Thursday, June 18, 2015

Nosing around Northern Neck

On Saturday I started the drive down to Heathsville, VA, where I was visiting a friend, Tim, who had started up an oyster venture down there. My friend Bill was also coming down but we weren't meeting Tim until 6pm when his oyster farming class would be finished. We were traveling down separately as we wanted to visit different places. Bill was heading to the birthplace of George Washington in the Northern Neck of Virginia, and I was driving to a little known gem a few miles down the road from him called Stratford Hall, the birthplace of Robert E. Lee.
I pulled into the parking lot and immediately noticed that the place was almost empty, only two other vehicles were parked. The air was heavy and hot outside and I was reluctant to leave the icy AC of the visitor center after showing my ticket. But as soon as I stepped outside the first thing that caught my attention was a little silver grey lizard with a turquoise tail peering up at me, and the humidity was forgotten. I walked over towards the stables, delighting in the melodic sound of many song birds. It was the only sound and it was beautiful, but then a raucous clucking chimed in. Looking through a door I spotted a sign, "Please do not annoy the chickens", and a little red hen scrabbled beneath me in the hay, no doubt looking for a soft spot to lay an egg. I walked to the back of the stall, spying the heavy wooden hay mangers, brick floors and thick wood partitions. It reminded me of the stables at Hever Castle, where I'd worked a few seasons, and been fortunate to explore areas not usually seen by the public. Even the smell was the same, musty and old. Barn swallows chirruped as they flitted in and out, swooping to their nests under the eaves, and it seemed each stable I went in and out of, others flew either in or out with me.
There were beautiful carriages, saddles and harnesses in these  structures, very well maintained, and with the solidity of the building, the sounds of nature and the woody leather aromas, it was easy to imagine myself back in time when I closed my eyes.
Stepping around the building to the lawns, i couldn't believe there were no other visitors here. I leisurely walked the gardens, loving the 'Englishness' of the layout, paths following flowerbeds filled with perennials and roses. These were very well manicured grounds.
I finished my walkabout with a photo of the house taken laying down on the grass. I was very tempted to just lower my head and grab 40 winks but had to meet the tour guide just a few minutes later. I was shocked when I stepped into the meeting area to discover about 6 other people there, waiting for the tour also. They obviously hadn't braved the heat to explore the gardens.
We were led inside the house but not allowed to take photos. It was much bigger than I'd assumed and beautifully restored. Robert E. Lee was prominent in a portrait in the huge middle room upstairs, which the door, at the top of the steps in the above photo, leads into. Apparently he always red, a sign of wealth. The floorboards in this vast room are all original, some of them 30ft long. Robert left the house between the ages of 3-4 years old and on departing, bid farewell to two angels in the nursery fireplace, which can only be seen if you bend down. Also downstairs near the housemaid's room is a collection of spinning equipment, one of them called a weasel. The nursery rhyme incorporating this unusual piece is explained here.
 The website for this beautiful home is here.
The house tour lasted an hour, which for me, passed really quickly, and too soon, we were left to fend for ourselves outside again in that thick humidity. I walked through the grass and wild strawberries back to my car, deciding to drive down to the private beach. There is also a grist mill at the bottom of the hill, but I was more interested in a fresh, and hopefully cool, sea breeze, additionally lured by the prospect of finding sharks' teeth.
The beautiful view from the top. I did find 5 sharks' teeth but the sun was so intense that I couldn't stop for long. Too soon I was back in the car again, so decided to head straight for Tim's.
This scene made me laugh, looking like the boat was stopping to gas up.
Tim's house was down the end of a very long country road but just before I got there I braked very quickly when I saw this abandoned motel in a field. The roof was occupied with a flock of turkey vultures and an old wind pump was tangled with weeds. Unfortunately the sun was glaring straight into my lens so I just snapped a couple, intending to revisit this place at a different time of day.
Tim certainly has a little piece of paradise down here. I quickly grabbed my gear from the car, took it inside, and then set myself up in a comfy chair under a tree with a beer, and relaxed, just watching the scene until the others arrived. A pair of ospreys had a nest with 2 chicks by the water so I watched their routines for a while, relishing the peace and quiet. Before long Bill and Tim turned up and we all sat and chatted until Tim suggested a quick paddle. Within a few minutes we were paddling towards the far shore to inspect a larger oyster industry on the other side, while Bill set up his tripod to photograph the ospreys.
Dusk was setting when we returned so we started dinner on the BBQ, fresh rockfish, crabcakes, coleslaw and potato salad, washed down with craft beers.
I tried to take a couple of long exposure shots in the dark but wasn't really focusing, our conversation was just too good. We chatted into the night and finally dragged ourselves to bed when we realized that we'd need some time spent in a horizontal position with eyes closed to fully appreciate the next day.
The next day came a bit too quickly for me and I was happy when we finally reached the only place around for miles which served food. It was a bar called The Backdraft, and it felt a little odd sitting at a bar eating breakfast with a couple of bloody marys, but they were just the ticket for putting me back on top of the world again. Tim introduced us to Skip, who's a captain with the Smith Point Sea Rescue team, of which Tim is also a member. We afterwards followed Skip to the dock where Rescue III is berthed.
Tim at the dock's tiki bar. I was very impressed how the boatowners made this place feel like a second home, it exuded a welcoming charm.
The fine and valiant boat herself, just waiting for a call out. And then before I really knew what was happening we were all on Skip's impressive fishing boat and slamming against the waves of the Potomac.
I took a quick video of the wake we left behind. The engine noise, along with the wave patterns, was very hypnotic.
video
Skip called ahead and asked a friend to meet us at Lewisetta marina with some cold drinks and soon we were docking alongside Jerry's fishing boat.
Skip's boat, Rest Up, taking a short break.
Loved Jerry's flag.
Jerry soon appeared as requested with a cooler in the bed of his truck filled with ice and cold tins and bottles. I think this is the norm on Northern Neck. Many truck beds that I peered into over the course of the weekend held similar provisions. Obviously the weather accounted for this needy action to be taken.
Once thirsts were slaked it was off onto the waves again and heading back to Heathsville.
Some of Virginia's finest catching fish and sunburn.
We passed Tim's peaceful little haven sitting on the bank.
Tim's little woofer, Lola, is a sturdy sea dog, used to the waves and sea spray. Thanks Bill for this, the bar, and the kayaking photos.
We arrived back at the dock and said fond farewells to Skip, then headed to Reedsville for a late lunch.
There's an oyster operation running there and Tim explained the process of cleansing and filtering the water over the baby mollusks.
At Tim's recommendation, I tried the soft shell crab sandwich for lunch, always willing to try new foods. I did eat it all but the sensation of my teeth puncturing something each time I took a bite was quite disconcerting. So much so that I barely focused on the flavor. And then later I looked up to see how these were prepared, and never again will I eat another.
We finished the afternoon back at Tim's just relaxing and then it was time to start the journey home. I had wanted to learn more on how the oyster industry worked but time and events had just flown past, so another trip down to Northern Neck will be imminent. And maybe I should rent a truck with a cooler in the bed just for the weekend...

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