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Virginia Living

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A Day in the Country – Virginia Living Magazine

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by Daisy Ridgway Khalifa

There is a point, as I drive west on Route 66, away from the metropolitan counties of Arlington and Fairfax, where the last signs of urban development—the “big box” stores, strip malls and clusters of housing—disappear. As I cross Route 15 and leave Prince William County, quite suddenly, a mountain pass appears, sheathed in deep orange and brilliant yellow on this late Fall day, and the land goes from grey to green. There is nothing but the undisturbed foliage of distant mountains topped by a swath of blue sky, which triggers an unexpected sense of relief and pleasure, and I smile; at last, I am out of the big city.

In truth, the experience is, at best, a transitory one, for in every direction—north towards Leesburg, south to Warrenton and west to Front Royal—the parking lots, outlet malls and the grey expanse of concrete inevitably resume; a harbinger of what may well happen to this pristine land. But for the time being, this is the heart of Fauquier County where, at Exit 31, a visitor finds herself in an exquisite enclave of pure country in the small and unpretentious town center of The Plains, where no more than a dozen businesses—three delightful restaurants, a tea room, and a handful of one-of-a-kind shops and art galleries—welcome outsiders.

The Plains easily lives up to its name, not for its designation as a large area of flat land with few trees, which is breathtakingly true, but for its simplicity and charm in being so entirely unadorned. And it is a community that cares deeply about staying as it is, which has made it the poster child for a debate over land conservation. The Plains is a focal point of a crusade to protect Fauquier County’s remaining open spaces in the face of a surging population and the belief by many that land development is inevitable.

Unlike the more storied Northern Virginia towns, The Plains’ history is rather unremarkable; its way of life, understated. Population 400, the town comprises no more than a five-mile radius from the intersection of Main Street and Old Tavern Road.

“The Plains started out as nothing but a crossroads. Nobody said, ‘Let’s make a village,’” says Marci Markey, a resident of 38 years, and the author of War Without a Battle: The Plains, Virginia 1861-1965. “It was just going to be a farm outpost because the railroad stopped here,” adds Markey whose house in the center of town was once a blacksmith shop.

The whole area functioned as farmland as far back as the beginning of the 19th century. In 1831, there was just one house, and one store with a post office. The town was incorporated in 1910, yet remained sleepy well into the 1970s, aside from the regular rumbling of freight trains that still pass through the village several times a day and into the wee hours. It was occupied largely by laborers and farmhands, along with businesses that sold to the trade. It blossomed only relatively recently, in the past 25 years, into the friendly village it is today with tasteful shops and sumptuous, though few, eateries, as well as a glorious Farmers Market that visitors pass on the way into town off of Route 66.

But the unspoiled, open countryside also lent itself to fox hunting, thus drawing scores of riders and a generally wealthier set to the region. Prominent families, whose fortunes derived from banking, finance and the industrial boom at the turn of the 20th century, bought up large parcels of land within Fauquier County largely around The Plains and toward Upperville and Middleburg, nine miles north. Likewise, a contingent of wealthy New Yorkers would travel to Virginia’s hunting grounds by train on a regular basis. (The Orange County Hunt relocated to Fauquier from Orange County, New York, in the 1930s.) These families kept hunt boxes on their property then, which were small houses they would use for several days’ worth of foxhunting at a time.

The state of Virginia has the fifth largest horse population in the world, and Fauquier County, home to hundreds of the nation’s finest horse farms, has long been the heart of Virginia’s rich equestrian tradition, while serving as a premier training ground and destination for students and professional riders. The first fox hunts in America were hosted on the pastures of Fauquier County by Thomas Fairfax, 6th Lord of Cameron, in 1747, and equestrian life has endured since then.

Of the foxhunters whose family called Fauquier County and The Plains home was the late Arthur W. “Nick” Arundel. His father, Russell, was a Pepsi Cola executive and an avid foxhunter. His mother, Marjorie Sale Arundel, who died in 2006 at the age of 104, was a conservationist renowned for her work with the World Wildlife Fund and as an environmentalist active in issues including the protection of forests, pesticide abuse and the nation’s energy policy.

The senior Arundels lived on Wildcat Mountain, which borders Warrenton and The Plains. Their son would add to the family’s considerable land holdings, eventually acquiring thousands of acres around the neighboring mountain to the north on Route 17 where he would bring up his own family of five children at Merry Oak Farm. Today, his widow, Margaret McElroy “Peggy” Arundel, lives at the farm she shared with her late husband for more than five decades. (Arundel passed away in February 2011 at the age of 83.)

In the late 1970s, Nick Arundel, then a retired U.S. Marine infantry paratroop officer in Korea and Vietnam, who had augmented the family fortune by building a media corporation, was concerned about the condition of the town, according to Mrs. Arundel. “He said, ‘I can’t have my hometown be like this. I want to be proud of my hometown,’” she explains.

The couple was inspired by the restoration going on in Charleston, South Carolina, at the time, and its business model in particular, which encouraged nonprofit corporations to acquire old buildings, fix them up and allow businesses to occupy the space rent-free for a time.

“We fixed up the sidewalks, we fixed up the roads,” says Mrs. Arundel. The plan ultimately worked, though it took some time for businesses to get on their feet, she says. Today, the Arundel family does not own anything in The Plains, having sold the restored property at cost back to the people who had started businesses.

Arundel’s commitment to the rebirth of The Plains is something of a small-scale legend in the town, having resurrected what was described in the late 1960s as “a ghost town, slowly blowing away in the winds of time and decay,” according to D’Anne Evans and John K. Gott’s account of the town’s restoration in Trains Whistles and Hunting Horns: The History of The Plains, Virginia. At one point in the mid-1970s, Arundel purchased—in the name of his non-profit, Village Trust­—almost the entire center of The Plains, which then comprised mostly old abandoned buildings and vacant land.

In the center of town, there is a small grass commons—a “minipark” that was once a weed-covered parking lot. Today, it is known as Arundel Family Park, where a busy town bulletin board features village news. A painted sign that stands high in the park is among Nick Arundel’s signature touches. It is a tall wood totem of sorts with stacked arrows in every direction bearing the names of the world’s great cities and their distances from The Plains—among them, Shanghai, Los Angeles, Newmarket, England and Chantilly, France.

“That sign denotes our town’s progress,” says Markey, adding that it stands as a reminder that even though it is now a prosperous village, the town will always humbly serve as it once did, as a crossroads for travelers.

From the porch at Forlano’s Market & Restaurant right next door to the park, diners can study the engaging sign. Today, the mood is upbeat at Forlano’s, as the few bar stools on the narrow front porch fill up with 20- and 30-somethings, seemingly delighted visitors looking for a late afternoon respite in the country. Forlano’s serves much of its fare in plastic baskets lined with parchment (not too different than hot dog day at school, save for what is inside). My group, which included two children, shared everything from these heavenly baskets, including an Angus Steak Wrap and a B.L.T. with caramelized onions. The Kennett Square Mushroom Soup lingers in my memory and is easily worth a regular pilgrimage.

Just off of Main Street and near the railroad tracks sits upscale restaurant, Girasole. Owners Lydia and Louis Patierno were so taken by the simple elegance of The Plains that they have been making a rather lengthy commute from Mount Vernon since opening Girasole—the Italian word for sunflower—in 2004. The airy, elegant stone building is a renovated Victorian farmhouse which once served as a grocery store. “We feel The Plains is very similar to Piedmont in Italy,” says Lydia Patierno. The restaurant is open only for dinner, except on Sundays when brunch is also offered. Visitors are enamored of Chef Louis Patierno’s agnolotti, a housemade spinach and ricotta ravioli with a delicate cream sauce. Out-of-the-ordinary dinner specials include lamb ravioli in curry sauce with golden raisins, while brunch combines Italian fare, such as salmon paglia et fieno in tomato cream sauce, with the standards a Virginia Hunt crowd might expect, such as classic eggs Benedict and Belgian waffles with fresh berries.

Read the Article on Virginia Living Magazine’s Website