Have you ever wanted to get away from the hustle and bustle of the 21st century – if only for a few hours? If so, Historic London Town & Gardens is your place. A mere fifteen-minute drive outside of Annapolis will transport you back to the 17th and 18th centuries, where you will learn about this lively colonial settlement and its booming tobacco-driven economy.
While I had heard of this reconstructed colonial village in Edgewater, I had never taken the time to visit. As I gazed around on my walk to the visitor center, I quickly realized this was going to be a special place to experience.
Inside, I checked in and met up with ten others to take one of Historic London Town’s many guided tours. Vicki Lerch, curator of the property, was our extremely knowledgeable and personable guide. As we left the office and headed to the first reconstructed building, Vicki began to fill us in on the history and lore of the port town of London.
Covering 100 acres on the banks of the South River, London Town was established by the Maryland government in 1683. It became Anne Arundel County’s governing seat and port of entry. At its peak, it was home to anywhere from 200 to 300 residents.
By the early 1700s, London Town had become one of Maryland’s busiest tobacco and trade ports, boasting several daily South River ferry crossings. More than a dozen international ships also docked there, with sailors unloading goods from Asia and Europe, as well as slaves brought in from Africa and the Caribbean.
As we stood outside of the carpenter shop, our guide told of the painstaking excavation work that still goes on today. Through archaeological research the story of how the colonists lived, the types of food and drinks they consumed, and how the various classes of people carried out their daily lives, has all been pieced together.
Archeologists struck gold with their dig at the site of the Rumney/West Ordinary – colonial-speak for a public house. Once owned by Edward Rumney and eventually purchased by Stephen West, Sr., it became a treasure trove of information gleaned from the more than 40 layers of compacted trash in the property’s earthen cellar.
Inside the Carpenter Shop – the most recently reconstructed building – you can see the tools colonial craftsmen used in learning and plying their trades. Upstairs, a sparse room was where all of the workers and apprentices slept.
The Lord Mayor’s tenement is representative of the many small homes where the town’s lower-class workers lived. London Town was home to quite a mix of people from various backgrounds and social status, all united by the desire to benefit from the tobacco trade. The majority of residents were tradesmen, indentured servants, convict indentured servants, and slaves.
Those at the top of the pecking order – landowners, planters and sea captains – were often seen eating and drinking wine, hard cider, and rum punch in the beautiful, Georgian-style home and tavern built by William Brown in the mid-1700s. For six-pence a night, travelers waiting for the South River ferry could bunk up in a room with several others after a relaxing evening meal of local game and seafood, while discussing the latest in business and trade.
The William Brown House, the only original building on the property, is an exquisite example of Georgian architecture, and is the only known structure in the country to feature header bond brickwork on all four walls – an extremely expensive building technique. The tavern became a very lively spot for locals and travelers alike, but flourished for only a brief time.
Shortly after William Brown completed his magnificent home, the village began a steady decline in population and significance. It lost its status as the county seat to Annapolis and, in 1747, the Maryland legislature designated several port towns as official inspection stations for exporting tobacco. London Town was not among them. As a result, Brown went into debt and lost everything. Anne Arundel County purchased the house in 1828 and utilized it as the county almshouse to house and feed the poor and homeless.
While the old William Brown House remained in use until 1965, the surrounding village of London Town had long ago disappeared. Now, thanks to the house’s placement on the National Register of Historic Landmarks and the dedication of archeologists, carpenters and craftspeople, the lost town can be enjoyed once again. Tours, demonstrations and a plethora of special events continue to bring London Town’s rich history back to life.
The not-to-be-missed garden sanctuary
Strolling down to the property’s event pavilion, I was met by Historic London Town & Gardens’ Director of Horticulture, Meenal Harankhedkar. As a horticulturist and botanist, Meenal gave me a most enlightening and delightful tour of the grounds’ ten gorgeous acres.
Bordering the pavilion and the South River is a one-acre parcel of perfectly-maintained ornamental gardens. While beautiful all year, spring is the perfect time to enjoy the gorgeous cherry blossoms, extensive peony collection, fragrant magnolias and carpets of daffodils. Begun in the late 70s, these botanical gardens and arboretum – featuring an amazing array of indigenous and imported plant species – were planted to present a burst of color through every season.
As we pass the holly grove and walk down the winding stairs to the South River, we enter an area known as “The Dell,” featuring a pond, along with redwood and cypress trees. Embankments are covered with beautiful camellias and azaleas, and the entire low-lying area is shaded by a magnificent 150-year-old willow oak.
Crossing a Chinese-style footbridge, and climbing a hill on the other side afford us a soothing walk through the “Azalea Glade” and on to the winter and spring walks. There are no words to describe the beauty and fragrance one is met with at every turn. It is the perfect place to meander with your dog or relax with a book, seated on the many benches and in cupolas scattered throughout the property. The scent of star anise and the sound of chirping birds will carry you away to exotic locations and send your worries to sleep.
Historic London Town & Gardens, steeped in history and surrounded by beautiful gardens, has something to attract every age group. I can’t wait until my grandchildren are a little older. How wonderful it will be to experience it all again through their eyes! It is truly a gem, tucked away on the banks of the South River.