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Eleanor

West Midlands Ledbury, Herefordshire

Ledbury is an attractive small market town with a lot of timber frame buildings and retaining much of its medieval street pattern with a rabbit warren of narrow streets. Its wealth came from tanning leather and glove making.

It has a good range of shops with many family owned specialist shops. It is the local service centre for the area and always busy. The Three Counties Cider Shop on The Homend has a very good range of locally made bottled craft ciders as well as draught ciders.

The Market Hall Cafe serves breakfasts and hot meals as well as homemade cakes. Portions are generous and prices reasonable. It is popular with locals and always busy.

In the town centre is the splendid C17th timber frame market hall on wooden pillars. Originally used to store grain, wool and hops, this is now the Council Chamber. The underneath is still used on market days.

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Further down the main street are the stone built St Katherine’s Almshouses. The timber frame clock tower beyond is on the library, which was built on the site of the town’s tanning pits. St Katherine’s Chapel behind high Street and by the car park, was the chapel for the almshouses. Part is still the church hall, the master’s house is now council offices.

Church Lane is probably the oldest street in Ledbury and is a narrow cobbled street road lined with timber frame houses which leads to the church.

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On here is the Painted Room on the first floor of the council offices. This doesn’t get a mention in the guide books and we found it completely by chance when we saw a billboard outside

This is one of Ledbury’s oldest buildings, believed to date from the late C15th. The building was originally the Booth Hall which was the administrative centre for the town and the Town Constable lived here. The upper floor room was the courtroom provided by the Constable for use on market days. It was a Low Court dispensing rough and ready justice. Instant punishments included branding, whipping or putting in the stocks. It was referred to as a piepowder court and was in operation until the C19th.

The Town Constable at the time was Richard Skull, who was descended from the minor nobility and married Elizabeth Skynner, from one of the wealthy merchant families. They were both up and coming members of society and trying to emulate their betters, although they couldn’t afford tapestries and had to ‘make do’ with paintings instead.

The building had become very dilapidated and was being restored in the late C20th when workmen stripping off layers of wallpaper and paint uncovered wall paintings. Work stopped and a team of experts were called in from English Heritage. They found what is one of the best examples of Elizabethan domestic paintings in Britain.

In the C16th, the rich used tapestries on their walls, as decoration and also draught excluders. Less wealthy used hessian which could be painted. Others who were unable to afford these, painted their walls instead.

The downstairs room is lined with wood panelling which the council are not allowed to remove. There is a debate as to whether there are the remains of wall paintings behind it. A notice directs visitors up the stairs to a small waiting area, as no more than 15 people are allowed in the room at a time. There is a short ten minute talk about the paintings and history of the house.

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The painting are a typical Tudor design of interwoven lines representing the paths and hedges of a knot garden, a popular pattern at the time. Between are flowers, fruits and leaves set on a dark blue or black background. There are a series of texts set in rust coloured borders. These have been identified as quotes from a 1549 psalter and the 1557 Bible. They are in sequence, so it is possible to work out what the missing sections are.

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Colours used were all natural pigments, charcoal black, red and yellow ochre, red lead, artificial copper blue, lime white, earth green and raw umber. They were mixed with a glue base made by boiling up hoof, bone and horn, The wattle and daub walls were primed with a thin skim of lime and hair plaster and painted while still wet.

The flowers and fruits were probably chosen for their symbolic meanings. The flowers are either roses (love, beauty, joy) or strawberries (innocence, purity). The fan shaped flowers may be carnations which the Elizabethans called gilly flowers (maternal love, poverty). The deep red flowers with white petals could be daisies (humility) or Tudor roses (unity). The fruits are probably strawberries (perfect righteousness).

Wall paintings are often seen in churches, but there are very few examples of domestic wall paintings. This was a fascinating and very well worthwhile visit. It is free, but donations are appreciated.

A bit further up is the Heritage Centre. This was the boys’ grammar school has exhibits on the history and geography of the area as well as John Masefield who was born here and Elizabeth Barrett Browning who lived here.

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Butcher’s Row House Museum was one of a row of 15 houses which ran down the centre of High Street. They made the street very narrow and were demolished in the C19th. This house was re-erected elsewhere before being moved to its present position. It now has a small local history museum including armour worn in the battle of Ledbury and a collection of musical instruments.

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St Michael and All Angels’ Church is at the top of the street and is unusual as the square tower is completely separate from the rest of the church completely separate from the rest of the building. It was probably used as a stronghold by villagers when threatened by Welsh raiders. The tall elegant spire was added in the C18th and is a local landmark as it towers above the surrounding buildings.

The present church is surrounded by its churchyard and is thought to have been built on the site of a Saxon Minster. The nave and chancel were built in the C12th. Parts of the north aisle are C13th and the south aisle, vestry and porch were added in the C14th.

When seen from the west end, it looks like a three aisled building as the aisles are as tall as the nave. It has a beautiful Norman west door with chevron carving round the arches. Entry is through the small porch on the north wall.

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It is a big church with octagonal pillars supporting pointed arches. Those on the south arcade are bowing outwards which may explain the heavy buttressing on the outside of the south aisle. Above is a barrel wood ceiling. Above is a barrel wood ceiling. The pointed chancel arch has a C20th crystal cross suspended from it. This is believed to be unique in England, but succeeds in looking ‘tacky’.

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The stained glass dates includes everything from medieval glass to the modern 1991 Heaton window, an abstract design of the creation.

At the back of the church is an elaborately carved font by George Gilbert Scott, standing on dark stone legs. The walls are covered with monuments. At the back of the south aisle, surrounded by metal railings are the Biddulph memorials, including two lounging figures on tomb bases.

The Norman chancel has round arches with small round windows above.

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We were told there was a small red window above the east window which is thought to have been a substitute for the red sanctuary light banned at the Reformation, but you had to know where to look for it. We didn’t manage to find it.

The choir stalls have C15/16th misericords. The reredos is a C19th copy of the Last Supper, painted by a local artist. The church are very proud of this and it features prominently in their Visitor’s Guide.

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On the south wall is the C17th Skynner family tomb with the kneeling figures of Edward d1631 and Elizabeth d 1628. Lying between them is their tiny baby who died young. On the base are the praying figures of their ten surviving children. Edward was one of the wealthy merchants and responsible for building many of the splendid houses in Ledbury.

On the floor next to them is a lovely alabaster effigy of John Hamilton Martin who died as a baby in 1851. Above are two angels.

On the wall near the altar is a memorial to John Hoskins, looking out from under a draped canopy. He was Vicar of Ledbury and died in 1631.

Off the north side of the church is what is described as ‘The Chapter House’. It was built in the C14th and has big windows with ball flower decoration on the tracery. This is thought to have either been built by the Benedictines from Hereford who were hoping to take over Ledbury Church, or as a shrine to the local saint, Katherine of Ledbury, who was never canonised. Today it is used as a meeting area.

Ledbury Tourist Information Centre is in Ice Bytes Internet Cafe, on The Homend has lots of information about things to do and see in the surrounding area as information about a heritage walk around the town.

Ledbury doesn’t feature onthe usual tourist itinerary but is a good base for anyone wanting to visit Hereford, Worcester or Gloucester as well as the Forest of Dean and the western Cotswolds.
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