Presteigne, Herefordshire: Not like anywhere else
PUBLISHED: 15:18 26 November 2010 | UPDATED: 15:02 20 February 2013
Sam Llewellyn describes the quietness and quirks of Presteigne.
Radnorshire is a big, wild, hilly county, with fewer people to the square mile than the Outer Hebrides. Once upon a time, Presteigne was its county town, and shared its wildness, in a quiet way. For a long time it was famous for sheep farming and a couple of its quirks. Most notably, the Curfew bell still rings every evening in the splendid tower of the church, according to the bequest of John Beddoes, a seventeenth-century merchant who founded the school and made this a condition of his bequest. And equally notably, the servant girl Mary Morgan was hanged here for the murder of her illegitimate baby, having been sentenced (legend has it, inaccurately) by the magistrate who was its father. Ah, yes, people from Off used to say. Presteigne. The ultimate British backwater.
On the face of it, this seemed no more than the truth. The early settlement by the bridge over the Lugg was connected to the later-medieval High Street by Broad Street, a double line of timber-framed houses whose larger specimens were refaced in the 18th century. Broad Street is the home of the Judge's Lodging, where Mary Morgan was incarcerated, now a prizewinning museum. Here too lived Admiral Puget, after whom the Sound in America was named. Many of the High Street shopfronts are unchanged since the nineteenth century, and there are some splendid timber-framed buildings, notably the Radnorshire Arms, a moderate pub with a garden famous in summer for its large population of slow worms.
Admirals famous in remote places, timber framing and slow worms are not an infallible recipe for vibrancy, and until the late 1960s, Presteigne sat among its hills, farming busily, not paying much attention to the outside world. But it has always attracted remarkable people to its hinterland. Dr Dee, the eminent Elizabethan thaumaturge, dwelt in the badlands beyond ruined Stapleton Castle on the town's outskirts. Much later, Sidney Nolan, Australia's greatest painter, came to live a mile down the Kington road at the Rhodd.
The original inhabitants of Presteigne are quiet-voiced people of a tolerant disposition, and seemed more pleased than otherwise at the new faces arriving in town. Artists and musicians, drawn by cheap houses in the beautiful hills, did their shopping in the High Street. Locals got to grips with the French avant garde at Film Society nights in the Assembly Rooms, while refugees from Ladbroke Grove found themselves helping with the lambing in frosty sheds on Stonewall Hill. By the 1970s, there was rock and roll at the Barley Mow and in the British Legion.
In the summer of 1983 the Presteigne Festival arrived, and has been held during the last week of August every year since. The Festival is a splendid showcase for new classical music - Anthony Powers and Michael Berkeley, both local, have contributed works - and has a composer-in-residence. It also has the distinction of having staged one of the few British performances of Erik Satie's 'Vexations,' a short, annoying sequence of notes repeated 840 times. Presteigne performed it in the town barber's shop, ringing a handbell after every ten repetitions. The rendering lasted some 17 hours.
None of the rich cultural life that now flourishes in the town would be possible without the welcome of the farming community. Councillor Colin Kirkby started a recycling centre, and used its proceeds to fund the Assembly Rooms, a splendid arts venue. Councillor Eddie Taylor MBE famously extended a hand to the new arrivals, helping secure and care for Went's Meadow, the local park. Went's Meadow is now the home of Sheep Music, the major rock and world music festival of the Marches, supported by the whole community and hugely popular. After last year's hideous downpours turned it into a mudbath, a team of local farmers turned up with tractors and put the meadow back in trim as an act of community goodwill.
Sheep Music is descended from various gatherings in various fields, many of them spearheaded by figures like the local composer and multiinstrumentalist John Hymas, and Pete Mustill, musician, animateur and editor of Broad Sheep, the Marches' favourite listings magazine. Other communal events arrive from time to time to convulse the town, many of them dreamed up in the tiny but excellent Hat Shop restaurant. One of these was Hymas' Great Orrery, in which Went's Meadow was transformed into a representation of the Solar System, with an orchestra in the Sun and dancers impersonating planets over an area of half a square mile.
Last September, a troika of strong-minded women began the Greening Presteigne campaign. In September, plastic bags were replaced by reusable jute. In October, the inhabitants drastically cut their water use. In November it was low-energy light bulbs, December was Shop Local, January was turn-off-appliances, and new forests of carbon-offsetting trees are being planted as we go to press. Greening Presteigne has spilled over into the Tour de Presteigne, the world's biggest electric bike rally, which sees green machines from as far away as China whizzing silently round the town on the first weekend in May.
So there Presteigne sits among its hills. It thinks it is a pretty ordinary town, though the average age of the inhabitants is perhaps slightly younger than in many of the market towns slung up and down Offa's Dyke. It is certainly not a backwater any more. But if you told it (as some rather excitable people have) that it has become one of the spiritual pressure points of 21st-century Britain, it would probably be horrified. Like Totnes without the aromatherapists, people say. Or Glastonbury without the crystals. Or Hebden Bridge without the beards. No. Presteigne is not like any of them, really. In fact it is not like anywhere else at all.