The Delights Of Kington, Herefordshire

PUBLISHED: 15:29 26 November 2010 | UPDATED: 15:55 20 February 2013

Kington

Kington

Derek Brown samples the delights of Kington - a distinctly English border town. Photographs by Alex Ramsay.

Derek Brown samples the delights of Kington - a distinctly English border town. Photographs by Alex Ramsay.

Why is it, I wonder, that people roll their eyes heavenwards when you mention Kington? Why do they put on an arch, knowing look? Why does the bus driver, when you say you're going there, always ask if you've got your passport?



The answer is probably that Kington is the butt of a long forgotten joke. There is certainly no valid reason to pull faces about the place now. It's a lovely little market town - though the market is so tiny it is perilously close to vanishing - of some 2,700 souls so close to the Welsh border that it is actually west of Offa's Dyke.



Indeed, when the Dyke was thrown up in the eighth century, what is now Kington lay in Welsh territory. But for the past thousand years it has been Anglo-Saxon, Norman and English. Very English, in fact; although the Welsh part of its heritage lingers on in surnames and to some extent in the local dialect, there is no mistaking the little town as anything other than Herefordian.



The centre of Kington boasts several fine black and white buildings and the narrow main thoroughfare is self-evidently medieval in layout. This was and remains the heart of the town, though there is some evidence that a few hundred years ago, the centre of gravity was the fine Georgian square off Church Street, a couple of hundred yards from the present High Street.



In that distinctly English way which baffles American tourists, the High Street morphs into Duke Street and then Victoria Road, without batting an eyelid let alone turning a corner. Going in the other direction, the High Street turns into Mill Street with nary a swerve. It is here, at the junction of High Street and Church Street, that we can start to explore.



The little market hall at the junction was built in 1885. Next to it is a tiny open-air market space called the Place des Marines, in honour of Kington's French twin. Opposite stands the pleasantly Georgian jumble of the Burton Hotel.



The Burton is much more than it seems at first glance. There is a large bar where solid, home cooked lunches are available. In the evening the dining room offers a more ambitious, French-flavoured, menu priced at a very competitive 20 for two courses and 24 for three. Upstairs, there are 15 comfortable bedrooms.



The Burton's current owners, John and Annabelle Richardson, have clearly lavished a good deal of love and care on their business. Nowhere is that more evident than in the spectacular Cloud Nine health club in the old Burton Assembly Rooms, now incorporated into the hotel. The old building has been stylishly converted, retaining many beams and a lavishly ornate plaster ceiling. Upstairs there is the usual range of alarming exercise machines; downstairs is an opulent heated indoor pool, sauna and jacuzzi. Just the place for Offa's Dyke yompers to relax and get their puff back.



Proceeding down the High Street, we pass not one but two high class butchers, their windows filled with luscious looking local produce. Glyn Slade-Jones displays certificates and other prizes; Paul Lewis offers a rather waspish little sign describing itself as "Kington's qualified butcher".



Kington also has the luxury of two greengrocers, denied to many a town ten times its size. One is the organically-leaning Grapevine, and the other Morgan's flower and veg shop. Both look first-class.



Of course, if you don't want to cook your own food you could always have it done for you at the Ewe and Lamb on High Street, or the Oxford Arms on Duke Street, both with homely menus. For purely liquid refreshment, there is the tiny, quirky and friendly Wine Vault on High Street.



A short way up Church Street, the Swan Inn and the Royal Oak Inn ('the last inn in England') have handsome bars and generous menus. Both offer overnight accommodation. If you visit either - or both - carry on up the hill for a look at the medieval church of St Mary the Virgin, overlooking the town and with some spectacular views towards Radnorshire.



On the save-the-best-until-last principle, any serious beer-lover simply must visit the Olde Tavern, at the far end of Victoria Road on the very edge of Kington. It is a jewel of a pub; something of a time-warp with two small bar rooms which seem to have been untouched since the 1950s. Bar snacks are available during the week (but note that the Vaults only opens at lunchtimes for part of the week), and on Saturday nights good meals are served in the diminutive Jake's Bistro at the back.



The browsing possibilities are complemented by the usual sprinkling of tea rooms, the Angel chip and kebab joint, the Hyderabadh Indian restaurant, and, inevitably, a couple of Chinese places, one of them a takeaway only.



Going seamlessly from the ridiculous to the sublime, any visitor to Kington who is fond of his or her dinner-pail, should make a point of going the few miles to the Stagg at Titley, the first pub in the land to win a Michelin star. That was back in 2001, and the important thing is that the Stagg has kept its star ever since.



It doesn't take long to find out why. Chef-owner Steve Reynolds clearly relishes using local produce, especially Herefordshire beef at its succulent best. The wine list is as classy as you would expect, but not pricey enough to spoil your appetite. Indeed, the Stagg menu gives the lie to those fancy-pants London restaurant reviewers who insist that it's impossible nowadays to have a decent scoff for under 100. At the Stagg, you can dine memorably for 20-25 quid a head.



And now for something completely different: the Small Breeds Farm Park and Owl Centre, also a couple of miles outside Kington, and home to an eclectic collection of goats, pigs, sheep, alpacas, hamsters, tortoises, donkeys, ducks, geese and more assorted fauna. Oh, and the owls are utterly magnificent. They come from many different parts of the world, each with their own fabulous markings and fascination characteristics.



Jay Brittain, the owner, moved here 25 years ago after an enjoyable but ultimately frustrating career as a music teacher. The animal collection started after he discovered, at the auction where he bought his lovely house, that it came with 12 acres of land. He is clearly a man totally at ease with his chosen lifestyle, and remains palpably excited by his furred and feathered friends. "I love this place and I love the environment," he says. "I moved here to escape the rat race. I just fell in love with that house and that oak tree." (The oak is indeed a noble specimen, and well worth a close inspection.)



Kington is an all-year destination, but it is especially attractive in the warmer months. The country round about is laced with walks, including of course Offa's Dyke and the Mortimer Country Network. For drivers and cyclists, the county's famous black and white village trail is nearby. And also close by are the equally famous Hergest Croft Gardens, famed for their glorious late summer and autumn colours.



If you want to find out more about this lovely little edge-of-England place, do visit Castle Hill Books on Church Street. It's a marvellous second-hand treasure house with a formidable stock of works dealing with local and regional history and topography, as well as other books to satisfy every taste. A smashing place to browse.



Kington can be easily reached by bus from Hereford, Leominster and Llandrindod Wells. For timetables, contact your local bus station or tourist office.



Other useful sources of information:



Kington Tourist Information Centre: http://ktic.site50.net/home.htm (Opens after Easter)


History of Kington: http://ktic.site50.net/FollowOnPages/Kington_history.htm


Kington Golf Course: http://ktic.site50.net/FollowOnPages/Kington_history.htm


Walks in and around: http://ktic.site50.net/FollowOnPages/Kington_history.htm


Offa's Dyke: http://www.offasdyke.demon.co.uk/


Small Breeds Farm Park and Owl Centre: http://www.owlcentre.com/


Hergest Croft Gardens: http://www.hergest.co.uk/


Hergest Flower Fair, May 4: http://www.hergest.co.uk/plant_fair.html


Herefordshire bus services: http://herefordbus.info/home.php


Kington & Leominster Railway (long since closed, but of interest to railway enthusiasts): http://www.smr.herefordshire.gov.uk/post-medieval/railways/leo_king_new.htm


Area map & timetables: http://www.kingtonfestival.co.uk/site/map.html

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