A short hop into ‘Big Apple Country’…

15 10 2011

Outings in & around ‘the Shire’ (2) ‘Secret Herefordshire’

Chris had set the ball rolling with an amazing display of Michaelmas daisies and a tea room, with a view, frequented by Elgar (see ‘Whoops a Daisy!’ post – 04.10.11)

It was going to be difficult for me to orchestrate an outing that could match that.

But after a short while browsing the Internet the decision was made. I quickly settled on a day exploring the Herefordshire Cider Route (www.ciderroute.co.uk).

So it was that we left ‘the Shire’ – county of the Black Pear – and after a short drive across the Malvern Hills divide descended into ‘Big Apple Country’ – Herefordshire.

Herefordshire was first dubbed ‘the County of Orchards’ by a local Hereford MP, CW Radcliffe Cooke, in an 1895 House of Commons debate.

This year, 2011, the county is celebrating its orchard heritage (www.yearintheorchard.com) two hundred years after eminent local horticulturist, Thomas Andrew Knight, published the first scientific based, colour illustrated Pomona, or book of the apple, the ‘Pomona Herefordiensis’ – core!     

There are two circular Herefordshire cider routes, both 20 miles long, ideal for cyclists although we took the less strenuous option of driving.

Route 1, the Ledbury circuit, is closest to home and takes in a number of villages with which we were already quite familiar.

These include Dymock, famed for its daffodils (see post ‘Musings on the Daffodil Way & Stinking Bishop’ – 23.03.11) colony of early 20th century poets and a particularly smelly cheese popularised by dynamic plasticine duo ‘Wallace and Gromit’.

It’s also where I first took flight as a fledgling headteacher, at the local Ann Cam CE Primary School, way back in the autumn of ’89!

Nearby Much Marcle is home to the Westons Cider Company, first established in 1880 by Henry Weston. 130 years later the business, still family run, is exporting worldwide to over 40 countries. It has even reached the trendy nightspots of deepest ‘Bal-ham’ (see ‘Bal-ham Gateway to the South’ post) where Gem, who frequently sips a glass or two at the end of a busy week, claims  its restorative powers immediately transport her back to “my hills” (the Malverns) and  childhood days in ‘the Shire’.     

Much Marcle is now also inextricably linked with serial killer Fred West, who was born there and, whose family still farm locally. Scenes from the recent critically acclaimed ITV drama ‘Appropriate Adult’, starring Dominic West as Fred and Monica Dolan as his wife Rosemary, were filmed on location in and around the local area.    

Chris and I headed, instead, for Route 2 – The Pembridge Circuit, in the north-west of the county, with which we were not remotely familiar. Here the cider route also touches on the Herefordshire Black and White Village Trail.   

Many that have happily ‘discovered’ the gently undulating Herefordshire countryside describe it as something of a secret treasure. I have no difficulty in going along with that.

Virtually empty, winding country lanes (at this time of year anyway) added to the pleasure. Rounding yet another bend we suddenly found ourselves face to face with the grill plate of a vintage Rolls Royce, emerging from a tapestry of early autumnal colours. As the ‘Phantom’ swept by – a spirit of ecstasy – it was for all the world a scene straight from Kazuo Ishiguro’s ‘Remains of the Day’    

As well as big apples (actually cider apples tend to be rather small); Herefordshire is clearly also a county for big cheeses!

Talking of which, not far from Pembridge we took a short detour along the A44 to Monkland Dairy, home of ‘Mousetrap’ – makers and purveyors of fine cheese.

All the cheeses are handmade and if your visit is on a Monday or Wednesday (low season) the cheesemaker can be seen in action. We happened along on a Tuesday and had to make do with sneaking a view of the cheese press through a dairy window.

Our primary reason for calling was to take morning coffee in the award-winning café/dairy shop where we found a good selection of local beers, wines, ciders, biscuits, cakes and, not surprisingly cheese, on sale. One of the house specialities is a spicy homemade apple cake with Monkland cheese, which I would highly recomend.  

Just a short hop (hops are also traditionally associated with  Herefordshire ) from medieval Pembridge, ‘jewel in the crown of north Herefordshire’s Black & White Village Trail’, is Dunkertons Cider Mill – take a right turn after Luntley Dovecote…     

It seems Herefordshire is also county of dovecotes. This photogenic timber-framed example is a grade 2 listed building dating from 1673 and it was well worth pulling over for closer inspection.      

On our arrival,  at Dunkertons the pulping process was in full swing. An Indian Summer has led to an early harvest and  cider makers are hard pressed to get through ever mounting piles of Breakwells Seedling, Yarlington Mill, Brown Snout and Sweet Coppin – ‘all with varying degrees of acids and tannins’ – before they decay beyond usefulness.

The staff we met were extremely pleasant and chief cider maker Robert West, who beneath his drovers hat has more than a hint of River Cottage’s Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall about him, paused from his work to open the small mill shop. After a little bit of tasting and deliberation we settled on the medium dry sparkling ‘Black Fox’.

We were not disappointed. It made a splendid accompaniment, Breton style, with the galettes we had brought back from France and stashed in the freezer.  A savoury quatre fromages, followed by a sweet, homemade raspberry jam and banana – excellent!

After leaving Dunkertons we completed our circuit, stopping off for a gentle stroll through the tranquil, picture post card villages of Weobley (‘ Webbley’) and Eardisland; both lined with black and white framed properties dating from the 14th century.

In 2008, the former appeared in the ‘Times’ newspaper’s 50 best places to live in Britain and in 2009 the ‘Lady’ magazine voted it one of the top 10 villages.  

Eardisland lies beside the River Arrow and the village shop is housed in the ground floor of an interesting red brick Georgian dovecote. We had a pleasant  and informative chat with the lady who was serving, one of over fifty local community volunteers who sign up for one hour slots in order to keep it going.

There is some evidence that for a short while, during the late 19th century, the the dovecote housed a small local village school. But finally having outlived its usefulness it  fell into disrepair becoming something of a blot on an otherwise idyllic landscape. 

Happily, following a successful ‘Millennium Appeal’ sufficient funds were raised to renovate and restore it to its former glory. The upper storey now houses a quaint museum which includes a nostalgic history of the AA. Yes we are in cider country, but that is the Automobile Association not Alcoholics Anonymous!

Across the road, outside the Cross Inn pub, is what purports to be the oldest existing AA box in Britain, dating back to the 1920s.

Box 321 had originally stood at Legions Cross where the road from Eardisland village meets the A44. Back in the 1950s when boxes of this type were being scrapped, one Harry Gittoes, the local AA man had it transferred to his garden.

It subsequently fell into dilapidated state but surplus moneys left over from the dovecote project were used to renovate, and relocate it in the heart of the village. Local craftsmen carrying out the work liaised with the AA archivist at Basingstoke who was able to provide tins of the original black and yellow paint!      

Heading back towards ‘the Shire’, we took a detour to find the tiny hamlet of Weston Beggard – six miles east of Hereford. Over a thousand years it was recorded in the ‘Domesday Book’as having a population of 18 households and it has hardly grown at all in size or importance since.

Weston Beggard enjoyed a brief  heyday in Victorian times as a centre for the farming and milling of hops. But following the decline of the local brewing industry  the hop fields mostly lie fallow, rows of hop poles a poignant skeletal reminder of its past, and the old oasthouses either derelict or converted into houses.

In 1871 the population was recorded as 296. At the most recent head count it was 189.

Ambling amongst the headstones of the medieval St John the Baptist churchyard we soon discovered what we had come to find. Here lay Chris’s paternal great, great, grandparents and a number of their siblings.

It was only relatively recently, when her Dad began to engage in a bit of ‘who do you think you are?’ research, that Chris became aware of these ancestral links so close to our home in ‘the Shire’. She is now inspired to explore further, this branch of her family tree – aptly enough in the county of the orchard.        









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