Although Ludlow is often described as being in the ‘West Midlands’, historically and culturally it was a frontier town, an interface between the Celtic land of the thin-soiled hills and the richer country of the Anglo-Saxons; a ‘Marcher’ stronghold in a chain of fortified towns that shadow the Mercian King Offa’s 8th Century Dyke.
It was the security conscious Normans, in the 11th century, who first built a castle in Ludlow. They chose a site on a rocky knoll, high above the fast flowing River Teme, and the town that subsequently grew up around the castle has provoked affection and admiration from countless inhabitants and visitors over the last 900 years. In its early centuries, it inspired awe as a powerful centre of regional government, and in the 17th and 18th centuries, as a centre of Marcher society, it offered culture and sophistication. Milton’s Comus had its first ever performance at the castle here in 1634; a Shakespeare play is still performed annually within the castle’s inner walls.
Marginalised by the earlier flight of political influence to London and by the industrial revolution, Ludlow has never been subjected to the kind of changes that have so drastically altered the landscape of more central cities, such as Gloucester and Worcester. As a result, the public buildings and private houses that eloquently express the aspirations and priorities of the town’s distinguished past are still largely intact. Even the mediaeval street grid which spread down the hill from the castle is still clearly evident.
Perhaps most famously in modern times, A E Housman, whose ashes are buried in the graveyard of the handsome St Laurence’s Church, gave expression to the beauty that surrounds Ludlow. More recently Sir Nikolaus Pevsner declared Ludlow “by any standard, one of the best loved, best preserved and most aesthetically pleasing towns in Britain.” John Betjeman too described it as “the loveliest town in England,” although, perhaps, he was influenced then by his enthusiasm for all things Victorian – the Market Hall, built in 1887 by a sinner of an architect named Harry Cheers, of Twickenham, on which Sir Nickolaus commented, “There is nothing that could be said in favour of its fiery brick and useless Elizabethan detail.’
It says something for a too often misguided coterie of local planners that the decision was taken some twenty-five years ago to do away with this monstrosity and open up the wide space in front of the castle gates for markets and other al fresco activity. Those who still wish to see the deceased Market Hall need only look at the televised drama, Blott on the Landscape, which was filmed in and around Ludlow before the demise of the building.
While Ludlow has been blessed by a lack of excessive spoliation by industrial demands or inept, self-interested planning decisions, it has by no means escaped completely. Visitors arriving by train at Ludlow’s agreeably presented station, having first caught a glimpse of St Laurence’s magnificent perpendicular tower, are advised to avert their eyes from the two unappealing supermarkets – in the case of Tesco, aggressively so – that have been allowed to infest the old cattle market and marshalling yard.
Walking up through a large but sadly essential car park, visitors should once again avoid lingering over the prospect of Ludlow’s ill-conceived library, designed by modernist architects, Aldington Craig and Collinge and completed in 2003, despite the vigorous objections of the majority of the inhabitants of the town, including the Ludlow Civic Society, on grounds of both inappropriate style and sheer scale within the context of the town. As so often happens when money is to be made, the aesthetic views and preferences of the people were overruled.
But as a visitor passes this blot, and the cheap red brick blockhouse of another supermarket, now the Co-op, and turns into the older part of the town, relief is at hand. Centuries of urban living stand to greet the visitor with a cornucopia of 15th and 16th Century timber-framed shops and dwellings, mediaeval masonry, elegant Georgian brick, massive town walls, a 13th century turreted stone portcullis gate and a church which Simon Jenkins, in his admirable England’s Thousand Best Churches, awards five stars. As if this were not enough, at the top of the town, at the far end of Castle Square stands the magnificent ruin of Ludlow castle, worth several hours visitation in its own right.
But among this antiquity exists a vibrant town of some 10,000 people who, while enjoying the privilege of going about their daily lives in these exceptionally fine surroundings, have ensured that Ludlow can offer as much as any similar-sized modern town, and more.
The market which operates most days in the wide space of Castle Square offers a quirky and eclectic mix of market traders to specialist antiques and crafts. With the wide range of produce available from the wonderfully unspoilt country that surrounds Ludlow, a strong tradition of high quality food retailers and restaurants has emerged over the last quarter of a century, adding another strong attraction to the town, and despite the damaging practices of the big PubCos there are still many good and picturesque pubs from which to choose, several of which serve fine local ales.
The castle itself makes a fine venue for the annual Shakespeare play, the Food Festivals – vernal and autumnal – and the Mediaeval Christmas Fayre.
Recent initiatives by Ludlow residents have made many of the local streets a joy to visit. Stroll down Lower Broad Street towards the Ludford Bridge to see floral displays and freshly painted houses. Similar initiatives are also under way in Old Street and Corve Street as well as elsewhere in Ludlow.
Further information on Ludlow and environs at……
Ludlow Civic Society
51 Julian Road
Ludlow SY8 1HD
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