Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Which is the way to London Town?

This old English nursery rhyme with origins in the late 1600s refers to a different, more well-known London Town, but here in Annapolis, we have our very own London Town that dates to the same period as the rhyme.  While London, England is still a thriving, major world city, our London Town, which was founded in 1683, faded into obscurity within a century of it's birth.  For nearly a hundred years, though, it was a hub of colonial trade and shipping (tobacco, cotton, and probably slaves) on the South River, and briefly served as the Anne Arundel County seat.  The town declined after the Maryland State Legislature did not include it as one of the officially designated tobacco inspection ports in 1747.  By the end of the Revolutionary war, it was all but abandoned.

While it is no longer a center of commerce, London Town, which is off the beaten path in Edgewater, has emerged in recent decades as Maryland's largest on-going archaeological investigation.  Anne Arundel County acquired the circa 1760 William Brown House, a beautiful brick tavern overlooking the South River, in 1828, and it was listed as a National Historic Landmark in 1970.  At the same time, the Woodland Garden was created - an eight-acre botanical collection along a one-mile trail.  In addition, there is a seasonal Ornamental Garden overlooking the river, and a new Environmental Garden project that embraces the practice of using native plants to create environmentally friendly landscapes.  The 23-acre site is owned by Anne Arundel County and operated by the London Town Foundation.

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In recent years, a modern Visitors Center with exhibits and a gift shop has been built that accommodates large events, weddings, and educational opportunities.  In addition, based on archaeological evidence and historical records of the town, several of the original colonial buildings have been reconstructed to give visitors a taste of how life in London Town might have looked and felt.  There are gardens, a functioning hearth, and a carpenter shop.

We learned about London Town through a program at Cape Elementary.  The folks at London Town came out to the school, talked to the kids about the site and set up colonial activities for the students.  They also promoted their one-week summer Colonial Camps that are hosted at London Town.  Henry came home from school that day with a flyer asking if he could do Colonial Camp this summer, and since it overlapped conveniently with my daughter's Theater Camp (bonus), I happily signed him up.

The Colonial Camp is run by an organization out of North Carolina that operates three such camps - one in North Carolina, one in New York, and London Town.  The Colonial Camp employees set up on site with tents and costumes for the duration of the series of summer sessions.  Campers spend the day from 9 - 4 in colonial garb participating in a variety of colonial activities (preparing meals, collecting wood, making leather pouches and jewelry, playing colonial games).

I've heard mixed reviews from other kids that have been to Colonial Camp.  Some liked it while others found it boring and hot.  The point is to get a taste of actual colonial life, and there was nothing in colonial times to compete with the stimulation of video games, TVs and cell phones.  Peeling potatoes and stitching leather pouches doesn't appeal to everyone.

It did, however, appeal to Henry.  He couldn't wait to get to London Town each day.  I'm not sure if it was participating in the colonial activities, interacting with the kids and counselors, or dressing up in the puffy shirt and tricorner hat, but he immediately started making plans for the following year and asked how old I thought he needed to be to work as a counselor.

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On the final day, I inquired in the Visitor's Center about volunteer opportunities for young people at London Town, and the lady put me in touch with the coordinator for the junior docent program that has been initiated in the last year or so.  A docent is a tour guide at a museum (so I now know after doing a little homework).  Many museums have junior docent programs which enlist young people to learn about the museum exhibits and then interact with visitors.  I read an article in the Washington Post recently about the junior docent program at the Holocaust Museum in DC, and several of the local museums in Annapolis use junior docents (Banneker-Douglass Museum, for one - perhaps the William Paca House/Gardens).  I think this is a fabulous opportunity for young people to learn some history, make a connection with a valuable local resource, and hone their "people skills" by interacting one on one with visitors.

Henry went for his first morning of "training" to be a colonist this past weekend.  He was really excited to return to London Town.  Along with a couple of other new junior docents, he practiced some colonial games, toured the facilities, and came home with his puffy shirt and tricorner hat (better quality than the camp versions!).  They got to choose fabrics from which new tunics will be made for the girls and a new waistcoat for Henry.  They will spend a Saturday or Sunday at London Town once a month or so during the season that runs from March through November either cooking at the hearth, tending the garden, or playing games while answering questions that visitors might have or engaging them in conversations about colonial life at London Town.

Even if camp doesn't appeal, I highly recommend a visit to the site. It's a lovely setting, and the people running it do a nice job. You can get information about directions, hours and admission at their website:


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