The Parson and The Publican in Ludlow

PUBLISHED: 10:51 12 December 2012 | UPDATED: 22:31 20 February 2013

The Parson and The Publican in Ludlow

The Parson and The Publican in Ludlow

The Reverend Ian Charlesworth and Richard Stockton esquire, aka The Parson and The Publican, begin a new year with a series of Midlands days out. They will traverse the region, seeking out places in which to find nourishment for soul and body ...

The Reverend Ian Charlesworth and Richard Stockton esquire, aka The Parson and The Publican, begin a new year with a series of Midlands days out. They will traverse the region every month, seeking out places in which to find nourishment for soul and body.

In the words of the Parson
I have always thought that the only way to arrive in Ludlow is across Ludford bridge, sweeping up Lower Broad Street and through the Broadgate. Thus is revealed one of the most perfect street scenes to be found as the elegant Georgian houses ascend to the Butter Market with St Laurences tower crowning all. Once upon a time this entry to the town was the culmination of a tedious cross country journey to visit grandparents, a welcome crescendo to finish on. Then, we didnt proceed up the street, we took a very sharp left just through the gate into Silk Lane and around the corner to find hospitably open gates waiting for us.

Today the Old Licensed Victualler and I do proceed cautiously up Broad Street and after parking make our way to coffee. There is only one place to go on this trip down memory lane: De Greys. So little has changed here that I almost expect to see the short-trousered version of myself, legs dangling, feet clad in sensible sandals, sitting with my grandmother as she has coffee with one of her golfing chums. I put this down to timeless charm and elegance and am pleased to note that the coffee, delivered by a cheery waitress in a neat uniform with starched apron and bandeau, is really delicious. The cafetiere contains enough for the OLV and I to have several cups, he with a little cream, along with his flapjack. I opt for the apple cake which is moist and spicy. As we sit down we are a little concerned to note that the wall feels hot. The OLV is worried that a fire might be raging behind the anaglypta but with a reassuring smile our charming waitress reassures us that it is the heating. Jolly welcome it is too on this cold day.

We are meeting an erstwhile churchwarden of mine who has returned to Ludlow after a sojourn of some years in our little corner of the world and so we do not linger too long. I look to pay at the little booth by the door but there is a proper counter now so having settled up we make our way to the church.

St Laurences dominates the approach to Ludlow but once in the town it is hard to see and I am not convinced that the OLV trusts me entirely when I plunge down a tiny alley behind the Butter Market but here is one of the most remarkable parish churches in the country and the place where I began to learn to read churches.

Every Saturday that short-trousered version of me, I tell the OLV, would come with my grandmother to steward in the church. This entailed her dusting a section of pews and then manning the little stall from whence guide books were sold. Once I had helped with the dusting I could manage the lower portions so easily I was encouraged to seek out various aspects of the church. I recall time spent locating the masons marks and still have a guide to where they all are. I try pointing some out to the OLV, explaining as I do so that they were to ensure each man got paid for what he did, but his eyes aint what they used to be so he takes my word for it.

After I had exhausted the masons marks I was sent to work out the stories in the stained glass. So I learnt of the creation of the Palmers Guild, the grisly tale of St Laurences martyrdom broiled to death on a grid iron, and some of the symbols of the apostles and saints, all depicted in one of the most remarkable collections of medieval stained glass in the country. On one occasion a local historian took the trouble to explain something of how the glass was made and the brilliant colours achieved by firing. I still look in wonder at such skill.

Other distractions, for such I realise they were, led me to linger over the carvings on the misericords. These remarkable survivals form a mixture of cautionary tales, scenes of medieval life and heraldic badges. To warn against vanity there is a mermaid with her looking glass and comb, and harpies either side. There is a lovely domestic scene of the householder sitting before his fire in winter with sides of bacon hanging beside him. Intricate work shows medieval tools and clothes. Harts and falcons betoken rich patrons. I take particular care to point out the scene where an alewife is being carried over the shoulders of demons to be deposited into the gaping maw of hell. She still holds the jug from which she has been selling short measures a dire warning to all licensed victuallers old or otherwise. In assumed innocence the OLV points to a nearby carving and asks what it represents. It is, I was always told, a fox dressed as a bishop preaching to the fowls a medieval comment on the predatory nature of some of the clergy. Thus reminded of our frailties we pause to admire the carvings on the pew ends particularly the Pieta, with the dead Jesus cradled on Marys lap, and the Lord of Misrule doing a little jig.

After admiring the colourful tombs the erstwhile churchwarden and I go in search of leather buckets. We both recall that these used to hang in the Lady Chapel which at one time was used as a fire station. A small opening, now blocked, allowed the small engine in and out and the buckets hung on large pegs along a screen. No doubt they have been removed to ensure their better preservation.

As we proceed around the church I am much taken to see the mechanism of both the clock and the carillion on display. I spent many Saturday mornings watching my grandfather and Mr Nash winding, oiling and otherwise tending these. Once Grandma had finished her stint I would follow these two sprightly gentlemen, both in their eighties, up the winding stairs to the room in which the clock was housed. Here, as they tinkered, I would lie on the floor and peer through the little opening to the floor of the church far below.

With such tales, and pausing before the board noting the names of Ludlow worthies past and present where, among many men, stands in golden letters Mildred Lomas, my great aunt, we leave the church and proceed past the Readers House with its magnificent porch, to find A E Housmans memorial. Almshouses, lanes, wonderful shops, butchers festooned with pheasants, a medieval water conduit, occupy us as we walk to lunch.

In the words of the Publican
Surely, says I to my old chum, the Parson, and our delightful lady companion, erstwhile churchwarden and keeper of the peace in the vestry, of all the half-timbered delights in this historic town this must be the tops. We are standing with our backs to The Bull (where many a pint was sunk in my youth) admiring the heavily-timbered faade, festooned with intricate carvings, of The Feathers. The original studded front door in the porch amid pillars supporting the first floor balcony beckons. No wonder the New York Times reported it as the most handsome inn in the world.

In great anticipation we enter the ancient portals as travellers and guests have done since the Restoration. I look at the room on the right, beautifully panelled from floor to ceiling with heavy mantelpiece over an empty fireplace. The tables are pushed to one side. Are they decorating or cleaning carpets? Are they open?

Can we get some lunch? I ask the friendly receptionist. She points us in the direction of the bar. We pass a couple huddled in coats, steam rising from their cups of coffee in front of a black void of an empty hearth. We enter the bar, a modern conversion with faux suede seats around wood veneer tables; it reminds me of an architects office soulless but efficient. I escort our companion to a tacky table while my old chum orders up the drinks ... at least the barmans friendly. There is a couple near the window on low squidgy sofas, still in their outer garments as here to the grate is also empty. They are eating a plate of sandwiches with a pile of crisps to the side. I look through the Georgian shop front window at my old haunt and the thought of doing a runner crosses my mind.

Pint of Robinsons cider? enquires the Parson in my direction. I nod disconsolately; not even the thought of some autumn sunshine lifts the spirit. We peruse the list of runners from sticky plastic menus and I am despatched to the bar to practise my memory retention. I have to wait while one of the other two diners complains about his meal and his plate is returned to the kitchen for rectification. I look towards my companions. Its not too late to change our minds and drink up but they are deep in discussion about matters parochial. The barman (still cheerful) returns without the punters plate and I wonder what miracles the chef is performing ... perhaps my ecclesiastical partner should give him a hint or two.

As I resume my seat I think about our mutual friend Ezra Bay, gardener at the big house, big thinker and philosopher on life. As he looks out of his dusty potting shed window towards his beloved walled enclosure he often tells me that he is just a caretaker, as were those that toiled before him with spade and barrow. Long after he has hung up the hopsack apron and unravelled the raffia for the last time those that follow will try to make it a better place as they pass through. The same with property; he believes that nobody really owns anything. We are custodians trying to do best for that which is entrusted to our care. I am pondering upon this thought sitting in a place so full of history and character yet devoid of atmosphere when our dishes arrive. The keeper of the keys has opted for the goats cheese and beetroot salad with blushed plum tomatoes and red chard. Symmetrical chunks of chicken breast with thin goujons of bacon on a mound of dressed leaves (oh why didnt I go for the smaller option) hide slivers of over-ripe avocado and too many cherry tomatoes. A side of thick-cut chips prove to be excellent. Bland, steamed root vegetables accompany the Parsons slow-cooked beef and mushrooms in Ludlow best beer (beef stew by another name). Alas someone has omitted to thicken the gravy and it has the look and consistency of the River Teme flowing under Dinham Bridge. Like our surroundings it is rather disappointing.

The staff are cheerful and friendly as they clear our plates and on the way out I pause at the reception desk. If one books for dinner, I enquire, still puzzled by the very ethos of the establishment, where does one sit?

Either in the caf bar where you have just had lunch or in the dining room, she indicates a room to the left. I saunter over and espy edges of white tablecloths with polished glasses, stonework, low beams and an unconvincing flagstone floor. Cold, clinical and unsympathetic. This old lady deserves better.

I am still scratching my head as the old Wolseley rumbles over Ludford Bridge.

What are you thinking? asks my old chum.

I was wondering what that cove from the New York Times would have thought if he had had lunch, says I.

The Parson and the Publican
The Parson is The Reverend Ian Charlesworth. His co-writer, and navigator is watercolourist and former innkeeper Richard Stockton.
Join their jaunts across the Midlands every month in Worcestershire Life.

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