Exploring the back roads of Virginia’s Eastern Shore
by Elizabeth Ellis, Contributing Writer
Traveling across the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel is an experience. Seventeen miles over and under water lead to a peninsula that some may not realize is even a part of Virginia. Highway 13, or Lankford Highway, intersects the land and guides many to Chincoteague, the place made famous by its historical ponies grazing on the flat marshland.
The bridge-tunnel and popular Chincoteague might normally be what comes to mind for most when thinking of the Eastern Shore, but between these two is a world full of equally fascinating places.
Driving the flat Lankford Highway, one could incorrectly think there’s not much to the Eastern Shore, but turning off onto the back roads can lead you to many interesting places and things.
One of these places is called Eastville, a small town only about 15 minutes from the bridge. You may have never heard of it, but it is quite a historical area. It has been the seat of Northampton County since 1677. Driving through the main street you will find nestled here a group of historical buildings called the Historic Court Green.
One building in the group is the 1731 Courthouse, where the Declaration of Independence was publicly read from its steps on Aug. 13, 1776. Beside it is the old clerk’s office, built around 1800, which contains the original wood cabinets used for record storage. Behind the clerk’s office is the debtor’s prison, built around 1814, with its massive oak planking and bars on the windows. Visitors can wander through all these old buildings.
Various exhibits are on display in the 1899 Courthouse/County Administration building, including the oldest continuous court records in the nation, dating from 1632.
After exploring the Historic Court Green in Eastville, you can get some exercise and take a nature break. Fresh air, sandy trails and lush green areas are not far away.
From Eastville, it’s no more than a 5-mile drive to Savage Neck Dunes Natural Area Preserve, named for one of the area’s most famous settlers, Thomas Savage, who was around the age of 13 when he came to America in 1608. Savage was part of a bizarre trade where he was handed off to a local Native American tribe while a young Native was sent to Jamestown. Later, a large portion of land was given to Savage by a Native American chief.
Savage Neck Dunes is a 298-acre preserve that was a part of that land gift. It has lovely trails meandering through a maritime forest and coastal scrub that lead to an isolated beach where you can find a special insect, the northeastern beach tiger beetle. When the tide is out, you can explore the secluded beach scattered with driftwood. Depending on the time of year, various songbirds can be heard and seen throughout. Red summer tanagers make their warm weather home in these woods. Eagles can be seen regularly flying along the shore, and in the winter, various ducks such as buffleheads and red-breasted mergansers can be seen swimming in the bay.
After an invigorating hike, you can take a break at a local winery or eatery. A few miles north you can find an excellent glass of wine at Chatham Vineyards or a bite to eat at the Machipongo Trading Company.
So, venture off that main highway. The Eastern Shore of Virginia is full of interesting places just waiting to be explored.