Ross-on-Wye, Herefordshire

PUBLISHED: 16:15 08 February 2010 | UPDATED: 16:16 20 February 2013

Ross and the River Wye

Ross and the River Wye

The Great British Tourism Industry began in Ross and today it's emerging from recession with a smile on its face to greet a new generation of visitors, says Chris Poole.

The Great British Tourism Industry began in Ross and today it's emerging from recession with a smile on its face to greet a new generation of visitors, says Chris Poole.

Staycation has become a familiar expression. As belts tighten to weather inclement economic conditions many have turned towards our own country as a place to explore and to enjoy. Savouring the delights of the British Isles is by no means a new phenomenon. And it has not always been avaricious bankers and short-sighted politicians that have driven us to it. With conflict in Europe raging through much of the 18th century that, too, was a period when The Grand Tour (holiday travels in Europe for those who could afford it) became impractical. Quietly, at Ross, in 1745 the Rector, perhaps unaware of what he was starting, began to take friends on boat trips along the glorious River Wye.

The idea caught on. Before too much longer boats were operating from riverside inns transporting visitors to view the splendours of the Wye and tourism in Britain was under way. Historians describe "The Wye Tour" as the beginning of tourism in Britain. Serving as a base for exploring the Wye Valley and the Forest of Dean remains a strength of Ross today, but its character has been evolving. In a little book, published in 1973, Martin Morris writes of Ross: "A town of six thousand people, set in fields beside the river a few miles from Wales, with a thousand years of life behind it." Mr Morris, distinguished Editor of the Ross Gazette for some 40 years and decorated by Her Majesty the Queen for services to journalism, died in 2007 and would not have known that the life of the town goes back considerably further. Close by the parish church of St Mary's there is an area known as The Prospect. From here, perched high on a sandstone bluff, the views extend across the river valley to Wilton and its castle and beyond to the hills and mountains of Wales.

Ross (which became Ross-on-Wye only in 1931) can thank its legendary benefactor John Kyrle for the Prospect. During his time (1637 to 1724) the site was developed as an amenity for the people of the town. Later, the grounds of the Royal Hotel absorbed some of the site - leading to public disorder. Angered by the way in which the hotel, in 1869, had taken over what many believed (wrongly as it happened) was public space the townspeople rampaged through the hotel and gardens setting some of it alight. Peaceful now, the terraces and windows of the Royal Hotel enjoy some of the finest views in the region. Fortunately, some of the Prospect remains a public amenity and in 2008 while work on the site to move the town's war memorial was in progress archaeological examination revealed evidence of Roman occupation.

Thus, at a stroke, doubling Martin Morris's estimate of the age of the town. Coins and artefacts have been unearthed and there is evidence of what might have been some form of lookout point or watchtower. Although the extent and nature of the Roman encampment at Ross is not yet fully known the find is clearly an important part in our understanding of the region's history Ross today is changing again. Jo Lane, Martin Morris's daughter, is a town councillor, Deputy Mayor and caf-owner. She says: "A few months ago the town was showing the downturn. Now it's as though a switch had been turned on." It's easy to see what she means. Empty shop windows have been replaced with fresh new businesses, floral displays decorate the streets, which are enlivened by visitors, shoppers and townspeople alike. Jo and her husband Rob in a shining example of a new vitality in Ross have opened Caf Eleganza, close by the town's famous and historic market hall. Somewhat ruefully, Jo points to the number of other cafs that have opened their doors in the town recently.

Others echo Jo's optimism. Menswear retailer Mervyn James applauds the

initiatives by the town's Mayor, councillor John Edwards. "He was instrumental in commissioning a survey of the main issues affecting traders. With this valuable overview we can start to address the problems," explains Mervyn. On the subject of improvements to trading conditions he writes in the Ross Gazette that the Mayor: "... has, in no small measure, shown considerable foresight." Among the initiatives are a Traders' Action Group that recognises the definite buzz on the streets of Ross and the need to build on it and plan for the future. Parkfield Gallery in High Street is a familiar landmark for those seeking prints, sculptures, jewellery and more. Owner Fritha Clutterbuck says: "There is so much going on in Ross it has a really up-beat feel to it. A distinct feelgood factor has emerged from the gloom." An Australian visitor at Parkfield Gallery speaks with enthusiasm of all that Ross has to offer: "I could easily spend a week here exploring Ross, its history and the area around."

Sarah Carr, who will be bidding to replace Paul Keetch MP as the area's representative at Westminster in the next general election, is in no doubt about Ross's attractions. "It is such a lovely town, perched on that sandstone cliff with stunning views across South Herefordshire." And if you need proof of how Ross is celebrating its past while moving with the times try sitting on the steps of the historic market hall. You will find yourself amidst Tudor timbered houses clustered around the 17th century focal point of the town. While you sit on those ancient steps open your laptop. You will find it offering to connect you, free of charge, to the internet through "Ross-on-WiFi". It is no longer possible to take a boat trip from Ross to Chepstow where the Wye meets the Severn. The river's character has changed since the times of Rector Dr John Egerton. But this hasn't diminished the town's role in our region. From here "The Wye Tour" today might be by car or bus but it is still one of the most picturesque places to enjoy a Staycation and the people of Ross are determined to keep it so.

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