Glass Menagerie

At a small Virginia B&B, visitors can learn to make stained glass, fly model helicopters—or just relax.

Bob and Bonnie Harris are living the dream.

A decade ago, they left suburban Washington, D.C., seeking the good life in a rural backwater three hours from the Beltway in Farnham, Va. They built a bed-and-breakfast and an art studio and began offering—for a relatively modest nightly fee—a respite for those wanting to escape the stresses of city life.

Today, their Chestnut Cove B&B sits at the end of a long gravel road, at the juncture of Morattico Creek and the Rappahannock River, surrounded by water, marsh, forest, and fields of corn and soy. Fronted by a long deck and sunporch, it lacks the stateliness of historic B&Bs, but is filled with light and works of art.

Like many B&Bs today, Chestnut Cove offers classes and activities in order to attract visitors. “We have seen a trend with owners doing a variety of different things,” says Becky Lindway, executive director of the Virginia B&B Association. That includes everything from cooking classes to scrapbooking. But the Harrises believe theirs to be the only combination B&B/stained glass studio/model helicopter piloting school.

I had come here shortly after it opened, encouraged by a friend who raved about the place after stumbling upon it. I’d been eagerly anticipating a return visit once my daughter, Maddie, turned 18, the minimum age for working in its glass studio.

Now I was back on a late-summer day, with Maddie and her friend Becky in tow. Maddie hadn’t been enthusiastic, but within minutes of our arrival, she and Becky were in love with the place.

Visit enough B&Bs and you’ll encounter owners whose distant politeness makes you feel tolerated as a means of paying the upkeep. The Harrises are of a different ilk. They greet you like an old friend, with Bonnie telling you to call her “Barney,” a sobriquet bestowed by an old boyfriend who thought it funny.

A Corcoran-trained artist, Barney teaches guests how to make stained glass, with occasional help from Bob. I’m living proof that even if you have nothing more to offer than opposable thumbs, Barney can teach you enough in two days to create a piece you’ll be proud to hang.  

But for those not inclined to the arts, there are lessons in flying radio-controlled scale helicopters. Bob worked at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt for 30 years and crewed helicopters in Korea during the Vietnam era, so he knows something about flight.

Barney says the isolation of country living can be both a blessing and a bane. “I couldn’t live here unless we had guests,” she says. “When one group leaves, I eagerly anticipate the next.

“They’re always nice, always interesting,” she says of visitors. “Some have an artistic background. Some don’t, and feel they have no artistic abilities. But everyone has creativity, and I draw it out of them.”

Her husband is an artist, too. A living room showcase holds intricate blown-glass models of spacecraft, each about 8 inches high. Bob, a natural storyteller, provides the tales to go with them.

After serving in the U.S. Army, Bob went to work for NASA as a glassblower, making optics, beakers and special-purpose, vacuum-sealed glass containers. “Think of the stuff in Frankenstein’s lab,” he says.

On his own initiative, he also began creating glass models of spacecraft, and the brass took notice, commissioning scale replicas of satellites and spaceships to be given to visiting dignitaries. His work is exhibited at the National Air and Space Museum in D.C., among other places.

Bob was at NASA when scientists first discovered that ozone gas was being depleted in the Earth’s atmosphere. He created elaborate glass tubes leading into a sterile glass environment where ozone molecules could be isolated, then bombarded with molecules of different gases in order to find which could destroy the ozone.

“Ozone is very sensitive,” Bob says. “The experiments caused a couple major explosions in the lab.”

By now, it’s getting late, so Barney suggests they take us out on the couple’s speedboat before dark, and asks if the girls want to be towed behind it in a tube. The girls change into bathing suits in the larger of the two guest bedrooms, each of which comes with its own bath, and proclaim the Harrises “really cool and interesting.”

The next morning I awaken to the smell of homemade muffins, along with pancakes made from scratch—good enough to make Aunt Jemima jealous.

We go to work in the studio at 9 a.m. Using for inspiration the thousands of different-colored glass squares stored upright in giant bins, we each sketch a design. My daughter and her friend go for abstracts. I choose what I like to categorize as naive art—a crude sailboat cruising at sunset.

Unless guests possess special gifts or training, Barney takes their sketches and creates an outline of the finished design to scale. The maximum size for beginners is 16 inches by 25 inches, with no more than 15 separate pieces of glass, in contrast to the thousands she might use. Her largest work—a window commissioned for the altar at Sacred Heart Catholic Church in La Plata, Md.—is more than 400 square feet.

Over the next two days, we’ll score each piece of glass and, using special tools, break it to fit the pattern of the design, creating a sort of jigsaw puzzle. Then we’ll grind the edges of each piece smooth and cover them with copper foil, which will be soldered to join the pieces together.

After we stop work at 6 p.m., I drive to the Oaks Restaurant—the closest, at 13 miles away—to pick up dinner while the girls sit in a screened-in deck along the water and play their guitars. The restaurant’s fried oysters and fish get a big thumbs-up.

The next day we finish polishing and fitting the glass pieces in our designs, then solder them together in a three-step process involving hot soldering irons and strands of metal melted along each seam.

Before we leave with our finished works of art, though, we tour Bob’s helicopter school in a building nearby. More than a dozen models, some made by Bob from scratch, sit on shelves and hang from the ceiling. The helicopters used in classes come from kits that cost about $2,500 each and require ground pilots to control eight different functions at the same time.

Flying the models is harder than flying the real thing, Bob says. He should know: He has piloted both.

 

In addition to teaching hobbyists, Bob has hosted police tactical crews, crop researchers and a special forces team from the Czech Republic. Radio-controlled helicopters can carry cameras that offer spies and law enforcement officers a look at targets over walls and behind enemy lines—like a drone, but smaller and without the bombs.

Afterward, Barney asks us to pose with our stained glass and takes pictures for her scrapbook. Normally my drawings look like those of a child—and not in a Jackson Pollack kind of way. My sailboat at sunrise is nothing short of a miracle, a symbol of the good life we’ve briefly shared.

The marshland by the B&B provides a peaceful setting for those looking to just relax. Photo by Kate Magee JoycePLANNING A TRIP

From the Beltway, take I-95 south to Fredericksburg, Va., then take exit 126 to Route 17 south. Follow Route 17 south for about 25 miles to Route 301 east. Continue straight for 27 miles to Tappahannock, then take a left onto Route 360 east toward Warsaw. After about six miles, turn right onto Route 3 east for 11 miles, then right onto Route 608/Farnham Creek Road. Drive about 1.5 miles, turn left onto Route 647/Hales Point Road, then left onto Oakley Lane. Drive time is about three hours during non-rush hours.

WHERE TO STAY

Chestnut Cove B&B (511 Oakley Lane, Farnham, Va.; 804-394-3142; www.zekiahglass.com) is a modern, waterfront home on 15 acres of lawn, forest, gardens and marsh. Two bedrooms, each with separate baths, are at one end of the house next to the living room and den, where guests are welcomed. Both rooms require a two-night minimum. A room featuring French doors leading to a deck and screened porch is $125 a night, double; $100, single. A smaller, second room is $115 a night, double; $90, single. Price includes breakfast and lunch.

Lancaster Tavern B&B (8373 Mary Ball Road, Lancaster, Va.; 804-462-0080; www.lancastertavern.com) offers suites in a 1790 National Historic Landmark building for groups too large to all stay at Chestnut Cove. Suites are $150 a night, which includes either breakfast or lunch for two. A separate cabin, which sleeps eight, is $225 a night, with a three-night minimum. That price includes breakfast or lunch for four.

WHERE TO EAT

Oaks Restaurant (5434 Mary Ball Road, Lively, Va.; 804-462-7050) is the closest restaurant to the B&B and glass studio—13 miles—and luckily the food is quite good. Unpretentious, home-style American cooking, including local seafood, steaks, chicken and typical bar food like burgers and nachos. Dinner entrées—with hearty portions—range from less than $10 to $22.

Lancaster Tavern (see above), 16 miles from Chestnut Cove and the glass studio, also offers fresh seafood and good, home-style cooking, including sandwiches and burgers. Dinner entrées range from $12 to $30 for surf and turf.

ACTIVITIES

Zekiah Glass (studio attached to Chestnut Cove B&B): Two-day classes are $175 per person for a group class, with a four-student maximum, and $225 for a single student. Glass is additional, typically ranging from $15-$40 per person, depending on the size of the piece and type of glass chosen.

Bob’s RC Helicopter Flight School (barn on B&B grounds): Classes are $200 a day plus fuel, typically about $10.

SOME CLASS ACTS

A number of bed-and-breakfasts now offer classes and other activities to attract visitors. Here’s a sampling of several within driving range:

The Inn at Meander Plantation (www.meander.net/cookingSchool.htm) outside Orange, Va., near Montpelier, offers cooking classes by owner-chef Suzie Blanchard. The one-day package, which includes lunch, dinner, classes and class materials, is $150 per person. The B&B package, which includes lodging, meals, classes and class materials, is $1,050 for two, or $500 for one person.

Briar Patch Bed & Breakfast Inn (www.briarpatchbandb.com/cooking-classes.htm) in Middleburg, Va., offers weekend cooking classes by Briar Patch chefs. Guests learn how to prepare four-course gourmet meals that feature wines from local wineries. The cooking class package includes hors d’oeuvres and wine tasting on Friday night and a four- or five-course meal with wine on Saturday night for $95 per person. Weekend lodging rates run from $125 per night for a room with a shared bath to $235 per night for a cottage.

Hillbrook Inn (www.hillbrookinn.com) in Charles Town, W.Va., offers quilting classes by reservation at a cost of $35 per hour. Guests also can take classes that range from knitting to music theory at CraftWorks at Cool Spring, located near the inn. Lodging at the B&B is $149 to $369 per night.

Hopkins Ordinary Bed & Breakfast (www.hop kinsordinary.com/packages/cooking) in Sperryville, Va., offers weekend cooking classes that include a Friday night wine tasting with hors d’oeuvres. The B&B package also includes two nights’ lodging, Saturday breakfast, Saturday cooking class and dinner, and Sunday breakfast. Rates are $779 for two students sharing a room; $729 for two sharing a room, including one student; and $629 for one student.

Lantern Lane Farm (www.lanternlanefarm.com/riding.htm) in Nokesville, Va., offers horseback-riding packages. Each standard riding getaway or vacation includes two hours of mounted riding instruction for each night’s stay. Packages are offered for one to six days and start at $265 per person for a one-night getaway. Guests also can customize their packages.

The Tides Inn (www.tidesinncolonialbeach.com/index-3.html) in Colonial Beach, Va., offers cooking classes through its Tides Inn Market. Guests can arrange classes that run from $35 to $45 for a two-hour session with chef Caitlin Davis. Lodging rates are $100 to $125 per night for a standard room; $150 to $185 for suites.

—Julie Rasicot

Cindy Loose is a former travel writer for The Washington Post. She lives in Bethesda. To comment on this story, email comments@bethesdamagazine.com.

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