The Golden Valley

PUBLISHED: 09:30 24 March 2010 | UPDATED: 01:48 06 February 2013

Sheep grazing in Golden Valley

Sheep grazing in Golden Valley

Chris Poole finds ecclesiastical treasures on a tour of the villages of the Golden Valley

Gods own country

Chris Poole finds ecclesiastical treasures on a tour of the villages of the Golden Valley

When the Normans arrived in our area they found a valley called, in Welsh, Dwr (meaning water). Some historians would have us believe that the invaders misheard this Welsh name and took it to be, in their own language, dor (meaning of gold). Whether this confusion was accidental or contrived we shall never know but the river became the Dore and the valley, since time immemorial, has been known as Golden Valley.

Lying in the shadow of the Black Mountains, Golden Valley is sparsely populated and largely given over to agriculture. Pretty rather than stunning, the valley is a patchwork of fields sprinkled with picturesque villages, many with their own small church. And it is at these churches that we find some of the best reasons to explore this part of Herefordshire.

Anni Holden, Director of Communications for the Diocese of Hereford explains: It might not be common knowledge but the county is blessed with a very high proportion of churches which are historic buildings. Around 85 per cent of the Anglican churches in Herefordshire, and almost all of those in Golden Valley, are listed buildings, many of them Grade 1.

St Peters at Peterchurch is one of them. The village is Golden Valleys largest population centre and geographically central within it. The church has become an important rural regeneration project. St Peters, with help from Herefordshire Council and many others, is much more than a place of worship. Here the community can find a library in the bell tower (unique in Britain), a childrens centre, provision for health care clinics and facilities for a wide range of other community activities. Those involved in the project have described the way in which they looked at past practice to create a centre for the needs of today and tomorrow, helping to refresh and revive the churchs relationship with the community.

Among the more prominent of churches in Golden Valley is, of course, Dore Abbey. A little to the north of Ewyas Harold what remains of the abbey has an active and enthusiastic group of Friends including local writer and historian Ruth E Richardson who says: For me it is, above all, a place built by people, for people. Studying the carvings and details of the abbey you cant help but wonder at the skills and story of those who created this wonderful place.

Not far away, in the hamlet of Bacton, is another church close to Ruth Richardsons heart. Inside St Faiths visitors can view a remarkable memorial to Blanche Parry (for details, see the website www.blancheparry.com). Born into a landowning family, Blanche became a confidante to Elizabeth 1 and the Blanche Parry memorial here carries the earliest known image of the Virgin Queen.

It takes a little more effort to find the simple Norman church of St Margarets (in a village of the same name to the north and west of Bacton). But the short journey is well worthwhile because inside this church is a magnificent example of a carved oak rood screen and loft. Dating from the 16th century the screen is complemented by wall paintings of Biblical texts exhorting rectitude such as, over the doorway as you depart, Go and Sin no more.

From St Margarets, travellers now have choices to head a little outside Golden Valley for the remote beauty of Craswall or to visit Vowchurch and its neighbour Turnastone. All are rewarding. For medieval simplicity, St Marys at Craswall is hard to beat. First built of sandstone in the 11th century St Marys still shows its community role with a schoolroom at the back of the church and a traditional village games court (notably quoits and fives) in the churchyard.

Legend has it that two sisters are responsible for the churches at Turnastone and Vowchurch. The story goes that the sisters had a wager based on one saying that I can build a church before you can turn a stone for yours. St Bartholomews and St Mary Magdalene are no more than a couple of hundred metres apart and separated by the River Dore.

Visitors have one more stop before leaving Golden Valley and heading to Hay-on-Wye and beyond into Wales. High on the hills above Dorstone there are Neolithic remains. Known as Arthurs Stone this small, protected site is a burial chamber thought to be about 5,000 years old.

There is no Tourist Office in Golden Valley. But enterprising local businesses have created an equivalent for themselves. Christine Hope, speaking on behalf of The Golden Valley and Black Mountains Experience, says: People here are, by nature, resourceful. Agriculture and tourism are the keys to our local economy so weve developed a website and printed materials to guide and inform visitors to the area. We are growing, now with more than 30 members ranging from pubs to B&BS to art galleries. Details can be found at www.herefordholidays.co.uk

Wendy Coombey, working for the Church of England in the region, has a clear vision of the link between church and tourist: Our church heritage and our tourism fit perfectly together. The Herefordshire Churches Tourism Group was formed 10 years ago to ensure that visitors are well-informed, have the best possible experience while they are here and take away with them very special memories of Herefordshire, she says.

Should you be filling your car in the service area on the road between Hereford and Abergavenny before turning to explore Golden Valley you will see a gaudy fluorescent sign reading: Shotgun and Rifle Ammunition Sold Here. You might be forgiven for thinking you had reached the Wild West. But you need not entertain any such fears. Golden Valley is one of those special areas, valuing and preserving its traditions (and its churches) while welcoming visitors (despite the advertisement for munitions) to share the Golden Valley Experience.

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