If you’ve been seduced by the honeyed stone charm of the Cotswolds, then you’re not alone. It’s one of the most popular parts of England for visitors, drawing 1.2 million eager explorers each year. But what if I told you that there was a place that is also charming, but relatively unknown? Drive a little further out to the Welsh borders, and you’ll find Herefordshire’s Black And White Villages.
Black and White? The area is named after the typical and historic British architecture you’ll find there. If you think of timbered and half-timbered cottages, with black painted oak beams wandering across a background of lathe and plaster painted white, you’ll have an idea of what to expect in Herefordshire. These wonderful old houses grace an equally beautiful countryside, where you can feel yourself relax as the clear air and spectacular views captivate you. This is the countryside of big skies, small meandering streams and rivers, woods and fields, tea shops and quaint country pubs. Come with us on the Black and White Villages Trail.
How To Get To Herefordshire: Taking The Black And White Villages Trail
The county of Herefordshire is known for its agriculture, beautiful countryside and splendid isolation from most big cities. Save for the cathedral city of Hereford, the whole county is a network of small towns, villages and hamlets.
To take the Black And White Villages Trail, I’d suggest that you first spend a night in Hereford itself. You can reach Hereford via the M5 and M50, or else via the M5 to Worcester and then on to Hereford. The cathedral in Hereford is well worth your time; in addition to its own considerable charms, you’ll be able to see a copy of the Magna Carta, a chained library and one of the world’s earliest traveller maps: the Mappa Mundi. You’ll also find a black and white house to get you in the mood for your journey: this one is the Old House in the very centre of the city.
If you are arriving from the north, you may want to spend your night in Shrewsbury instead. Just over the border in Shropshire, Shrewsbury has a fascinating city centre, full of little alleyways known as shuts and lots of historic buildings.
Either option will see you ready to start your drive the next day by taking the A49 road to Leominster, where the Black and White Village Trail starts.
How Long Do I Need To Take The Black And White Villages Trail?
That very much depends on you. The Trail itself is about 40 miles long. But this is on small and sometimes smaller country roads, so don’t expect to be driving at speed. And you’ll also find yourself wanting to stop off to explore regularly.
With that in mind, my ideal itinerary would look something like this, based on a long weekend in the area.
Three Day Itinerary: Black And White Villages Trail
Day 1: Drive to either Hereford or Shrewsbury and spend the night there
Day 2: Take the road to Leominster for the start of the Black and White Villages Trail and complete the Trail, then travel to Ludlow to spend the night.
Day 3: Spend the day exploring foodie Ludlow and its castle
Four Day Itinerary: Black And White Villages Trail
Follow the three day itinerary until the afternoon of the second day. Stay overnight in Kington, halfway around the circuit of the Trail on Day 2
Day 3: Complete the second half of the Trail and return to Leominster before heading onwards to Ludlow for the night.
Day 4: Spend the day exploring Ludlow, a charming town full of foodie pleasures and historic sites, including the castle that was an early home to the Princes in the Tower. Then start your journey home. You could also return home at the end of the third day, but I’d urge you to stay for more exploration. Extra time today would also allow you to go walking – or gliding – on the Shropshire Hills.
Either option will give you a beautiful long weekend in the Black and White Villages.
What To Expect On The Black and White Villages Trail
This is a very rural part of England. Although you’ll be traveling on main roads for some of the journey, you’ll also be heading for narrow lanes. This is an agricultural area – hence its stunning views and greenery – meaning that you may also encounter farm vehicles and machinery along the way. So accept that there’s no rush and be careful in the narrow lanes. Set aside some time for walks too. This is the kind of fresh air that makes every one of your senses come alive to enjoy the beauty of the countryside.
This is also a part of the country untouched by 24 hour opening 7 days a week. So if there are places you particularly want to visit along the way, it’s worth checking opening hours (for example, Kington museum closes at lunchtime). It’s a great opportunity to enjoy a different pace of life.
Starting the Black And White Villages Trail: Ancient Market Town Of Leominster
The town of Leominster (pronounced Lemmster), situated between Shrewsbury and Hereford, makes a great place to start the Trail. In Leominster itself you have plenty of exploring to be done. The town is renowned for antiques and books, so you can get the vibe of this small but beautifully formed place. In 2018, there were 120 antiques dealers here, with expertise in everything from furniture and vintage woodworking tools to silver and records. Stop off at the Merchant’s House for coffee and nine rooms of antiques and collectables.
Leominster was established as a market town on the River Lugg, growing around a Saxon monastery founded in 660 AD. In medieval times, it grew to be a wool town, with fleece from the local Ryeland sheep. There’s time here to see the fine Priory, dating back to the 12th century and with a Norman nave. One of the town’s most beautiful buildings is Grange Court, full of intricate carvings. At one time, I often attended meetings here, concentration sometimes being difficult due to the beauty of the building in which we were sitting.
On The Road To Dilwyn
From Leominster, take the A44 to start your journey on the Black and White Villages Trail. Your first of the villages is Dilwyn, but before then, don’t hesitate to make a stop at Monkland Cheese Dairy. You’ll see the sign for the shop roadside. Here you’ll find tangy Little Hereford Cheese, Hereford Sage, Monkland, Blue Monk and even Other Monk sold at the cafe and farm shop. If you have the time, you can book in for a day’s cheesemaking, after which the cheese will be matured and sent on to you at home. Cheesetastic!
Turn left off the main road into the lane that leads to Dilwyn. Arriving at the village green is like walking into a painting. Here you’ll find timbered and half timbered houses surrounding the green and its collection of trees. There’s a gallery and tearoom here, plus a pub.
Next up on the Trail is Weobley, pronounced Webbley. This village also grew in medieval times through the wool trade, and later through glove making and ale production. Weobley is still one of the bigger villages on the Trail. Here you’ll find shops and a cafe, plus a rather splendid magpie sculpture, observing the centre of the village from on high.
The church at Weobley forms a landmark for miles around. Charles I stayed here after the battle of Naseby in 1645. The sundial above marks the passing of time at the church where “one day telleth another”. You’ll find signs around the village setting out Weobley’s heritage trail: a great way to learn more about the stories of this small village. Don’t forget to learn about the magnificent house where James Tomkins lived in the latter half of the 16th century, fathering 33 children.
“Here come to pass, which though ’tis strange, ’tis true
Babes thirty three did from two mothers spring
To famous Tomkins, O, admired thing!”
Here too you’ll find a curious spot; a garage that harks back to the 1950s with pumps seeming to be in someone’s sitting room. It’s a great reminder of how unnecessary change has stepped past the Black and White Villages, leaving a whole lot of interesting places to explore.
Building A Cruck Frame Timbered House
Look out for the cruck frame in the cottage behind the Red Lion. This is made from where the trunk of the tree joins a large branch. The tree was worked by two people sawing using a double handed saw over a large pit. The sawyer on top is the top dog. And the one in the pit, getting covered in sawdust? The underdog, of course.
Snaresfield and Kinnersley
It’s a bit difficult to stop at Snaresfield, but it’s worth the effort to park up at the church. Here you’ll find the grave of John Abel who was carpenter to the king (Charles I’s King’s Carpenter). He was responsible for lovely Grange Court in Leominster and many other classic Herefordshire black and white buildings. I wonder if he ever imagined the legacy he left.
There’s another spectacular at Kinnersley, where Kinnersley Castle is to the left as you approach the village. This is an Elizabethan House remodeled from a medieval castle by Roger Vaughan in 1588. Sadly the Castle is only open to visitors occasionally (and not when we last visited), but you can check in advance with Leominster Tourist Centre to see if it will be open when you plan to travel. The church next door is also worth visiting. Here you can see some incredible monuments. There’s a family in Stuart costume, complete with trumpeting cherubs.
Eardisley and Its Great Oak
This small village has an impressive landmark. Tram Square, surrounded by pretty cottages and gardens, is where the horse drawn tram from Brecon to Kington used to stop. This must have been a spectacular journey, with its services ceasing in 1818 after the building of the railway.
Take the road to Woods Eaves (such an atmospheric name) for a mile, and then turn right by the chapel to visit the hollow Great Oak. This magnificent tree is some 900 years old.
Many of the houses on the Black and White Villages Trail are timber-framed. This means that the framework of the building is made from green or unseasoned oak. The gaps between the frames were filled with lath and plaster. Over time it became customary for the beams to be painted black and the plaster white. Today there is a return to stripping back the oak frame to its natural colour. Despite this, the Black and White Villages remain largely black and white, although the occasional house sports a different colour scheme – we spotted one black and red house on our journey.
Kington: Edward The Confessor’s Market Town
I have to confess that we’ve long held a strong affection for Kington. In the very best way, it’s like slipping back 30 years to the English market towns we remember of our respective childhoods. By that I mean that you can find most things you would need here, a lot of independent shops, cafes and pubs, and a great welcome wherever you go.
If you’re hungry by this time, I need to send you to Grumpie Grampies. It’s a tiny cafe with just a couple of tables, and most of its menu is prepared on the premises. Here you’ll find simple lunches done well – the coronation chicken is fabulous – plus a selection of bakes that taste like our nans’ best cooking (and mine was a professional cook). You’ll find coffee and walnut cake, tray bakes and plenty more to fuel your explorations. The only thing they don’t do is be Grumpie; it’s definitely a warm and friendly welcome here. (And if you have food allergies, they’ll work round your needs with ease.)
Read More: Traditional and Oddly Named British Food
Around the corner you’ll find an equally warm welcome at the Oxford Arms. There aren’t many places where you can walk up to the bar, place your order and get chatting with such ease. There’s a carefully chosen selection of beer and some rather fine cider too, Herefordshire being cider country.
If you want to visit the small but fascinating museum, you’ll need to do it in the morning. Other than that, you’ll enjoy your time just wandering the town, spotting old advertising signs on the buildings, and exploring the shops and cafes.
Kington and the Black Dog
The area around Kington is reported to be haunted by a black dog, said to be the inspiration for Conan Doyle’s Hound of the Baskervilles. We suspect that the black dog knew he was on to a good thing, and decided to stay in Kington.
Kington As A Centre For Walkers
If you like to go wandering, Kington offers you lots of choices for a side trip or two. It is located on the Offa’s Dyke long distance path and the Herefordshire Trail, and is at the end of the Mortimer Trail. There’s even a shop selling equipment for walkers in the town.
Kington’s also home to the highest golf club in England, set more than 390 metres above sea level. If you visit between Easter and October – the ideal time to see the Black and White Villages – then you should explore the gardens of Hergest Croft. Here you’ll find rhododendrons and azaleas, maples and birches lighting up the autumn, a kitchen garden and many fine trees. The website will take you through what to expect in each season in the gardens.
Read more about the Mortimer Trail here: Heartwarming Things To Do In Herefordshire
Lyonshall and Pembridge
One of the delights of the Black and White Villages Trail is the small places you pass that hide their significance. One such spot on the Trail is Penrhos Court, a 14th century house, just before you reach Lyonshall. The village church has the remains of the castle alongside, and a section of Offa’s Dyke to the south west.
Next you’ll find Westonbury Mill Water Garden, which has two acres of garden around streams, ponds and an old corn mill. There’s also a cafe here and a collection of fine English follies: buildings constructed for the sheer pleasure of their existence. Watch out for the water-powered cuckoo clock.
Read More: Explore England’s Follies
Your next stop is Pembridge, with a wealth of timber-framed buildings and almshouses on its main street. Head up the steps to the church, whose bell tower is an entirely separate building from the church, and a beautiful piece of architecture in its own right, rather like a pagoda. If you can find ten pence – which sadly I couldn’t – you can illuminate the inside of the building. There’s a clock and a ring of five bells here. Don’t forget to say hi to the sheep artwork in the churchyard.
The steps lead to a cafe – The Steppes – and the Old Chapel Gallery full of interesting art and beautifully fragrant with the scent of candles.
If you follow the signs for Dunkertons, you’ll find a cider shop plus the Cider Barn Restaurant.
Dovecotes And Other Unusual Buildings: Eardisland
Back on the trail, you’ll spot Luntley Dovecote – all in black and white, of course. Although that doesn’t hold true for the next stop, Eardisland, where the Dovecote is on a rather larger scale. The Georgian Dovecote is an impressive building right on the bank of the river. It contains a community shop and an exhibition centre. Open 7 days a week, the shop is a not for profit enterprise, selling groceries, veggies, bread and milk, with any surplus funds being used for the benefit of the community.
Also in Eardisland, you’ll find a strange curiosity. Here is England’s oldest AA box, set up to assist motorists who are members of the Automobile Association. The box itself – in smart black and yellow livery – holds a tiny exhibition explaining how motoring life used to be. Plus a phone of course, so you can call for help should your horseless carriage be in need of repair.
Just across from both the Dovecote and the AA box, I found a sign that seemed to sum up the Black and White Villages Trail. All it promised was England in simpler times, when parish life offered quiet charms. In essence, that’s the experience you will have here. You won’t be able to dine or shop as extravagantly as in the Cotswolds. But you’ll catch a glimpse of life as it used to be lived in rural England, complete with a history told in buildings and green and pleasant lands.
The Welsh Marches, Herefordshire and Shropshire
If you’ve enjoyed exploring this part of the world, we’ve got more to tell you about this beautiful and less-traveled part of the country. You can learn more about what to do in Herefordshire and how to explore the sights of Shropshire. We’ve given you a guide to the Welsh borderlands in 48 hours in the Welsh Marches. And if you love small towns with real charm and history, then check out historic Ludlow and its castle, former home to the Princes in the Tower.
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