England's small market towns can sometimes be as pretty and more engaging than its villages and Ledbury, with its many black-and-white houses, is a beautiful and unspoilt example. Comfortable and quietly prosperous Ledbury was much loved by poets - the Brownings and Wordsworth used to visit the town, while John Masefield (1878-1967) was born there, declaring that Ledbury and its surrounding county had a profound influence on his work.
This charming market town has changed little since Masefield wrote: "pleasant to the sight, fair and half-timbered houses, black-and-white". The ancient October Hiring Fair is still held in the streets, although not now used as a means of hiring men but simply as a fair to enjoy. Also known as the October Hop Fair it reflects centuries of tradition whereby hops and fruit are gathered locally for sale; in addition, the famous red-and-white Hereford cattle have been bred here since the 17 th century. The main street stretches for almost half-a-mile and is lined with numerous quaint black-and-white half-timbered buildings full of character, many dating from the 16 th century when the townspeople who worked with cloth and leather enjoyed an era of prosperity. Included are an old coaching inn, the splendid 16 th century Feathers Hotel and the arcaded 17 th century Market House. The latter stands upon 16 stout chestnut pillars and over the years has served as a corn store, the town hall and a theatre for travelling players - an open market is still held in the sheltered arcade behind the pillars. Some of the houses were re-fronted during the 18 th century when brick became the fashion.
The centre of the town is dominated by the less than appealing Barrett Browning Institute of 1892, built in memory of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Ledbury's poet daughter, whose family lived at nearby Colwall. The 19 th century poet spent her childhood at a Moorish-style house, Hope End, 2-miles north of Ledbury. She described its secluded setting as "...dappled very close with shade, summer-snow of apple-blossom running up from glade to glade". Sitting alongside the Institute are the almshouses of St Katherine's Hospital, first founded in 1232 for wayfarers and the poor; rebuilt in 1822 and 1866, the 14 th century hospital chapel has survived the rigours of time. The medieval chapel is in regular use and the great hall with its timber roof was restored in 1971 for use as a parish hall. The Master's House, separate but nearby, dates from the late 15 th century with 18 th and 19 th century additions; it houses the local Tourist Office.
At the corner of Worcester Road and The Southend is Ledbury Park, built about 1590 by the Biddulph family, it is regarded as ‘the grandest black-and-white house in the county'. Prince Rupert of the Rhine utilised this house as his headquarters when he occupied the town during the Civil War. In April 1645 some of his troops clashed with Roundheads under General Massey in the dining room of the gabled Talbot Hotel. The skirmish spilt out into New Street and a running battle developed, raging through the surrounding streets and churchyard during which Prince Rupert's horse was killed beneath him. The king's men finally drove the Parliamentarians from the town. The Battle of Ledbury has left its mark to this day with original bullet holes in the panelling of the Old Oak Room, now the restaurant of the Talbot Hotel. Elsewhere, bullets remain embedded in the north door of the 12 th to 14th century parish church of St Michael and All Angels, which has more bullets on display inside.
In the 18 th century St Michael and All Angels acquired a soaring 126ft steeple atop its church tower, its "golden vane surveying half the shire" (Masefield); more particularly, the steeple looked down upon the cobblestones and crooked ‘magpie' cottages that border Church Lane. Here, in this little narrow street, the upper storeys of these ancient houses almost meet above the heads of passers by, leaving just sufficient daylight between for sight of the elegant spire. Horse-drawn carriages rattled down Church Lane and on past the church for decades until, in the 1740's, iron posts were erected to forbid the passage of traffic. The Old Grammar School, dating from 1480-1520, and the 16 th century Butcher Row House (re-erected here in 1979) are now both museums. The Prince of Wales inn, with another entrance in Church Street, dates from the 16 th and 17 th century.
Ledbury is almost equidistant from Hereford, Worcester and Gloucester and is set among pastures and streams, making it an ideal base from which to discover the neighbouring Malvern Hills. Sitting serenely overlooking the Malverns is the impressive sight of Eastnor Castle, appearing every inch an impregnable medieval fortress with turrets at each corner and a central keep. In fact, it was built about 1812 for the 1 st Earl Somers to the design of Sir Robert Smirke, who also designed the British Museum, and the castle remains a major example of the great Norman and Gothic revival in architecture of that time. Eastnor Castle is a memorable and romantic structure set beside a delightful lake and parkland. Also situated in the Malvern Hills is the Herefordshire Beacon, rising some 1115ft at its summit, offering splendid panoramas across the county. On the Beacon are the remains of an isolated Iron Age fort spreading over 32 acres, wherein some 2000 people are estimated to have lived in prehistoric times.