It was Bill Bryson who called England, quite rightly, a small island. I don’t recall he ever visited the Marches, but I have the feeling it’s the kind of place he would love.
We’re fortunate enough to live very nearly at the centre of that small island. It would be difficult to find a better place from which to enjoy all kinds of overnight travel adventures. Adventures of the kind that involve throwing a toothbrush and your undercrackers in the car and hitting the road.
Planning your trip
The nice thing about this sort of trip is that it doesn’t need much planning. Just whip together a really small bag of the essentials and you’re ready to roll.
So where should you go? For us, a shortish drive could see us anywhere from London to Manchester to Bristol to Ely or Barmouth on the Welsh Coast. That’s a spectacular range of options. And one to suit just about any kind of getaway feeling. This time, we were feeling the need to break away from the city. So in June, our destination was the Welsh Marches.
The Welsh Marches
The name in itself is a strange one, because it doesn’t formally exist. The Marches is used to describe that lovely expanse of countryside along the Welsh border, covering the edges of Herefordshire and Shropshire. It’s not the easiest place to reach. To my mind this makes it a treasure, because you have to work at getting there. The area is peppered with small towns and beautiful villages, with the cities of Hereford and Shrewsbury offering a great deal of architectural and historical interest.
Ludlow is the administrative centre of the Marches, and to be honest, you’d have to try hard to find a town with so much going for it. Much is made of the traditional black and white timbered buildings of Warwickshire and Shakespeare country, but they’re also a great part of the architecture of the Marches.
Beautiful isolation: Ludlow
Even in England, there are still some places where you can really feel the space around you. Where you aren’t surrounded by people (although possibly by sheep), and you remember just how green and beautiful our pleasant lands are. If you’re feeling the need for space, and calm, and to move at a slower pace, these might be the destinations for you.
In Shropshire, there’s beautiful Ludlow, with its castle, slow food ambience, farmers’ style markets pretty much every day, and the most humungously large second hand bookshop I’ve had the pleasure to browse outside the book town of Hay-on-Wye. Ludlow also has a magnificent eleventh century castle in the grounds of which is held the annual Food Festival. Be aware that if you intend heading to Ludlow for the Food Festival, you need to book seriously far in advance. Or stay elsewhere, drive to the park and ride, and go to the Festival that way.
Looking over the rolling Shropshire hills from Ludlow. When even the car park has a view this stunning, you know you’ve found a beautiful place.
What to do in and around Ludlow
Although there are undoubtedly more beautiful options for accommodation in the vicinity, there are Travelodges at both Ludlow itself and out at Wooferton which are often available at bargainous prices.
We swept into Ludlow via Church Stretton to the north, which has an almost Swiss vibe. We grabbed lunch at sweet Berry’s Coffee House before heading on down to Ludlow for an afternoon wander. If you have time and inclination, Leominster, which is on your way, is a charming little town with a big antiques habit.
Bear in mind that Ludlow’s not a party town, despite the presence of some quality restaurants, so check out your dining options for dinner early on. Or if it’s summer, and the weather’s good, buy yourself a mighty fine selection of deli goodies, salads and fruit from the market, plus something gooey for later. Then head on up to the majestically beautiful Clee Hill where you can picnic happily watching the local sheep. While they picnic happily watching you.
Or else head out to Ludlow Food Centre, part of a complex including a restaurant with rooms (The Clive), a farm shop and a cafe. You can either gather provisions or eat here.
Ludlow by night
Meander back to your hotel full of the sleepy vibes that come from a lot of fresh air. There are plenty of good pubs to pass an hour or two including the Nelson Inn at Rocks Green (on your way back from Clee Hill) which does good ciders and has a resident cuddly cat. There’s also the timber framed Unicorn Inn on the outskirts of town and the Charlton Arms on Ludford Bridge (the bridge having been washed away in a flood a few years back and then repaired) with lovely river views. A place that I haven’t yet tried, but intrigues me, is The Dog Hangs Well in Corve Street: publishing house by week, and parlour pub at the weekend.
Ludlow at Christmas
If you should happen to find yourself in the town close to Christmas, may I recommend you consider a night at The Feathers Hotel right in the middle of Ludlow. While the gorgeous timbered building is a delight at any time of year, at Christmas it is especially beautiful.
Imagine that you, like us, are returning from a late night walk in the crisp air, all bundled up, scarfed, gloved and ruddy cheeked. You climb the stairs to your room, but get distracted by the crackling of logs from the open fire in the first floor sitting room. The heat of the fire has awakened the scent of pine from the Christmas tree in the corner of the room, and the whole place is full of Christmas magic. Just do it. You’ll love it.
And go and buy your Christmas provisions the next morning. Beautiful miniature and unusual vegetables. Home made sausages and smoked bacon from one of any number of excellent butchers. A turkey you ordered some weeks ago. And all kinds of buffet delights from the Food Centre or deli for your Boxing Day table. There’s a branch of a lovely cheese shop called the Mousetrap for all your Christmas snacking. Remember those cool bags, and pick up some ice – or at a pinch frozen peas – from the supermarket to keep it all safe. Bask in the best Christmas grub ever. And remember that open fire on a still and crispy night.
Equipped with a balcony for electioneering if needed, this is the Feathers Hotel in Ludlow. If you want extra Christmas in your Christmas, this is the place to find it.
Taking your leave of Ludlow
Waking up full of the joys of a stress free day the next morning, your first job is to take a wander around Ludlow itself. There are relatively few chain stores in town, so even shopping has a relaxed quality to it. You’ll find antiques, period house fittings, interesting clothes and kitchenware, and, of course, all kinds of speciality food shops. Don’t forget your cool bag. We’re usually to be found browsing the book stores, and maybe searching out something needed for our house. And my husband will undoubtedly be in the beer shop at some point.
If you are heading home towards the south, then you can spend some time dawdling through pretty Cleobury Mortimer, with one of the most magnificent hardware shops of a bygone age. There’s probably also time for a stop at Georgian Bewdley on the river in Worcestershire.
Hereford: City in the Countryside
I have a soft spot for Hereford, because I once lived here (for my first job). Despite being a city, it has a gentleness and relaxed pace that makes a stay here truly pleasurable. Back in the day I rented a magnificent ground floor flat in a Georgian building. A flat so enormous that my kitchen table was a tailor’s table with a two yard measure built into the table top. It was a stunning place, but sadly long gone.
Hereford is one of the places I think has developed beautifully over time. It may have lost some of the things I remember from my time there, such as the cattle market, but these have been replaced by developments that add to the quality of life for people in the area, such as shops, entertainment and restaurants. Before these changes, you were looking at maybe an hour to travel to Worcester, or even more to Newport and Cardiff to access some of these services.
Around hereford city
Around Hereford, there are so many beautiful towns and villages. Pretty Ludlow, which we talked about earlier, is a short drive to the north. Then you have all the villages with their first names and surnames – Stretton Sugwas, Stoke Edith, Much Marcle. Here we’re in hop growing and cider apple country. You can spend a happy morning exploring Kington towards the Welsh border, or Bromyard and Ledbury on the Worcester side. In fact, you’re spoilt for choice here.
Hereford: Home of the Mappa Mundi
Hereford itself has got plenty to offer. Last time we stayed, I spent time in the cathedral, peering again at the Mappa Mundi and other medieval treasures. The black and white timbered Old House in the city centre is a museum, and there are plenty more museums, including the cider museum. Wandering up the narrow streets by the cathedral with their enticing and unusual shops also passes some happy time.
For lunch, I’d highly recommend the cafe at All Saints Church. This is situated at one end of the church, and has a short menu with a selection of home-cooked dishes. Look out for the unexpected space age loo pod too.
For accommodation options, you can try the traditional Green Dragon with its views over to the cathedral green. There are also a growing number of more boutique hotels around the city. And a Travelodge for one of those bargainous breaks.
Recommendations for a trip to the Marches
This post has been a whole series of my recommendations. If you couldn’t tell, I have a soft spot for Hereford, Ludlow and the area around it. You can almost feel the beauty reducing your blood pressure when you stand in the car park at Ludlow – not normally a highlight of any visit to a town – and look over the spectacular views of the rolling hills.
But if you were to really push me, I’d suggest an itinerary something like this:
- On the first day, drive into Hereford, take a look around the city, and a peek at the Mappa Mundi, and grab some lunch.
- Head northwards to Ludlow, and go and check out the castle and the town itself. Buy copious amounts of secondhand books, maybe some pottery and definitely something you didn’t know you wanted until you saw it. Check out the estate agent’s windows, and fantasize about living in Ludlow.
- Investigate your options for dinner. Either book a table in advance, or collect the ingredients for your picnic. If it’s the latter, decide on your viewpoint.
- Wander around Ludlow in the evening, and maybe check out some of the pubs I’ve mentioned above.
- On the second day, wake up bright and early, refreshed. There are lots of options in the town for breakfast, although sadly Ludlow legend de Greys tearoom is no more.
- Shop your foodie socks off in and around the market and the deli. Stock up your cool bag, so it’s all safe for your journey home.
- You’ve then got two options. If your day is still young, you can head off towards Leominster and Church Stretton and add two beautiful towns to your trip. If you have a yen for more countryside, point your car up steep Clee Hill, and go visit the land of sheep. Cleobury Mortimer will also be on your way back home.
Getting to the Marches
I’m not going to say this is without effort. But it’s worth it.
By Car to the Marches
You have the option of heading in from north or south. For the northern route, take the M6 and then the M54 towards Telford and Shrewsbury. You could even maybe sneak in a visit to pretty Ironbridge Gorge before heading to Church Stretton and the start of the Marches, For the southern route, you can leave the M5 for Worcester, and then head via the Malvern Hills to Colwall, Ledbury, then Hereford. You could instead continue up the M5 to the turning for Kidderminster then head onwards to Ludlow.
Either route, you’re looking at a good hour off the motorway. Maybe more if you find a tractor en route, or it’s time to move the cows for milking.
By public Transport to the Marches
The Marches are surprisingly well served. London Paddington services call at Worcester, where you can change for Hereford. The local train goes to and indeed under the Malvern Hills. It then stops at Colwall and Ledbury, and runs single track to Hereford. You can also pick up a local service from Shrewsbury, which stops at Ludlow on its way to Hereford. Birmingham has trains to both Hereford and Shrewsbury.
For bus services, there are still rural bus routes, but it’s not as well served as places like the Yorkshire Dales, which has a number of services for walkers. You can find out about shuttle buses over the the Long Mynd and the Stiperstones in Shropshire here. Hereford and Shrewsbury will be your hubs for local bus services. Buses also stop in the centre of Ludlow, where the train station is at the bottom of a gentle hill into the town centre.
You’ll find a guide to the Marches here.