Delights of Pembridge, Leominster, Herefordshire

PUBLISHED: 15:41 26 November 2010 | UPDATED: 15:38 20 February 2013

The Bell Tower

The Bell Tower

Lindsy Anderson samples the delights of Pembridge. Photographs by Robert Anderson.

My visit to Pembridge begins with a splendid lunch at the New Inn, a sprawling black and white building at the centre of the village. Jane and Rosie Melvin have run it for almost 25 years now and the food is wonderful: traditional British fare piled high on the plate. It's an old coaching inn, evidently still haunted by the ghosts of a redcoat soldier and a girl. I could easily spend the rest of the afternoon here, log fire crackling, nursing a glass of local cider and working my way through the pudding menu from treacle tarts to chocolate profiteroles, listening to local ghost stories. But it's time to start on my tour of the village, in the Market Square.

Pembridge was granted a charter for a market and two fairs in 1239, and there have been markets here ever since. The early 16th century market hall still stands in the centre of the village, eight sturdy oak beams supporting its tiled roof. One of the wooden posts sits on the original stone base of the medieval market cross. When the building was restored in 2005 a coin dated 1806 was found under it, a marker from an early restoration. As part of the new restoration this was replaced along with a modern pound coin, to show the dates of the restorations in years to come.

These days regular markets are no longer held, but the square is still busy: visitors sit here in the summer to admire the views and in December a Christmas tree stands in the centre. This year the village's Christmas lights are to be officially turned on at a ceremony in the market hall on December 6 with food and drink, stalls and other attractions.

With the New Inn behind me I follow Bearwood Lane to the north, winding past the village school which has just had a new school hall and classroom added. Past this the road turns sharply to the left and leads up to the village hall, a modern building on the outskirts of Pembridge. Further on, the road leads to Dunkertons Cider, a family-run cider mill and chocolate shop, but I turn right down Suckley Lane, a narrow road with high looming banks and overhanging trees, which brings me back to the west end of the village.

West Street is lined with the black and white houses that this part of north Herefordshire is famous for. The timber houses are often crooked with time, leaning together for support. Not all of them are black and white; some are painted in warm creams and earthy browns, glowing in the afternoon sun. The street widens at the end of the village - the only sign that there was once another market here, when Pembridge was a prosperous medieval borough. Pembridge's proximity to the Welsh border meant that during the turbulent Middle Ages English wool merchants used to meet with Welshmen here to trade in safety, and the village flourished; but increased tranquility in the area meant a gradual decline for Pembridge.

Ahead lies the road to Marston Meats, a farm shop and butchery. Their succulent sausages make a perfect centrepiece for a traditional English breakfast. From here I turn and retrace my steps, passing the war memorial, a stone cross in front of the old red brick school hall. In the centre of the village, I again pass the New Inn and head out along East Street, towards Leominster. Adjacent to the New Inn is the Red Lion, another traditional pub, with a board outside advertising live music on Saturday night.

Next door is The Steppes, which has been the village shop since the 18th century. Inside a mother is lifting her young daughter up so that she can see into the ice cream freezer. It would be nice to be six again and want ice cream all year round, but I settle for a couple of postcards and head back out.

Further along the raised pavement is the Old Chapel Galley. Yasmin Strube has run this contemporary art and craft gallery for nineteen years. As I walk up the path a friendly black cat sits amongst the sculptures, observing the passers by. Inside the building - a converted Victorian chapel - the walls are drenched with light and colour. Tall arched windows let in the sun, showing off the exhibits; and I have already spotted several enchanting Christmas presents.

Beyond the Old Chapel I notice house names showing the various trades that went on here - the old wheelwrights, the old smithy, the old post office. These days they are all private homes with colourful flowers in pots outside. The end of the village is marked by Townsend Farm, a farm shop and caravan site, which sells fresh meat and seasonal vegetables, with the day's specials written up on a chalkboard at the entrance.

On my way back into the village, I stop to admire a large oak tree with a bench curved around it. The tree is said to have grown from an acorn brought back after the battle of Verdun in the First World War. Behind it are a set of alms houses, built in the 17th century for six poor aged women of the parish by Alice Trafford, whose father and husband were both rectors in Pembridge, both commemorated on the chancel walls of the church.

Further up East Street I pass the King's House. Named after a wealthy merchant, Robert King, this is an example of the traditional close timbering which was used to show off the owner's wealth. These days it is a fine restaurant which has been run by Stuart and Jan Burke since 2003. They tell me that they jumped at the opportunity of moving to Pembridge. I can recommend their beef and ale pie, made with local Wye Valley Bitter. They have special tasting nights every month and December's theme is 'Christmas around the world'.

The mouth-watering smell of freshly cooked food draws me into Sally's Pantry, where there are locally cooked pies, quiches and cakes for sale. Sally also runs a caf at the nearby Westonbury Mill Water Garden, and the food is excellent.

Next door is Cameo, an award-winning hairdresser, which this year is celebrating its tenth year in Pembridge. Samantha Ferrero-Morgan, the owner, believes that supporting local businesses and charities has played a part in its success. Although many of her customers are local she has clients from as far away as Tenbury Wells and Hereford.

Across the road is a second set of alms houses. These were sponsored by Bishop Duppa of Winchester, again in the 17th century. I turn past them into Bridge Street and towards the river.

The River Arrow cuts through the south of the village. In the summer the meadow here is filled with families enjoying the water; and the annual Village Show and Trotting Races are held here. Later in the year when it is quieter, residents of the village can be found fishing for wild brown trout or the occasional grayling, often assisted by a kingfisher doing a little fishing of its own. It is a beautiful spot just to sit and listen to the quiet chattering of the water.

But the air is chilly, and eventually I leave the river behind and head back up to the centre of the village. I take the path between the Red Lion and the Steppes, passing the yew trees which mark the entrance to the church. The large 14th century Church of St Mary the Virgin sits on a slight hill overlooking Pembridge. Most of the church was built in about 1330 and the masons' marks suggest that it took about five years to complete. Inside, the Jacobean carvings on the pulpit, reading desk and lectern are examples of the Herefordshire craftsman at his finest, depicting mythical creatures and designs from nature. I especially admire the reading desk, which shows a Talbot (hunting dog) defeating a Wyvern (dragon) and represents the triumph of good over evil.

Just outside the church is the detached, octagonal bell tower, a stunning example of medieval timber and stone construction. Pembridge is one of only seven churches in Herefordshire with a detached bell tower, and obviously locals consider theirs the finest. Its timbers have been dated to 1207-1216 and it houses a peal of five 17th century bells which are still rung regularly. The bell tower is thought to have been used as a refuge during the Middle Ages and the holes in the door are said to have been made by gunshot.

Behind the church there is a moat and mound where Pembridge Castle once stood, but nothing remains of the buildings. An information board shows details of a recent archaeological dig on the site which found remnants of the foundations and stone walls.

From here I follow the path back to the market square where I started my visit to this delightful village, but before I leave I might just stop for dinner first.

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