One of Britain's Most Desirable Villages: Weobley, Herefordshire
PUBLISHED: 22:27 08 February 2010 | UPDATED: 12:51 20 December 2013
Weobley was recently named one of Britain's most desirable villages. Karen Stout and Andy Johnson describe some of the delights of living there.
Weobley (pronounced Webbly) is more than simply a picturesque village of timber-framed houses, a medieval church and a green where a castle once stood. True, it still has many of its ancient features, and it is a fine sight, whether in the light of a quiet evening or a sunny morning, or on a rainy day, when its black and white buildings shine solidly in the grey air.
But it is also lovely (or at least lively) when the main street buzzes with delivery lorries and boisterous children on their way home from school. To see it purely as its buildings and its history would be to miss it, because it is also very much alive. This is a brief attempt to say a little about both past and present Weobleys - which are of course the same place.
The Domesday Book called it Wibelai - Wibba's ley or forest clearing, Wibba having been a 6th-century Saxon chief. The medieval settlement later developed along the gentle slope between the castle and the church. The castle was probably built by one of the de Lacys towards the end of the eleventh century, changed hands more than once in the wars between Stephen and the Empress Maud, and was seized by Stephen himself in 1140.
Today only the moat and grassy banks which mark the castle site survive, the stones having been stolen away centuries ago - for use, it is thought, in the construction of many of Weobley's buildings. The castle green is now only besieged by sheep, and stormed by walkers of the footpaths which criss-cross the fields in the direction of Garnstone Hill.
Today's Weobley residents are keen dog-keepers - go for a walk without one, and you may be asked: a) Where's your dog? and (if you admit to being houndless) b) Have you considered getting one? (But if you don't take a dog, you are more likely to see deer in the bluebell woods on Garnstone in the early morning.)
There are excellently maintained footpaths in all directions, thanks to Malcolm Lloyd, who has liaised with local farmers to extend the network of paths, and whose book, Weobley Walks, is available from local shops. Or, if you would like company, a group Weobley walk begins from Wildgoose Chase in the main street each Saturday at 8am.
The church of St Peter and St Paul dates from the 12th century and still has a Norman doorway, but most of the existing building is two centuries newer, including the spire which can be seen from miles around. Here are commemorated many Weobley people of the recent and long distant past, among the memorials to the distant being the alabaster effigy of Sir Walter Devereux, who was killed at the battle of Pilleth fought between Edmund Mortimer and Owain Glyndwr in 1402, and the statue of Colonel John Birch, one of Parliament's commanders in the Civil War.
In 1645, Charles I came to Weobley after the battle of Naseby and stayed at what was then a coaching house called the Unicorn. It was renamed The Throne in honour of the king's visit, and - now a private house - still stands on the corner of High Street and Hereford Street. (The present-day Unicorn pub, opposite The Throne, was built in the 17th century and made cider from its own orchard; apparently the apple-pickers were paid with tokens that could only be spent in the pub.) Weobley's allegiances shifted during the Civil War, Major Salt (who published a history of the village in 1953) observing that it 'was probably indifferent to both sides, with a slight bias in favour of Parliament because its Lord of the Manor, Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, was a Parliamentary general, but with a strong dislike for any demands for money'.
These themes - politics and finance - recur throughout Weobley's history. In 1295 it was represented by two Members of Parliament, but it did not sustain the privilege for long, because it could not or would not pay the two shillings needed for their travel and living expenses. However, in 1628 Weobley again returned two members to Parliament, and later it was one of the 'rotten boroughs' whose representation in Parliament was controlled by local landowners. (They would bring in tenants from outside the borough to occupy the village during the election; the 'voters' had to eat and sleep there in order to qualify for a vote, and were known as 'potwallopers'.)
Weobley has traded since its earliest days. On the main street still stands a row of four medieval shops (one of them now a newsagent's), dendro-dated to 1461-1479 in a recent survey of the village conducted by local historian Duncan James, which revealed much previously unknown information. For example, the building which is now Weobley Bookshop was also built as a shop more than five hundred years ago. It was one of Weobley's many hall houses, whose rafters (now hidden in the attics) are smoke-blackened by the fires that once burned in the halls below.
These timber-framed houses, with their cruck frames, carved bargeboards and curved coving, are the village's most distinctive architectural form, and some of them are unique to Weobley in style.
Weobley is not all black and white, though; it has examples of architectural styles from many periods, from The Ley (a short walk out of the village), a 16th century manor house built on the site of an earlier one (the home of one of the veterans of Agincourt); the old grammar school, built in about 1660 almost certainly by the renowned carpenter John Abel of Sarnesfield; Georgian Mellington House; right up to the houses which have just been built next to the 15th century Old Corner House at the bottom of Broad Street, and the ones about to be built in Back Lane. A local issue is whether those born and bred in the village can now afford to live there, but Weobley has some affordable housing and - as a 2006 survey showed - the community is conscious of the need for more.
Apparently Savills have recently declared Weobley Britain's eighth most desirable village, and not just because of its houses. The village (with a population of less than 1,500) is unusually rich in amenities - doctors, NHS dentists, shops and schools (primary and secondary), a library and a post office, a hairdresser and a garage - and many pleasures for visitors: a museum (open Monday morning and Thursday afternoon), tearooms, a restaurant, pubs and places to stay.
But more than this, Weobley dwellers are intensely interested in life in its many aspects, from bowls and line dancing to religion and philosophy. As well as the parish church there is a Catholic church (the oldest one in Herefordshire, consecrated in 1834), a Methodist chapel (built in 1861) and a newer addition, an enthusiastic philosophy society. The issue of whether it is worth preserving ancient church buildings when it is people who matter most recently produced a spirited and serious debate in the local newsletter, the Magpie. Weobley also has its cultural side: an annual art show, a film society, singing workshops, and much besides.
If it sounds as though Weobley is more a place of leisure than industry these days, that may be true to an extent. In the past it had many trades: it grew rich on wool, and famous for its ale, then for manufacturing gloves (with associated tanneries) and nails. The industrial revolution changed things, and the nail factory was one of the buildings that burned down in 1943. (The fire explains why there is a rose garden in place of the medieval buildings seen in pre-war photographs, and why one side of the main street is Portland Street and the other is Broad Street.)
Not that everyone wanted to work. In his forthcoming book on Herefordshire's workhouses, John Powell shows another side of Weobley life in 1844: 'Vagrants were entitled to seek one night's lodging at any workhouse and could not be turned away, even if they had no money to pay for it. Males who were deemed to be in reasonable health were expected to break stone for one hour before breakfast and two hours afterwards before going on their way. But on some occasions the workhouse master was confronted with 20 or 30 vagrants, many of whom claimed that they had no money but, having been given food and shelter for the night, refused to carry out their tasks in the morning. They did, however, rejoice in breaking workhouse windows in order to be arrested and sent to gaol, where the food was much better.' (The Weobley workhouse still exists, having been converted into flats.)
There are still people in Weobley who remember going to work in service at Garnstone Castle, a John Nash-designed house which was pulled down in 1958, and some regret the passing of those good old feudal days. These days the trades are different: silicone manufacture and graphic design sit alongside dairy and slaughterhouse in Weobley's tiny industrial estate. Some would say that there is bound to be tension between those who remember Weobley as it was and those who have moved to it recently, however much enthusiasm the newcomers bring to the village; but many people's experience is that Weobley's friendly and generous community blends old and new harmoniously.
Apart from all the industry and activity, politics and warfaring, there was - and perhaps still is - another side to Weobley. It was explored by one of its best known residents, Ella Mary Leather, who lived in the village from 1893 until her death in 1928. In 1912 she published The Folklore of Herefordshire, still much read today; in it she says, for example: 'If nettles are well beaten with sticks on the day of the first new moon in May they will wither and not grow up again. This was done in perfect faith on a farm near Weobley, not long ago.' (A darker side of the old superstitions is suggested by Phil Rickman's supernatural tales; his fictional Herefordshire village is partly based on Weobley.)
Mrs Leather's greatest achievement was the collection of folksongs from Weobley residents. Vaughan Williams and his wife went song-collecting with Mrs Leather, and sat on upturned buckets in a gypsy camp to listen to the gypsies' songs, the composer noting down the tunes, and his wife and Mrs Leather the words. It was in Weobley that Vaughan Williams heard the carol 'The Truth sent from above', which became part of his Fantasia on Christmas Carols.
So does the real Weobley show itself when the Leominster Morris dance in the street outside the Salutation Inn, with bluebells in their hats, or when the kids hang out in the timber-framed bus shelter, giggling and texting? Both? Neither? Each as old-fashioned as the other when a few more years have passed?