Behind the Gates: Loudoun County's Annual Hunt Country Stable Tour

Some of Virginia's finest estates will open their doors for Loudoun County's annual Hunt Country Stable Tour each year.
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Some of Virginia's finest estates will open their doors for Loudoun County's annual Hunt Country Stable Tour each year.

Winding between stone walls and rail fences, visitors to Virginia Hunt Country have traveled the same scenic roads for 250 years. Great estates spread across the rolling Virginia Piedmont to the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The sight of a red fox streaking across pastures where Thoroughbred horses graze is an everyday occurrence. Nowhere else but England are the love of land and the legacy of the horse so indelibly entwined.

The tranquility of a dewy dawn is broken by the thunder of hooves at the Middleburg Training Track, a facility created by the late philanthropist Paul Mellon, an avid horseman. Horses are also trained and rehabilitated at the nearby Animal Swim Center. And at Glenwood Park outside Middleburg, steeplechasers race over fences during the season.

In Middleburg, Olympic Gold and Bronze medalists share lively conversation and a crabcake sandwich at The Coach Stop restaurant after a morning ride. Boots, riding pants, and pick-up trucks vie with Versace, Armani and Lexus in Middleburg, Leesburg and Upperville. Even the shops sport horsey names: Pony Tail, The Finicky Filly, The Tack Box, Hunt Country Yarns and Pegasus Painting, The Book Chase and Journeymen Saddlers. The festive Middleburg Christmas parade begins with the cry "release the hounds," and the pack careens down Washington Street followed by a colorful parade of riders in hunting attire.

Loudoun County is the Old Dominion in riding breeches.

For those who've had a lifelong longing to sally forth through the gates of Virginia's finest estates and wander at will through their barns and training facilities, mark Memorial Day weekend on the calendar. Each year the Hunt Country Stable Tour is two days of a delightful "open barn" policy to benefit Trinity Episcopal Church, a remarkable replica of a twelfth-century French country church. Visitors will wend their way through Loudoun County, site of many of the country's premier Thoroughbred breeding farms, show hunter barns and historic estates.

Loudoun's largest communities, which are still villages, all have equestrian roots. The Plains, once noted as a Sioux Hunting grounds, is now the site of the annual Virginia Gold Cup, International Gold Cup and the Virginia Wine Festival. Upperville began "pioneer style" racing around 1760 and today is the site of the Piedmont Hunt Point to Point races in March. Waterford, a Quaker community founded in 1733, remains rural to its core.

Middleburg, named for its location as the midpoint stagecoach stop on the Alexandria-Winchester Turnpike is credited for the renaissance of American fox-hunting around l905. The population of Middleburg is actually smaller today than it was during the Civil War. The Chronicle of the Horse, located in Middleburg, publishes weekly articles and results of equestrian competitions. Next door is the National Sporting Library, one of the most comprehensive equestrian libraries in the United States.

One of the estates featured in the Hunt Country Stable Tour is the crown jewel of hunt country, Rokeby, home of the late Paul Mellon and his wife. Near the estate's private airstrip is the stable that gave us memorable horses such as Sea Hero, the l993 Kentucky Derby Winner, and Quadrangle, winner of the Belmont, Wood Memorial and Travers Stakes in l964. The stable had three "horse of the year" winners. In the courtyard is a bronze statue of Mellon's favorite horse, Mill Reef, the first horse to win four prestigious European races in the same season -- the Epsom Derby, the Prix de la Arc de Triomphe, the King George VI, and the George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes at Ascot.

The elegant old Rokeby stables stand along a ridge overlooking hundreds of acres of Virginia countryside, appearing as it has since Washington's day. Enjoying the view is an enchanting old horse who has been retired to live in luxury. Frank was Jackie Onassis' favorite mount. Although Camelot and Jackie are no longer with us, photos of Jackie and Frank adorn the stable. These poignant reminders of days gone by tug at the heart.

The Hunt Country Stable Tour is ingrained in Loudoun culture. Estate owners are happy to provide public access to their private lives to fund the mission work of the Upperville Episcopal church. Thanks to revenue generated by the stable tour, thousands of meals have been served to needier neighbors in nearby Washington, D.C., and more distant Malawi, Africa. Other outreach includes the therapeutic riding program, and outreach to victims of domestic violence, the Volunteer Fire and Rescue squads and many other charities.

Other featured farms on the tour include the 400-acre Newstead Farm owned by Bertram and Diana Firestone. The stable has been completely restored and now boasts 62 stalls. The couple has been breeding and racing Thoroughbreds throughout the U.S. and Europe for 30 years. They've added show horse training facilities for their top level hunters and jumpers.

Former Redskin football player Sam Huff and partner Carol Holden appropriately named their stable "Sporting Life." The couple founded the West Virginia Breeders Classic held at the Charles Town Races, now in its fifteenth season. Sam and Carol greet their guests in a uniquely well-designed horse operation. The barn, built for the comfort, protection and care of the animals within, and the adjacent paddocks and training areas were designed to assure smooth access throughout.

Salamander Farm is now owned by Robert L. Johnson, the founder of Black Entertainment Television. Salamander was the code name of its former owner Bruce Sundlun during WWII. Sundlun credited the use of the code name for saving his life during dangerous intelligence work in France in the 1940s. In gratitude, he named his property Salamander Farm. Johnson added a l4-stall barn with an 80 X 200-foot indoor arena, which has transformed the property into a major hunter/jumper training facility. Johnson also bought the adjoining Mending Wall Farm to serve as staff quarters. What's most notable about Salamander Farm is its beuatiful setting. A stone walkway, stone bridge, and l00 pine, oak, pear and cherry trees give this estate a remarkable grace. And, according to local competitors, Robert and Sheila Johnson's daughter, Page, is "a pretty good little rider." That's high praise indeed in Hunt Country.

Originally part of a land grant from Lord Fairfax to Robert King Carter in 1721, Peace and Plenty is now a 400- acre working horse and cattle farm. It will be on the tour, as will Rock Ridge, a 40-horse boarding and training operation with an excellent program for novice foxhunters and horse show competitors led by Snowden Clarke. Rock Ridge will hold jumping exhibitions on both days of the tour.

The recently renovated stable at Coachman Farm will be open during the Stable Tour. The barn is a Virginia showpiece, and the magnificent Belgian draft horses are the farm's pride and joy. Casanova stands at stud here. At l9 hands unshod and weighing over a ton, Casanova is among the largest of the world's horses.

Other stable tour stops include the M.A.R.E. (Middleburg Agricultural Research and Extension) Center, a nutrition research and maternity facility for horses; the Bridge at Goose Creek, a Civil War site; the Middleburg Training Track; and Trinity Episcopal Church. The church thanks generous visitors by offering a tour of the historic church and provides a country luncheon.

Those who want to see racing prospects train and compete should be early risers. Rise and shine with the winners at Middleburg Training Track on Saturday. Horses train between 7 a.m. and 9 a.m. For a more leisurely pace, there's often polo matches or horse trials to attend. Visitors are welcome to observe at no charge.

Accommodations in Loudoun have a distinctly equestrian flair. The elegant Goodstone Inn, an historic hunt country estate, provides upscale quarters for both guest and horse. Some of the finest guestrooms are located in an old stable. The Red Fox Inn, circa 1728, has delighted diners and overnight guests such as Washington, Stuart and Mosby. The newer Lansdowne Resort is noted for its golf, spa and unique dining experiences. Many bed & breakfast properties offer a unique brand of Virginia hospitality less than an hour's drive from the capital.

Loudoun County has always drawn the rich and powerful seeking seclusion and privacy. It was once the home of President James Monroe and the setting where the Monroe Doctrine was written. Jackie Kennedy retreated here to ride. The late Arthur Godfrey, Jack Kent Cooke and Pamela Harriman called Loudoun home. Today, you might spot Robert Duvall in The Plains or chatting with Tootie at Middleburg's Back Street Caf?. Bo Derek frequents the Gold Cup steeplechase races, as do many familiar faces in film and in government. A host of notables from actors to e-commerce magnates are visible in the villages.

You can also catch a glimpse of this glittering lifestyle at three different estates that are open to the public throughout the year. Oatlands, a 200-year-old plantation, once included 3,400 acres. Now a national landmark, the estate includes a 22-room country home and its dependencies built by George Carter, great-grandson of Robert King Carter. There's a smokehouse, barn, dairy, gardens and one of America's oldest greenhouses. Four acres of formal gardens, originally designed by George Carter, are resplendent in spring and summer.

Nearby, Morven Park, a 1200-acre estate, is notable for its house, gardens, events and a truly unique attraction, the Museum of Hounds, Hunting and Carriages. Morven Park was the home to two governors, Thomas Swann Jr., governor of Maryland, and Westmoreland Davis, who governed Virginia.

Dodona Manor was the home of statesman George C. Marshall, the author of the "Marshall Plan," which succeeded in rebuilding Europe after World War II.

A new kind of agriculture is easily enjoyed at the seven wineries found within the county borders. These sites offer tastings and special events: Breaux Vineyards, Shadwell Windham Winery, Loudoun Valley Vineyards, Tarara Vineyard and Winery, Willowcroft Farm Vineyards, and Swedenburg Estate Vineyard.

The newest addition, Chrysalis, opened its tasting room this year reintroducing Norton, one of Virginia's finest grapes. Breaux Vineyards, on a 400-acre estate offers picnic fare on site and will do tastings of its Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling and Seyval Blanc. Loudoun's largest, Tarara Vineyard, stores and ages its winning vintages in a 6,000-square-foot cave. The site overlooking the Potomac is remarkably scenic, the perfect spot for a party or a picnic. It's open daily from 11-5. The Loudoun Convention and Visitors Association has a wine tour brochure with maps to help you find your way to each and every winery.

Dining and shopping in Leesburg and Middleburg are a refreshing throwback to the days before franchise food and shopping. Charming inns and caf?'s coupled with unique shops make for a perfect afternoon. The Visitors Center in Leesburg is surrounded by craft and art shops near the Loudoun Museum. Evening options include a "Hauntings" Tour, a "Gallery Walk" and special concerts and events provided by the Leesburg area arts community. Folks gather from far and wide to hear Bluegrass played at Lucketts. In the warm weather months, everyone gathers for an afternoon of polo at Great Meadow.

Life in Loudoun is still revolves around the rhythm of the seasons and the measured hoofbeats of a fine horse.

IF YOU GO:

For more information on the Hunt Country Stable Tour, visit
www.middleburgonline.com.

Loudoun County is located just 45 miles west of Washington, D.C., close to Washington Dulles International Airport. Take the Dulles Toll Road/Greenway to Leesburg. The most beautiful route is to take Route 50 West from I-66, which passes through Aldie, Middleburg and Upperville.

For more information on accommodations and events:

The Loudoun Convention & Visitors Association

108 D. South Street Southeast

Leesburg, VA 20175-3732

www.VisitLoudoun.org

1-800-752-6118 or 703-771-2617