Every Easter it would be Ludlow and a drive south-west to Shropshire to stay with great-aunt Maranda, her house a Thirties time-capsule scented by Badedas and dog hair, with a cellar-cool pantry and a radio that promised the Home Service. Ludlow was different from northern suburbia. There were ranks of black-and-white timber houses, medieval Mondrians, and just along from Woolies was a castle, right there in town, with secret rooms and bottomless wells; moments away were fields and coppices – border country – inhabited (so I imagined) by Boggis, Bunce and Bean, the crafty farmers from Fantastic Mr Fox. We spotted jewel-bright kingfishers on the River Teme and clambered up to Whitcliffe Common for the best views, or further still to the bleak, devilish Stiperstones and the Long Mynd, where shadow clouds would slip over the heather in the sunlight. For meals, string-tied parcels were procured, beasts with claws and feathers and scales wrapped up inside. My aunt being treasurer for the Shakespeare festival, some summers we’d return and sit on the castle lawn to watch The Tempest or Richard III rage and bluster against the 11th-century stones where Mary Tudor had once stayed.
Later, returning of my own will, I was incredulous to find that sleepy Ludlow – a town of just 10,000 people, over three hours by rail from London – had become Michelin-starred. I was lucky enough to eat at the Merchant House, every exquisite course cooked singlehandedly by Shaun Hill. He had reasoned that a restaurant might do well in a place that supported six butchers, two greengrocers and three cheese shops. ‘The secret is that it’s an authentic market town, all centre and no outskirts,’ he told me recently, from The Walnut Tree in Abergavenny. ‘And normal people are able to afford the produce – it’s not a film-set village populated by retired millionaires.’ Some stars have gone, and so has De Greys, where pinny-clad waitresses served tea and buns for almost a century, but its strangely resilient micro-climate continues to attract independent spirits and the town feels more successful than ever, broader of taste. Now, as it was then, Ludlow is a place with no sell-by dates.
WHERE TO STAY
THE CLIVE ARMS
Ludlow’s listed accommodation can be quite tight for space. If you have children in tow then The Clive Arms, on the Earl of Plymouth’s estate, has big, beamed rooms with enough space to scatter clothes without it mattering, as well as plenty of interesting spots outside to roam around. The hotel was revamped and reopened in April 2019; up until then it was perfectly decent but lacked the character you want from a former Georgian coaching inn. Now it sports a book collection from the earl’s main house, Shropshire prints by John Napper, ceramics from the Marches Pottery and blankets from Hay-on-Wye. They’ve also stripped back the wooden floors, added three more bedrooms (now 17 in all) and ramped up the restaurant, which sources most of its grub from the Ludlow Food Centre a few yards away – Gloucester Old Spot, cheeses, venison and honey, to name just a few ingredients. Cross the road and you can take a splendid bridlepath walk – the sort a medieval mendicant might have made – past rustling hedgerows to the castle. Bromfield (+44 1584 856565; www.theclive.co.uk). Doubles from £100
DINHAM WEIR HOUSE
Serious foodies will know all about this sprawling house by Dinham Weir. For 35 years it was home to Chris and Judy Bradley, who ran the Michelin-starred Mr Underhill’s until retiring in 2017. Now it’s been saved from slipping into genteel obscurity by the design-savvy owners of Redford Farm Barns, outside Ludlow. It’s now a beautiful, rather fun house to rent that sleeps 14 (there’s also a stand-alone apartment above the garage), with bedrooms overlooking the river, a new bar area and quirky Fifties book illustrations framed on the walls – there’s also a retro games room upstairs called The Den, for children or grown-up children. The Bradley’s former bedroom is now the master suite, with its own steam room (the kitchen, naturally, has been kept intact and one of the owners, Jude Hunt, can easily source a local chef to make the most of it, and also organises cheffy events around the Food Festival). Sitting in the garden with a bottle of wine or two, the sound of the weir rushing in the background, is a pretty special Shropshire moment. Dinham Weir House, Dinham, Ludlow, Shropshire SY8 1EH (+44 77968 76715; dinhamweirhouse.co.uk)
OTHER HOUSES TO RENT
To rent, look at the handsome Ivy House (www.ivyhouseludlow.co.uk; four nights from £425) and oak-hewn Silver Pear apartments (www.silverpearapartments.co.uk; four nights from £450). But a pretty, stripped-down alternative is 8 & 9 Upper Linney (www.8upperlinney.com; from £195 for three nights), a brace of one-bedroom, three-storey cottages tucked under the petticoats of the town walls. Both have been cleverly remodelled with decent kitchens and squeaky-clean bathrooms: choose 8 for its fortified courtyard, 9 for its wet room with ‘Hello sheep!’ views over the fields.
IN BLACK AND WHITE
For traditional B&B, those who ate at the Merchant House can now sleep there amid book-strewn, 15th-century nooks; wood-panelled Whitfield House (www.stayinludlow.co.uk; doubles from £95) has a gloriously sprawling 1920s garden. A little outside the centre of town, Fishmore Hall is an attractive Georgian building with 15 rooms, an ambitious restaurant overseen by chef David Jaram and local bounty in the minibar (www.fishmorehall.co.uk; doubles from £99, tasting menus from £59 per person). Cedric Bosi, who runs the Charlton Arms, has just opened (September 2014) The Townhouse, just above what used to be De Greys tearoom, with nine B&B rooms kitted out in traditional English furnishings. It may be as grand and imposing as a pirate galleon with its carved timber frontage, but the oft-photographed Feathers Hotel on Corve Street – an inn since 1670 – is best appreciated from the outside. But I do want to take my son and stay in one of the Castle apartments (www.ludlowcastle.com/accommodation; three nights from £495 ) while he’s still young enough to wield a wooden sword and lay siege to the keep.
Where to eat & drink
A CAFE BY THE RIVER
It was armbands and bags of Salt ‘n’ Shake in the 1970s by Dinham Bridge when the baths stood here, but somehow a village green and C Sons at The Green Café appeared in their place. He won’t say it himself but Clive Davies is one of the best cooks around.Rapid-fire lunch plates arrive spread with bright, punchy flavours – salt-beef brisket and piccalilli, seared mackerel and dhal – most for less than a tenner. Sit outside and listen for the plop of grayling; beware low-flying ducks. On the banks of the River Teme below there’s a trove of satisfyingly flat stones to send bouncing over the water afterwards. Mill on the Green, Linney (+44 1584 879872; www.thegreencafe.co.uk)
PUB WITH A VIEW
The deservedly busy Charlton Arms, poised on Ludford Bridge like a cormorant, was languishing until Lyon-born Cedric Bosi took it over earlier in 2014 (he’s no stranger to Ludlow; brother Claude opened Hibiscus here in 2000). Cedric put snail lasagne on the menu at Wimbledon’s Fox & Grapes but nothing here will startle: dishes are no-nonsense (ham hash, an unusually macho Caesar salad, Eton mess) but precision made and delicious. In late spring, the local swift appreciation group heads up to the terrace for the view. There are bedrooms here, too, which are straightforward and get snapped up. Ludford Bridge (+44 1584 872813; www.thecharltonarms.co.uk)
FISH & SMOKE
The first time I sat in the Ludlow Cicchetti Bar at 10 Broad Street, one regular – an opera singer it turned out – burst into a ripe rendition of ‘Old Man River’ just as I was spearing a piece of tripe and eyeing up the goat’s cheese ricotta bruschetta. Run by the Uncle Monty-ish Martyn Emsen, who smokes (in a woodchip way) anything he can get his hands on, it’s a boisterous, squeeze-gut den with dangling panettone and wine for just over two quid a glass. Skip the full English elsewhere and come here for the creamy mushrooms on ciabatta instead. Small and proud as a beach hut, The Fish House is run by Lou Hackney, who has fishmongery in her blood (her nan started the family business in the 1940s). Order the seafood platter then squeeze in at one of the barrel tables while canine tails thump chair legs and locals call out for ‘More Chablis, dear!’ Ludlow Cicchetti Bar, 10 Broad Street (44 7890 412873); The Fish House, 50 Bull Ring (+44 1584 879790; www.thefishhouseludlow.co.uk)
AN AMAZING WALL OF CHEESE
It was once the much-loved Deli on the Square, so locals were curious to see how Harp Lane Deli would turn out. Nice to hear, then, that owner Henry Mackley – an affable, Lawrentian type whose mother, Lesley, co-founded the Food Festival (held every September, see www.foodfestival.co.uk) – has been run off his feet. Get here early before the pastels de nata or Henry’s homemade jambon persillé and rabbit rillette vanish. The mighty cheese wall holds what he describes as an ‘edgy’ range (he tries not to nibble custom from The Mouse Trap shop nearby); he’s also serious about coffee (small-estate, apricotty, the milk specially sourced from Hereford). On weekend evenings the talk turns to wine and Negronis. A private supper club awaits upstairs, from where there are wonderful views over the market square to the hills beyond. 4 Church Street (+44 1584 877353; www.harplane.com)
HAVE A BUTCHERS
For a meal to be pocketed and eaten on the hoof, you need a fidget pie (pork, apple, a shake of mace, crisp pastry). The ones at DW Wall on the High Street, topped by a caramelised twist of apple, could hold their head up in a Parisian patisserie. Along with Andrew Francis butcher’s on Market Street, it’s the best place for banter and racing tips – but only Wall’s sells the Ludlow banger, the taste of which has entered the town’s collective memory. wallsbutchers.co.uk
LUDLOW GOLD: THE BEST PUBS
Ludlow has proper pubs, more beer than grub, with bouquets of hops that caress your head at the bar. For dusty china, a cobbled courtyard and selection of Joules ales: the Rose & Crown (The Church Inn next door was once run by larger-than-life landlord Floyd Wilson-Lloyd, a former mayor, but has now quietened down a little after a refurb). For its garden by the River Corve: the Unicorn. And to tap into local gossip, invite yourself into the parlour pub behind the dark-blue Georgian door at 14 Corve Street – it’s a publishing house by week, and an informal beer bar from Thursday to Sunday, known as The Dog Hangs Well. For an afternoon session, though, head to a former Victorian train shed for a tour of the Ludlow Brewery Company. Gary Walters’ passion for authentic ale-making is inspiring – and the hit from the fermenting tank, glooping away like a low-budget Dr Who alien from the 1970s, will knock you off your feet. A pint or two of mellow Ludlow Gold or full-bodied Stairway in the bar will revive you. 14 Corve Street, Ludlow SY8 1DA .doghousemagazine.co.uk Station Drive (+44 1584 873291; www.theludlowbrewingcompany.co.uk)
PLACE WITH AMBITIONS
The doorways are so low at Mortimers you fear for the waiters’ heads. But while the interiors are thick with history – white-cloaked tables float like ghosts against haunted-house oak panelling you suspect contains a secret door or two – the cooking is snappily modern and artfully presented. This black-and-white timber building has a strong lineage: first the Bosi brothers, then Will Holland (who eloped to Pembrokeshire to launch Coast restaurant), and La Becasse. Now it has a new name, Mortimers, and a new chef, Wayne Smith, who worked at Dinham Hall and with Claude Bosi at Overton Grange. Graze on Mortimer Forest venison with baby leeks, guineafowl with Wye Valley asparagus, and starters such as sea trout with a crab bon bon, or hand-dived scallops with artichoke. With the closure of the legendary Mr Underhill’s in 2015, Mortimers is one of the few places in Ludlow to fly the fine-dining flag. 17 Corve Street (+44 1584 872325; www.mortimersludlow.co.uk. Lunch £22.50 per person; set menus £45 and £60
Here’s something a little different for Ludlow, from the owners of 8&9 Upper Linney (see Where to stay): a clean-cut pizza restaurant, all wood and white tiles, just off the town square with Vampire Weekend on the stereo, cheery, fresh-faced staff and an open kitchen so you can watch your dough disappearing into the oven. The toppings at Pizza Ten are inventive (go for number 7, with prawns, chorizo and jalapeno, or the number 8, with raddichio, walnuts and truffle honey) and while the pizzas are what you’re here for, the starters are worth shouting about, too – particularly the quivering mound of mozzarella stacked with speck, peas and mint. Quality Square (+44 1584 879 450; www.pizzaten.co.uk)
THE FOOD FESTIVAL
In 2019 the festival celebrated its 25th anniversary – back in 1995, a local food festival was a relative rarity, and others followed in its wake – most notably Abergavenny in 1999. It’s a little old-fashioned compared to young upstarts such as The Big Feastival, Meatopia or Smoked and Uncut, but wears its dedication to local food on its sleeve, and is run with passion – recent highlights include a fiery appearance by the two women behind Hang Fire Southern Kitchen in Barry, DJ BBQ and Rachel Roddy, and the annual beer and sausage trail (arrive early to pick up your starting kit, as the queue can be long). It’s sprouted a couple of offshoots, a Spring Festival in May and the Ludlow Magnalonga – an Italian-style food and drink hike – in August. foodfestival.co.uk
Where to shop
Residents wondered if a new undertakers had arrived when sombre-fronted Black Bough opened. But inside is a life-affirming collection of paint-splashed pottery, washbags, etchings, curious books and prints, and the occasional eccentric piece by Jess Jackson, a local welder who re-imagines industrial flotsam and jetsam. Co-owner Alex Barter used to work for Sotheby’s and has quite a following for his lovingly reconditioned vintage watches – 1950s Longines, 1960s Rolex Oysters and a ‘flame-lug’ Patek Philippe or two. Nearby is The Bindery Shop, for original letterpress designs and handbound books. blackbough.co.uk; trevorlloyd.co.uk/thebinderyshop
GO ON, HAVE A RUMMAGE
A three-storey cabinet of curiosities, 55 Mill Street is carefully marshalled by its Jean Brodyish curator Nina Hely-Hutchinson, who has gallery experience in LA and London and wrinkles her nose at shabby chic – she prefers ‘slinky Seventies stuff’ by Ossie Clarke and Jazz Age hemlines. Hats hang on antlers almost totemistically; owlish teacups line up on shelves. You could leave with a vintage jelly mould or a walnut-brown pair of Barkers in size 9. Further down, at no 45, is The Marches Pottery, where Andrew Crouch’s subtle designs reflect the light beautifully – the slender, celadon-green vases resemble segments of bamboo.
FOR JEAN DE FLORETTES AND ART COLLECTORS
When I plant out my own vineyard, this is where I’ll buy a box of iron vine eyes. Best photographed in sepia, the Period House Shop is like the most amazing shed in the world: a calming place to potter and run your fingers over door bolts and bakelite switches as perky as sow’s teats. There’s Thirties-style Le Laboureur trews, probably even fork handles if you ask. Just don’t get the owner, Simon Holloway, started on the subject of corrugated iron. For a peek inside an actual period house, ring the bell at number 137, where Miles Wynn Cato, who relocated here from London’s Sloane Street, sells mostly Georgian and Victorian Welsh and British paintings from his beautiful 18th-century townhouse. He’s also got an admirable antique bottle collection and is always keen to acquire more. 141 Corve Street (+44 1584 877276; www.periodhouseshops.com; www.welshart.co.uk)
TANNED AND LOVELY
After years in London crafting leather for Nicole Farhi and Paul Smith, among others (he also made Champagne buckets for the royal box at Wimbledon), Matt Fothergill returned to Shropshire and set up shop in a former newspaper office, filling it top to bottom with covetable, conker-bright totes, satchels, folios and purses, as well as hunting acccessories. You get the sense every snippet is used. Over on Pepper Lane is Martin Pryce, who once stitched up Robert Plant’s jeans when they ripped (it happened a lot) and hung out with Black Sabbath’s Geezer Butler, but now makes jewel-coloured handbags, iPad cases, even flying jackets for ageing rockers. Matt Fothergill, 17 Bull Ring (+44 1584 876210; www.mattfothergill.com); Martin Pryce, Pepper Lane (+44 7758 002135; www.martinpryceleather.co.uk)
EVERYTHING BUT THE OINK
In an alternative universe, every supermarket looks like the Ludlow Food Centre. It’s actually in Bromfield, just outside the town, and is more like a giant, walk-in larder than anything you’ll find on the high street, harvesting all the tastiest local things, from walled-garden apples and forest venison to craft gins and chutneys. It makes interesting viewing, too: behind big windows, like the experiment rooms in Willy Wonka’s factory, folk in white hats stir cheese and ice cream, cure bacon, roast coffee and make jam, aprons bloody with raspberry juice. Fill your boots – or at the very least return home clutching a jar of award-winning marmalade. A deli/café to showcase all this lovely grub, Ludlow Pantry, has just opened in the town centre, or you can eat on-site at the Ludlow Kitchen. Bromfield (www.ludlowfoodcentre.co.uk)
What to see and do
BEST WAY TO SPEND £3
The tower of St Laurence’s rises above Ludlow like a perpendicular stone spaceship but, as you get closer, performs a strange vanishing act behind the narrow streets. For £3 you can climb to the top for a gargoyle’s view over the hills. Back down, check out the misericords, whose 15th-century carver had a rather low opinion of women – see the hellish punishment meted out to the dishonest ale wife.
TOP OF THE POPS
Stella Mitchell fell in love with Peter Blake’s work at the 1969 Pop Artshow, and her Land of Lost Content is an installation homage to popular culture, spreading across three floors in an old market hall in Craven Arms, just north of Ludlow. It’s brilliantly bonkers – a 3D Pinterest board – ranging from Biba and soap powder to Action Man and newly acquired London Olympics costumes. Who on earth else collects Anderson shelters? (If you drive here from Ludlow, make sure to visit Stokesay Castle on the way, where Atonement was filmed). Craven Arms (+44 1588 676176; www.lolc.org.uk)
A WOODEN PINT
In the church at Leintwardine, 10 minutes’ drive away, there’s a carved choir-stall seat depicting an old lady pouring pints from a barrel: it looks like a scene from Chaucer but it actually shows the formidable (and teetotal) Flossie Lane, who served ales at her parlour pub from the 1930s until her death in 2009. The Sun Inn is still there, now with an extension to its rear but its two front rooms intact, filled with Flossie’s bric-a-brac and all the vintage allure of a Richard Hawley album. Leintwardine (+44 1547 540705; www.suninn-leintwardine.co.uk)
TAKE A HIKE
For the classic Sunday-morning stroll, cross over the River Teme at Dinham Bridge and stride along the Breadwalk to Whitcliffe Common for views over the castle and town; serious walkers should tackle the Mortimer Trail, which starts in Ludlow and unwinds over 30 miles to Kington. But pitched between those two are other favourites: the steep one up to Flounder’s Folly, an 80ft stone tower on Wenlock Edge (just east of Craven Arms) will stretch your calf-muscles; or head to Nordy Bank, the remains of an Iron Age fort on the slopes of Brown Clee and ascend to the top – the village of Bouldon is nearby, with the excellent Tally Ho pub (www.thetallyho.co.uk) for lunch, as is Heath Chapel, which Mary Beard recently chose as her favourite church (www.favouritechurches.org.uk/mary-beard).
The beating heart of Ludlow. Nothing here arrived by container ship from the South China Sea; instead look out Victoria, who brings flowers from the garden at Stokesay Court, Lucy’s brownies and Tamsin’s olives, Marches Outdoors, run by Richard Finney, for walking clobber and fruit vodkas from South African-born Liz Grinker. Market days: Mon, Weds, Fri, Sat (specialist markets on Thurs and Sun). www.ludlowmarket.co.uk
Just outside Ludlow in Bridgnorth is the Kennedy Design Studio, where Tom and Louisa Kennedy create wondrous scagliola, architectural and figurative sculptures, as well as some rather unusual chandeliers and taxidermy pieces. Head of the family Hew Kennedy is something of a character – he once built a medieval-style trebuchet, launching dead cattle and cars into the air (see here) and is rumoured to have made a trapdoor dining chair for ejecting disappointing guests. www.kennedy-scagliola.com
This feature first appeared in Condé Nast Traveller October 2014 and has been updated