Flower Power in Richmond, VA
Published: April 2009
By Martha Baker
A four-day drive around Richmond, Virginia, where the sun always shines on the region's many plantations and gardens.
We New Yorkers are an impatient breed. Red lights never change fast enough, bank lines are never short enough—and spring never comes soon enough. By April, when patches of snow may still linger in Central Park, the longing for warmth becomes intolerable. In just such a mood, my husband and I decided to get a jump on the season by weekending in one of our favorite Southern cities: Richmond, Virginia. April there is paradise for flower-lovers, history buffs, and the scenery-deprived. And if those reasons weren't excuse enough, Richmond is also the home of our son Jesse and his wife, Sudie.
After the quick flight from New York, Chuck and I rented a Mustang convertible—a suitable choice for horse country—to take full advantage of the fair skies and unspoiled countryside. Our first stop was the Strawberryhill Steeplechase, where I was disappointed to find a jeans-and-sweaters dress code rather than the floral hats and spring finery I'd come to expect from reading Southern novels. But the tailgate picnics made up for it. Mounds of fried chicken were served on silver and china—along with a nonstop supply of alcoholic beverages. In fact, a good number of race-goers were so well fortified by the latter that the noise level sent us fleeing for quieter pleasures. We found them nearby at the Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden, where the annual daffodil show was in full bloom. More than 1,000 varieties were on display, each flower standing at attention in a tubular glass vase. The visual impact of all that yellow was striking.
Steering past horse farms, we headed for Goochland County's best-kept secret, the English Garden. Blazing poppies festooned the forecourt of this upscale country store and tea shop, which specializes in garden supplies and a divine afternoon tea. Once fortified, we were ready to tackle our first plantation, Tuckahoe, a Georgian wood-frame house surrounded by a formal garden on a bluff overlooking the James River. Among its trees is a Harry Lauder's Walking Stick, with intricately twisted branches. Tuckahoe still looks much as it did when the young Thomas Jefferson lived here. Nowadays, the Thompson family opens the plantation to the public by appointment. Parts of the grounds need attention, but I much prefer Tuckahoe's aging gentility to those overly ambitious plantation re-creations that rob such old places of their souls.
Staying at Richmond's Jefferson Hotel makes me feel like Eloise at the Plaza. This landmark is spoken of with reverence—and rightly so. With its stained-glass ceilings and golden pillars, the dining room alone is worth the trip. Despite the grandeur, the hotel is a friendly place, popular with local families. At brunch I spotted a few churchgoers in their Sunday best, looking wholesomely Norman Rockwell-ish.
Our first stop was the Virginia Historical Society. The building has the solemn look of a mausoleum—appropriate, considering the tales told by some of the exhibits inside, including war murals, Confederate weapons, and other Civil War memorabilia. For the rest of the day we steeped ourselves in gardens. At the next stop, Garden Designs, we eased into the subject. Co-owner and landscape designer Carrington Brown—an old friend—carries a delightful collection of antique and reproduction furniture and accessories for the garden. A mile away is Maymont House, a 100-acre Victorian estate that's open to the public. As luck would have it, we were a week too early to see its magnificent water cascade in action. No matter; we were more than satisfied with the cascade's graceful stone stairways fringed with Mahonia bealei plants and their gray-blue berries.
In a residential area called Windsor Farms, about three miles west of Maymont, is Virginia House, which is also open to the public. A 12th-century English priory, the house was crated up and moved to Richmond in 1925, then reassembled here. When landscape architect Charles Gillette was asked to create its gardens, he followed the gospel as preached by two English legends: landscape designer Capability Brown and architect Sir Edwin Lutyens. The result is a series of terraced flower beds and pools that rest on the grassy Virginia landscape like gems in a jeweler's case. Agecroft Hall, the 15th-century Tudor manor house next door, is another English import-turned-house museum with charming formal garden "rooms," growing vegetables, herbs (divided by an appropriately Elizabethan wattle fence), and flowers.
That night, Jesse and Sudie were able to drag us away from nature with dinner at Millie's diner in Churchill, an old factory area that's being converted into a hip new zone full of residential lofts and advertising agencies. With its cutting-edge menu, Millie's was legendary years before the transformation began.
We checked out of the Jefferson so early that even the larks were still napping, then threaded our way onto Route 5 east, connecting Richmond to Williamsburg. Scenic and lightly traveled, the road leads directly to the plantations. Shirley, dating back to 1723, is one of the oldest. Berkeley is the birthplace of Benjamin Harrison, a signatory of the Declaration of Independence, and William Henry Harrison, the ninth president. There's also Belle Air, Evelynton, Sherwood Forest, Edgewood, North Bend, Piney Grove—the names slide over the tongue like good Southern whiskey. All are worth seeing, but our favorite is Westover.
I'm a browser by temperament. I chafe at being adopted by salesladies or herded by tour guides. So when we were given the freedom to roam alone at Westover, I was in heaven. Later, the head gardener told us about Westover's most infamous resident, William Byrd III, whose family apparently amassed thousands of acres in the early 1700's. In a fit of reckless abandon, Byrd gambled most of it away. In the formal gardens where the gardener was at work, the wisteria was at the height of its career. At the front of the mansion we discovered a boxwood hedge—touchingly noble and thinning with age—that was newly planted when the wayward William was still wrangling with his creditors.
After a lunch of grilled Smithfield ham sandwiches and Sally Lunn bread pudding with whiskey butter sauce at the Indian Fields Tavern in Charles City—the best meal of our trip—it was off to Colonial Williamsburg. Knowing that any attempt to tour that national landmark in an hour is like trying to conquer Everest in a day, we limited ourselves to the Lila Acheson Wallace Garden at the DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum. Designed by 20th-century landscape architect Sir Peter Shepheard, the garden is both formal and contemporary. Carolina yellow jessamine and trumpet creeper undulate over brick walls, providing a foil for the clean simplicity of the star attraction: a half-sized gilt statue of the goddess Diana. I was rather taken with Diana, seeing as how we'd both come from the same place; she once perched atop the dome of New York City's old Madison Square Garden.
At Brent & Becky's Bulbs in Gloucester, acres and acres of daffodils were putting on a spectacular show in the late-afternoon light. When I exclaimed over some of the rare varieties, co-owner Brent Heath generously gathered up a bouquet for me. (Luckily, daffs are a hardy lot; they flourished for a week after we got them home.) That night we stayed in Irvington at the Tides Inn, which is like stepping back in time. After checking in, we boarded the inn's 127-foot wooden yacht, the Miss Ann, for a sunset cocktail cruise along the Rappahannock River. This was a Southern comfort I could get used to.
Breakfast at the Tides was classic Virginia fare: grits, corned-beef hash, and shad roe cakes (a specialty in the spring). Later, we piled luggage, daffodils, and ourselves into the car. On the way to the airport, we spotted the Hope and Glory in Irvington and accepted the owner's invitation to poke around the inn. Tucked behind the house are four guest cottages with gardens and fenced-in claw-foot tubs where sybarites can soak under the open sky.
We couldn't leave without a stop at Historic Christ Church, where Jesse's godfather, Alan McCullough, was waiting to give us a guided tour. Alan is a card-carrying history buff and a native son. He claims that Christ Church is America's most amazing church, and who are we to deny it?Built in 1735, its exterior is unadorned rosy-hued brick; the interior, a restrained harmony of white walls and dark polished wood. The McCullough family has been in Virginia a long time, and when Alan's parents died, they were buried in this very churchyard—a rarity and a great mark of respect. Before we left, he chose one of my daffodils and carefully laid it on their grave.
MARTHA BAKER is the author of Garden Ornaments, from Clarkson Potter.