Hidden England

With history, fabulous food and glorious scenery, Herefordshire is too good to stay a secret


Today, Herefordshire’s beautiful countryside seems timelessly peaceful: historic black and white houses in its villages, the river Wye flowing gently between the hills. But dig a little further and you can discover a county that’s home to a map packed with fearsome and fantastical inhabitants, a manor house which played a part in a king’s eventual murder, while a Queen’s husband was executed in Hereford’s market square — even the tranquil scenery was carved out by huge ice sheets stretching from Wales at the end of the last Ice Age.

Perhaps the biggest surprise is that Herefordshire’s attractions are relatively unknown, whether you’re a fan of history, are looking for a more active break, visiting with kids or want to discover the area’s growing foodie temptations. Which means, of course, that it’s also the perfect place to escape the crowds this summer and feel suitably smug at being among the first to uncover its secrets.

Starting our trip in the pretty county town of Hereford, the market was in full swing. But peek between the stalls and you can spot the plaque commemorating Owen Tudor, husband of Henry V’s widow Queen Katherine, executed here back in 1460.

Not far away, the Black and White House Museum is the only one of a row of Jacobean buildings still standing, while the independent food stalls of the nearby Buttermarket sit behind its own half-timbered façade.

If you’re here for the food, stroll along Church Street, where the Mouse Trap Cheese shop has some great local varieties, along with little delis and a vegan café.

Or try somewhere that’s made for outdoor eating; at The Yard’s collection of courtyard tables (with heaters, happily), you can order via your phone from three different restaurants and the bar — everything from vegan and falafel burgers to fantastic Indian dishes from the charcoal grill and brunch favourites such as green shakshuka. As restrictions relax, there are more events planned too, including Hereford Indie Food Festival on August 28 and 29.

But if the city’s culinary delights are a newer temptation, one of Hereford’s biggest attractions has been standing for almost 950 years, with two unique and unmissable treasures setting its 11th century cathedral apart.

The Chained Library might sound as if it has come straight from the world of Harry Potter but houses a fascinating collection of ancient books, attached by their chains to 17th century wooden shelves — the very latest innovation at the time.

The original locks and rods survive intact on mediaeval manuscripts several centuries older than the fastenings; the oldest in the collection dates from the 8th century.

And while you can’t sit down to peruse the contents of the shelves, anyone can pore over the Mappa Mundi. Created in around 1300 by ‘Richard of Haldingham or Lafford’ (and almost certainly a couple of others), this pictorial encyclopaedia is a fascinating guide to the mediaeval mind.

At the centre of the map — and for its creators, the world — lies Jerusalem, the British Isles squashed on to one side, looking rather different from how we’re used to seeing them. For starters, Scotland doesn’t appear to be connected to England at all. But that’s only the beginning.

While geographical accuracy is somewhat flexible, the known world is recorded in detail alongside tales from myth and legends — spot Scylla and Charybdis next to Crete, complete with labyrinth — and some impressively imaginative creations in the unknown world, including people with eyes in their chests or with huge lips to shade them from the fierce sun.

Throw in mandrakes, minotaurs, a rather cuddly basilisk and a manticore, not to mention an oddly thin rhino and a swordfish with its sword neatly sheathed down by its fins, and you could easily lose yourself for hours.

But the city is only the first of the county’s attractions, including a series of walking trails to discover the best of Herefordshire’s countryside: a Roasts and Rambles guide, launched earlier this year, features ten circular walks with pubs, find the best of the spring blossom with the In The Pink guide, while a new Ice Age Ponds app is being launched shortly.

Perfect if you’re exploring with kids, the completed app will have options to take a photo with a virtual mammoth, as well as around a dozen trails to follow, including car and cycle options. Packed with information about how glaciers carved out these gentle hills and valleys, plus the Ice Age Ponds themselves, which have survived for 12,000 years, it’s also an introduction to the wildlife and plants which flourish here.

As we followed the gentle 90-minute Birches Farm Trail, warblers warbled, red kites soared and orchids prepared to flower among the cowslips; on a clear day, you can see out to the Black Mountains in Wales.

Another great way to drink in views of the Herefordshire countryside and its wildlife is from the water, canoeing down the River Wye. With Hereford Canoe Hire providing our spacious (and stable) craft, plus all the kit and a safety briefing, we were ferried from Hoarwithy to Lucksall to paddle downstream back to our car.

Taking around three hours — with intermittent assistance from my eight-year-old daughter — it often felt like we were the only people in the world, as we cautiously manoeuvred around nesting swans, kept our eyes open for kingfishers and shot laughing over several gentle rapids.

For a less energetic way to explore, just follow the flow of history. The Black and White Village trail stretches for around 40 miles in a circle from Leominster, with around a dozen stops featuring picturesque black and white timbered buildings amid some of England’s loveliest countryside. Eardisland is easily one of the prettiest but any is worth a visit — or as we did, choose one as your base to explore.

Staying at Arboyne House in Eardisley, our self-contained apartment of Holly Lodge had all the huge old wood beams and wonky floors you could want from a historic building, but without losing the necessary modern touches — a deliciously powerful shower, gigantic enveloping duvet on the four-poster bed and a full kitchen to self-cater (complete with welcome jar of tiffin bites).

One of two apartments as well as a B&B room, there’s a black and white timbered pub next door and lovely garden to relax in as well.

Even the black and white villages can’t compete with the history of Hellens manor house though. Set on lands belonging to King Harold Godwinsson before the Norman Conquest, it was a safe haven for Roger Mortimer and Queen Isabella as they deposed Edward II, handing the royal seal on to Edward III in the house itself.

Later, a room was splendidly furnished to welcome Mary I: some of the original features remain, including a well-meaning but erratic attempt at a pomegranate decoration on the ceiling.

Sadly, it seems the Queen never visited, probably leaving the owner bankrupt after his lavish redecorating — today the ghost of a 17th century priest, a casualty of the English civil war, is said to haunt it.

Add in links to the Boleyn family, courtesy of Henry VIII and the ‘other’ Boleyn girl, Mary, plus a daughter of the house who eloped with a stablehand before being confined to her room for 30 years, leaving graffiti scratched on a glass windowpane, and it’s a reminder that even the quietest corner of England can boast an eventful past.

The grounds, with a hedge labyrinth, physic garden (from herbs to poison) and wildflower meadow, are also one of the loveliest places to see the spring blossom.

With events usually running throughout the year, the house has links to poetry and music festivals; the circle of standing stones in the grounds are all engraved with phrases and snippets of poetry too.

All of which makes the 19th century Eastnor Castle a positive newcomer.

Built on the site of a previous manor several centuries older, the sprawling grounds include a lakeside and woodland walk, as well as several playgrounds, a kids’ obstacle course and — once restrictions allow — a maze and various family activities, plus the castle’s spectacular interiors.

As we headed home, we found our way temporarily blocked by a flock of sheep sauntering across the country lane: it was tempting to take it as a sign and turn back to discover more.


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