Even when you’re full of fidget pie, Shropshire has so much more to give.Read more...
Ludlow is not only a photogenic riverside town, but also a gourmet destination © Gordon Dickens
Here are the ‘blue remembered hills’ of AE Housman’s poetry; the country that for Mary Webb ‘lies between the dimpled lands of England and the gaunt purple steeps of Wales – half in Faery and half out of it’.
Ludlow is a town that has captured the heart of many a writer. Sir John Betjeman in 1951 described it as ‘probably the loveliest town in England’, while Henry James in 1884 imagined it a place where ‘Miss Burney’s and Miss Austen’s heroines might perfectly well have had their first love affair’.
Indeed, Ludlow is picturesque, with a majestic church, castle ruins, rivers and bridges and around 500 listed buildings. This is an affluent town, founded on wool and cloth, which was by the 16th century a major administrative centre governing Wales and Shropshire’s border counties. Some of its medieval defensive walls remain and one of its seven gateways (Broad Gate on Silk Mill Lane) is complete with drum towers and portcullis arch.
Naturally, handsome inns and well-to-do houses grew up here too. The Feathers Hotel on Bull Ring, the very model of a black-and-white Jacobean coaching inn, is one of the most photographed hotels in England.
But the beauty of Ludlow runs deeper than stone, water and history. Today many people make concerted efforts to protect and nurture what makes this market town unique, in order to improve the quality of life in Ludlow and beyond. Organisations such as Slow Food Ludlow Marches, Ludlow Farmshop and Local to Ludlow share the belief that supporting local suppliers, artisan producers and traditional skills are the secrets to a thriving town.
What to see and do
Daniel Defoe, writing in 1772 on his Tour of Great Britain, described the ruins of Ludlow Castle as the ‘very perfection of decay’. This Norman castle and fortified royal palace does indeed make for romantic ruins: the outer bailey embraces almost four acres, while the inner bailey, protected by a thick curtain wall, includes four flanking towers and the surviving circular nave of the chapel of St Mary Magdalene. On a quiet day you won’t have to work your imagination too hard to populate the courtyards with people, relight the fireplaces, and hang the chambers with bright tapestries. For children there are stone steps to scale, pillars to ambush from, and wooden swords and shields available in the gift shop.
© Deatonphotos, Shutterstock
The information boards dotted around the castle grounds focus mainly on architecture and masonry, largely ignoring the colourful stories that the walls themselves hold. Ludlow Castle began life in the late 11th century as the border stronghold of marcher lord Roger de Lacy and was enlarged by Roger Mortimer in the 14th century, becoming a magnificent palace.
The walls withstood the War of the Roses, embraced the two sons of Edward IV (before history consigned them to be known forever as the Princes in the Tower) and to this day keep the secrets of the honeymoon of 15-year-old Prince Arthur and his bride, Catherine of Aragon. Mary Tudor, who would later be Queen of England, spent three winters at Ludlow Castle, while in 1634 it provided the stage for the earliest performance of John Milton’s court masque Comus.
To learn more about the castle’s social history and its inhabitants you can hire an audio guide from the ticket desk or buy the excellent glossy guide written by historian and Ludlovian David Lloyd MBE. A children’s guide is available too. The grounds can get muddy so bring wellies during wet spells. Castle Kitchen, with its warm glazed courtyard and garden terrace, is run separately, so you can visit for a cuppa without paying to enter the castle grounds.
The Buttercross is the honey-coloured, open arcaded building (designed by local architect William Baker, c1746) straddling Broad Street, King Street and High Street.
Through the blue door and up the stairs you’ll find the new Ludlow Museum, holding two rooms of local artefacts that tell the town’s story from prehistory onwards. I enjoyed dialling up ‘Memories of Ludlow’ on the analogue phone and hearing people recalling local life in the 1950s. It’s only £1 to visit the museum (children get in free); worth it for the grand view over Broad Street alone.
For an interactive take on the history and architecture of the town you can join a guided tour on Saturdays, Sundays and bank holidays, generally from April to November. Meet at the cannon outside the castle at 14.30; tours last approximately 90 minutes.
To learn what’s happening in Ludlow’s here and now, seek out the splendid Victorian building on the corner of Mill Street: Ludlow Assembly Rooms. The 1840 building was modernised and reopened in the 1990s, incorporating a cinema, theatre, café and plenty of space for community events. Ludlow’s visitor information centre is on the third floor.
Two more ways to tap into Ludlow’s current happenings are via theludlowguide.co.uk and the Ludlow Ledger, a good-humoured, high-quality independent newspaper available free from various venues around town. And for a rare peep into Ludlow’s private terraces, flowerbeds, orchards, borders and lawns, try the Ludlow Secret Gardens weekend in June; it’s been a staple in the town’s summer calendar since 1990. Tickets are usually available from the Assembly Rooms.
Tucked away behind Ludlow’s thoroughfares, St Laurence’s is often referred to as the ‘Cathedral of the Marches’, a soubriquet acknowledged by Simon Jenkins in England’s Thousand Best Churches in which he awards Ludlow’s parish church five stars. For good reason: this mainly 15th-century masterpiece, built by rich cloth merchants, is packed from nave to chancel with treasures and topped with a 135-foot tower which, for £4 and a 200-step circular climb, turns Ludlow into a living model village and you its giant witness.
Amid the awe-inspiring perpendicular architecture, illuminated by light shining through a wealth of stained glass, you will find monuments, effigies, a 1,000-year-old font (rescued from a degrading stint as a watering trough) and 28 misericords with intricate carvings conveying 15th-century concerns and cautionary tales. In the north side choir stalls, look for the ass in preacher’s clothing, and the dishonest alewife being flung into the gaping maw of Hell.
© Parish Church of St Laurence in Ludlow
Prince Arthur’s heart is interred somewhere in the chancel (with ‘heart’ probably a euphemism for entrails): he died aged 15 in 1502 of a sweating sickness while in Ludlow with his bride Catherine of Aragon. A two-day funeral service was held here, after which the young prince’s body was carried in procession to Worcester Cathedral. You can learn more about Catherine’s links to the region at the Ludlow Museum.
A memorial plaque to A E Housman is fixed to the north wall of the exterior of the church and his ashes are interred nearby. The poet made many references to this region in A Shropshire Lad and evoked the church in particular in ‘The Recruit’.
Ludlow market does indeed still hum (in a good way) on Monday (and most other days) and the church’s modern carillon, electronically controlled, plays ‘See the Conquering Hero’ on Monday at 08.00, noon, 16.00 and 20.00. There are different chimes for the other days of the week. It is possible to sponsor the lighting of the tower at night in commemoration of a special event, or in memory of a loved one.
The black-and-white Reader’s House on Church Walk just outside dates to the 1300s and has been a grammar school, private museum and residence of assistant clergy, known as the reader.
Eating and drinking
© Ashleigh Cadet, Ludlow Food Festival
At one time Ludlow held three Michelin stars, the greatest number per capita in Europe. While this isn’t the case today, Ludlow’s reputation as a gourmet town is deservedly lasting, thanks to the Ludlow Food Festival and a concentration of restaurants, cafés and shops showcasing the excellent produce of the region. As Shropshire historian Keith Pybus points out in Blue Remembered Hills, Ludlow’s foodie reputation makes it ‘a brand-name capable of extension into the hills and down the A49’. The expansive ‘Ludlow Farmshop’, for example, is actually in Bromfield – more than two miles away from the famous town.
Getting there and away
Ludlow station is half a mile northwest of the town centre, on Station Drive. It’s on the Welsh Marches line between Shrewsbury and Hereford, with connections from Manchester, Cardiff, Chester and the north Wales coast. One to two trains run every hour in each direction from Monday to Saturday.
There are several options for buses. A service from Kidderminster which travels via Cleobury Mortimer has faced recent uncertainty but so far been saved. Don’t miss the view over the Malvern Hills in Worcestershire as you travel through Cleehill village and its sheep-grazing common. The Minsterley Motors service 435 travels between Shrewsbury and Ludlow via Church Stretton.
From the west, the 738 and 740 Arriva bus services bring you into Ludlow from Knighton, travelling via Bromfield. If you’re driving it’s worth knowing about the cheap and frequent park and ride scheme from Ludlow Eco Business Park just off the A49 (use SY8 1ES or follow signs from the main approaches into Ludlow), which will drop you off by Ludlow Assembly Rooms. Once you arrive, you’ll find Ludlow to be a compact town, ideal for exploring on foot.