On a day when the temperature didn’t rise much above freezing, I took a drive to Abingdon, a small town with a lot to recommend it. The town’s catch phrase “it’s always play time in Abingdon” is no doubt intended as a reference to all the activities that the town has to offer but for me it’s most suited to the most famous attraction of them all – the Barter Theatre where Gregory Peck , Ernest Borgnine, Kevin Spacey and others trod the boards.
The Barter Theatre opened in the middle of the Great Depression when the cost of a ticket was out of reach for most people so they would come to the theatre and barter whatever they had – vegetables, livestock, milk, eggs. 80 years later, the theatre honours this heritage by allowing patrons to barter for their ticket by donating canned goods to a local food bank. It’s a nice touch.
Across the road is the smaller Barter Stage II and in the gardens outside, a fountain inspired by Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream and dedicated to those who believe in magic. Today the faerie queen Titania stood in the frozen fountain surrounded by Puck and faeries and bronze woodland animals. I’m certain that if Puck could talk he would have looked at me fumbling with frozen fingers to take photographs and he would have said something like “Lord, what fools these mortals be!”
The Barter Theatre is Abingdon’s most famous landmark but there are others. Main Street is lined with taverns, homes, offices and churches with historic interest.
Abingdon has a vibrant art scene and the Art Depot is a place to see artists working in their studios. I met Sara, a clay artist who has given up her wheel to become a hand thrower. Her figures are whimsical and fragile and, unfortunately, not at all suitable for transporting across continents.
Another reason for Abingdon’s attractiveness is the Martha Washington Hotel and Spa. The Martha, as it’s known locally, began life as the retirement home for General Robert Preston after his successful campaigns in the Anglo-American War of 1812. In the 1850s it was sold (for the ridiculous price of $21,000) and became the Martha Washington College for young women. The college operated until 1935 when it transformed into an hotel and ever since it has been the place to stay in Abingdon. Actors performing at the Barter across the road stay here and you should too if you like white rockers on a wide porch, open fires, wood paneled bars and leather wingback chairs. I’m planning a night there and I’m hoping to have an encounter with one of the hotel ghosts. I’ll let you know.
Categories: An American Adventure