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The first surprise in a visit to Pennsbury Manor is the well-groomed mountain of garbage tended by the many Waste Management subsidiaries planted at its base. As you approach William Penn's country estate 26 miles north of Philadelphia, you pass through an intensely industrial area usually sequestered from suburban witness like the inside of a quarry. Press on, though, and you'll see Penn's beloved 17th century home on a beautiful spot by the Delaware River as it may have looked three hundred years ago.
The house is tended by that class of genteel women who sacrifice their weekend afternoons to give life to history, and they provide a wonderful 1.5 hour tour to groups of about ten. (Another surprise is how few people visited on a cheery Saturday afternoon.) Tours start about every hour and a half, but call ahead to be certain of the schedule 215-946-0400; during the winter, the last tour starts at 2. A family ticket is only $13; adults are $5. There is a picnic area, but no place I saw to purchase food, and certainly no restaurants nearby.
Pennsbury Manor was re-built as the last project of the WPA in the 1930's, and was supervised by the same architect who worked on Williamsburg, Virginia. Although, William Penn had hoped to retire to Pennsbury, the Penn family were loyalists, and the land was sold after the Revolution. (There are no living decendents of Penn in the United States.) By the 1830s, the site was abandoned; by the 1930s, the re-builders had to resort to archeological techniques to re-create Penn's buildings.
Penn himself emerges as an interesting character. Son of an Anglican, he was expelled from Oxford for becoming a Quaker, yet lived a lavish lifestyle for his day. After he found it too expensive to trade 2000 acres for 7 years of indentured servitude, he purchased slaves, and meant to free them upon his death. Overlooking his slaves in his final will, Penn's second wife sold the slaves because, we are told, she needed the money. Penn hoped to dominate fur trading in our part of the world, but lost out to the French north of here.
My own interest in Penn was piqued by the purchase of Samuel Pepys' diaries as read by Kenneth Branagh. This 6-tape set is available at Barnes and Noble for about $30. Pepys ("Peeps" 1603-1703) was Penn's neighbor in London, and, after London's Great Fire of 1666, Penn suggested a scheme to import timber from Scotland to sell to the city's re-builders. On a moonlit night, Penn and Pepys would sit out in the back yard drinking until midnight.
Despite his Quaker beliefs, Penn remained a friend to Charles II, and suggested that the king repay his father's 16,000 pound note with a gift of land in the new world. When the King asked what he would call the place, Penn said, "Sylvania" (wooded country), and the King suggested that he name it after Penn's father, who had helped return the crown to the throne after Cromwell. So the state next door is really named after a man who never came to America and has no descendants here.
Even less expensive and more kid-enticing side trips lie on the way to Pennsbury Manor if you're coming through Yardley. You might start in the morning with a trip to the Kid's Castle Playground. Just south of Yardley, make a right on Edgewood Road (this is also Black Oak road to the left). Follow Edgewood for several miles to the mega-playground on the right. Instead of raising barns, suburban citizens raise playgrounds over the course of several days, and this is the largest one I've ever seen. This wooden, steel, and rubber contraption has enough adventures to keep about 100 kids busy, and sometimes it seems as if that many are there. A visit to the Kids Castle Playground is an event in itself, and may wear your tykes down enough so that they can tolerate the "boring old houses" you might prefer to play in.
Returning from Pennsbury Manor, look for Pennsbury Plaza Shopping Center on West Trenton Avenue in Morrisville on the right. At a $1 a seat, you'll be happy to buy popcorn and candy from the proprietor who also runs a coffeehouse in San Francisco. As of this writing, the theater features kid-friendly movies including Flubber, Anastasia, and Home Alone 3. Call 215-736-0771 for show times. If you're accustomed to blowing $40 to take the family to a movie, Pennsbury Plaza is worth the trip. The seats can be a bit gummy, but it's still 10 times more fun than a video.
Directions to Pennsbury Manor: Take 95 over the Scudders Fall bridge into Pennsylvania. Take the Yardley exit (the 2nd exit in PA) and make a right off the ramp onto Taylorsville Road South (called Main Street in Yardley.) From here, you're about 20 minutes away from the Pennsbury Manor. Continue through Yardley and Makefield. The road becomes Route 13 South. Get off at the Tyburn Road East exit, and continue to the first traffic light. (Stay on the main highway onto you get to the light.) Turn right at the light onto New Ford Mill Road, and make a right at the dead end, and then first left onto Pennsbury Memorial Road. From Princeton, you can also take Route 1 South to Route 13 South to Tyburn Road East, and follow as above.
Pennsbury Manor Hours: Tues-Sat 9-5 Sun Noon-5 Closed Mondays and holidays except Memorial Day May 31 is Kids Day: "Everywhere, the spotlight will be on the lives of young people in early colonial times. There'll be Manor House tours, craft demonstrations, and plenty of chances to find your place in history."
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