Small Pursuits of Happiness #9: Explore Your Own Backyard – Ashland, VA
You know how it goes—you can live in a place for years and never get around to enjoying attractions that visitors travel miles to see. Like New Yorkers who have never visited the Statue of Liberty
Like my father-in-law, who grew up in Philadelphia and never went to see Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell. Or my husband and I, who lived in Hershey PA for years, and never went to Hershey Park or Chocolate World unless we had visitors.
So, as one of our Small Pursuits, we decided to check out our own backyard, and went one county over—Hanover County—to the lovely small town of Ashland VA.
Ashland calls itself “The Center of the Universe,” a nickname no one in Central VA even questions, as we have all come to enjoy the irony. A fine brewery that calls Ashland home is COTU (that’s right, Center of the Universe) Brewing Company.
One of the most fascinating aspects about Ashland is that the train runs through it—and I mean right through the middle of the town. That old saying rings true: there really is something about a train. When friends come to visit us or we take Amtrak anywhere, we favor the Ashland station over the Richmond stations, because when you disembark, it is like stepping right into Mayberry.
We spent the afternoon in Ashland recently, and here were the high points of our visit:
We had a delish lunch at the historic Ironhorse Restaurant.
We loved the interior of the Ironhorse. Being there felt like going back in time, like you are sitting in an important part of this town’s history. The menu is deliciously updated however, billed on their website as a “new modern Southern restaurant.” Because the location is in the middle of town, diners can see the trains passing just outside, especially if you fortunate enough to get a window seat in the restaurant, or a perch at the Corner Bar. In the summer you can be even closer to the tracks if you sit at the outdoor cafe. I ordered that old Southern favorite, Shrimp and Grits, and the Ironhorse did it proud.
The Coffee Shop
What a welcome treat on a blustery day, to come in out of the chill to the inviting warmth of Ashland Coffee and Tea.
I think of the TV show Cheers—but even if they don’t know your name here, you feel like you belong. There are lots of students coming in and out because of the proximity of Ashland’s own
Randolph Macon University, so the vibe is young and hip, and I mean that in the best possible way. And once you check out the homemade baked goodies you will not want to ever leave, especially if you settle into one of the sofas. Many a deep conversation held within those cozy spaces, no doubt. Maybe pondering the meaning of the universe at the Center of the Universe?
But this is no ordinary coffee shop. By night, Ashland Coffee and Tea is also a music venue, featuring local as well as national artists.
The Grocery Store
The old-fashioned bicycle outside Ashland Meat Company @Cross Bros. was painted bright green and festooned with yellow flowers and a sign directing passersby to “Be Kind.” This first impression was a good indication of what was inside.
This neighborhood store offers a small but well-curated selection of groceries, fresh fruits and veggies, as well as homemade deli sandwiches, but the butcher shop is the main attraction. I was also thrilled to finally find a local delicacy, Nightingale Ice Cream Sandwiches which get a lot of buzz on the Richmond foodie scene. Their website says it best: When two head chefs follow their hearts and their hunches, classics are reborn. Oh yeah baby, you have got to lay your hands on some of these.
It just so happened that a local cheesemaker Truckle Cheesemongers was offering samples in the store (beer cheese, no less, so we bought a bunch and gave it to our friends, who loved us for it).
What was so commendable and community-minded is that the store, which has been a fixture on Ashland’s Main Street since 1912, features products from local purveyors. I love this sense of community connectedness, which speaks volumes about the quality of a town. The store is a reflection of the town: a special, friendly, happy place.
On this Friday afternoon, Amtrak and freight trains thundered through 4 times. It is just so exciting, peering down the tracks to see the bright light of the approaching train, the clanging signal as it gets closer, the ground shaking, people waiting for their loved ones at the cozy station. As I kid, I was fascinated by trains, dreaming about the big world and wondering where all those passengers were going. As an adult, trains took me on some pretty fabulous journeys, here and abroad, and into the arms of some pretty special people. I have a deep affection for trains, and the fact that Ashland is such a railroad town is one of the things I enjoy most about it.
Ours was an afternoon well spent. There are other things to do in Ashland and the surrounding area of Hanover County VA: Shopping for example! So, when we come back, we will check out all the small shops and antique stores, the little cafes, the breweries, and the Saturday Farmers Market.
Ashland is a tight-knit community that has lots of fun: a theater group, parades, festivals and other diversions. And speaking of knit, I know we have some knitters out there. Ashland boasts a cute little yarn shop, Center of the Yarniverse (Ha!). Also for knitters, did you know about the James River Yarn Crawl, May 21-27? Check it out on Facebook. An opportunity to visit the yarn shops from Ashland to Virginia Beach!
And speaking of festivals, Hanover County also has a tomato festival in July that is a BIG deal and very popular in this neck of the woods.
You have to plan a visit to Ashland, this place is just cool. The joys of exploring your own backyard!