Herefordshire is without doubt the archetype of rural England. When foreign visitors describe the rural idyll that is rural England, they are describing the gentle hills, wild woodland, winding lanes and quiet villages of Herefordshire. This county has a rich history and is fortunately one of the unspoilt corners of Britain, and is full of hidden surprises. Many of the walks will offer the intrepid walker the opportunity to unlock some of the splendid secrets of Herefordshire.
Such beautiful landscape is in danger due to competing demands on that scarce commodity in the British Isles, land. Like the pressures for change on the landscape, another major component of our British Heritage the pub -is under threat. In Herefordshire, in particular, isolated Inns are often lost forever as holiday homes. Other pubs, forced to make ends meet, take the short-sighted option of throwing five centuries of tradition into a skip to be replaced by bland quasi-restaurants.
Between the high border ridges of Wales and those majestic Malvems lies the beautiful and ancient county of Herefordshire”. For this oval shaped county, drained principally by the Lugg, Wye and Monnow, offers a variety of landscapes to suit the walker. From the wild windswept commons of Merbach or Garway hill, to the gentle valley bottoms of the Frome and Lugg, it is as unspoilt as the guide books suggest. Only one countryside spot comes to mind where visitors do seem to be thick on the ground Symond’s Yat, on the Wye between Ross and Monmouth. Even here, walk a mile from the Yat and the place is yours. Go elsewhere and the county is empty. Walk on any day except Sunday and you will hardly meet a soul. Apart from the town centres and country parks it is quiet for, regardless of recent trends, many rural Herefordians still live mainly by the land.
The walks recommended vary from short walks (two to four miles) ideal for an afternoon or evening saunter, to longer rambles for those who enjoy being out for the best part of the day. They are spread geographically throughout the county but the reader will notice that in some instances they are clustered together. If camping near The Black Mountains at The Bridge Inn, Michaelchurch Escley, for example, there are three or four walks that can be accomplished without travelling long distances.
What makes Herefordshire so interesting for the walker?
In short, the views, for Herefordshire is surrounded by upland masses. In the west there are The Black Mountains, Radnor and Clun Forests. In the east lie the pre-Cambrian rocks of the Malvem hills, and a range of foothills running north to Abberley. In the north, Mortimei’s Forest and the Clee Hills come to mind; in the south, the Forest of Dean.
The lowlands of Herefordshire do not appear to be so appealing perhaps. Be re-assured as this gently undulating countryside is broken by lower but nevertheless still impressive ranges such as Dinmore, Wormsley, Merbach and Woolhope, the latter being dome shaped and of considerable interest to geologists. The walks from Mordiford and Woolhope provide a superb introduction to the Woolhope Dome. The county must also have one of the highest number of streams and rivers for such an area. The water and woodland add so much character to the walks particularly in the Llangrove or Clehonger walks.
For the most part the soils of Herefordshire are red. The bed’rock is Old Red sandstone and there have been several periods of glaciation where loams and rich layers have been deposited by melting waters. This has ensured that Herefordshire is a very fertile growing area, in evidence on most of the walks but more so on the Staunton on Wye, Mathon or Bishops Frome walks. In the north west of the county the rock structure, is very different: a series of limestones and shales dating from the Silurian period and the resultant scenery features scarp (edge) and dip (gentler) slopes as on the Wigmore to Lingen walk where buzzards and even the rarer Merlin can be seen. Woolhope also features predominantly limestone rock outcrops often containing fossils embedded for thousands of years in these sedimentary strata.
Roman occupation at Kenchester and Leintwardine, linked by the Roman road between Deva (Chester) and Caerleon remind us of the relentless drive to push the Celts west. After the Romans, the story is one of gradual domination during the centuries by the Anglo Saxons and the establishment of kingdoms such as Mercia led to a clearer settlement of territories. Offa’s Dyke, a magnificent survival, was one such boundary which straddled the Powys-Mercia border and is featured in the Kington to Lyonshall walk.
It is the period before and after the Norman invasion, however, which is so well represented in Herefordshire. Edward the Confessor began to encourage the building of local castles using stone (rather than wood) before the Norman invasion and Richard’s Castle, built for Richard Fitz Scrob (hardly a Herefordshire name), is a good example. Such castles were built for penetrating nearby Wales, if necessary, and the pattern was intensified after the conquest by William the Conqueror. The lands were split between powerful lords, particularly the Fitz Osbornes and Mortimers. The latter family became increasingly influential, ruling much of the Marches (derivation from Mercia) as the area became known, from Wigmore castle. The county is littered with motte and bailey castles dating from this time. Some remain impressive such as Goodrich, others such as Dorstone and Almeley survive only as mounds. War broke out intermittently between these Marcher lords and those who championed Wales as a separate nation, especially the much revered Owain GlyndOvr who was responsible for the slaughter of many Herefordshire armies.
Mills were established on fast flowing streams not only for grinding corn and fodder but for paper and wool. These remained small scale and did not lead to the growth of factory towns as in the North West or Yorkshire. No mining of significance has occurred and even the railways remained on a rural scale. No major direct rail route was forged across the mountains to Wales from the Midlands. Instead, little branch lines were established to such unlikely places as Presteigne and Bromyard. Nor did the canal system stimulate large scale growth as elsewhere. Thus, the county has remained principally agricultural. Even today, two of the county’s major employers, Bulmers Cider Company (the largest cider plant in the world) and Sun Valley Poultry are based on processing agricultural produce and others are involved in fruit production in other parts of the county.
Hereford is also famous for Hereford cattle and the Hereford bull is exported throughout the world, the further the better many ramblers would say. The Ryeland sheep is also well known but ‘is not reared extensively. The importance of Hereford and the outlying towns as market places cannot be overestimated and they still retain strong market towns identities. Hereford, while being a cathedral city and major tourist destination, is still first and foremost a place to exchange and buy goods. A visit to the Cattle or Butter market will illustrate this more than words on a page. The county towns of Bromyard, Kington, Ledbury and Leominster still have a special atmosphere. They are quieter, change has been slower, traffic less dominant and tend to feel more welcoming places. Ross-on-Wye is not like the others. It is a more established resort and although the stalls around the ancient market hall and small shops are attractive, the narrow pavements tend to be busier and there is not such a relaxed atmosphere as elsewhere. Don’t let this put you off visiting for Ross sits on a site of natural beauty above the banks of the Wye.
Thus, the major changes in the county which have affected the landscape and the culture have come more recently, such as changed farming practices. While less dramatic than in other parts of the country, there has been a grabbing of hedges, and an increase in chicken rearing in large scale buildings which are supplied by equally large lorries winding down back roads. There has been increased application ordes and fertilisers on the land and mechanised harvesting of crops. These farming methods are bringing about a rapid change to the landscape in some parts of the county, and this concerns those seeking to conserve wildlife habitats.
It is, however, the villages and hamlets that make walking in Herefordshire such a pleasure. Many have retained a historic charm without becoming genteel. The timber and half timber framed houses in many of the settlements (sometimes called ’Black and White’) and a distinctive grouping of buildings around parish churches and village greens make them attractive to the eye. Equally important is the farmyard and home orchard, the post office, pub and local school. Unfortunately, in some parts of the county these are gone. No longer are there pubs at Broad Oak, St. Margaret’s or Dulas (what a pub it was!), post offices at Bacton or Bredwardine nor many surviving blacksmiths.
For those who fancy a weekend away from it all, Country Village Weekend Breaks, pioneered by David Gorvett of Eardisley in the mid to late 1980’s is an ideal introduction to Herefordshire staying with local people in villages such as Brilley, Eardisley, Lyonshall or Pembridge. Pick up a leaflet from a local tourist information office for details. David has since pioneered The Black and White Trail, introducing visitors to the distinctive half-timbered and timbered villages of western Herefordshire between Leominster and Kington. He has also established a walking trail between the same villages, details of which are also available at local tourist information centres.
Good walking is also about enjoying the local culture and the county of Herefordshire has for centuries been associated with hops and cider. Cider is the beverage well known to Herefordshire and cider apple orchards can still be found throughout the county. Older orchards of standard size trees are, however, becoming rarer. A perry or cider tree may be at its best after seventy years or so growth and some orchards are estimated to be 200-300 years old. Nowadays, most cider producers prefer the faster growing smaller bush varieties with a higher yield per acre and allowing easier picking. Fortunately, a handful of farmers and producers have in recent years planted some of the older varieties and this is gratifying as the old orchard may no longer be a feature of the landscape in the next century.
Many farmers retain an orchard for their own production and towards the back end of the year the crop is harvested and a cider made for family and friends. It is not uncommon to be walking in October or November and come across picking in the orchards either in the traditional way or by something which looks akin to a mini road sweeper.
Real cider is still in production, i.e. cider that is made from crushed cider apples which is then pressed and fermented using few or no additives before being bottled or casked. In contrast, most ciders bought in the supermarkets or your local pub have been filtered, pasteurised or pressurised with carbon dioxide. The larger companies such as Bulmers (market leader) and Westons (fourth largest producer), however, make real cider too. This can be found in some pubs dispensed either by handpump or by pouring from a polypin at the back of the bar! Try it, for the drink is refreshing, with a very fruity taste rather than being sweet and fizzy. Be sure to enquire from the bar staff first as many of the fizzy ciders are branded with the words ’original’ or ’traditional’.
Real Perry, a drink produced in much the same way as cider but with perry pears, is a rarity in pubs. There are carbonated bottled varieties but the best perry is produced by companies such as Dunkertons, at Lundey hear Pembridge. The Dunkertons have engendered a great interest in traditional ciders and perry. Make a journey to their shop on the premises or to off licences throughout the county to sample their quality products. Be prepared to be disappointed though for perry production has been brought back from the verge of extinction in these parts. There are very few traditional perry orchards left and even though the Dunkertons have begun to plant more trees supply is limited. Westons of Much Marde also produce a pleasant draught perry.
Farmhouse cider is also produced and sold locally and what better way of sampling than to try a drop after a walk. Do be careful as too much can render the rambler temporarily legless for farmhouse cider gets to the parts that most lagers will never reach! Two such producers are featured in the Richard’s Castle (Forge) and Peterstow (Broom) walks. There other producers throughout the county such as Dinmore Farm, Franklins at Little Hereford, Pullens at Ridgeway Cross, Knights at Stonidge, Lyne Down at Much Marcle and Great Oak near Almeley. You’ll find them selling cider to customers at their premises along with fruit, eggs, honey and home made ice cream in some instances. Some of the producers have joined an organisation, Herefordshire Hamper, which aims to produce and promote good quality produce in the county, everything from cultivated snails to dairy produce or smoked fish and fowl.
Unlike cider the brewing of beer has not been important in Hereford‘ shire. The growing of hops, on the other hand, has and hop yards can still be seen in the eastern side of the county between Bromyard and Ledbury. The train journey between Hereford and Ledbury offers the best view of the hop yards and surrounding farms. Many still have 01d oast houses with pointed ventilation cowls where hops have been traditionally dried before being bagged in distinctive hop sacks. The fuggle hop is still used by some brewers in making traditional beers and thus has secured a future for a smaller number of hop growing farmers.
During the past two decades the county has been dominated by one brewing giant, Whitbread. This company has been criticised for buying up smaller brewing concerns, closing their breweries and selling off less profitable public houses especially in rural areas. One of the main critics has been The Campaign For Real Ale (CAMRA) which has been fighting for choice of real beers in pubs which are still as characterful as their local communities.
In recent years, the situation has improved dramatically in Herefordshire for many public houses released by Whitbread have become free of brewery tie and sell a range of real beers from several breweries. Thus, it is possible to buy a pint of Brains, Hook Norton, Smiles and Wood in Herefordshire nowadays where little was previously available.
The second encouraging development has been the success of The Wye Valley brewery in St. Owen Street, Hereford which sells good tasting beers at the brewery tap, The Barrels (formerly The Lamb), and in the free trade. The area around St. Owen Street is fast becoming a mecca for traditional brews. Next door to The Barrels is a lovely old pub, The Sun, where real cider is dispensed from wooden casks on the bar and pale ale drawn from the deepest cellar in Hereford. You are guaranteed a frosty pint in mid winter and cool glass when it is scorching outside! A few steps along, opposite the fire station is The Jolly Roger (formerly a Whitbread pub, The Bricklayers), something of a theme pub, but selling beers brewed on the premises and also real cider.
Walking and pubs go very much together and fortunately there are dozens of good country pubs to choose from in Herefordshire. You may be seeking pubs not changed much this century such as The Hop Pole at Risbury, The Carpenters at Walterstone or Cupid’s Hill Inn just across the border on the road to Grosmont. Alternatively, you may seek more food-based pubs such as The Angel at Kingsland or the New Inn at St. Owens Cross. Most have retained a charm and provide a warm welcome.
Most of the pubs included in this guide serve real ale and many offer a traditional cider. Remember that most pubs survive by selling food as well as drinks so publicans generally do not allow you to consume your own food on the premises. Children, (well behaved ones), are almost always welcome at lunchtimes and early evenings and there are often seats outside.