Britain in Virginia (when you’re definitely not looking for it)

British and American flagsWe didn’t set out to do this. Sometimes, particularly in America, you’re trying to get something done and an entirely different thing happens.

We wanted a place to stay between Virginia and Tennessee, to cut the hip-wrenching, eye-popping drive in half. And was nothing; even the ever-reliable Hampton Inns were packed.

So when Rebecca gets a sniff of a vacant room in a bed & breakfast  in Nowheresville Natural Bridge, Virginia, we jump at it.

It just so happens that the owners are British. And that they’ve themed the place as an English” inn.

This is not something neither of us need to experience. But straight out of a nativity story, it’s the only Inn with any room, and we…okay, the guy makes promises over the phone of an English breakfast, which to be honest I’m feeling pretty good about. So we go for it.

We spent two nights in Natural Bridge, although the main action was in Lexington, where we enjoyed a meal at the Tuscany Italian restaurant (if you read the TripAdvisor reviews you wouldn’t set foot inside this place, but fortunately we weren’t that organized) and enjoyed once of the tastiest – and surely the most grown-up – dinner we’d had since Brooklyn.

We also found-without-meaning-to Celtic Tides, a place we would’ve walked straight past  if not for the case of Irn Bru displayed proudly in the window.

This is a store with merchandise that paints a realistic picture of how the Irish and Scots are often seen through America’s eyes. It is a store that reminds me of the difference between someone who says “Hey, I’m Scottish too!” when you meet them in the United States and someone who is, you know, Scottish. I was tempted to buy the jacket with my clan name and motto on the back until  I remembered that I not that kind of Scottish. I didn’t buy the $4 bag of Walker’s crisps, either, even though part of me wanted to.

But the owner of Celtic Tides is a Scotsman from Scotland and they must be doing something fabulously right because even a couple of hardened ex-Macs like Rebecca and me found a couple of things to buy, and our consumer needs sated, we left the kilts and shortbread alone long enough to tour the Lee Chapel and Museum, which is excellent and places just the right amount of emphasis on a certain loyal horse and the Honor System. And in case you’ve ever wanted a tour of Robert E. Lee’s office but don’t have the time to visit Lexington right now, just click on over.

But as explained above, we were having a distinctly British time at our Bed & Breakfast.

There was something astonishing, after just 3 months of twang, about speaking to a couple with Yorkshire accents. And the owners, inevitably, were the most realistic part of the Blacksmith Inn experience.

Of course I could give you a list of all the things a real British B&B would have – most of these things the Blacksmith Inn lacks, and I expect it’s because the owners want to stay in business.

The highlight of our two-night stay at the Blacksmith Inn may have been the American and British flags standing side by side as we drive up. But in truth, the highlight was the marmalade. Real, HFCS-free marmalade, right next-door to blackcurrant jam. An English breakfast that was authentic as it needed to be. I loved it, and an example of the Blacksmith Inn’s worthy tricks is to provide tea (thank God, finally, a cup of tea from a tea bag we didn’t have to bring in our own Hefty sandwich bag) and standard American coffee at the same time. It’s like England-Lite, and we enjoyed our stay.

There’s a joke Americans tell me (they say it so seriously, but it must be a joke) that you shouldn’t talk about politics here. They’re having fun with me because all the Americans I’ve met have talked to me about politics.

So when I look over from the breakfast table and spy, above the treasure trove of Royal Wedding memorabilia, the signed photo of Margaret Thatcher, I decide that it’s fine, even though for my own tastes, it’s like having a framed headshot of Mussolini on the wall.

The Blacksmith Inn wears its politics on its quaint sleeve, and it’s a politics so old-fashioned that it can’t really offend. In fact, it’s eerily similar to so many tourist attraction on the Virginia map that detail just how horrible the 18th century Brits  were. I spent much of my time at these attractions thinking to myself, it’s okay, don’t take it personally, they just needed an origins” story like Spider-Man. And when that doesn’t work, I told myself hey, you’re Scottish anyway, it’s the English they hated.

HP Sauce

Image via Wikipedia

I delighted in our fellow guests, who became so much more American in this Brit-esque environment, louder and more astonished, as if they really were in the UK.

No better example could be found than their brave attempts using HP sauce.

One of the women takes a tentative sniff and declares confidently that it’s A1 sauce.

The owner tells them otherwise, but brilliantly, as soon as he’s out of earshot, the woman tells her friends, achieving a reassuring closure with a knowing nod, and says definitively, “It’s A1.”  As if the Brits spend their time shipping in A1 sauce and putting a different label on it.

Blacksmith Inn

Yes, I know, there's nothing remotely British about the design of this place. But they do have a flag.

The American woman also had facts to spare about how the social housing system works in the UK. A few facts short of the truth, of course, coupled with ignorance of the rest of the UK works.

So the table groans and gasps at news at how much is spent on housing refugees and asylum seekers.  Reminds me of the horrified tales of the UK ban the possession of handguns – conversations that always seem to end with comments regarding freedom not being free and “cold dead hands”.

A good lesson for me in how easy it is to be self-righteously confident in your own opinion of another country when you’re not troubled by facts or context. And yes, I reserve the right, as they do, to spout off in supreme ignorance about things when I’m on vacation. It’s part of the deal. So I tune it out and focus instead of marmalade and bacon that tastes like…bacon. And a fine cup of tea.

There’s something…hey, there’s something eye-opening about ending up here, a British B&B, after working so hard and sacrificing so much to get to the US. I didn’t think we’d come all this way and I’d still get to call out from the bathroom to my wife that, hey, we’ve got that York tea towel that they’ve hung quaintly next to the toilet.

And there’s something helpful about spending time with two fellow Brits, kind and straight-talking, working hard to provide a quality product and chasing a personal dream out here just like us, and remembering, yeah, we’re not such unique little snowflakes after all.

Blacksmith Inn sign

Free jar of marmalade when you leave? They should totally do that.


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