Unspoiled valley is site of steeplechase race

Jockeys will ride across Baltimore County land during Grand National Steeplechase on Saturday

  • In the Point To Point Race in 1987, Local Kid, riden by Charles E. Fenwick Jr., clears the final fence on the way to victory in the 85th running of the Grand National Steeplechase in Butler.
In the Point To Point Race in 1987, Local Kid, riden by Charles… (Gene Sweeney Jr., Baltimore…)
April 20, 2012|Jacques Kelly

Each April, I look forward to the Saturday when the Grand National Steeplechase jockeys ride across a swath of unspoiled Baltimore County valley. From a vantage point atop a hill off Butler Road, just off Falls Road, I look out across the Western Run Valley and think how fortunate we are to have this setting — and the chance to visit it on a single spring afternoon. That's enough; too much traffic is not what this location needs.

The countryside race, held Saturday, is over private estates and farms. Most people who attend will tailgate and make a day of it. The Grand National, a Maryland tradition founded in 1898, is less intense, crowdwise, than next week's Hunt Cup, run somewhat west, closer to the Glyndon side of this most pleasantly preserved section of Baltimore County.

As thrilling as the race itself is — those daring jumps over fences — I like to watch fellow spectators and observe the spring fashions. Men usually wear jaunty sport coats, seemingly bought specifically for the occasion at Eddie Jacobs. Many wear tweed caps and horse-themed neckties. Women wear spring linen and straw hats. If it's cold and damp, sensible sweaters and warm jackets appear.

The day is all about families, too. I often encounter three generations at the race and often play the Baltimore game of "Aren't you the granddaughter of ...?" Then I catch up with friends I made 50 years ago in school, and maybe their children, too.

Years ago, I was being driven through England and came upon West Sussex's Goodwood race course. Its puffy white tent and enclosures looked just like home in Maryland.

I got my Grand National initiation about 20 years ago, but it was long before that I began appreciating Route 25, or Falls Road. As I drive out Saturday with my father, Joe Kelly, at the wheel, we'll repeat the conversation we've had for decades. He tells me about how as a Sun sports reporter in the 1940s, he used a radio transmitter to call in steeplechase coverage.

We note the landmarks, the Valley and Greenspring inns, John Brown's store, Mrs. Sumner Parker's eccentric home called the Cloisters and the surviving gatehouse at the old C. Wilbur Miller estate. As a child, I thought the Miller home as mysterious as the mansion in the game of Clue.

There were once a few quarries near Falls Road that produced a reddish-flecked stone evident in the historic homes here. The houses, inns and taverns along the curving country turnpike seem like old neighbors who never leave.

In our family, we named the homes for the friends who lived in them. My favorite is the roadside house we call Siegfried's, after Peabody Bookstore owner Siegfried Weisberger. He and his wife, Rosamund, were our close friends. Though they died years ago, that house will be theirs forever.

The landowners here have worked to keep commercial enterprises out. One has disappeared, Grey's Rocky Lodge, a 1930s tourist court made of this local Butler stone, a quartzite. It was as close as Falls Road got to a motel.

The families who own the land here want to keep it rural. About the time the Baltimore Beltway was being completed, they anticipated that development could follow. The Valleys Planning Council came into being in 1962. The planning council hired Ian McHarg, a Clydebank, Scotland-born planner who was a pioneer in advocating the use of natural environmental systems.

I spoke with the planning council's Teresa Moore this week and learned that McHarg identified that the valley floors here sit atop the Cockeysville Marble Aquifer. He advised saving the valley floors and valley walls because of their environmental fragility. As a result of this careful planning, 130 square miles north of the Beltway are now under the council's jurisdiction; many thousands of acres are protected by easements as well.

I know the Baltimore County water is excellent, because it flows through city taps. It also distills well. The water often used in the old Maryland rye whiskey came from that Cockeysville aquifer. I think of my grandfather's bottles of Maryland rye whiskey, Wight's Old Reserve and Sherwood.


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