absolutely right,” the judge said, “that’s why we’re going to hang your husband first!”

On the day of the execution, Lavinia arrived in a wedding dress hoping that there would be a man in the crowd to marry her immediately after her husband was hanged, saving her life. No man came forward and her angry spirit is said to hang around the square (yes, I stole that pun and yes it drew many a groan from the group!)