Next to the Malvern Hills on the east side of Herefordshire, Ledbury is a lovable market town with lots of black and white timber-framed houses.
This is an ancient borough that was mentioned in the Domesday Book of 1086, and founded as long ago as the 7th century.
Your first port of call has to be the cobblestone Church Lane, where a handful of the historic buildings are open as museums, one with a set of Elizabethan frescoes on its first floor.
Ledbury has healthy independent shops, pubs and tea rooms, and in July puts on the UK’s top poetry festival.
To the east are the Malverns, renowned for their springs, far-off views and the composer Sir Edward Elgar.
1. Church Lane
Impossibly cute, Church Lane is a cobblestone alley from the Medieval Church of St Michael and All Angels to the famous Market House.
It weaves through a ravine of timber-framed houses, some hanging almost precariously over the alley.
Many of Ledbury’s main attractions are in these Tudor and late-Medieval houses, like the Heritage Centre, Butcher’s Row House Museum and the must-see 16th-Century Painted Room.
One building not open to the public but sure to stop you in your tracks is the Church House at the upper end.
Dating to 1600, this has projecting first and second floors, and the three mullioned windows on the first floor have survived since the start of the 17th century.
At the lower end you can drop by the quaintly named Mrs Muffin’s Tea Shop or the little Prince of Wales Pub.
2. Market House
Ledbury’s postcard landmark is the timber-framed Market House on the High Street.
Begun in 1617, this oak building has an open market place underneath and an upper storey raised on 16 wooden posts.
While the upper floor of market buildings like this were normally used for official purposes as council chambers, Ledbury’s Market House stored corn, hops, wool and acorns for the tanning trade.
On Tuesdays and Saturdays the evocative space under Market House is still used for its intended purpose, and packed with stalls trading fresh produce, arts and crafts and hardware.
3. 16th-Century Painted Room
At the bottom end of Church Lane is one of the oldest timber-framed buildings in Ledbury.
Dating from the 1400s, this historic building contains town council offices, and went through a big restoration starting in 1988. In the course of this work, layers of wallpaper were stripped away in one of the upstairs rooms, revealing wonderful frescoes from the 1560s or 1570s.
These were preserved with the help of English Heritage and are considered the best examples of Elizabethan wall paintings in the country.
The frescoes have patterns taken from Tudor knot gardens and are imitations of the wall hangings and tapestries that would be found in the wealthiest homes of the period.
You can go in to take a look for free, from April to the end of October.
4. Butchers Row House Museum
On the High Street there was a little butchers’ district set on 15 burgage plots (a Medieval town rental property). One cute, timber-framed survivor from this period houses the free Butchers Row Museum.
This building was removed from the High Street in the 19th century, but was kept intact and moved to its current spot on Church Lane in 1979. The house is small, but has an absorbing display of Victorian knick knacks, as well as reproductions of Civil War-era breastplates and helmets worn at the Battle of Ledbury in 1645, and a variety of musical instruments including a Tibetan pipe hewn from a thigh bone and a hurdy-gurdy.
5. Eastnor Castle
A couple of miles into the Malverns is a marvellous example of a Georgian Gothic Revival castle.
On an estate going back to the 1500s, the lakeside Eastnor Castle was built from 1812 to 1820 with bold towers and machicolations reminiscent of the Medieval strongholds on the Welsh border.
The Cocks family who founded the estate continue to live at Eastnor Castle, but the property opens to the public between Easter and the last Sunday in September, generally on Sundays, but also on all weekdays except Friday in the summer holidays.
A tour of the castle is a must, to admire the opulent state rooms (Great Hall, State Dining Room, Gothic Drawing Room, Octagon Saloon and bedrooms), all rich with tapestries, fine art and Medieval armour.
You can stroll around the grounds, through an arboretum with a superb collection of cedars, and around the Castle Lake.
For smaller visitors there’s the yew Knight’s Maze, rope-swings, an adventure playground and junior assault course.
6. Heritage Centre
It’s only right that Ledbury’s local history museum should be housed in half-timbered Medieval building, this one with a corbelled upper floor projecting out over the cobblestone of Church Lane.
The Heritage Centre was built around 1480 as a grammar school for boys.
What is thrilling is that some of the pupils carved their name’s into the schools timbers.
The exhibitions here tackle Ledbury’s past from a few angles with photographs, text and artefacts.
You can learn about the impact of the Herefordshire and Gloucestershire Canal, and then the Ledbury and Gloucester Railway, and discover the works of two famous local poets, Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806-1861) and John Masefield (1878-1967). A glass panel allows you to peer into the building’s foundations, and you can also take a look up the chimney stack, dating back more than 500 years.
7. Church of St Michael and All Angels
Praised by Historic England as one of the finest churches in Herefordshire, the Church of St Michael and All Angels dates mostly from the 1100s to the 1300s.
The west door with a round arch is 12th-century Norman, as are the bases of the four large pillars at the west end of the north arcade in the nave.
The fine windows on the north aisle are 13th century while the north chapel dates from 1320 and has intricate windows from the transition between Decorated Gothic and Perpendicular Gothic.
The church is particularly valued for its Medieval monuments, which are in a wonderful state of preservation, including a 13th-century effigy of a Benedictine monk in the north chapel, the canopied Renaissance monument to Edward and Elizabeth Skynner from 1630, and a stunning altar tomb for a 14th-century female member of the Carew family.
This has a finely sculpted dress that seems to be draped over the edge of the tomb.
8. Hellens Manor
In Much Marcle, a simple drive on the A449, Hellens Manor is an exceptionally old residence.
The building is a blend of Tudor, Jacobean and Georgian architecture, but with foundations from the 1100s and elements going back even further.
Hellens remains a family home rather than a museum and is replete with period decoration, furnishings, art and curiosities.
You can visit on a guided tour on Wednesdays, Sundays and Bank Holidays, during which you’ll view objects linked to historical figures like Anne Boleyn, Mary Tudor, Elizabeth I and Charles I.
One unnerving detail is Hetty Walwyn’s Room, where a young woman was confined until her death following a failed elopement in the 18th century.
A window is inscribed with the message, “It is a part of virtue to abstain from what we love if it will prove our bane”. The gardens are a treat for their Tudor-style formal knot garden, a yew labyrinth, octagonal dovecote from the 1600s and a historic medicinal (physic) garden.
9. Ledbury Park house, The Southend
One of the finest timber-framed houses in England awaits at the top of the High Street on the corner of the Worcester Road.
Simply Ledbury Park, this Tudor house is from 1600, with a top floor and north range that went up in the following decades.
On the splendid west front facing The Southend are five triangular gables, with corbels in their valleys, while you can make out the difference between the older mullioned windows on the ground floor and the newer sash windows on the level above.
Then head down Worcester Road, to check out the oriel capped with an octagonal turret under a lead clad ogee dome.
10. St Bartholomew’s Church, Much Marcle
Antiquarians could plan an edifying excursion to this 13th-century church near Hellens in Much Marcle.
St Bartholomew’s was built over 200 years from the 1200s to the 1400s, and is crested by a 15th-century embattled tower.
One of the first things to check out is the hollow yew tree in churchyard, believed to be around 1,500 years old.
In the church take a close look at the 13th-century circular pillars in the nave, which have capitals carved with heads and foliage.
In the south wall of the south aisle there’s a 13th-century piscina, with three Early English pointed arches.
The baptismal font is 13th-century, while in the north arcade is an oak effigy of a bearded man from the 14th century.
Finally, the north chapel boasts two chest tombs with effigies, one from 1400 and another for a Sir John Kyrle (d. 1650).
11. The Master’s House
Last restored from 2011 to 2015, the Master’s House belonged to the man in charge of Ledbury’s St Katherine’s Hospital, one of the few Medieval hospital sites still intact in the UK.
In the old sense, St Katherine’s (founded 1231) was a hostel, almshouse, church and place for pilgrims, the poor and sick to get a meal.
In the 1400s the hospital’s master moved out of the dormitory and built himself a separate residence.
This was later wrapped in Georgian brick facade but the timber interior is original and most impressive in the Great Hall.
The main site of the hospital, St Katherine’s Hall, is used as a community venue, while St Katherine’s Chapel continues to host services every Sunday.
The Friends of the Master’s House group, which raised funds for the restoration, holds regular public tours of this building, normally around the start of the month.
12. Herefordshire Beacon
If you’re a keen walker it will be hard to resist the lure of the Malverns to the east.
Little more than five minutes into the range from Ledbury is the curious ridged outline of Herefordshire Beacon, moulded into the British Camp hillfort in the Iron Age and later the site of a Norman castle.
British Camp is from the 2nd century BC and has rings of ramparts down the hillside with a perimeter of 2,100 metres and developed across four construction phases.
Another imprint has been left in the landscape by the Shire Ditch.
Running north to south, 100 metres east of Herefordshire Beacon’s summit, is a dike and ditch built in 1287 by the Earl of Gloucester after a boundary dispute with the Bishop of Hereford.
13. Midsummer Hill
Also close by on the southern end of the Malvern Hills is the 284-metre Midsummer Hill, capped with an unusual Iron Age hillfort, occupied from the 4th century BC to its violent destruction by the Romans some 300 years later.
Midsummer Hill Camp, as it’s known, stands out as its ramparts encircle two hilltops, here, atop the neighbouring Hollybush Hill and down into the valley between them.
The spring in the valley most likely held great spiritual value for the hill fort’s 1,500 or so inhabitants.
There’s lush woodland on Midsummer Hill, with elder, yew, oak, sycamore, ash and hawthorn, bright with bluebells in spring and home to green woodpeckers, redstarts and whitethroats.
14. Newbridge Farm Park
Open in summer this family-friendly farm park grows with each new year.
There’s enough to do at Newbridge Farm Park to fill a whole afternoon, meeting llamas, pigs, ponies, sheep and goats (including lambs and goats), handling creepy crawlies and petting chinchillas, guinea pigs rabbits and tortoises.
There’s lots of indoor space to cope with the unpredictable British weather, like the petting barn and another barn with a swing and hay bales.
On a typical day little ones can take part in activities like collecting eggs, bumpy tractor rides and feeding all sorts of animals from pigs to llamas, ducks, goats and sheep.
There’s lots of green space for picnics, and you can buy hot drinks, treats and light meals made on the premises.
15. Ledbury Poetry Festival
As the home of Elizabeth Barrett Browning and birthplace of John Masefield, Ledbury has real ties to the poetry world, and is an apt place for a poetry festival, inaugurated in 1997. This has since bloomed into the UK’s premier dedicated poetry event, in its time welcoming English-language poets like Helen Dunmore, Wendy Cope, James Fenton, Billy Collins, Benjamin Zephaniah and Mark Doty, as well as overseas performers such as Gozo Yoshimasu from Japan and India’s Arundhathi Subramaniam.
The festival takes place over ten days in July, and on the programme are plenty of recitals, as well as live music, open mics, workshops of all descriptions, exhibitions, street performers, a poetry slam and lot of things for littler poets to get up to.