The English county of Herefordshire is home to a string of villages with rows of beautiful black and white cottages. We sent Simon Whaley to enjoy a tour and discover the story of five of the most famous …
HISTORY IN BLACK AND WHITE
by Simon Whaley
It might sound like a contradiction in terms, but the north-west corner of Herefordshire is colourfully black and white. Here, the villages have everything you would expect: a beautiful location, a country pub or two, an historic church, and timber-framed cottages that creak with nostaligic charm. Although the black timber-frame and white panels may look traditional, this colour scheme was actually a Victorian fashion. Some cottages date as far back as the 14th century, although most were built in the 16th and 17th century, when this rural landscape was thriving, thanks to the booming wool trade.
To discover the villages’ story it is possible to enjoy a tour along the official Black and White Village Trail. This 40-mile circular driving or cycling route begins in the north Herefordshire market town of Leominster (pronounced Lemster), and ambles westwards, through the fertile, rolling landscape to Kington, huddled on the Anglo/Welsh border, before returning to Leominster. An excellent audio CD, available from the tourist office, provides the perfect accompaniment, revealing the amazing history of these seemingly quiet and tranquil villages. Although the tour takes in 13 villages in total, here is our selection of five of the best.
There’s an unmistakeable sense of pride when entering Weobley (pronounced Webley) and not just because it was named Village of the Year in 1999. Strolling up Broad Street, it doesn’t take a craftsman to appreciate that these characterful buildings are among the finest in England. One of the oldest is the 14th century Manor House. Originally a single-story building that was open to its rafters, it would have had a central hearth for heating and cooking. The windows would have been glassless, but shuttered to keep out the worst weather. It wasn’t until the 16th century that chimneys, first floors and glass were used to improve conditions inside.
Timber-framed buildings had small rooms, so try to imagine the lot of the two wives-of-Weobley-man James Tomkins. Between them, they raised 33 of his children. It was a Tomkins descendant who developed the Hereford breed of cattle, now synonymous with the area.
On a summer’s day, the cool interior of the Church of St Peter and St Paul offers an interesting diversion. It has one of the highest church spires in the area, another sign of the village’s one-time wealth. Inside, is the statue of Colonel John Birch, a remarkable turncoat. He was originally a Royalist supporter, but during the Civil War became one of Cromwell’s Commanders, even putting his name to the death warrant of Charles I (who once stayed in Weobley after the Battle of Naseby in 1645), yet somehow, changed sides again to become part of Charles II’s welcoming party, on his returned to England!
Eardisley is lined with timber-framed buildings on both sides of its main thoroughfare. Adjacent to the Church is a series of long timber-framed buildings, which were originally used as tithe barns, before being converted into dwellings. A tithe was a payment, usually a tenth of a person’s annual produce, or earnings, that was paid to support the local church or clergy. The tithe barn was where the church stored the in-kind payments, which were often the produce from a villager’s smallholding.
Walking through the village, most of the timber-framed buildings here date from the 15th and 17th centuries. Original dwellings like this may look idyllic, but there are definite disadvantages. As Brian Beach comments on the Black and White Trail audio CD, “The disadvantages are considerable. First of all, they are small, built for small country folk eating a meagre diet. Today’s comparative giants get knocked when bending over to negotiate the small spaces. The external walls of wattle and daub are thin and they offer very poor insulation, by modern standards, so these houses are not easy to heat.”
Another drawback is that properties built from these natural materials also attract other unwanted residents such as beetles, centipedes, cockroaches, mice and other small animals that nest within the walls.
Eardisley’s Church of St Mary Magdalene has two wonderful secrets. Inside, an ornately carved, Romanesque-style font, dating from 1135, continues to be used for christenings today. The second secret concerns the novelist, Charles Dickens, who visited the area on numerous occasions. Literature-lovers should investigate the Church’s vestry, for there, high on the stone wall, are two memorials to the Barnsley family. Those in the know soon realise the memorial recounts exactly the same plot as used in Dickens’ epic novel Bleak House.
Spotting timber-framed buildings is not easy during the drive through Kington as many of these buildings now have a Georgian, or Victorian façade masking their original wooden structure. When cut and dried, oak can be almost as hard as iron, so these structures have been very durable. Trees were felled and squared up in the woods before being hauled to a framing yard where the joints were cut. The building was prefabricated and the timbers carted to the construction site for assembly. This process gives the building immense strength to the point that you could pick up a timber-framed building and turn it upside down today, and the basic structure would remain intact.
Kington is the only Herefordshire town lying on the Welsh side of Offa’s Dyke, an 8th century earth-mound border frontier, designed to keep the English and Welsh apart. It offered Kington publicans a useful economic bonus, because English pubs were permitted to open on a Sunday, whereas Welsh pubs were not – an idiosyncrasy that wasn’t finally rectified until 1996.
Kington also has a literary claim to fame, based upon one of the town’s most feared residents, Thomas ‘Black’ Vaughan. THe Vaughans were an influential family who controlled the area with a tight rule during the 15th century. Black Vaughan’s demise, while fighting for King Edward IV’s army at the Battle of Edgecote Moor in July 1469 did not end the locals’ terror, as his spirit is said to have continued to torment the people of Kington. Sometimes it was an annoying fly, once as a bull that caused havoc in St Mary’s Church, and at other times as a large, ghostly, black dog. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle regularly visited relations near Kington, suggesting that perhaps Black Vaughan was the inspiration for his famous novel The Hound of the Baskervilles. Consider the clues: the menacing back dog terrorising local people, and an Eardisley family named Baskerville. Even some of the characters’ names (Dr Mortimer, Mr Stapleton) may have been drawn from the surrounding area as Mortimer Forest once covered huge swathes of north Herefordshire, whilst the village of Stapleton lies five miles away.
Pembridge proudly displays its wealth. The Kings House in East Street has numerous vertical strips of wood, known as close studding, particularly on its upper floor. Structurally, this was unnecessary, but as wood was pricey, close studding was a reflection of the owner’s wealth.
The village’s affluence means there are many timber-framed buildings here, but the wealth did not last. Ironically, this helped preserve its current identify, as many of the houses would have been replaced with modern brick structures if its economic fortunes had continued.
Just off the High Street is The New Inn, which could only have lived up to its name when it was built in the 17th century. On a summer’s day, it is the perfect location for a pint of locally brewed beer at one of the picnic tables under the pub’s wisteria bush, or in the shade of the old Market Hall, which was built over 500 years ago.
Not all of Pembridge’s timber-framed buildings have been used as dwellings. Steps near the Market Hall lead to St Mary’s Church and its detached wooden belfry, the only one of this style in Britain. A coin activates the lighting system, illuminating the 13th century wooden structure. One theory suggests it was constructed to temporarily house the bells while the church was being built, but when the funds ran out the bells were left where they were.
Eardisland is an artists’ and photographers’ dream as the tranquil waters of the River Arrow reflect the picturesque cottages along its banks. During a walk around the village look out for an unusual wooden structure outside the Cross Inn. This 1920s Automobile Association phone box was placed where the road through the village meets the main A44. Originally designed as shelters for AA patrolmen, these boxes were soon made available to AA members to call for help. This box was rededicated in 1995, to commemorate 50 years of peace in Europe.
Not far from the banks of the River Arrow is a brick-built Dovecote, once used to provide the local Lord of the Manor with fresh meat, all year round. Today, it feeds the entire community, and those passing through, as it houses the village shop.
This taste of North Herefordshire’s Black and White Trail hints at some of its rich history. Explore the villages on foot, chat to the locals and sample the produce to get the true essence of the county, where first impressions are never simply black and white.
Planning Your Visit
The Black and White Trail Audio CD can be purchased (£6) from the Leominster Tourist Information Centre, 1 Corn Square Leominster, Herefordshire, HR6 8LR.
Open: Monday to Saturday – 10am to 2pm.
Tel: 01568 616460
The CD can also be purchased in advance from www.marchestourstalks.co.uk/tour_guides.aspx or downloaded in mp3 format for £5.
The Tour – Directions
To Weobley: From Leominster, take the main A44 road, (signed to Kington and Rhayader), passing through Monkland. Approximately five miles from Leominster, where A44 turns right at crossroads, continue ahead onto the A4112, signposted to Brecon and Weobley. After three miles, turn left onto the B4230, and follow the road to the village centre.
To Eardisley: From Weobley, return to the main A4112 and turn left. Follow this through the hamlets of Sarnesfield and Kinnersley to a T-junction with the A4111. Turn right (signed Eardisley, Kington, Rhayader) into Eardisley. Take Park Road on left after zebra crossing, to park beside the church.
To Kington: Take the A4111 through Eardisley, heading north and climbing up through hills, before dropping to roundabout with A44 after six miles. After turning left into Kington, follow the road round to the right, before turning left, through the High Street. Fork left into Mill Street into a car park.
To Pembridge: Return to the roundabout on the A44 and take the road ahead, signposted Pembridge, Lyonshall and Leominster. Follow this for approximately seven miles. After entering Pembridge, pass a turning on the left, before taking the next left, by the Kings House, into a signed car park.
To Eardisland: Turn left and follow A44 for 1 ½ miles. Turn left, signed to Eardisland. Follow for ½ mile into the village. The car park is on the right, after The White Swan pub, The Cross Inn and war memorial, also on the right.
To Return to Leominster: From car park, turn right and cross over River Arrow. Follow this road, which crosses the A4110 and becomes the B4529. Continue to rejoin the A44 in Leominster.
(c) Simon Whaley