Geoffrey Moorhouse: His First Jouney To Herefordshire

PUBLISHED: 15:25 26 November 2010 | UPDATED: 15:02 20 February 2013



The travel writer and historian Geoffrey Moorhouse recalls the book and the journey that first brought him to Herefordshire

The travel writer and historian Geoffrey Moorhouse recalls the book and the journey that first brought him to Herefordshire

I'm looking at a book which shaped my image of England as a boy and, among other things, introduced me to Herefordshire. It is The English Counties Illustrated, a collector's piece now, which was published in 1948 by the long since defunct Odhams Press. Its advisory editor was the philosopher C.E.M Joad, popular at the time as a member of the BBC Brains Trust, where his answer to every question began with a pernickity "Well, it all depends what you mean by....." I was in the fifth form of my local grammar school in South Lancashire when I first discovered Joad's book.

The chapters were grouped in six regions, and some of the most popular topographical writers of the day had been hired to write about whichever county they knew best: men like John Betjeman, Richard Church, S.P.B. Mais, Sir William Beach Thomas, H.J. Massingham, J. Wentworth Day, L du Garde Peach and Sir Norman Birkett. Few of them made a living out of writing (Birkett was a distinguished lawyer) but they all had a way with words and a great feeling for their subjects.

The biggest group covered the midland counties, which included Monmouthshire and Herefordshire. These two chapters were the responsibility of I.O. Evans, a civil servant for whom writing was a hobby, and who had a growing reputation for being able to turn out a couple of thousand knowledgeable words on a wide variety of topics, principally to do with landscapes and geology.

The articles ran to a common formula and Herefordshire's was entirely typical. It began with a full-page landscape photograph, "Looking north over the Wye valley from Symond's Yat, north of Ross". The text began on the page opposite, beneath a drawing of Ross-on-Wye, with the arms of Herefordshire (lion courant above a bull's head, but you all know that, don't you?) inset into the double-columns of type.

The other photographs were of half-timbered buildings in Weobley, the Arrow at Eardisland, Hereford cattle, Hampton Court, the Wye at Ross, and Hereford Cathedral. There was one other drawing which tailed off the article, of Church Lane, Ledbury.

And then there was a full-page pictorial map. It shows all the lines of communication converging on Hereford itself, but the most compelling thing about it are the little pictures that illuminate the bare topographical details. A brace of cattle stand just above Kilpeck, a parcel of sheep are grazing near Ross, there are almshouses beside Leominster, the Market House in Pembridge, the Wye Bridge in Hereford; trees are dotted here and there.

This all adds up to an image of what we used to call "chocolate box England" and as such it is utterly charming in a cuddly sort of way. But the most significant thing about the book now is how it measures the changes that have overtaken this country over the past six decades. Herefordshire has been altered less than most counties across those years, but the place looks virgin compared with its appearance in 2007.

The drawing of the Market Place in Ross contains just two cars, parked beside the A499 road sign to Ledbury, and a bicycle propped up on the kerb. I think I can detect in the photograph of half-timbered Broad Street in Weobley a solitary Model T Ford, with but two pedestrians sauntering towards the spire of SS Peter and Paul. The M50 and the "elegant arches of its bridge" outside Ross (commended by Pevsner) was still a dozen years away.

Had it and the other motorways existed then, I suspect that a school chum and I would have thought twice before embarking on the journey we undertook in the summer of 1949, by which time I was longing to see a version of England rather different from the one I was accustomed to. I had never been abroad at that stage of my life (one didn't, growing up through the war), and the Cuillins of Skye, where I had already started climbing each year, marked the limit of my universe.

We got our bikes out and started pedalling in the general direction of Stonehenge from the grimy milltown of our origins, courtesy of the Youth Hostels Association, which provided all our lodgings on the way. In those days, mind, you could only use the hostels if you travelled on foot, by bicycle or by canoe (I once saw two youngsters refused entrance to Twice Brewed on Hadrian's Wall because the warden had noticed them arriving on the back of a lorry, after thumbing a lift).

Revelation began soon after we had crossed the Mersey and reached mid-Cheshire, where I saw my first thatched roof, and it continued in Shropshire, where I found that brick could be beautiful, warm, soft and clean; utterly unlike the harsh pink and extremely dirty Accrington brick with which most of industrial Lancashire was built. The memory is still vivid and I can even recall the thrill of it.

I cannot remember how Joe and I passed from Salop into Hereford, but I think it was probably at Richards Castle, because we had certainly passed through Craven Arms and Ludlow on the way. What I do recall is that by this point in the journey I was in a state of bliss, because we were now riding for day after day through a form of England I had previously only dreamed of. By this I don't only mean a different landscape, though it had certainly become that, but a different form of being, a rural way, a more tranquil movement of people, who seemed closer to nature and things more wholesome than endless mill chimneys and the dreadful brick back-to-backs which housed the working classes wherever there was intensive industry.

Innocent that I still was, I didn't know anything of rural poverty then, which was almost as unspeakable as the urban variety: almost, but not quite. The England I was now discovering tallied with the world of Richard Jefferies, a Wiltshire man, whose books had stirred me since I was a child. (Wood Magic was the very first book I read without the assistance of an adult.)

And during our traverse of Herefordshire, before we left it on the road which would take us to Gloucester, the feeling only intensified. Hereford Cathedral wasn't the first episcopal church I'd been in (my family's idea of a special treat had been a day trip by LMS trains to Chester now and then); but it was stimulating in a different way. I remember holding my breath when we entered the chained library, for I certainly had never seen anything like that before, something that was so tangibly in touch with seven centuries earlier.

As for the Mappa Mundi, which simply hung from a column separating the nave from (I think) the south aisle in those days, I spent so long peering at it that Joe finally had to call me away because it was time to be moving on to the YHA for the night. I have cherished that first sight of the Bonnacon ever since, especially the smug expression on its face as its impressive discharge of dung sets fire to a good three acres of mythical Phrygia. I bought a photograph of the map (taken by "Vivian of Hereford") for a few pence and I have it still as my principal souvenir of that trip.

Other things lodge in the memory. Half-timbering wasn't foreign to me - there was and is a fine example in Bolton, where Samuel Crompton, inventor of the spinning mule, was born - but until I reached Herefordshire I had never seen anywhere as sumptuously endowed as Weobley. It exemplified the perfect harmony that English builders regularly managed (something to do with sympathetic scale) in our towns until the property developers took over without a thought for aesthetics, or little else apart from profit.

But the memories that have stuck are not to do with buildings and their contents, but of atmosphere. Herefordshire seemed so peaceful and made you want to linger there and relax into it. It was a warm and sunlit August that year and I remember pausing at Symond's Yat (what a climb that was!) to look down on the Wye, and in the silence of that moment hearing the who-who-whooo-who-who of the wood pigeons, which followed us across the county and has ever since, wherever I have heard it, meant the comforting sound of a perfect English summer.

It was here that I first sampled rough farmhouse cider, which was procured for us by a chap we'd encountered in the hostel, one of those pillars of the CTC who had calf muscles like turnips after half a lifetime of vigorous cycling. "This stuff", he said, as he raised a pint to his mouth, "is no good for walking but it's grand for pedalling, 'cos it loosens the knees." I'm afraid it gave me tummy ache.

There was a lot of Herefordshire that I didn't see on that trip, that I've managed to catch up with subsequently because friends of mine decided to drop anchor there some years ago, and I visit them from time to time to enjoy one of the best views in creation. I have been a compulsive church-bagger since boyhood (the 1949 journey was planned partly to take in as many interesting churches as possible, preferably with a tower of bells, for Joe and I were devoted campanologists as well as cyclists) and it has been through them that I have extended my collection.

I can now commend to others the sheila-na-gig and other fantastical sculptures of Kilpeck, the dumbfounding Gothick delight of Shobdon, the rood screen at St Margarets and Blanche Parry's intriguing monument at Bacton. Go into any of those buildings and I defy anyone not to be moved, both by a feeling that they are in touch with the numinous, and also by what they tell us about our history as it has been lived out in one of the loveliest corners of our land. They are soothing places, and they are good at healing deep hurts and anguishes.

Go to Herefordshire, I say, and discover harmony, which is becoming rarer and more precious in the crowded turmoil of our world today.

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