I recently took some days off for one of my occasional sojourns around the Bay. It had actually been several years since I had deliberately set time aside to do this, and I was feeling the need to get out and around. No meetings, no schedules, not even any companions — just me and my old van driving to the end of all the roads, looking around, trying out a new camera (one of those that comes with a 106-page instruction book), spending the nights at B&Bs, and talking to whomever was around. I recommend it.
I spent most of my time wandering the Northern Neck and Middle Peninsula of Virginia, from Dahlgren in King George County to Guinea Neck in Gloucester. Although I had taken occasional trips to this area, much of it was unknown to me. What I had heard about it ranged all the way from “the East’s hidden paradise” to “some places you don’t want to be a stranger in”. As you might expect, there’s a bit of truth in both those views but a lot of reality in between.
There were some memorable encounters — being shown around the church cemetery in Mathews County by the retired naval officer who knew all the history of the place and pointed out the grave of the Confederacy’s only female officer. Or talking with the owner of a filling station in a small town as he polished his original ’39 Pontiac, and tried to sell me a ’37 Chevy pickup for about three times its value. (I may look like a piker, but I know my old cars.)
But mostly, it was the places and the rivers. In that part of Virginia, the overwhelming focus of the landscape is on the immense extent of tidal rivers and bays, not just the Potomac, the Rappahannock and the York, but also Machodoc Creek and Pope’s Creek and Currioman and Nomini bays and the Yeocomico, the Wicomico, the Corotoman, the Piankatank, the North and the Severn — a large part of more than 3,000 miles of shoreline in Virginia.
Now, it is true that Maryland has its Severn and its Wicomico and even its Pope’s Creek, but the Bay itself plays more of lead role there. In Virginia, it’s the rivers that dominate.
And people do live along the water, not only the rich folks, but just about everyone, it seems. Most of the roads end in stretches along the water with lines of residences, many with docks and boats. While one longs for old villages and centers of water-based work, those are surprisingly sparse. The pattern is more to live on one of the tidal reaches, and to work inland where most of the jobs are located. And even where there is water-based work, it tends to be out of marinas and piers remote from town centers.
Of course, there are exceptions, and it is those places that most draw in the outsider. Colonial Beach has a history and look unto itself. Kinsale is a gem.
Mathews and Lancaster Court House are county seats reflecting many eras. The Mathews County Courthouse is just that — the front door leads into the courtroom and there is a jury room on one side and judges chambers on the other — what more do you need?
And Reedville, for years known for the odors of its menhaden plants, is today a lovely town of restored Victorians. Still, one does long for more traditional water-based communities like Gwynn and Grimstead on Gwynn’s Island or like Coles Point, where the post office is right next to the town wharf. There is a certain sadness at seeing many old village centers with boarded-up general stores that couldn’t compete with the chains a few miles away on the main road, and no longer serve as a place for the community to gather.
Because there is so much shorefront everywhere, you are never far from a boat ramp or other public access point in these parts of Virginia. Large parks and reserves, on the other hand, are few and most are only recently designated. But as most recreation is on the water, boat ramps are plentiful, and the population density is so low, that the relative scarcity of large, land-based recreation areas with access doesn’t bother you as much as in more built-up areas of the Bay.
And then there are the churches. Many of the oldest are country chapels, and some date back to the 1600s. Some are along the main roads, like the beautiful Baptist Church in Mathews that stands with its arms out like an immense guardian angel to greet you at the end of the road back from Gwynn’s Island. Among my favorites for the explorers among you are St. Luke’s in Tidwells, Yeocomico Church in Westmoreland County, St. Mary’s Whitechapel in Lancaster County, and Christ Church along the water in Mathews County.
So I have been to the end of the road to Bundick and Ophelia and Ditchley; out on Guinea Neck to Achilles and Lady and Maryus. And down to the piers at Williams Wharf in Mathews County, where the steamships used to come from as far as Baltimore.
The overall sense of life on the Northern Neck and the Middle Peninsula is one of calm and contentment. Folks don’t see much threat from development or loss of farms and forests or lack of public access — the kinds of things that concern us in many other parts of the Chesapeake watershed.
The main interest is economic prosperity — the ability to earn a good living with some security, to be able to stay in what they think is a very special place. It is not a formula to argue with.