We stumbled upon Ledbury because Hereford, the original destination, appeared to be closed. After travelling most of the day, we needed somewhere decent to stay, a good meal – and, between you and me, I was gasping for a decent pint.
Ledbury suggests a certain promise as soon as you pull into it. All those timber-framed buildings, quaint-looking little shops and beckoning pubs… There are an astonishing 173 listed buildings in Ledbury. It’s not a huge town – population is around 10,000. The name means something like ‘fortified place on the River Leadon’. It was Liedeberge in the Domesday Book of 1086, though the place is more ancient than that – the ‘bury’ is old English/Saxon (Ledbury would have been in the old Kingdom of Mercia) and ‘leadon’ is from a Celtic word meaning ‘broad river’. It’s a market town, which received its first charter from King Stephen in 1138. Markets are still held on Tuesdays and Saturdays and you can buy all manner of yummy food and local produce in the town – fresh baked bread, cheeses, fruits, cider and hops. The Market House on the High Street was built in 1617.
It’s hard to imagine anything much happening in Ledbury, unless you live there. Yet in 1320, the army of Roger Mortimer, the 1st Earl of March, attacked and pillaged it. Undoubtedly, they were after some of that scrumptious grub. On 22nd April 1645, the Battle of Ledbury took place in the town, when Royalist troops under Prince Rupert surprised and bested the Parliamentarians commanded by Colonel Massey. Fighting was fierce – bullet holes can apparently still be seen in the panelling of the Talbot Hotel – but reasonably brief, and it was certainly not the decisive engagement of the English Civil War; that came in June, at Naseby, where the King’s military capabilities were pretty much destroyed.
In Ledbury, in 1735, riots against the turnpike road left several dead. One Thomas Reynolds, aged 28, was arrested - many say unfairly - and taken to London to be executed.
Behind the old Market House is Church Lane, which leads to the relatively vast church of St Michael and All Souls’. This dates from the 12th century, though it is believed that Christians were worshipping on the site 400 years’ before that. Also on Church Lane is the local museum, Butcher Row House, which I found an awful lot more engaging than some of these places can be. There’s a fascinating strip collage of the High Street, showing what various premises have been used for over the centuries; neat idea.
The town has literary connections and holds an annual poetry festival in July. Some say that William Langland, who wrote Piers Plowman in the 14th century, was born in Ledbury. John Masefield, Poet Laureate from 1930 until his death in 1967, certainly was - a local school has been named after him. “I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely seas and the sky…” I rather like the lines he left behind, addressed to his heirs:
Let no religious rite be done or read
In any place for me when I am dead,
But burn my body into ash, and scatter
The ash in secret into running water,
Or on the windy down, and let none see;
And then thank God that there’s an end of me.
Ledbury was also home to the Victorian romantic poet, Elizabeth Barrett Browning who, apart from other things, wrote “Sonnet 43”, much loved of greeting card manufacturers (skip the next bit if you like):
How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of Being and ideal Grace.
I love thee to the level of everyday’s
Most quiet need, by sun and candlelight.
I love thee freely, as men strive for Right;
I love thee purely, as they turn from Praise.
I love thee with the passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints, - I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life! – and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death.
Seems a bit over the top to me. But there is a rather splendid clock tower on the High Street, part of the library, built in 1895 as the Barrett-Browning Institute.
Now, it’s not the intention to complicate matters by featuring accommodation here, but when you visit Ledbury you might want to drop into the Feathers Hotel, which dates from the 16th century. We thought the place looked amazing and popped in on the off-chance that they had a room. They did, and offered us a good rate (which was just as well, because we couldn’t afford the full price). The room was amazing – luxury with exposed timbers, sloping floor etc. I got my much-desired pint (or two) of good English ale, the meal was excellent and the service at dinner was superb. So, if you want to take a peek, here is TheFeathers’ Hotel website.
Ledbury lies at the foot of the Malvern Hills in the middle of some wonderful countryside. It’s a short distance from other notable towns, like Great Malvern, Ross-on-Wye and Tewkesbury, and there are heaps of places to visit in the area. Up until 2011, the Big Chill Festival had been held for several years in the grounds of nearby Eastnor Castle. Here is the visit Ledbury website.