The Bright Lights Of Led­bury

The People's Friend - - Bits & Pieces -

GREET­INGS of the sea­son, young sire!” a voice calls out. I turn to see two im­pos­si­bly long legs in front of me – one red, the other black.

Look­ing up, I spot the beam­ing face of a stilt­walk­ing woman dressed as a Tu­dor jester.

“Merry Christ­mas!” I re­ply, with a crick in my neck.

“Come and en­joy our Tu­dor Fes­tive Fair,” she of­fers, ex­tend­ing her long arm.

Are those red Christ­mas tree baubles hang­ing from her sleeve, I won­der?

Ahead of me is a se­ries of gift stalls, bustling with vis­i­tors.

Some stall­hold­ers are sen­si­bly dressed in thick Tu­dor cos­tumes, per­fect for keep­ing to­day’s win­ter chill at bay. The tempt­ing aroma of a hog roast floats by, and it makes my stom­ach rum­ble.

They know how to do things dif­fer­ently in Led­bury.

This tra­di­tional mar­ket town in Here­ford­shire is packed with black and white tim­ber-framed build­ings and in­de­pen­dent shops, all full of fes­tive cheer.

It’s the per­fect place to come and do some Christ­mas shop­ping if you’re fed up with large, bland, crowded city cen­tre shop­ping malls, or if you hate star­ing at shop­ping web­sites.

Sud­denly a cho­rus of voices sings out the open­ing line to “The Twelve Days Of Christ­mas”, and a crowd of us gather round to join in. It’s much bet­ter than the usual fes­tive muzak so of­ten played at this time of year!

All this singing and toe-tap­ping keeps me warm, but it’s not get­ting my Christ­mas shop­ping done.

I break away and head up to the main road through town.

I’m greeted by a huge, tim­ber-framed build­ing called Led­bury Park. One of 173 listed build­ings in the town, Led­bury Park – pre­vi­ously named New House – was built by Ed­ward Skin­ner in 1595.

The build­ing was con­sid­ered so grand that

Prince Ru­pert made it his head­quar­ters dur­ing the Civil War Bat­tle of Led­bury, where he de­feated the Round­heads.

Thank­fully every­one is more than wel­com­ing of my in­va­sion to­day, and the sight of white twinkly lights stretch­ing right through the town is stun­ning.

Some towns suit bright, colour­ful, larger-than-life fes­tive dis­plays, but Led­bury’s Christ­mas lights are sim­ple and so­phis­ti­cated.

The plain white lights em­pha­sise the town’s won­der­fully var­ied ar­chi­tec­ture, and its many black and white build­ings.

It’s this sim­ple but ef­fec­tive dis­play that led to one na­tional news­pa­per pro­claim­ing Led­bury as “one of the ten best Christ­mas shop­ping des­ti­na­tions in the UK”.

The Christ­mas lights run along the roof of the fa­mous almshouses, which were built around 1822. These stone struc­tures re­placed the tim­ber-framed ver­sions orig­i­nally built to as­sist the poor seek­ing help from the neigh­bour­ing St Kather­ine’s Hospi­tal.

The hospi­tal com­plex it­self is a fas­ci­nat­ing place. It’s one of the UK’S few re­main­ing Mid­dle Ages hospi­tal sites still ex­ist­ing in its en­tirety – al­though I’m not sure how many of those sites ever had car parks within their perime­ter walls!

In the Mid­dle Ages, hospi­tals were not how we think of them to­day. In­stead, they were usu­ally col­lec­tions of ser­vices – like a church, a hos­tel and a soup kitchen. Led­bury’s hospi­tal was first es­tab­lished by the Bishop of Here­ford, Hugh Fo­liot, in 1231, to look after the spir­i­tual and ma­te­rial well­be­ing of the poor. The word alms means to of­fer food, shel­ter and care – hence the word “almshouses”.

Next door is St Kather­ine’s Hall and Chapel, which is where the mas­ter of the hospi­tal and the brethren – the peo­ple who looked after the poor and needy – orig­i­nally lived, worked and prayed.

In­stead of find­ing rows of beds when I push open the heavy wooden door, I’m greeted by rows of ta­bles and craft stalls.

It’s the Led­bury Christ­mas Craft Fair.

There’s ev­ery­thing from jew­ellery and purses to hand-made hats, scarves, Christ­mas wreaths and or­na­ments.

It’s not long be­fore I’m buy­ing my first few Christ­mas presents. I won’t tell you what they are, just in case the re­cip­i­ents hap­pen to be read­ing this!

Back out­side, Led­bury’s best-known build­ing catches my eye, ac­cen­tu­ated by more white lights sur­round­ing its up­per storey.

The Mar­ket House is a clas­sic build­ing, stand­ing on 16 solid oak stilts. It was built be­tween 1617 and 1655 by John Abel, who was ap­pointed King’s car­pen­ter by Charles I.

The house lives up to its name, and I find a cou­ple of mar­ket stalls un­der­neath – a florist and a fruit and veg stall. I pick up a cou­ple of or­anges for some Christ­mas stock­ings!

Some stairs take me up to an en­closed room, which it­self has a fes­tive con­nec­tion.

An old deed dic­tated that the rent re­ceived from this room should be used to pur­chase 12 coats or gowns for the poor­est of Led­bury. These had to be de­liv­ered to the lo­cal rec­tor and church­war­dens ev­ery Christ­mas for distri­bu­tion.

There’s a plethora of hand-crafted items and in­spi­ra­tional Christ­mas gifts in the room now, all made by mem­bers of the Here­ford­shire Guild of Crafts­men.

One ta­ble dis­plays rows of tiny hand-made and hand-painted ce­ramic houses. It looks like a model vil­lage.

An­other dis­plays a for­est of wooden fret­work sculp­tures, in­clud­ing ap­ples and pears – pop­u­lar fruits in Here­ford­shire – and some Christ­mas-shaped conif­er­ous trees.

A tree sun-catcher takes my fancy; some­thing to hang in the win­dow when I get home. I place it in my shop­ping bas­ket. Who says I can’t buy my­self a lit­tle Christ­mas present?

See­ing the thick wooden beams in the walls and the ceil­ing of the Mar­ket House – as well as sur­round­ing the win­dows – makes me ap­pre­ci­ate the weight those 16 stilts are sup­port­ing. The trunk of an oak tree is as hard as iron, of course, so per­haps it’s un­sur­pris­ing that this build­ing has stood here for 400 years!

Back in 2006, how­ever, a struc­tural sur­vey re­vealed the bases of those strong stilts were rot­ting.

In or­der to save the build­ing, the de­te­ri­o­rat­ing wood needed to be re­moved – some­thing they did by rais­ing the whole thing 23 inches off the ground, scoop­ing out the rot­ten parts and re­plac­ing them. Only then could they lower it back down again. A se­ri­ous feat of en­gi­neer­ing!

With all my new pur­chases safely wrapped up, I make my way back down the steps.

There are so many in­de­pen­dent shops in Led­bury, it’s like ex­pe­ri­enc­ing the Christ­mas shop­ping of yes­ter­year. The book­shops are packed with fes­tive-themed dis­plays, and there’s even a good old-fash­ioned sweet shop selling favourites in tra­di­tional jars.

Child­hood Christ­mas mem­o­ries come flood­ing back when I see fa­mil­iar names – liquorice tor­pe­does, Pon­te­fract cakes, Ev­er­ton mints and Turk­ish de­light!

Next door, the lo­cal del­i­catessen has Here­ford­shire cider, tra­di­tional mulled wine, lo­cally pro­duced short­bread and even some Christ­mas chut­ney.

A cer­tain male rel­a­tive likes his cider, and what bet­ter place to get some? Over half the cider pro­duced in the UK comes from this county.

I stum­ble across a nar­row cob­bled street ooz­ing with fes­tive at­mos­phere.

As dusk be­gins to fall, the lights from the bay win­dows of the wooden build­ings spill out into the street. Even the spire of St Michael and All An­gels Church is lit in a cosy fes­tive glow.

Led­bury’s Church Lane fre­quently ap­pears in Bri­tain’s “top ten pret­ti­est street” lists. It surely has to take the num­ber one slot at this time of year, be­cause there’s a real Dick­en­sian feel to the place.

The build­ings seem to lean closer to one an­other, as if hud­dling to keep warm, and the win­dow dis­plays are packed with so many won­der­ful things I want to press my nose against the glass, like I did as a child.

Out­side the mag­i­cal Dragon­fly Stu­dio, a mother holds up a lit­tle girl so she can peer in­side.

The girl’s eyes widen at the sight of the Christ­mas fairies, fairy dust, neck­laces and ear­rings. I think Fa­ther Christ­mas is watch­ing!

Fur­ther up is Butcher Row House, home to a fas­ci­nat­ing mu­seum run by the Led­bury and District Civic So­ci­ety.

In 1830, lo­cal by­laws ended the slaugh­ter­ing of pigs in the street, mean­ing that most of the high street booths where the butch­ers traded were de­stroyed.

But this one was moved to a back yard in the High Street, and then moved again, 149 years later, to this lo­ca­tion, to be­come a mu­seum.

There can’t be that many build­ings that have stood in three dif­fer­ent places!

One build­ing that has been in place for cen­turies is the mag­nif­i­cent Church of St Michael and All An­gels.

The build­ing that ex­ists to­day dates from the 15th cen­tury, al­though records sug­gest a church build­ing has been here since the eighth cen­tury.

“Are you com­ing to the carol con­cert, sire?” The stilt-walk­ing jester strides past me to­wards the main door. “It’ll get you in the Christ­mas spirit.”

I smile and nod. Led­bury’s al­ready got me in the Christ­mas spirit.

But what bet­ter way to fin­ish off my fes­tive foray around this lovely mar­ket town than by singing car­ols? Merry Christ­mas! ■

Led­bury Park on the cor­ner of the Southend and Worces­ter Road.

Christ­mas stalls in­side St Kather­ine’s Chapel.

Holly wreaths for sale in New Street, Led­bury.

Carol singers out­side the Tal­bot Ho­tel, New Street.

Pot­tery houses for sale in the Here­ford­shire Guild of Crafts fair in­side the Mar­ket House.

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