Category Archives: Travel

Birthday Road Trip: Sperryville

We had heard that the countryside around Shenandoah, in Rappahannock county was full of nice B&Bs and good restaurants as well as the wineries that we had already explored. We couldn’t get into the Inn at Little Washington, which is by all accounts one of the best, so we headed for the nearby town of Sperryville instead, where our internet research had located a nice looking, yet still affordable B&B and what turned out to be a pretty nice restaurant: the Thornton River Grille.

Even better, Sperryville had another craft brewery(!) and, what’s more, a distillery – Wasamund’s. This was pretty interesting as, rather than making American-style whisky, they specialise in making Scottish-style whisky, and were inspired by a trip to Islay. They’re a family business and the whole place was warm, cosy and friendly – apart from the distillery cat, who apparently bites!

Wasamund’s (complete with distillery cat).

The tour introduced us to their methods of smoking the barley, and of using old bourbon barrels as they do in Scotland. Amazingly, there were no health and safety concerns preventing us from getting up close to the distilling equipment. It was just like visiting a craft brewery.

Then it was on to the tasting. Unfortunately, I think they’ve got some way to go before they’re producing anything as good as Islay malts. They’re very proud of how they can produce characterful malts without the need to mature for long periods. We thought that a bit more maturing probably wouldn’t hurt…

We moved on to Pen Druid Brewing Company. I’d had high hopes of this brewery, hoping it would have the Welsh background its name suggested (Pen means head in Welsh and is common in place names, plus Wales is known for druids). Sadly, the brothers who run the brewery knew of no Welsh connection, and had just named the brewery after their old family farm – they thought Pen probably referred to the female swan, which has inspired their logo, and didn’t think their family had any Welsh roots.

Nevertheless, the beer was very good, and the place had a great local atmosphere, another open fire, and friendly, bearded bartenders.


The nice-looking B&B – the Inn at Mount Vernon Farm – turned out to be rather strange… It was the home of John Clifford the 3rd (or 4th? I’m not sure!). Because he was actually at home, it made it all rather awkward – we didn’t feel we could really use the common areas, or help ourselves to wine as we had been told to by the housekeepers. The housekeepers in fact did a better job of hosting us and trying to make us feel comfortable. The old cook had clearly been in the family a long time – her ways made me think of an old retainer in novels. The breakfast she provided us with was really excellent – an egg casserole, great bacon and homemade blackberry pancakes. It was a strange place though…


Still, it was a nice experience to be staying in the countryside.

Even nicer, we were able to walk to the distillery, brewery and restaurant by crossing the river on a little swing bridge by the light of our phones!

Read on for the final post in this series

Birthday Road Trip: Charlottesville

This was our first time in Charlottesville. (I wrote about our second time there, and one of its really great restaurants, here).

We arrived in Charlottesville late afternoon, just in time to have a wander around the University of Virginia campus as the sun set. The university was designed by Thomas Jefferson, who believed strongly that America should have a public system of higher education and – radically – that this education should not be linked to religion. Rather than being centred around a church or chapel, UVA was designed around a rotunda, which housed the library.

The university campus is very open to the public, and we enjoyed walking in the cloisters, and peeking into the little rooms where presumably students used to live and work, and some where it looked like they still do.


I wasn’t sure what Jefferson would make of the Greek life aspects of UVA. We walked around the streets that house the large fraternity houses, wondering if Jefferson had intended to create such a patrician class within the new republic. It’s an aspect of US higher education that’s completely foreign to me, and I tend to regard it with the suspicion with which I regard secret societies. They certainly looked rather creepy as dusk fell…

A positive result of Charlottesville being a university town, is that it has a good town centre – plenty of restaurants along the main road, a nice old cinema, a theatre in a complex near the station, and a downtown mall – or as we in the UK would call it, a pedestrianised shopping street. We loved the atmosphere here, and wished we hadn’t overindulged so much over Christmas and on our way. Interestingly, as the mainstreets in Charlottesville are thriving, it’s the out of town shopping malls that are declining. We went to one the next morning, in search of breakfast on the road, and found it almost deserted, despite it being prime sales season.

We were on the road because we were on our way to see Jefferson’s Monticello – one of the prime objects of this trip. Unfortunately it wasn’t great weather, and we walked up the hill from the carpark through a dripping mist, and on reaching the top could barely see the house at the other end of the lawn. Apparently there are amazing views of the surrounding mountains normally, but we didn’t see any of that on the day we visited…


However the house was fascinating, and we thoroughly enjoyed our tour. Jefferson was a great experimenter – and inventor – as well as a thorough bibliophile. There were so many little touches in the house that interested me, that I’m not sure I can do it justice.

For example, there was the clock, that worked with a system of weights and for which the lobby wasn’t quite tall enough – so Jefferson cut holes in the floor for the weights to descend into the basement.

There were the French style beds, either snugly fitted into the walls of the bedrooms, or between two rooms as in Jefferson’s suite. We were told that every morning Jefferson put his feet into a bowl of cold water, to ward off colds (apparently this was successful). Next to the bed you could see where splashed water had worn away at the floor boards.

And there was the French-style dining room, designed to hide the slaves as much as possible, as they went about producing dishes for the guests.

Because it was out of season, we weren’t able to go on the special tour of the slave quarters, and Mulberry Row (the principal plantation street), but we were able to walk around ourselves and read the information provided about them. The guides were rather coy about discussing Jefferson’s liaison with his slave Sally Hemings, with whom he is believed to have fathered six children. In fact, the guides seemed incredibly uncomfortable to be talking about this in Jefferson’s house. I couldn’t help but think that if Monticello was run by the National Parks Service we would have had a far better discussion of this. Instead, it’s run by the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, a nonprofit corporation.

I was interested to learn about Jefferson’s relationship with his daughters, though. Although they were destined to become plantation wives – like their mother, who gave birth to six children in ten years – Jefferson was intent that they should have a solid education. This was because he recognised that they would be largely responsible for the education of their children – not because he thought women should do anything else with their lives. I was also struck by the fact that he took it upon himself to name a number of his grandchildren; his daughter Martha had twelve children, including ‘Thomas Jefferson Randolph’, ‘James Madison Randolph’, ‘Benjamin Franklin Randolph’, and ‘Meriwether Lewis Randolph’!

So it was with a lot to think about and discuss that we left Monticello and headed up to Sperryville.

Read on

Birthday Road Trip: Dogfish Head and Ocean City

We’re quite old hands at visiting craft breweries now, so had an idea what to expect when we visited Dogfish Head brewery at Milton, DE. This is the brewery that makes a couple of my favourite beers out here – their 60 minute IPA and Indian brown ale are perfect after a long walk.

The brewery was surprisingly busy, so the first tour we could get on was rather later than we’d hoped. However, it was close to lunch time, so we figured we could enjoy a few tastings and grab some lunch before the tour. The brewery has a ‘beer-centric’ food menu available from ‘Bunyan’s Lunchbox’ – a sort of stationary food truck – just outside. Here they serve beer-dosed bratwursts, hop pickles (totally weird and amazing), and bowls of ‘hard-tack’ clam chowder, made with dark beer. You can also get a lot of this food at Dogfish’s brew pub ‘Dogfish Head Brewings and Eats’ in Rehoboth Beach. And they apparently stock the chowder and brats in some branches of Whole Foods and Harris Teeter.

This wide availability of Dogfish Head’s non-beer produce might give rise to a suspicion that the brewery is not quite as ‘off-centred’ as its slogan suggests. In fact, the brewery has a very established commercial arm, and its on-site shop was overflowing with merchandise.

The story of its founder was also slightly different from what we were used to – a graduate of a liberal arts college borrowed money from his parents to start this brewery. The story’s main tension revolves around the founder screwing up the courage to tell his father: thanks for all that expensive college education, but I think I want to brew beer for a living. The conversation happened while father and son were out jogging, and ended with the father suggesting the brewery’s name.

There was another obstacle to the founding of Dogfish Head. Thinking he saw a gap in the market in the fact that Delaware had no craft breweries, the founder happily went ahead with his plans, only to discover that the reason there were no craft breweries in Delaware was that it was illegal. He was undaunted though – for a very good reason: his wife was the daughter of one of the main guys who ran the state. So husband and wife lobbied for a change in the law and even got to help with drafting the legislation that made the enterprise possible.

Now I don’t want to suggest that any other craft brewery foundation story is that of a working class hero making good, but there is something a little more endearing about the story of the New Belgium founders making their start-up money through their jobs in industry, becoming successful and then handing over ownership of the brewery to their employees.

Despite all this, we still enjoyed our time at the brewery – and we still enjoy the beer.

One of the main highlights of the day though was the drive out across the Chesapeake Bridge. We saw it stretching out across the water before I drove out onto it…


… and I think I grinned for the entire time I was driving across it!

One of our ambitions since watching the Danish/Swedish detective series The Bridge has been to drive across the bridge between Denmark and Sweden. While the Chesapeake Bridge isn’t as long as that bridge, it did give us the feeling we’d imagined of being in the middle of the ocean, driving towards the horizon, part of a great feat of engineering. More than this, the sun came out, and we enjoyed flying across the water with the seabirds.

Finally we made it to our destination for the night – we were staying in a large hotel in off-season Ocean City. We weren’t alone – the hotel was pretty full of people avoiding Christmas – but the deserted, wind- and rain-swept beach certainly lived up to my standards of bleakness.



Read on in my next post

Birthday Road Trip, December 2015


My birthday comes between Christmas and New Year. It’s a difficult time of year for a birthday – often people aren’t around, or places aren’t open, and you don’t really feel very much like celebrating again while you’re still recovering from the Christmas turkey, puddings, cake, and chocolate. In the past I’ve embraced it – Christmas cake is way better than birthday cake in my opinion, and a good turkey sandwich makes an excellent birthday lunch. But when you’re celebrating Christmas in a less than traditional way, with family, Christmas cake and turkey sandwiches far away, a Christmas birthday doesn’t seem as jolly.

So we did what we always do when we’re feeling a bit down – we hit the road!

R knows me really well, so he suggested an itinerary that very much appealed to me. We would be starting by driving across the Chesapeake Bay Bridge to Delaware – one of the states I hadn’t visited yet – and having lunch and some tastings of beer at Dogfish Head Brewery, which happens to be one of my favourite beers. Then we would drive to Ocean City, MD, and spend the night there; I love being by the sea in the winter, on a good, wind-swept beach.

Day 2 we would drive to Charlottesville, probably via a Chik fil A (I mentioned this trip was designed to fit in my favourite things!).  Here we wanted to see the University of Virginia campus, designed by Jefferson, and Jefferson’s house – Monticello. We thought we might do that on the morning of Day 3, before we drove up the Shenandoah Valley to stay, for our final night, near Little Washington, in Sperryville – where there just happened to be another brewery, and a distillery, as well as a nice restaurant.

On our final day we planned to head up to Skyline Drive and get in a short hike before driving back to DC.

It was a pretty full schedule, but it turned out to be a nice little road trip, which fit nicely into the time between Christmas and New Year and didn’t break the bank.

Read on in my next post


Asheville: driving home via Charlottesville

Sunday came too soon. I gave my conference paper, changed into more comfortable clothes, and we were on our way.

Even though we were taking a quicker route of main roads, the first hour or so out of Asheville was still beautiful, as we drove through some of the eastern ridge of the Blue Mountains, into Tennessee briefly, and down again to Johnson City. We took the I-81 back to Fort Chiswell and from there we were retracing our steps. But we weren’t done with sightseeing yet.

On the way down we had been intent on getting to the Blue Mountains, but now we had a bit of time to stop for a much-needed break at an attraction near Roanoke called the Natural Bridge. The weather wasn’t great, but we still enjoyed our little walk down a gorge to see the ‘bridge’. It’s even possible to walk underneath it, or sit and take in a lecture about the natural wonder – or a sermon…


Past the bridge there are various nature walks and things to see, including a recreation of a native American village. We figured that this was probably one of those places that Virginian school children get taken to on geography and history school trips.


Jefferson once owned the land that included the natural bridge, and he began the custom of a guest book that the Virginia State Park authorities keep up to this day. As we learnt about the bridge we became aware that we had maybe seen paintings of it before – maybe at Monticello? I’m not sure.

Talking of Monticello, we had decided that we might as well drive home via Charlottesville and have dinner there. This probably wasn’t the most time-efficient idea, but we hadn’t felt that we had enough time at Charlottesville the last time we were there (I’ll write about this trip another time), and we had been thinking about it ever since. It has a really nice downtown mall (which we would call a pedestrianized high-street in the UK), with lots of really nice places to eat.

So we went for dinner at Bizou in Charlottesville, and it was lovely. After a few days of brew pubs, it was a nice contrast, and we loved the decor. Some of the tables were old-style diner booths with the old juke-box selectors at the table, and the walls were covered in framed old movie posters – I especially liked the one for The Attack of the 50 Foot Woman. It was the kind of place that, if you lived in the town, you’d take people there all the time.

But, sadly, we didn’t live in Charlottesville, so we had a 2.5 hour drive home! It was a busy long weekend, but we were happy we’d managed to cram in as much as we had.

(And just in case you thought you’d escaped the country music this time – here are two of our favourite tracks from this trip!)

(Do read the comments on You Tube – predictably, she comes in for some criticism from Christians!)

I think the basic inspiration for this is One Man went to Mow…

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