Ledbury, Herefordshire

We had gone to look for Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s childhood home, Hope End.  Hidden deep among small hills at the bottom of a steep, snaking drive, we found all that was left of it – a strange Moorish- looking cluster of enormous rounded gate piers, stables and out buildings. Beside it was the site of the now vanished house which Elizabeth’s tyrannical father, Mr Moulton Barrett, had built in an exotic eastern style at the beginning of the nineteenth century. A high rock cliff, now smothered in ferns, had been cut back to give a better view down the narrow valley towards the line of  Malvern hills which, when we visited, appeared to rise halfway  up the sky as though we were suddenly in Switzerland. The Barretts’ picturesque trees, shrubberies and ponds remain but it’s a sad feeling place and we were happy to leave it.

Church_Lane,_Ledbury_-_geograph.org.uk_-_1466779I had always imagined Elizabeth’s local town of Ledbury would be dreary, I suppose because of its name, but when we sailed out of the dark shade of yews down the Worcester Road and into the town, we felt uplifted. Just short of the High Street we passed the handsome red brick offices of Masefield’s Solicitors, founded by the father of Ledbury’s famous son, John Masefield. Then we were there, right in the middle of this most glorious of towns.

Ledbury is the perfect size. The wide straight High Street follows the shallow undulations of the hills and you can see it all in one go. It’s easy to walk its length and back without feeling daunted. On the southern corner of Worcester Road, the early seventeenth century Ledbury Park, one of the best black and white houses in England, stretches along the high street, inordinately grand and imposing with its five gables and great walled park behind. A plaque tells how Prince Rupert used it as his headquarters for the battle of Ledbury during the civil War.

The town is renowned for its half timbering and the woods from whence it came form a sheltering eastern backdrop. Where the High Street widens out, the beautiful black and white Market House, sitting on sixteen faded oak stilts, takes centre stage. Opposite, the galumphing Edwardian Moulton Barrett Institute looks incongruous but everything else along the High Street is built in a good looking blend of styles and dates. Nothing jars.  Narrow alleys and mews lead off to smaller, jumbled buildings behind and it’s as though the whole town has been woven together like an elaborate piece of needlework. There is a block of wonderful almshouses and dozens of independent shops – butchers, greengrocers, delicatessens, ironmongers, cheese shops, book shops including  a second hand one – even the Tesco’s at the north end of the High Street (opposite a brilliant cruck frame cottage) is discreet. There may be a few too many “lifestyle” shops, but there are also some of the nicest ancient inns you could wish for. The Feathers, for instance, with a sumptuous over-sailing first floor, is full of gentrified local oldies wearing clothes the colour of ploughed fields, some reading the Daily Telegraph in comfortable armchairs in the heavily beamed  foyer,  0thers talking in hushed tones in the dining room. Safe England.

But it’s Church Lane we love the best, with its small cobbles and comforting scale. Set back behind a tiny courtyard, we eat French onion soup in Chez Pascal, a packed café where you can hear local gossip on the next door table above faint strains of Edith Piaf. At the end of the lane the huge triple aisled church is set in a sloping graveyard from which footpaths lead between high red brick walls screening grand Georgian houses. Despite its beauty, Ledbury does not feel quaint. We were completely happy there.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons / Richard Croft

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