A slice of the south on ‘The Crooked Road’

By | Category: Travel destinations

the peacefulness of Abingdon

Coal fields fashioned into tiny industrial cities and country stores annexed to tackle shops boasting a single petrol pump greet us as we cross the border into the south west of the American state of Virginia. Motoring along Route 119, lush valleys are twinned with soaring mountains and all the spring foliage is in full bloom competing with each other for our attention. The gorgeous lavender of the Redbud, the insane neon yellow of Witchhazel trees and a glut of spring wildflowers all punctuate the landscape with colour.

 

My husband and I have spent a week in Kentucky visiting the Keeneland Race Meet and the first ever Colonel Sander’s Kentucky Fried Chicken; but are now on the road again. The Appalachian and Blue Ridge Mountains, as well as the Shenandoah Valley, will be the backdrop for our journey as we travel through the entire state of Virginia on our way to Washington D.C.

Virginia Creeper Trail

After several hours, we enter Abingdon’s city limits where we will stay overnight. We are now in ‘Crooked Road’ country. Highway 58, a 300 mile tarmac stretch that crosses much of South West Virginia, connects mountain communities where traditional music and artisan crafts still thrive. A few streets away is the beginning of the famous Creeper Trail, named after the steam train that in days gone by would creep up to the Iron Mountains. The trail extends for over 30 miles and is popular with hikers, bikers and nature buffs.

 

We also drive past a monument that I assume is in honour of the Civil War but turns out it be the town’s muster ground for the Revolutionary War nearly 100 years earlier. A few moments later, we have turned into an old residential section of the town and are pulling up the gravel driveway of the charming White Birches Inn.

White Birches Inn

This historic B&B is built in “English Country Style” and dates from the beginning of the 20th century. To Americans, “English Country Style” means old worlde and furnished with antiques. Home to Paulette and Michael Wartella who run the B&B, the couple welcome us onto their premises as if we are family coming for a weekend visit. As our bags are spirited away up to our Porterfield Suite, we plunk ourselves into the comfy wicker chairs that populate the sprawling patio at the back of the house. Soft drinks as well as beer are on tap in the kitchen and hubby and I are invited to help ourselves to refreshments. A walk around the lovely garden, with fields and a farm just beyond the gates, is just the ticket to unwind.

 

That evening I have booked seats for us to hear a concert at the Carter Family Fold. About an hour’s drive from Abingdon, the Carter Family Fold is a venue that promotes country music acts and is definitely geared to local tastes. It was built by Jeanette Carter of this famous singing family and attracts visitors from all over the world. A.P. Carter, Sara Carter and Maybelle Carter were some of the first musicians to broadcast and record country music. There are still extant recordings from the 1930s of their broadcasts from a border radio station in Villa Acuña, Texas, now Mexico.

I can’t say I have the easiest time finding the Fold as it is tucked well away into the mountains. (Luckily the particular country road where it is housed is named A.P. Carter Hwy). The White Top Mountain band is on the schedule and, being the most popular dance group in the whole of South West Virginia, the place is packed. We take our seats to watch the performance and are amazed when everyone gets up to dance. Every one of the dancers is clogging. Not Irish dancing but what seems to be a variation on English clogging. And it is all age groups from tiny ones right up to and including elderly folk. This style of dance was exported to the U.S. via the cotton mills (which is where Lancashire clogging evolved). It is fascinating to see a style of dance that has virtually died out in the Mother country (with the exception of a few practitioners) thriving half way across the globe.

My breakfast - first helping!

Breakfast the next morning is served up by Paulette and is something quite special. Decadent French toast swimming in a gorgeous syrup topped with fresh fruit, as well as bacon and succulent sausage, is on the menu. As I tuck in, I find I can’t stop with just one slice and have seconds. Syrup is poured from a delicate silver jug that has its own silver cradle containing a heating element (small candle). Served with fresh orange juice and fantastic coffee, this is a great way to start the day.

 

Before leaving Abingdon, we decide to visit Heartwood. This venue, just on the outskirts of town, has been created to offer entertainment, food and information in celebration of country music and local craft traditions. It focuses, in particular on The Crooked Road, Virginia’s Heritage Music Trail. The person in charge of promoting The Crooked Road, Jack Hinshelwood, meets us at the entrance and ushers inside for a tour of the exhibits. Everything on display from handmade musical instruments to pottery, carvings and weavings to jewellery, show off the talents and skills of local people. Every exhibit is interpreted with printed explanations of where each item originated, as well as videos or recordings and even photos of the artist. Jack spontaneously grabs one of the fiddles from an exhibit and gives a virtuosic demonstration of the very music he has been eulogising.

There is a Gospel Brunch every Sunday morning at Heartwood which is frequented by local townsfolk, as well as tourists, and stays open until mid-afternoon. As you can imagine, it becomes particularly busy after church services have finished. As the singer-guitarist starts his set, we say our goodbyes.

the Muster Ground

Though a more extensive visit is long overdue, this taster has given me a flavour for a part of the South with a fascinating history and truly heroic landscapes. While the anniversary of the Civil War is still taking place (until 2015), this is a great time to get out and experience this unique corner of Virginia. You won’t be disappointed.

 

There are direct flights from London Heathrow to Washington DC’s Dulles Airport by British Airways, United Airlines and Virgin Atlantic. From there the best option is to hire a car.

Images © Jason Barnette except breakfast which is © White Birches Inn

For more information about Southwest Virginia visit www.capitalregionusa.co.uk.

Discover this land, like never before at www.DiscoverAmerica.com

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