A MOVEABLE FEAST
It’s one of those pinch-me, is this really happening moments. We're in Whitton.
Can someone remind me why, at 9.30 in the morning, I’m standing in the garden of the Whitton vicarage sipping sherry with the vicar? Ah, that’s right. We’re staying at a nearby guesthouse and as temporary residents of the hamlet we’re invited to join their Shrove Tuesday pancake racing celebration. And judging from the way everyone is slipping into the sherry, this is an essential precursor to the big event, in which half the village is required to run, with a frying pan in hand, from the town hall to the church and back again, and complete multiple flips of a pancake en route.
We had come to Whitton, population 82, because it’s close to the market town of Ludlow, in Shropshire, not far from the Welsh border and neighbouring the “cider county” of Herefordshire. The region provides a tasting plate about all that is good about the contemporary English food scene. Ludlow is a centre for traditionally made food, from bread made with sourdough starters and hand-raised pork pies to farmhouse cheeses, house-cured meats and locally-grown fresh fruit and vegetables. The town was England’s first Cittaslow and is unofficially recognised as the slow food capital of England.
The little trafficked backroads and country lanes of Shropshire and Herefordshire make cycling a rewarding way to explore and it’s possible to hire bikes and pick up maps with cycle routes in both Ludlow and the medieval centre of Pembridge, with its 16th century market hall and 13th century pyramid-shaped bell tower standing beside the 14th century church.
Cider-making has been the post-harvest activity in this region for many centuries. In the 1300s church tithes were paid in cider and, until it was outlawed in the late 19th century, farm labourers were paid a part of their wages in cider. During busy times the cider ration was generous … two gallons a day was not uncommon. The brew was so abundant that infants were baptized in it as it was cleaner than water. By 1400 Herefordshire was the leading cider-producing county and it still brews more than half the UK’s output. Although the Agricultural Revolution prompted many farmers to neglect their orchards in favour of the plough, recent years have delivered a revival of interest in traditional brews on the back of the real ale movement and cideries are enjoying a rebirth
Dunkertons cider mill is a case in point. Although cider has been brewed there for centuries, the old orchards were grubbed out following World War II to make way for open farmland. In 1980 Susie and Ivor Dunkerton escaped the London rat race to make organic cider and perry using time-honoured methods. They planted orchards to rare old varieties such as Sheep’s Nose, Bloody Turk, Brown Snout and Foxwhelp and set about making cider which can be tasted at their cellar door.
Next stop was Monkland Cheese Dairy, where handmade cheeses are produced using unpasteurised milk from Herefordshire cows and featured on a ploughman’s lunch platter. Pubs punctuating the many villages also provide good stops for meals including the much accoladed gastropub, the Bell Inn at Yarpole, where Hertfordshire’s young chef of the year for 2010, Kate Lewis, mans the stoves.
The region also boasts its fair share of historic houses and castles including the early 17th century Croft Castle and parkland where the current Lord and Lady Croft can trace their family connection back more than 1000 years and the 18th-century Berrington Hall with a parkland that was one of Capability Brown’s last landscapes. Ludlow’s own castle dates from the late-11th century and its perch high on a hill over the River Teme provided an important strategic stronghold for control of the Welsh borders.Prince Arthur, brother of Henry VIII, died there in 1501 while he was on honeymoon after his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. She subsequently married her brother-in-law and their only child, HYPERLINK “http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mary_I_of_England” \o “Mary I of England” Mary Tudor, spent three winters from 1525 at Ludlow Castle, along with her entourage of servants, advisors, and guardians. Bloody Mary as she was later known (it may have had something to do with the fact that she deposed and then had her cousin, Lady Jane Grey, beheaded) ascended to the throne in 1553.
Words Kirsty McKenzie
Photography Ken Brass