PUBLISHED: 22:18 08 February 2010 | UPDATED: 16:35 20 February 2013
Chris Poole investigates the town's maritime connections and the bond between its people and the Royal Navy
Herefordshire, clearly, is not a maritime county. Its true that the Wye was once navigable for sizeable vessels as far as Hereford, and a canal linked the city with Gloucester, but the nearest open sea is the Severn Estuary some 40 miles to the south... And yet Ledbury, in the south east corner of the county, has naval connections.
The Royal Navy has long used the designation Hunt class for warships. Records show a World War One destroyer in this class named HMS Ledbury. Another warship, with the same name, was launched in 1941 seeing active service in the Arctic and the Mediterranean before being paid off and eventually scrapped in 1958. Twenty years later a second HMS Ledbury was commissioned, this time as a mine countermeasures vessel, and remains in service today. HMS Ledbury has a special place in the hearts of the people of the town; that warmth has been reciprocated by crew members of this small but remarkably high-tech warship.
Chris Holbourn, Mayor of Ledbury, describes the relationship: Its a bond that survives successive crew rotations and changes in the towns administration. Because of the nature of the ships work we dont see the crew as often as we would like so when we do its a time to put on a bit of a show for them. Those visits are a busy time for the crew and town alike. Events have included soccer and rugby matches, visits to schools and homes for senior citizens with some voluntary maintenance work by members of the crew, activities with the Ross sea-scouts, a thanksgiving service and a civic reception.
One memorable visit, in 2007, combined a range of events with a ceremony awarding the freedom of the town to the crew of HMS Ledbury. Under leaden skies, with an occasional almost magical burst of sunshine through the storm clouds, the crew and the band of the Royal Marines paraded through the town, forming up in front of Ledburys war memorial. The Mayor at that time, Kay Swinburne, took the parade with the Commanding Officer. Few could fail to be moved as the band played in the shadow of Ledburys historic Market House.
For the ships crew the link has special meaning. Lt Tom Wyatt explains: There is very real value for a ships crew in an affiliation such as ours with the town of Ledbury. Life at sea, especially in a small warship, can feel very isolated. Its really comforting to know that there are those at home not just our relatives and our friends who care about what we are doing and for our welfare.
In return for the towns hospitality HMS Ledbury invites visitors from the town whenever her operational deployments allow. Chris Holbourn is one of a growing number of Ledbury residents to have visited the ship in her home port of Portsmouth. He says: It was really interesting to go to sea on board HMS Ledbury and see the ship at work. No part of the ship was out of bounds so we saw the bridge at work as well as the engine room and other technical areas. As we passed over the site of the Mary Rose wreck Ledburys sophisticated underwater technology provided a fascinating view. A manoverboard exercise complete with a helicopter rescue was a dramatic demonstration of the Royal Navy working with airborne services to the excitement of the party of children from one of our local schools.
The warship has forged other links in the area too. A little outside Ledbury, at Much Marcle, is one of the countys best-known cider makers H Weston and Sons. Henry Weston, great grandson of the founder, describes his visits to the ship: It was fascinating to see a warship at work and experience the conditions that the crew work in. Were very happy to see them enjoying the real Herefordshire cider that we take to them. His sister, Helen Thomas, Managing Director of Westons agrees: We really value our special relationship with HMS Ledbury and take great pleasure in showing the crew around the mill whenever they visit the town. It highlights the importance we attach to our engagement with the Ledbury community.
On their visits to Ledbury there is much else for the ships complement to enjoy. Its not just much appreciated voluntary work and the ceremonial occasions. Ledbury has an unusually wide range of shops and landmarks to visit. The towns shops and facilities have weathered the recent economic uncertainties well. Ledburys High Street boasts shops as diverse as a gunsmith and a cartoonery (from where one Commanding Officer was presented with a cartoon depicting aspects of the ships links with the town).
The High Street offers bookshops, lingerie, designer ware for the home and, of course, pubs, restaurants and hostelries. Intriguing, for some, will be the health food shop next door to a funeral director a juxtaposition that either disturbs or amuses depending on temperament and inclination.
It may seem odd but strictly speaking the ship is not actually named after the town. The clue lies in the class of warship to which HMS Ledbury belongs. And it is the Ledbury Hunt that gives the ship its name. The Hunt, too, is proud of this connection. According to Honorary Secretary Helen Smith: There is something special about our relationship with HMS Ledbury. We are always happy to see the crew who come to visit our kennels and see the hounds and we are delighted that they take so much interest in what we do.
The current Commanding Officer of HMS Ledbury, Lt Commander Chris Nelson, has not yet been able to visit the town but when he does there is one connection that might surprise him. While serving on another ship in 2006 Commander Nelson was instrumental in the evacuation of British citizens as Israeli bombs fell on Lebanon. One of those he evacuated from Beirut (on HMS Gloucester as it happens) is a Ledbury (Much Marcle) resident.