We English do well with our market towns, at least ones where developers were not let loose during the 1960s-70s era of replacement brutalist shop fronts. Ledbury in our neighbouring county of Herefordshire, and the town closest to our Eastnor cottage break at the end of March, is pretty nigh perfect. It has a long, long High Street composed of many 18th century and earlier facades, and in the centre is the Market House that began its civic life as piece of determined urban refurbishment 400 years ago.
Town records show that the site where it stands had been a market place since 1122, but by the end of the 1500s the space had been encroached on by rows of tatty shops which greatly offended local trader, John Phillips. He set about raising funds through public subscription, and for the sum of £40 bought Shoppe Row and had it demolished. Work began on the Market House in 1617. The original plan included the building small shops between the oak pillars while the upper storeys were to serve mainly for the storage of goods – corn, wool, hops for brewing and acorns used in the leather tanning trade.
However, all did not proceed as expected. In 1655 when John Phillips died the building work was still not completed, and there was no money left to finish the job. In fact it wasn’t until 1668 that local worthies came up with a cunning plan to raise the necessary funds. They helped themselves to £40 from two legacies that were meant to provide clothing for the town’s poor, but then drafted a new instruction: each year 12 poor citizens would have clothing paid for from the profits of the Market House. So it seems the civic misappropriation may be forgiven.
The Market House had a fresh lease of life in the Victorian era when the present windows and staircase were installed. The upper floors then served as the town hall and meeting room. Further restoration work was carried out in 1939 and during the 1970s and 80s. But the most dramatic resuscitation project took place in 2006 when it was discovered that the oak stilts were under threat from ‘foot rot’ and boring wasps. Repairs involved raising the entire structure 2 feet (600mm) off the ground so the builders could scrape out the damaged bases, and infill with a natural lime-grout mortar which is structurally strong, but does not seal in damp as modern cement does.
And so the Market House survives well and into its 5th century, and is now used for meetings and exhibitions, its ‘downstairs’ still hosting weekly markets while at other times impressing all with its well-worn and pleasing venerability.
But as I said earlier, there is much more to look at up and down the town – intriguing alley ways with unusual shops, lots of cafes and restaurants, and a potential for a darn good hike up and down the High Street. There are some literary connections too – Poet Laureate John Masefield (1878-1967) was born and lived here. Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806-1861) also lived here during her formative years. In 1809 when she was three, her father Edward Barrett Moulton Barrett, the owner of slave plantations in Jamaica, bought Hope End estate near the town. Elizabeth lived here until 1833 when family litigation and the abolition of the slave trade caused her father great financial losses, and thus the sale of Hope End and a move to Sidmouth in Devon.
Masefield is also well loved (and especially by me) for his children’s book ‘A Box of Delights’. I especially treasure his word ‘scrobbled’ meaning to be nabbed by the baddies. But now for some Ledbury views, including a glimpse of the writer himself, discovered in a quirky alley leading to the town Printers, who advertise themselves around the place with amusing posters. A town of delights then – old and new:
copyright 2019 Tish Farrell
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Ann-Christine aka Leya https://lagottocattleya.wordpress.com/