Clare Gogerty takes us on a tour of the little-known county of Herefordshire, which could well be England’s best-kept secret
The road winds its way through black and white villages, virtually untouched since they were built in the 15th and 16th centuries, past handsome Georgian farmhouses glimpsed up rutted tracks and fields of Herefordshire cattle steadily munching the lush grass. Roadside signs advertise bales of hay, apple juice, poultry and boxes of free-range eggs – a reminder that this is an agricultural county unspoilt by industry. Its red sandstone clay soil is ideal for grass growth and livestock rearing. The drive is so pleasurable that it is tempting to parp the horn like Mr Toad and give tractor drivers a cheery wave.
When I moved to Herefordshire from London four years ago, it felt like I had come to a forgotten county. How come nobody else knew about this bucolic land of gentle hills stitched together with sparkling rivers? Then I discovered that some people did. Celebrity residents include Elizabeth Hurley, Monty Don, and Grand Designs presenter Kevin McCloud, all wise to the beauty and privacy that its low population, pastoral landscape, and gentle pace affords.
Herefordshire is tucked away between the almost-as-lovely counties of Worcestershire, Gloucestershire, Shropshire, and of course, the Welsh border. Few counties are as countrified. Its 842 square miles have almost everything we associate with English rural life: woodlands, orchards, running rivers, hedges, wildflowers, long views down valleys and fields brimming with crops.
What it doesn’t have is anything much associated with urban living. Its one 22-mile stretch of motorway is more of a spur road than a thundering thoroughfare. Its sole city Hereford, with its livestock market and medieval cathedral, isn’t exactly a metropolis.
Which is not to say that modern life has completely passed the county by. Increasing numbers of destination restaurants attract customers drawn by good, local food served in imaginative and tasty ways. Craft-cider-making is booming, and the standard of accommodation, from glamping sites and treehouses to gastro pubs and smart hotels, is consistently high.
The market town of Ledbury is fast becoming a fashionable retail destination with independent shops outnumbering chain stores on its broad high street.
I’ve spent many enjoyable afternoons there pottering about, picking up irresistible purchases (from homeware stores Tinsmiths and Hus & Hem especially), then enjoying coffee and cake in the Malthouse or Ledberry cafés. Baileys Home Store near Ross-on-Wye – a set of converted farm buildings packed with vintage finds and modern desirables – is also worthy of a visit.
There are various ways to explore both the timeless and contemporary delights of the county.
It is cross-hatched with well-marked public footpaths (2,100 miles in total) for those keen to walk between medieval churches, historic houses, and cider orchards.
Visit Herefordshire (visitherefordshire.co.uk) is the website for walking, cycling and driving routes. These include the relatively new Golden Valley Pilgrim Way, an 82-mile circular walking and cycling route with overnight stays in seven medieval churches, including the medieval cloisters of Hereford Cathedral.
The Golden Valley, which runs along the River Dore in the lee of the Black Mountains, is Herefordshire at its best: secret, remote and magical. Here you will find Arthur’s Stone, a Neolithic chamber tomb recently re-excavated; Dore Abbey, once a medieval Cistercian monastery, now a hauntingly atmospheric parish church; and the holy well at Peterchurch, tucked away in a field waiting to be discovered.
A favourite walk of mine is across Bromyard Downs with its ancient woodland and panoramic views of the Malvern Hills, followed by a visit to the moated manor house on the Brockhampton Estate (National Trust). Another is the 11-mile walk from Dore Abbey to the Norman church of St Mary and St David at Kilpeck with its intricate 12th-century Romanesque carvings. Refreshment follows at The Kilpeck Inn, a traditional country pub with a tasty contemporary menu.
Motorists and cyclists on the other hand can enjoy a 42-mile road trip around north Herefordshire’s black and white villages. This starts at the market town of Leominster, then winds along country roads to the villages of Dilwyn, Weobley, Eardisley, and Pembridge.
It ends at what is regarded as the prettiest of the lot – Eardisland on the banks of the River Arrow. Although the villages are united by the same vernacular architecture – and generous quantities of cosy pubs, tea shops and art galleries – each has its own character.
Weobley (pronounced Webbley) has good restaurant options (and is where King Charles I spent a night during the Civil War), and Pembridge (my favourite) has an architecturally interesting church with a separate, pagoda-style belfry. It also boasts the 700-year-old New Inn, which has been run by two sisters for nearly 40 years and serves up whopping plates of fortifying pub grub, local ales and the county’s quintessential drink: cider.
Cider has been produced in Herefordshire since medieval times. Most farms produced their own cider and labourers were known to drink six pints of ‘small’ (watered-down) cider a day. A recent revival in cider making has seen small cider presses spring up once again. Most of these offer tours and tastings, and some have shops and cafés. Visiting each in turn has made me appreciate the diversity and deliciousness of this drink (and its sister drink, perry, made from pears).
It is also a good way to get to the agricultural heart of the county. Westons in Much Marcle is the best-known cider mill and one of several orchards involved in the Big Apple festival held every October. It also offers tours of its orchard and has a shop and restaurant. Also worth a visit are Little Pomona near Bromyard, Gregg’s Pitt in Much Marcle, and Newton Court near Leominster, which has a café and farm shop and runs cider tours.
This is an extract, read the full feature in our February/March 2024 issue of Discover Britain, available to buy from 5 January here.