Ruth Smith: Ledbury: Past & Present

PUBLISHED: 11:03 09 February 2010 | UPDATED: 15:48 20 February 2013



Ruth Smith is the young author of a new book, Ledbury: Past & Present. Here she explains how the book came about, and what she has learned from it about her home town.

Ruth Smith is the young author of a new book, Ledbury: Past & Present. Here she explains how the book came about, and what she has learned from it about her home town.

Back in 2006 I did some work experience for a publisher in Stroud. I was assisting a lady working on a series called Britain in Old Photographs; and when I asked if there was already a book on Ledbury, she said there wasn't. "But why don't you write one yourself?" she said, jokingly.

At the time the idea appalled me. But over the course of the next year I kept remembering what she had said. I began to think of how I could go about researching such a book, and which locals I could talk to. So after twelve months I rang the publishers to see if they remembered me and if I could give it a go.

The idea was approved, so I gave myself a schedule of just under a year to compile the book; and in November it was published. I am so glad I undertook the project - for I have learned more about my hometown than I could have imagined. The old photographs that appear in the book, and the people I have talked to, highlight so many changes that Ledbury has seen, while at the same time showing how much in the town has remained the same.

It is perhaps the function and not the physical nature of Ledbury which has altered so greatly. For hundreds of years it was a market town. The market was held weekly, selling animals and other local and seasonal produce, originally on the High Street in the centre of town. By the late nineteenth century this was seen to be unhygienic, and in 1887 a new market site was constructed on the site where the Community Hospital now stands, between Bye Street and New Street. The last livestock market was held here in 2000. Yet today, even without a livestock market, Ledbury can still be called a market town, as weekly markets are still held in the market house - and in St Katherine's Hall the WI appears every Friday and an antique and craft fayre on Tuesdays.

Ledbury's name originally meant 'a dwelling on the river Leadon'. The Domesday Book of 1086 called it Liedeberge - in which the suffix berg derives from the Old English word for walled town or borough. The river Leadon runs about one mile west from the modern town centre.

Pioneer photographer and antiquarian Alfred Watkins of Hereford, perhaps best known for his theories about ley lines, captured many intriguing images of Ledbury during the late 1800s and early 1900s. One of the most dramatic pictures is of Church Street, also known as Back Lane. The quaint 17th-century cottages which once lined the upper part of the street were tragically demolished to make way for modern flats to house the elderly. By 1974 all of the cottages had gone, and in 1983 the girls' school situated a little higher up the street was also destroyed.

Some of the old pictures shown here are from Alfred Watkins' collection and may have been taken by cameras which he made himself. His extensive collection is now housed in Hereford Library.

Although some of its handsome old buildings have disappeared, Ledbury has retained many unique features. It has many thriving independent businesses. The pubs, for one thing, have kept their individual identities: there's not a single Wetherspoons in sight. For young adults today, as well as adults of a slightly older variety, a very jolly community spirit is to be found here.

Other independent businesses include bookshops, delicatessens and cafes. Take for example, Tilley Printing, one of the oldest printing presses in the country. It is set back off the High Street in Tilley Alley. After climbing the steep steps to enter, you could be forgiven for believing you had stepped into a scene from the early 1900s. Around the room are stamps of all shapes and sizes, neatly stored away for when they are needed to make the next letter or poster.

The Tilley family used to be one of the most prominent in town. Luke Tilley, one of five brothers, originally came to Ledbury in 1869 to start a business as a stationer and printer. The family also created a library which lasted until the 1960s. Tilley Printing is now run by Martin Clarke, and everything from personalised stationary to old copies of the Tilley's Almanac, a sought-after phone directory last published in 2002, can still be obtained.

Another colourful Ledbury figure is William Turberfield, commonly known as Bill, the town crier. Bill was awarded the position after beating fellow applicants in a shouting audition in the Walled Garden. In medieval Ledbury town criers would have been the main way of bringing news to the people - as so many would not have been able to read. Bill continues to inform Ledburians by announcing official events, such as the recent successful Medieval Night in December.

Youngsters can find much entertainment in Ledbury, such as LADs - Ledbury Amateur Dramatic Society, founded in 1938. Around 250 members help to put on a variety of productions throughout the year including a pantomime. In 2000 its fine new premises opened - the Market Theatre - after the old 'tin shed' was demolished the previous year.

Local people can help to preserve Ledbury's heritage by joining the Ledbury & District Civic Society, a charitable trust which has regular meetings and often approaches the town council with ideas for promoting the town's best interests.

Another project which aims to bring history to life is made up of authors, researchers and volunteers: England's Past for Everyone in Herefordshire. With the help of Lottery funding, it is currently investigating the origins and development of Ledbury. Its latest venture has been to transcribe nearly 300 handwritten wills and inventories of local people dating from 1541 to 1700.

Another great source of pride is Ledbury's poetry festival, the largest in the country. It takes place over ten days in July and features both local and internationally known poets, actors and media personalities. It is fitting that it should be held in Ledbury, when so many great poets have lived nearby, including John Masefield, Elizabeth Barrett Browning and the Dymock poets who worked just over the Gloucestershire border such as Rupert Brooke, Robert Frost and Edward Thomas.

I personally feel that it has been nothing but a pleasure to have grown up in and around Ledbury. I am very grateful to everyone who lent me photographs and gave me their time while I was preparing my book, and I hope that, in illustrating some of the dramatic changes that have taken place here over the years, it will encourage local people to preserve what is best about our town.

Ledbury Past & Present is available from all good book stores, from The History Press ( or on 01235465577) or from Ruth Smith ( or on 07870417750).

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