Saturday, February 8, 2014

A Magical, Mystical Place With An Unsurpassed Beach And Southern Plantation Legends

Bleak Hall, Sea Cloud and Botany Island are names that stir ones imagination. They bring to ones mind images of foreboding estates surrounded by half-dead, moss covered, aging trees wrapped in a perpetual state of gloom, portraits of salty, blue waters and wooden tall ships and pictures of far-away, palm tree-laden inlets on secluded islands visited by treasure hunting pirates. Apocryphal and fanciful places you would expect to read about in stories and poems written by the likes of Emily Bronte, Edgar Allan Poe, Robert Louis Stevenson, and James A. Michener. In some respects, these are very real descriptions of a place on an Atlantic coastal island not far from where you live called Botany Bay Plantation.

Botany Bay Plantation is a wildlife preserve on Edisto Island consisting of 3,363-acres under the
management of SC Department of Natural Resources. Formed in the 1930's when Dr. James Greenway combined the two previous plantations originally owned by the Townsend family, Bleak Hall and Sea Cloud, it got its name from the barrier island that was near, but not a part of the Bleak Hall property--Botany Bay Island. Some of the island's previous names were Tucker Island, Watch Island and Clark's Bay. The last owners, John and Margaret Meyer, deeded the property to the state.

Botany Bay Island was much larger in the early days of Bleak Hall Plantation--covered with an impenetrable tropical jungle of wild oaks, palmettos, and cedars just twenty yards from the shoreline. Over the years, the ocean has encroached on the land. Now, only a narrow, pristine strip of beach two miles long and lined with a sun-bleached boneyard of weatherworn dead timber remains--loved by photographers. It was separated from the large plantation by an inlet and a smaller island named "Porky," a shortened name from "Pour-quoi." While crossing the marsh to the beach, you will pass an outcropping of trees and plants called Hammock Island.

So-called Bleak Hall because of its proximity to the gales of the Atlantic, just a mile away, its name was also inspired by the title of a book written by Charles Dickens, "Bleak House."--John Townsend was an admirer of Dickens. The original great mansion of Bleak Hall was two-and-a-half stories high on a raised basement. A distinguishing feature of the mansion, a cupola, was later added after the house was built so the homesick bride of one of the Townsends could look across the river to her former home on Wadmalaw Island. It towered over the surrounding oriental gardens and the now famous ice house, which still exists and is an outstanding example of Gothic revival architecture. The road into the plantations came to a fork where a turn to the right went to Bleak Hall and the one to the left went to Sea Cloud--sometimes called "Seabrook's Folly."

At the outset of the Civil War in 1861, by orders from the Confederate government, the steamboat "Beauregard" evacuated everyone from Edisto Island and the plantations. Both Confederate and Union troops used the cupola on Bleak Hall as a lookout. At the wars end, the plantations laid devastated. The valuable silver, china, and furniture that was left behind by the Townsends were carried away or destroyed by Freedmen and the Federals. When the Townsends returned in 1866, the house was occupied by former slaves. Shortly thereafter, it burned down. A new one was built in its place, but later torn down and a modern house was built nearby. Neither houses of Bleak Hall and Sea Cloud remain.

Like all Southern plantations legends abound. One involves a "bee hive well" called Jacob's well--a well surrounded by a wall of tabby with a steeple-shaped roof and the name "Jacobus Fecit" cut into one of its sides. In its early days, it was rumored to be a place where lovers secretly rendezvoused. It is believed a little gray man stands guard over the well to keep its waters pure and only allow the "pure in heart" drink from it.

Another story involves the plantation cemetery located at the fork in the road where you turn right to go to Bleak Hall or left to go to Sea Cloud. After leaving a clearing, you enter a narrow road surrounded by dense undergrowth and trees. Here you will feel the first wave of hot air hit the back of your neck, then again and again until you leave the area. The slaves believed this hot air to be the "Hags breath" and if you linger, she will cast a terrible spell that could even cause your death.

A third legend speaks of a Portuguese man wearing large gold earrings and a red bandanna fashioned into a turban who roams the shores of Botany Bay. Seven of his victims were discovered on the beach--all of them standing straight up in the sand.

Botany Bay Plantation is a magical place with a secluded beach unsurpassed on the Atlantic coast and located on Edisto Island not far from Edisto Beach. In fact, from Botany Bay's shell-covered beach you can see Edisto Beach to the right and Seabrook Island to the left. You can take a tour of the plantation featuring 15 points of interest by car. Keep an eye out for the Portuguese man and do not linger near the cemetery if you feel a waft of hot air on the back of your neck--Botany Bay Ecotours. Location: Botany Bay Rd., Edisto Island, SC--Map


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