Lifestyle & Culture

Escape to Bucks County, Pennsylvania

March 4, 2015


I KNOW NEXT TO NOTHING about my forebears. Only, I’m told, they were some combination of English, Welsh and maybe Scot.  Given that, and assuming there really is something called genetic memory, perhaps that’s why I’ve always felt so completely at home in Bucks County. Stoic field stone houses, the narrow country roads, irresistible little villages in this eastern-most part of Pennsylvania look as if they had been plucked straight from a Merchant Ivory production. From my first visit there years ago I loved it. Instantly. Was absolutely smitten and remain so.

There’s much to love. Central Bucks is a hotbed of history. A Revolutionary War devotee will most definitely find fulfillment here. I like history too, but prefer to muse about my ancestors’ adventures while enjoying comforts the colonists never imagined. While there is a wealth of charming B&Bs in Bucks County my comfort station of choice is the romantically luxurious Inn at Barley Sheaf Farm.

Located in Holicong, a scenic six miles from popular New Hope and Lambertville, Barley Sheaf was once the home of playwright George Kaufman and weekend retreat for the literary likes of Lillian Hellman, John Steinbeck and Moss Hart. Harpo Marx, a regular there, added comic relief. Originally the property was part of a land grant made to William Penn in 1681 by the Crown of England. Perhaps that fact came up in conversation between Kaufman and his cronies as they cavorted in the pool, played croquet or dealt hand after hand of bridge for 2 cents a point as reported by Life magazine in 1937.

The graceful manor house dates to 1740, but the amenities are pure 21st century. What began as a sturdy farmhouse has morphed into a beautifully furnished inn with plush suites featuring lavish drapery, sybaritic baths, private balconies, irresistible sitting rooms, impressive antiques and enough featherbeds and down comforters to thwart the coldest February night.

I wouldn’t have made a good colonist. I prefer to be pampered. I love fragrant toiletries (Barley Sheaf provides lovely lotions by Bvlgari). I seek a decadent spa experience (several suites offer private in-suite spa treatment rooms). I like being made to feel special (guests checking in are encouraged to relax with complimentary wine and cheese). And I so enjoy having an estate to wander (Barley Sheaf Farm encompasses 100 roam-able acres).

The acreage remains a point of pride with the stewards of Barley Sheaf. The B&B, the first in Bucks County, was born in 1974 with each successive owner adding to its preservation and restoration. They proudly maintain it is a prime example of the adaptive reuse of a large, venerable property made self-sustaining and profitable without the need to subdivide and develop.

I’ve stayed in the remodeled bank barn (nice) and in the adorable George Kaufman era guest cottage (three pretty Lilliputian suites and a common sitting room are perfect for a girlfriend getaway), but my favorite rooms are in the manor house. From the lush comfort of a low-slung chaise in my private sitting room I enjoy looking out onto the terrace and pool beyond while pretending it’s all mine. To the manor born, you know.

Eventually I’ll rouse from such reverie to revisit some of my other favorite Bucks County spots. New Hope and Lambertville, with all their shops, galleries and restaurants are only a few minutes drive away. Lahaska, aka Peddler’s Village, is a mere mile from the inn. The wee town is a collection of buildings, old and new, housing about 65 specialty shops and restaurants.

My favorite pastime, however, is getting lost in the countryside. There is a grand web of narrow roads that run from village to village, past formidable homes, through covered bridges and along well-kept farmland furnished with bank barns and meandering streams. It all looks old and reliable, tidy and organized. I feel reassured that history is taken seriously here and preserved.

It was on one of these serendipitous drives in the mid 70s I came upon Fonthill in nearby Doylestown. If for no other reason, you should travel to Bucks County to visit Fonthill, a concrete behemoth of towers and chimneys that anchors gently swelling parkland. Part gothic, part medieval, part Byzantine in style, Fonthill was the home of Henry Chapman Mercer, a man of eclectic tastes and eccentricities. He is reputed to be one of the first to build with reinforced concrete and it could be argued he might have gone just a teensy bit too far when constructing his home. Walls, pillars, ceilings, windowframes, even some furniture in this unique house are made of concrete. Apparently he feared fire.

Built between 1908 and 1912 the house is a showcase of Mercer’s many interests. A main one being the ceramic tiles he designed and manufactured at his own tile works elsewhere on the property. Mercer—archaeologist, artist and antiquarian—was a world traveler and returned to Fonthill with priceless relics still proudly, if somewhat precariously, displayed throughout the house.

Don’t leave the grounds without visiting the Moravian Pottery and Tile Works where Mercer’s tiles are still manufactured. Don’t leave Doylestown without finishing off the Mercer experience with a stop at the Mercer Museum to take in the collector’s vast accumulation of early American tools, folk art and remarkable objects; everything from a hangman’s gallows to dog paw prints in concrete.

If only Mr. Mercer could have stayed at the Barley Sheaf. It might have softened his hard edges.

The Inn at Barley Sheaf Farm, 5281 York Rd., Holicong, Pennsylvania. 18928-0010; 215-794-5104. Rates range from $250 to $525 per night and include brunch and afternoon tea on weekends, full breakfast midweek and other complimentary foods and wines throughout the day.

–Kathy Legg
Kathy Legg is the art director of MyLittleBird. 

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