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Ludlow = Heaven

Neil Sowerby amongst ‘blue remembered hills’ in perhaps England’s prettiest town

Written by . Published on June 9th 2010.


Ludlow = Heaven

Britain’s oldest food festival, now in its 15th year, is perhaps its most idyllic. Set in the grounds of the town’s 11th century castle, the Ludlow Food and Drink Festival (10-12 September) showcases the wares of independent food producers from across the Marches - the old name for the England-Wales border country.

When no taxi was available for 40 minutes at the end of our gloriously excessive meal, our hostess Judy Bradley hauled her husband Chris out of the kitchen, after his evening’s stint at the stove, to drive us home. Not bad for a Michelin-starred operation!

Last September 130 of them set up stall for a weekend of shameless gustatory self-indulgence and thousands of visitors came to indulge. If the Ludlow Sausage Trail wasn’t for you and rare breed mutton didn’t hit the spot, there was an abundance of traditional cider and ale, locally-grown fruit and goat cheeses.

I recall just sitting under a ruined rampart and gorging myself on Herefordshire goat cheese and a buxom glass or two of Wye Valley Dorothy Goodbody’s Golden Ale.

It is a perfect introduction to a special place that has lately found fame as a foodie capital. A clutch of Michelin-starred restaurants unprecedented outside London created that image.

But while the big names have come and gone, a choice of proper butchers, cheese shops, craft bakers and an outstanding farmer’s market (it also hosts the HQ of Britain’s ‘Slow Food’ movement which named it Britain’s first ‘slow’ city, cittaslow.org) maintain its reputation for quality food.

Dinham Weir from Mr Underhill's

A battle to keep out Tesco was eventually lost, but why buy food from the store’s anodyne shelves when a couple of miles up the A49 at Bromfield there’s the spanking new Ludlow Food Centre (ludlowfoodcentre.co.uk).

It’s a prototype for future quality food shopping. Eighty per cent of its produce is sourced from Shropshire and three neighbouring counties, mostly from independent producers.

As you browse its handsome shelves you can peer through plate glass windows at eight in-store food preparation kitchens that stock the shelves daily. What’s more, because of the reduction in ‘food miles’ prices are sensible.

But there’s so much more to the area than food – from the bucolic black and white villages of Herefordshire to the fabulous walks around Church Stretton – the Long Mynd and Wenlock Edge are outstanding.

We mooched around the English Heritage nook of Much Wenlock Priory, fast-forwarding a too informative audio-guide about the Benedictine heritage (it distracted from the birdsong) and then, armed with a leaflet from the cute little town’s information centre, ascended the Edge, hymned by AE Housman and Vaughan Williams.

A quite lovely, tranquil walk with vistas over the Shropshire plain and to the Welsh hills in the distance.

Ludlow Food Festival

On the way back to Ludlow, we fell upon an utterly charming 15th century whitewashed pub, straddling that difficult divide between inglenooked gastropub and basic Good Beer Guide alehouse.

Set in a remote dell in the shadow of Caer Caradoc hill, the Royal Oak at Cardington deserves the hidden gem tag.

Back to Ludlow itself and so much to explore. First-timers are astonished by the hill-top townscape. Not ‘unspoiled’ because that always suggests slightly snooty communities, dominated by Civic Societies’ and their blanket NIMBY tendencies.

Ludlow

Ludlow is a real working town, albeit with a riot of fine old houses, from half-timbered Tudor to Georgian. The vista down Broad Street alone is worth the trip and the countryside spread out below you like a verdant quilt is full of beguiling walks.

A favourite stroll is along the river from Dinham Weir. Here there’s also the chance of boating and the chance to eat some of the best food in England. Mr Underhill’s, a restaurant with rooms serves no choice set dinners - the recommended seven course one for £50, alongside a terrific wine list. Oh and you can peruse your menu in an idyllic garden overlooking the turbulent weir.

When no taxi was available for 40 minutes at the end of our gloriously excessive meal, our hostess Judy Bradley hauled her husband Chris out of the kitchen, after his evening’s stint at the stove, to drive us home. Not bad for a Michelin-starred operation. She also gave us a cutting of a sorrel plant after we eulogised Chris’s salmon with sorrel dish.

Mr Underhill’s, named Britain’s best restaurant recently by Harden”s Guide, was the sole remaining Michelin restaurant in town till the arrival of La Becasse in Corve Street, on the site of the now-departed Hibiscus. This has now gained a star in double quick time under the prodigious Will Holland.

Ludlow Food Centre

We wonder if similar fame may await another young chef in town, David Jaram at Fishmore Hall. From sous-chef he took over at Fishmore after the departure of Gordon Ramsay scholarship whizzkid Marc Hardiman. On the evidence of an ambitious exquisite meal, from an obviously fully-stretched kitchen he deserves his own share of acclaim.So too does the hotel itself, our Ludlow base, oddly remote feeling despite being only three miles out of the centre (hence the need for a taxi).

It is a new conversion of a small manor house. The word bijou and boutique spring to mind. A rainbow arched over this whitewashed immaculately Regency edifice as we arrived.

Laura Penman’s privately-run hotel is not awash with staff, though the ones who flit into view are genuinely warm. It can be a fine line between being left to your own creative space and being neglected. At Fishmore it’s definitely the former.Decent-sized bedrooms have an arty urban in the country feel without a whisper of chintz. Ours felt like a quiet haven as we slipped into slumber after a day of definite over-indulgence.

FACTBOX

Fishmore Hall, Fishmore Road, Ludlow SY8 2LU (01584 875148). Standard room rates with breakfast start at £140, luxury rooms with breakfast from £250. With dinner, respective rates are £230 and £310. Their midweek dining package, valid Sun-Thur, includes a one-night stay for two people, bed and breakfast plus a la carte dinner for two, starts at £163 for a standard room up to £218 for a luxury room. To book, visit www.fishmorehall.co.uk. or ring 01584 875 148.

The 2010 Ludlow Food Festival runs from September 10-12. For advance details visit www.foodfestival.co.uk

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Jonathan Schofield - editorJune 9th 2010.

AE Housman bless. Here's something from memory.
'Into my heart an air that kills/ from yon far country blows./What are those blue remembered hills,/ what fields, what farms are those?/ That is the land of lost content,/ I see it shining plain,/ The happy highways where I went/ And cannot come again.' He was a miserablist Housman, but struck a note. Personally I love Shropshire, it's my second favourite English county.

Pauline HowarthJune 10th 2010.

I love Ludlow too - every time I use the A49 to go South I stop-off there. On my last visit had a delicious Sunday Roast dinner at a pub behind the Church in the centre - think it was called The George.
Ludlow is definitely well worth a visit - there should be more towns like this. Would also be a good base for walking.

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