‘Quaint verging on twee’, instantly springs to mind when wandering around Ledbury. Its probably not fair to pigeon-hole a town of 10,000 people that way, but it seems appropriate. After all, it was here that a man from New York informed me I was standing in the most photographed alleyway in England. What he really meant to say, but was too polite to do so, was that I was standing in the middle of his photo of the most photographed alleyway in England. I removed myself immediately.
Ledbury feels ‘twee’ because it has managed to preserve a magnificent collection of historic buildings – something to be applauded. It feels like you’ve been transported back in time, with lots of other tourists along for the ride. Whether it is the glorious 12th century St. Michael and All Angels Church or the 17th century timber-framed Market House, Ledbury is a town with a rich history writ large. I don’t think I’ve seen a bigger collection of timber-framed houses anywhere in England. Chester, perhaps?
Ledbury’s origins are Saxon – part of the Saxon Kingdom of Mercia, but ruled as a fiefdom by a Saxon knight, Edwin of Magonsaete. On his deathbed he bequeathed Ledbury to the church. A new convert to Christianity, Edwin left his estate to the church so that they would intercede, through prayer, on his behalf to ensure he reached heaven. Nice work if you can get it.
Although Christianity had come to the British Isles with the Romans, it was never more than a minority cult amongst numerous Pagan beliefs. It truly arrived in England riding on the coat-tails of St. Augustine in the 6th century. This new and fashionable religion, with its emphasis on centralised authority and intolerance for Pagan beliefs, secured the patronage of King Aethelbert. When the Diocese of Hereford was founded in AD 676, Christianity was well on its way to being a ‘national religion’, thanks in large part to the sponsorship of the ruling classes.
Once under the control of the church, Ledbury developed into a major ecclesiastical centre – its mentioned in the Doomsday Book as a rural manor owned by the Bishop of Hereford. It was the Bishop who established the town of Ledbury, and his layout for the town remained largely unchanged until the Victorian-era, when the arrival of the canal and railway led to significant growth.
The outstanding ecclesiastical feature remaining from that time is St. Michael and All Angels Church. Its a massive church for the size of the town, and dates from AD1140, although it has been added to throughout the centuries. The oddity about the church is that the tower, with a spire added in the 18th century, is separate from the church. No one seems to know why.
The interior of St. Michael and All Angels is wonderful. Full of tombs underneath the floor, and ancient memorials on the walls. It also has some beautiful stained glass windows dating from different periods, some Medieval. One lovely memorial is to Captain Samuel Skynner, who, in 1725, bequeathed six pounds (£6) to be divided between the vicar and twenty poor housekeepers who weren’t receiving alms (poor relief).
After the Reformation and Dissolution of the Monasteries, Ledbury fell under the control of several powerful families. Church buildings were converted to secular use and many have, remarkably, survived into the 21st century. It is a pleasant place to spend a few hours pottering around, occasionally cooling down with a glass of local cider – they love their apple-based beverages in this part of the world.
Sadly, St. Catherine’s Hospital, which dates from 1232 and is one of the few surviving hospitals from this period, wasn’t open when I was there. Its currently being restored and repaired, and will presumably reopen to the world sometime soon. Wish I’d been able to go inside, all the same.
For all its history, time has not left Ledbury behind. It is now home to lovebirds Elizabeth Hurley (she of the dress) and Shane Warne (he of the wicked spin and even wickeder text message). Rubbing shoulders with scandalous celebrity probably makes Ledbury less twee, and possibly a little more glamourous.