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Richmond History

4 Ways to Drive Back in Time Along the James River

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by David Timberline

Relics of Richmond’s plantation past are scattered along the James River. You’ll find dozens of examples listed on this Wikipedia page. A deep-dive into the rich, celebrated and sometimes scandalous history of these vast estates would take weeks.

But all it takes to get a fascinating introduction to a piece of Virginia’s 17th-century history is a scenic and tranquil drive down Route 5.

It’s easy to find. You’ll head east from Richmond through Shockoe Bottom, past Millie’s Diner and Poe’s Pub, and beyond Rocketts Landing toward Williamsburg.

It’s perfect for a day date. And it’s family-friendly, too -- a half-day of exploration that even fussy little ones will enjoy. Here are four Route 5 estates worth exploring.

Shirley Plantation

It’s fitting that the first big estate along Route 5, a little more than 30 minutes from downtown Richmond, has been dubbed Virginia’s first plantation, established by royal land grant back in 1613. This 700-acre working farm has been lovingly preserved by the Hill Carter family, owners of the bucolic property for 11 generations.

What you can do: The stately Great House dominates the property. But you also can stroll around the grounds, duck into one of the eight outbuildings and enjoy the stunning view of the James River through the branches of a 350-year-old Willow Oak.

Berkeley Plantation

Another 15 minutes down the road is Virginia’s “most historic” plantation. That claim comes from a documented “first Thanksgiving” being recorded at the site back in 1619.

What you’ll discover: The vibe at Berkeley is distinctly different than Shirley. The grounds are shadier, the guides wear historic dress and the three-story brick mansion overflows with 18th-century antiques. The museum-y feel is belied by the 10 acres of gardens and the big broad view of the James River that flows peacefully a full quarter-mile from the mansion.

Westover Plantation

Adjacent to Berkeley, Westover is the largest plantation along Route 5 -- at 2,000 acres. The James River is literally a stone’s throw from the formidable Georgian mansion. The house is fabled to have many secret passages and its library once held the 4,000 volumes owned by William Byrd II, the founder of Richmond.

How to explore: Still very much a working farm, house tours must be arranged in advance, but the outbuildings and extensive grounds can be wandered at will, for a $5 fee.

Sherwood Forest Plantation Foundation

Those steeped in enough history after Westover Plantation may head home, but naturalists in particular may want to take the additional 15-minute drive to Sherwood Forest.

Claims to fame: Historically significant trees dot the grounds, including the oldest Ginko tree in the country. The property also was the home of President John Tyler, and is the longest frame house in America at 300 feet.

To visit: The $35 tours must arranged in advance.

 

Other Places Worth Exploring:

 

Edgewood Plantation

This 7,000-square-foot mansion originally was part of Berkeley Plantation. It’s been renovated as an opulent bed and breakfast. Historic and haunted tours are offered by reservation.

 

North Bend Plantation

Built in 1801, this house is a mere pup in comparison to some other plantation houses. But it’s a pretty B&B and open for occasional tours.

 

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