Fall [in love with] Middleburg, VA, USA
At the foot of Virginia’s Blue Ridge mountains, Middleburg is set in an area of natural beauty. A patchwork of rolling fields, forest, rivers and stone walls. Established in 1787, the small town of Middleburg began to attract fox hunters and steeplechasers and became known as ‘The Nations Horse and Hunt Capital’ I had been researching the area for a while and decided that fall would be a good time to visit.
I managed to get some reasonably priced flights with Virgin Atlantic less than two weeks in advance and started to plan my trip. I have three lovely people to thank in relation to helping me organise my stay; Susan Oakes, Maryalice and Viviane. I am most grateful to all.
I flew from London Heathrow direct to Washington Dulles, my first solo transatlantic flight and second visit to the USA. I’m quite an anxious flier so was feeling pretty nervous. It was fun to see ‘unicorn horn pasta’ on the in-flight menu - top marks to the creative team at Virgin Atlantic. The flight was pleasant and the service excellent.
Fast forward a few hours and we landed at Washington Dulles airport, which was very busy. I was lucky that Maryalice picked me up in a distinctive, easy to spot car! We hit the road and drove West. Less than an hour later we arrived in Middleburg, Virginia. As soon as I had arrived I knew I would be very happy there for the next week. Maryalice, Viviane and I went for a lovely meal that evening and I got my head down for a much needed early night.
Viviane and I were up bright and early the next morning and enjoyed breakfast together at Middleburg Common Grounds; a beautifully decorated, cosy coffee lounge with a real community feel and the best bagels I have ever tasted. ’There are no strangers here, just friends that haven’t met’ is the motto on their menu, which I just love.
Following breakfast we drove to Glenwood Racecourse for the Theodora A Randolph Field Hunter Championship finals. This championship features horses and riders who have been selected over a week long trial at up to four local hunts. They participate in a mock hunt and then individually ride a course of jumps and tests to demonstrate their hunting skills. Trophies are awarded for best turned out, sportsmanship, most suitable pair, reserve and supreme champion. Side Saddle Chase Foundation president Devon Zebrovious was the only side saddle competitor and looked as elegant as ever aboard ‘King Of Hearts’. They were selected as reserve best turned out. John Wittenborn, Smithtown Hunt, New York onboard his 14 year old Clydesdale-Thoroughbred cross was chosen as supreme champion. Overhearing a couple of English accents, I discovered 4 of the judging panel were from Chiddingfold, Leconfield & Cowdray and Beaufort hunts, it was nice to have a brief conversation with them.
Above: Devon Zebrovious and King of Hearts, reserve best turned out
Above: Supreme Champion, John Wittenborn, Smithtown Hunt
The 64th running of the Virginia Fall Races followed in the afternoon. 8 races, 10,000 visitors and a purse (prize winnings) of $40,000. The races are a very social affair, everyone likes to dress for the occasion and the tailgates are spectacular. The racetrack is lined with trucks and SUV’s serving tailgate favourites; Southern fried chicken, devilled eggs, homemade treats, fruit and of course a great selection of refreshments and liquors. Presentation is carefully thought about; luxury napkins, appropriate linen, silverware, flowers and unique centrepieces are used for the occasion. I joined conversations at a couple of tailgates and enjoyed some of the delicious foods. Certainly gives me something to aim for at next years point-to-point races!
I'd love to see this gentleman's finished painting from the race day
Curve of Stones leads
The next morning I was up and out early to attend a Piedmont Carriage Driving Club meet just outside of Middleburg. It was dull and grey, umbrella weather (rather like Britain)!
Maryalice had kindly invited me along to this meet, she was there to assist Mark Duffell, who was driving his four beautiful Belgian Draft horses together for the first time away from his farm. I hadn’t realised that I would be riding in the carriage as a guest and felt extremely lucky when I was asked to join them. As soon as we were moving, the champagne was flowing and the rain disappeared, perfect! And when that bottle of champagne ran out there were more chilled bottles hidden in an ice filled compartment that had been specially integrated into the floor of the carriage! Now that’s a feature I like.
The drive took us on a mixture of quiet lanes and across country over fairly tricky, uneven terrain which was a little hairy at one point! Mark’s Amish-broke horses, Willie & Waylon, Chris & Cash did a superb job. Following our beautiful ride we had a wonderful buffet lunch with our host. It was an unexpected and delightful day, one that I won’t forget in a very long while.
Photo credit - kind permission of Jennifer Ashley Photography
The next day I enjoyed a morning out in the country with Orange County Hounds. These prize-winning hounds are a rich red colour and have a lovely sound. Watching them leave the meet was a wonderful sight. I was riding with the road whip, which meant our job was to stop the hounds getting onto any main roads where they could be potentially injured. Our morning was busy and we didn’t see too much of the field but did see the hounds at work.
I had to leave swiftly when the hounds were safely home to catch a lift back into Middleburg where I had a wander. Charming and full of character, it is a town where it is normal to see people in the grocery store in jodhpurs or riding gear, trucks and SUV’s are the transport of choice, licence plates are equestrian related; “KIC ON”, “TALLY OH” “GALOP UP” "TBMARE" and “RDNG FAR” are a couple I spotted. Middleburg has a strong identity, every shop has equestrian, country or hunting related decor of some kind - even the bakery sells horse shaped biscuits.
Sugared horse biscuits
That afternoon I went to the King Street Oyster Bar where I met with Daniela Anderson, a lady I connected with via social media a couple of years ago. Daniela is a lady of many creative talents, her speciality being hand-painted horse and hound themed cookies which she makes for tailgates, hunt breakfasts and other occasions. Extra bonus! - It was happy hour whilst we were there - I’d definitely recommend the Moscow Mule made with their own ginger beer and a spicy kick! www.countrysideconfections.com
Later, Viviane and I enjoyed a delicious dinner in The Red Fox Inn & Tavern. I would highly recommend the crab fishcakes which were full of flavour. Established in 1728, this charming stone inn is in the heart of historic Middleburg. It was frequently visited by the likes of Jacqueline Kennedy and Elizabeth Taylor. It really is beautiful inside, with comfy chairs and fireplaces and walls adorned with sporting oil paintings. I love attention to detail and must mention that the loo rolls were stacked perfectly with little fox stickers keeping them tidy.
Following dinner, I met with Bernadette who I also connected with via social media. As we chatted about horses, hunting, side saddle and Irish adventures one drink turned into a few and it became rather late night!
Photographer Liz Callar had kindly invited me for a drive out on Tuesday to show me around the area. The highlight being a stop at Horse Country - the most amazing Aladdin’s cave-tack-gift-homeware store I have ever stepped foot into. It is truly beautiful and I probably could have spent a few hours browsing the unique gifts, antiques, homewares, jewellery and clothing. I highly recommend a visit.
Horse Country - I could have spent hours in there! I must also mention our stop at Gentle Harvest in Marshall where I picked up some really tasty pumpkin macarons (my favourite sweet treat)
Wednesday morning the Snickersville Hounds were meeting what appeared to be walking distance from where I was staying in Middleburg. It was actually quite a fair trek down a quiet country lane and during my walk it did cross my mind that America has wild bears - luckily only black bears live in Virginia and they are rarely seen and very shy. I was thankful a passing motorist was going the same way. (Note - it is not a sensible idea to catch lifts from strangers).
I came across kennel huntsman, Gale Rives Cayce road whipping, who kindly let me ride with her in her truck. We had a fun, fast paced morning tracking the hounds making sure they were safe. I gladly accepted the kind invitation to stay for hunt tea and had my first taste of homemade pumpkin cake which was absolutely delicious! Everyone was so friendly and made me feel very welcome. A great morning.
Following this I made my way to the National Sporting Library and Museum. If any library is worth travelling thousands of miles for its this one! I had been really looking forward to this visit. The National Sporting Library and Museum, founded in 1954 is dedicated to preserving, promoting and sharing literature, art and culture of equestrian, angling and field sports.
If you read my recent blog post about my recent visit to Slades Farm, Surrey UK, you'll know I'm a huge fan of British sculptor, Nic Fiddian Green. Upon entering the museum, I was delighted to find one of his sculptures, 'Still Water'. A truly beautiful piece of art and lovely connection to home.
Above: Still Water, Nic Fiddian Green
The current exhibition in the museum is ‘Sidesaddle’, an exhibition of over sixty paintings and sculptures on loan from museums and private collections. The exhibition continues until 24 March 2019. All the paintings in the exhibition were beautiful and very interesting but one particularly stood out to me; a painting by Gail Guirreri-Maslyk which is based on a photograph of Irish side saddle rider Amory McMahon by Middleburg photographer, Karen Monroe at a meet in Meath, Ireland. I recognised the scene straight away. Bursting with colour, it’s a wonderful piece of work. You'll see it far left in the image below.
Above: 'Lord and Lady Twemlow'
William Barraud, British, 1840's
Above: 'A Confident Approach'
Henry Thomas Alken 1850
Above: The Pytchley Hunt
Hours of reading in the library
Side Saddle Cafe was next on my agenda - this is somewhere I have wanted to go for a couple of years; as soon as I heard the name! I loved the decor and side saddle theme. It is a family run cafe run alongside the family farm, Fields of Athenry. The food is field to fork fresh, organic and healthy. I had been recommended the chicken pot pie (super healthy and full of goodness) and ‘Bongo-bongo’ - home-made banana bread, caramelised bananas and vanilla ice cream (totally moreish!) Following this, I made sure I sampled the ‘Middle Marg’ cocktail from the menu (for research purposes of course)!
The next morning, Maryalice picked me up and we went to follow the Piedmont Foxhounds. It was a flying visit but we managed to catch them in action.
That evening I had something quite different planned. I had been invited to ‘The Chef’s Table’ at the National Conference Center, Leesburg. I caught an uber over and almost immediately felt ‘homesick’! The chefs table is a four course culinary experience in the working kitchens of the centre. Around thirty people had been specially invited and it was a great networking experience where I met lots of interesting people. Each carefully constructed course was perfectly paired with wine by the chief wine officer (what a job title!). The National regularly caters for over 1000 guests and works hard at creating relationships with local farmers, purchasing as much as possible from them. This was an opportunity to show potential customers their culinary capabilities. It was an excellent meal and experience. I was staying at the venue and following the meal left to find my way back to my room. This was extremely difficult. There are over 1000 rooms at the conference centre in multiple wings connected by underground tunnels. I just could not find my room! After nearly half an hour of walking, possibly in circles, I gave up and diverted to a bar for a night cap. When I’d found the strength to start my search it was at least another fifteen minutes before I found my room. The National has excellent facilities for hosting large conferences of up to 1800 people but I felt extremely lost and lonely in such a huge environment and was excited to get back to the country.
Friday I attended Side Saddle Chase Foundation’s sidesaddle hunt clinic, the first part of the SSCF’s hunting aside weekend. You can read more about the SSCF on their website - www.sidesaddlechase.com. British Master Saddler Rob Jenkins of Malvern Saddle Co. Ltd was also at the clinic to show participants his new side saddles. The clinic was an opportunity to work on skills needed in the hunting field including going up and down hills, crossing streams and ditches and jumping hunt fences. It was lead by international foxhunter, Devon Zebrovious and was a great start to the weekend.
From the clinic I made my way to the Salamander Resort and Spa, an truly exceptional, luxury country retreat complete with state of the art equestrian centre. Salamander’s events calendar is jam packed with creative and special events.
Equestrian art adorns the walls at Salamander resort
’Cocktails with Cupcake’ is held weekly in the lounge. Cupcake is the resort’s miniature shetland, small in size but with a big personality. The Cupcake Cocktail is made with vanilla vodka, dark and light Godiva, housemade whipped cream topped with rainbow sprinkles and it is as delicious as it sounds. Cupcake arrived fashionably late and made her way around the lounge bringing smiles to the faces of all guests. She certainly made my day.
I made a very last minute decision to join an art class I had seen advertised so I left The Salamander for The Dairy Barn, a gallery and work space just out of town. We were given step-by-step instruction to create a lovely watercolour fox painting to take home. It was a very relaxed, informal enjoyable evening. I'm not going to post my final painting as I couldn't get the foxes eyes quite correct and my fiance laughed at my attempt. Room for improvement!
I was up early again the next day, Karen and Doug from Middleburg Photo kindly picked me up and we went to the Middleburg Hunt meet at Foxhole Farm. Having seen the Middleburg Hunt leave the meet, Doug and I popped down to the Piedmont Foxhounds meet a few miles down the road at Upperville. I was lucky to be able to watch the blessing of the Piedmont Foxhounds which was really special. We saw them off and followed for a short while before returning to the Middleburg meet as the hounds came home.
Above: Maureen Britell
Below: Blessing of the Piedmont Fox Hounds Blessing of the Hounds Piedmont Fox Hounds Blessing the Hounds Piedmont Fox Hounds Blessing of the Hounds Piedmont Fox Hounds Piedmont Fox Hounds Piedmont Fox Hounds 9 year old sidesaddle rider, Sydney Pemberton out with the Middleburg Hunt
Above: 9 year old sidesaddle rider, Sydney Pemberton
A seriously impressive tailgate breakfast followed courtesy of Col. & Mrs. Jim Nichols. A perfect end to my week exploring Middleburg.
My time spent in Middleburg was absolutely superb, it is a really unique, charming town with a strong equestrian identity that I would absolutely love to return to - watch this space!
Virginia is also know for its wineries and I would have loved to have visited one or two but I ran out of time.
I must also add that there is no public transport/trains/buses in this area and to get around you need to ideally hire a car or be based in the town.
I'd like to say a huge thank you to Viviane, Maryalice, Liz Callar, Karen and Doug of Middleburg photo (highly recommend a Facebook follow) Devon Zebrovious, Gale Rives Cayce just to mention a few.
Photos (limited) from the meets I attended (Snickersville, Piedmont, Middleburg) can be found here (please check back again next week as I still have more to upload!)
I do hope that you enjoy reading my blogs and maybe take inspiration from them.
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