The Bright Lights Of Ledbury
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.