I have a memory, over 25 years old now, of a cold winter’s evening in the passenger seat with my dad driving and looking at a festival of lights, candles, lining the roads around Valley Forge Historical Park. Not that I can specifically remember when or why we were at the park, but I remember the candles, the cold and my dad.
It is in the spirit of this memory that we visit Valley Forge today, but find that maybe my memory isn’t quite as good as I thought…
Valley Forge, located north-west of Philadelphia and on the banks of the Schuylkill River, is historically significant for being the winter encampment of George Washington’s army in 1777-1778. It provided a much needed respite from getting battered and defeated while fighting the British during the Revolutionary War (when the Americans decided they didn’t like our tea and taxes very much anymore); but it wasn’t the healthiest of camps, with approximately 2,000 people dying from sickness and disease as well as the cold.
The good news is that today you’re not likely to catch typhus or dysentery while visiting the park; and it’s both an excellent opportunity to learn about some interesting facts about how America gained its independence, as well as just being a stunning oasis of greenery and countryside in an otherwise very industrial part of the state.
Without further ado, here is the low down:
Getting to the site and parking a 43ft long RV – easy peasy, lemon squeezy. It seems that since my visit back at the dawn of time, many, many changes have been afoot and the National Park Service is continuing to update this site, even during our visit. There is a huge car park which is easy to navigate with plenty of room for cars and buses.
A short walk and you are presented with a HUGE educational and visitor centre. I thoroughly enjoyed the 45 minutes we spent inside, reading historical information and documents and peering at artefacts found in the area. The centre is broken up into small exhibits on different themes, which makes navigating it more enjoyable than just being hit over the head with an overwhelming blurb of ‘boring’ blunt historical facts.
I have to say I was captivated by the model of George Washington atop his horse when I first walked in; I spent a good ten minutes staring at it, walking away and coming back again. Whoever created it is a phenomenal artist, it is truly lifelike (especially his horse). I did wonder if I was about to have a ‘Night at the Museum’ moment where he and his horse would suddenly come alive and start a conversation with me.
There was a fascinating timeline exhibit of the Revolutionary War, which outlined the key moments in the war for independence; the most interesting take away being that it wasn’t a simple case of there being a straightforward battle between the British and the Americans, it actually included many other European countries and from start to finish took place between 1775-1783, over eight years!
The other smaller displays focused on elements of camp life – the medical assistance, the food that was available and the different communities of people fighting in the war – white, African American, Native American and women.
Once we had finished and felt fully loaded down with history, it was time to explore the park itself. You can choose to drive, cycle or walk the Encampment or like us, do a mixture of all three; stopping at different sites and monuments around the park to view them closer.
We fire up the bus and chug a short distance to the first stop – the reconstructed encampment cabins of the soldiers. The cabins I would describe as wattle and daub, with log supports, as basic as basic can be; with a small chimney space and an open door. Loops and I get out to take a peek inside the cabins, the first four being completely empty. As we peer into the fifth expecting the same, we are shocked to find a revolutionary war soldier sitting inside boiling his kettle. He waves us in and welcomes us to his cabin.
I would like to point out at this point that I am not hallucinating, but in fact there was a real live man inside sat on a stool surrounded by all of his soldiering equipment with a small fire going. He happily spent ten minutes telling Loops and I how hard his life here in the camp was and that many people were dying from sickness, he was fed up with the cold and he wasn’t sure if he was going to stay or desert. I also just want to clarify that he wasn’t crazy either and in fact was a very enthusiastic re-enactor who obviously very much enjoyed his hobby. He seemed exceptionally happy when I asked him to pose for a picture for the blog.
With a smile on my face we left the cabins and debated about our mode of travel for the day. Loops was happy to drive the bus around the park and peer out of the windows, but the outdoors was far to enticing to be cooped up inside, so I mussed and fussed and wore him down until he fetched the bikes. The Blue Bandit rides again!
According to the NPS, there are about 10 miles of driving road around Valley Forge, but 30 miles worth of trails you can walk or cycle. For those living nearby, this is a fabulous free resource to have at your disposal and should be used and enjoyed as frequently as possible, even to just walk around or play in the open fields.
Loops and I spent a lovely afternoon following the bike path around the park, through forest and pastures, stopping at the designated areas to learn more – a memorial arch, other soldier housing, a farm house used by an officer (made of stone! How wonderful!), a church and of course General George Washington’s house, command headquarters and train station.
I recognised none of it.
I found this very perplexing given that as a historic site protected by law, surely it’s not like too much renovation would have taken place in the last 20 years or so. Of course they’d want to keep the place in good order, but it’s not like they would have been shifting buildings around, refurbishing or anything, right?
The only conclusion I could come to is that I am getting old and my memory obviously isn’t as sharp and clear as it once was. How depressing. I’m going to have to dig out the old family photo albums to find the photographic proof that I’m not crazy.
A full completed circuit brings us back to Belle, who has been waiting patiently for our return. We now realise we are about to have a second tour of the park, having driven the bus into the start of the one way system, the only way to leave is to drive the whole thing again. Oh well, this time I can have a cup of tea as we go!
Valley Forge is not our only stopping point today. The reason we have travelled east for the past week is to actually come and to make a whistle-stop visit with my mum who is currently staying on the outskirts of Philadelphia. We plan to drive the bus to her neighbourhood so she can have a quick tour, and so I can bring her some custard cream biscuits; a vitally important task I’m sure you agree.
Today is the day we learn why you don’t drive large RV’s into old towns and cities – low bridges.
On our travels to date, I can’t actually remember Loops and I encountering a physical obstacle where we’ve had to actively detour to avoid it, our planning has been pretty good. We came close to losing our transmission over a particularly sharp angled railway track once, but that’s about it. Today however, with a train line that runs diagonally through the town we are trying to navigate, we come a cropper and have to make a quick swing into a handy side street to avoid our bus having a new convertible roof installed. It takes a good ten minutes of Google Map navigation to work out a route where further open air renovations won’t be an issue.
We arrive in one piece, shocking a fair few neighbours with our sudden and noisy appearance and ensure that my mum (and her cat Max) are doing ok and not only deliver the sacred biscuits, but add a box of PG tips teabags for good measure.
Today’s mission complete, it’s time to hit the road for another family visit – stopping in to see Loops’ dad, just a day away in the more southern state of Delaware.
We traverse pretty much the length of Delaware, but bearing in mind it’s such a small state, that’s not saying much. I do make note in the change of scenery as the day progresses, with prettier cities in the north and more open countryside in the south.
According to Loops’ dad, Delaware is unofficially the chicken state. It is known for the huge amounts of corn is grows, to feed to all of the chickens housed in barns, which are then loaded into trucks to head to the processing plants – and all of this happens within the state. I can attest to this – there are acres of corn as far as the eye can see, the chicken sheds are unmissable in each small village and town you pass through (long white single storey barns with no windows), and trucks crammed to the brim with live birds (and more than a few dead ones) fly past us on the road on their way to one of the many Tyson and Perdue processing plants along the way. Coming from a country where we have banned factory caged hens for eggs and are fighting hard for more free range farming, it’s very hard to see and not feel like never eating chicken again in this country again. It’s so sad.
To balance out the melancholy, I can tell you that we had a peaceful and refreshing trip with Loops’ dad and step-mum. We were allowed to park Belle in the driveway of their neighbour’s house, which took a little bit of manoeuvring, hand waving, shouting and the removal of a mail box in order to achieve.
We spent our week in leisurely activity -bike riding on a cool but sunny day over to Rehoboth Beach with Loop’s dad, to gaze out across the Atlantic (and wave towards home), enjoy eating pastry and a sandwich sitting out on the boardwalk while people watching and topping it off with eating the BEST French fries found anywhere (no seriously, Thrasher’s fries are the ultimate potato based food item).
We discover there is a National Park Service stamp for me to collect in my passport over in the nearby town of Lewes, by visiting the oldest standing house in the state of Delaware – the Ryves Holt House. There isn’t that much to say about it really, it’s clad in red wooden slats and has two main small rooms you need to duck your head to walk in to, and they think maybe at one point it was used as a pub.
I took some more time out to write animal assignments and we spent the evenings having sociable dinners together in Loops’ dad’s house, whom by the way makes excellent homemade bread and a side dish called Corn Pudding which you could literally die eating (firstly through overload of deliciousness and secondly through the sheer amount of calories it contains from cream – I have the recipe should anyone want it).
On one of our last days Loop’s dad suggested we visit the Air Mobility Command Museum over at Dover Air Force Base – an air hangar filled with old and retired aircraft, some of which you can walk right into and play with the buttons and stuff! Plus, it’s free to go, so of course, we went.
Even if you’re not really into planes or Air Force history, the museum is still a really interesting afternoon stopover. The inside of the hangar has displays about the development of different aircraft throughout the years, and best part is the chance to actually have a look close up at the space (or lack of) that the crews had to work in. Loops and I spent a good ten minutes trying to work out how the gunmen in the B17 Flying Fortress actually contorted their bodies to sit in the tiny domes underneath the plane. It seems to me that they could surely only accept gunmen who were less than 5 feet tall to actually fit in the bubble, and even then you have to have the world’s strongest bladder and have no type of motion sickness at all. It was very thought provoking.
Additionally there are helicopters to view, collections of clothing and supplies that crews would be given, a cabinet case full of different military challenge coins (this is your google item for today) and flight simulators to try out (only when the staff are on duty though).
Once you’ve finished with the hangar itself, you wander outside into the bright sunshine and are greeted by a huge and diverse collection of planes – from Air Force One (yes, the actual retired plane that Presidents have flown in) to a humungous C-5A Galaxy, so large it can carry up to five helicopters inside its cargo hold!
It’s at this point that I suspect that most people’s inner child bursts forth and, like me, goes running about from plane to plane to see which ones are open and you can climb into and explore. Although not all of the exhibits you can enter, a good number of them you are able to simply wander up to and into the cargo or side door and explore by yourself.
The only one I really wanted to sit it and didn’t get a chance to was the fighter jet, you have to have a tour guide with you to do that and unfortunately we arrived so late in the day that the guides had already gone home (they are volunteers, after all). Additionally I really would have liked to have seen the upstairs deck of the C-5 where the crew and passenger space is housed, but you are only allowed in the hold of this plane, but that is still mightily impressive in itself.
If you happen to pop by the museum and enjoy it, as we did, be sure to pop a couple dollars in the contribution bucket on the way out to help keep the place open for others to enjoy.
Having enjoyed the company of Loop’s family, and the scenery of both Pennsylvania and Delaware, it’s time to continue on south and make our way to Assateague Island – we’re going to visit some ponies!