ONE of the most relaxing ways to spend a long summer weekend is driving through the lush green horse country here in Middleburg, Va., and spending quiet nights at gracious, southern bed-and-breakfasts. Middleburg (pop. 800), a 1-hour drive west of Washington, D.C., is surrounded by vast stretches of horse farms tucked into the gently rolling foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Often likened to the Irish countryside, it's webbed with meandering country roads, split-rail fences, pastures where sleek horses and cattle graze among buttercups, and grand old homes shaded by stately trees.
There are no highway billboards (it's against the county law), no fast-food places (there's no market for them), no housing developments (much of the land along the public roads is protected by the Virginia Outdoors Foundation), and no noise - except the robins, cardinals, doves, and an occasional tractor or mower. Once in a while, a car or horse van passes by. If you're not alert, you can miss the road signs and end up getting lost on a delightful winding road.
That's the fun of Middleburg - getting lost, finding your way back, in leisurely fashion. Nothing moves fast here.
The people are quietly aristocratic, in both spirit and means. Prime land costs $25,000 to $30,000 an acre, and a lot of it is already owned by old families with such names as Mellon, du Pont, Belmont, and Symington. President Kennedy rented a weekend estate here and then built one for his family. Jacqueline Kennedy, an accomplished horsewoman, had discovered the joys of Middleburg years before. She still comes down from New York to ride in the hunts.
Today wealthy farmers breed horses for the race tracks of New York and Florida, or simply for local events, which are major social occasions. There are polo matches in the summer, fox hunts in the fall and winter, and steeplechase races in the spring. Many residents have lived here for generations, and a few have opened their homes as bed-and-breakfasts.
I first saw the Briar Patch when I rounded a corner on US Route 50 several miles east of Middleburg. Sitting high on a hill, the big white farmhouse, flanked by tall trees, had an inviting front porch and a lawn that tumbled down to the highway. The small sign read: ``The Briar Patch - and Beyond.'' Later, at an art show in town, I was introduced to the owner, Jean Gold, who invited me to come out and spend a night.
Several months later, I stayed two nights and would have loved to spend a week.
It was home away from home. Built in 1806 as a log cabin, the house was added onto twice in the late 1800s and stuccoed over. Jean and her husband, Bill Costen, raised four children here, and the seven bedrooms still have most of the original antique furniture, rugs, bookcases, children's games, and family photos.
A blue-tiled kitchen, with cast-iron stove and highboy holding Jean's collection of French faience ceramic ware, opens onto a patio where breakfast is served under umbrellas. Up the stone steps is the swimming pool. Two sitting rooms with fireplaces beckon guests to flop down in cushy sofas and leaf through a profusion of books, magazines, and newspapers on Virginia horse country.
``Bill and I came down from New York in 1965, looking for a place where we could have some horses,'' says Jean, settling into a white wicker chair on the front porch. ``We bought 50 acres and named it the Briar Patch. You know, the stories about Uncle Remus and Br'er Rabbit? Bill and I thought we'd love to live in a place named that. It reminds me of childhood.''
After the children grew up and Bill died, Jean turned the house into a B&B. ``We wanted to keep up the property and share it with others,'' she says. ``I didn't want to rent it to anybody. It's still a part of me. I've left most of my mementos here, the pictures of the children, my owl collection, and now my rabbits.'' Her small china animals occupy nearly every room. So do her children and grandchildren, when they visit on holidays.
``They love it here,'' says Jean. ``The little ones like to go out and collect toads and lightning bugs and grasshoppers.'' She and her second husband, Jay, now live in a modern house they built, just up the hill. That's the ``And Beyond.''
One evening, I walked up that hill and into the 25 acres behind the new house. A stretch of tall grass and wildflowers, it buzzes with bees and is playground to swooping swallows by day. At night, the only activity is a slight breeze and the faint hum of cars from the main road. Luxuriating in the peaceful darkness, I looked up and saw a wide blanket of brilliant stars. There were no city lights or pollution to dim them. It was spectacular.
My room was The Suite, the former master bedroom, done in shades of blue, Jean's favorite color, with a king-sized bed covered in Early American quilted cotton, stenciled night tables, a Dhurrie rug, and a pair of easy chairs. A walk through the private bath led to a comfortable sitting room with fireplace, blue-print sofa bed, writing desk, lots of books and magazines, and a television. Vases of fresh flowers were everywhere.
I woke up late the next morning with the sun streaming in through the wooden shutters and the sounds of singing birds and a tractor. ``We're having a wedding here next weekend, and I want the place to look good,'' said Mike Dade, the groundskeeper. People often book the house for weddings and anniversaries. Downstairs, Jean was in the kitchen, and Helen Stewart, her housekeeper of 23 years, poured orange juice. We sat down to a table laid in Faience and ate croissants with strawberry jam.
``Over at Welbourne, another B&B, they do a traditional Southern breakfast,'' said Jean. ``I'll give you their phone number.'' Ten minutes' drive west of Middleburg, Welbourne is a magnificent ochre-colored antebellum mansion, built in 1775 and added onto in 1870, with tall white columns and a long front porch. It stands majestically at the end of a driveway flanked by two football field-sized lawns, and inside are room after high-ceilinged room of antique tables and armoires, family portraits (Welbourne has been in the Morrison family for 150 years), dozens of Oriental carpets, and canopied beds.
Another B&B, Little River Inn, is a stone's throw from the Briar Patch in the town of Aldie. Built in 1810, the roadside inn has five rooms and three cottages that have been restored in Early American design. Breakfast is substantial: bacon-egg-and-cheese casserole, Dutch applebaby (a big apple popover), and French toast. Out back, there are three acres with sheep, a goat, and a mule. Mind the goat, who likes to escape the pen and eat the patio geraniums.
If you go
The Briar Patch - and Beyond, is located on Route 50, five miles east of Middleburg, Va. It offers seven bedrooms ($65 to $115 per night, double occupancy). Phone Jean Gold at (703) 327-4455.
Welbourne is on Route 743, 1 mile west of Route 611, which runs north from Route 50. It offers five bedrooms ($87.55 per night, double occupancy) and four cottages ($93.20 per night, double occupancy). Phone Sherry Morrison at (703) 687-3201.
Little River Inn is on Route 50, six miles east of Middleburg. It has five bedrooms ($65 to $75 per night, double occupancy) and three cottages ($100 to $185 per night, double occupancy). Phone Tucker Withers at (703) 327-6742.