The Parson and the Publican in Hereford

PUBLISHED: 02:21 22 June 2012 | UPDATED: 21:32 20 February 2013

The Parson and the Publican in Hereford

The Parson and the Publican in Hereford

As music-lovers prepare to descend on Hereford for the Three Choirs Festival, our dynamic duo get in tune with the delights and mysteries of Hereford Cathedral ... and of Diego's Café

As music-lovers prepare to descend on Hereford for the Three Choirs Festival, our dynamic duo get in tune with the delights and mysteries of Hereford Cathedral ... and of Diegos Caf

In the words of the Parson

In the dim recesses of my memory I seem to recall as a child being brought to Hereford Cathedral to see a funny map. This map, decorated with strange animals and such like, was to found around the back of the organ. It was behind glass and there was a button to press that turned on the light. One then peered through the reflections at a rather dark and largely impenetrable thing while being told by an accompanying adult with educational tendencies that it was a most remarkable thing. The light would then go off and if we were lucky we could press the button to make it come on again. Children being what they are, and I being as I am, the best bit was putting the light on.

No more. Now the Mappi Mundi is recognised as an outstanding treasure of the Medieval World. It is housed in a chamber designed entirely for that purpose with controlled light levels and reverent silence. The approach is through the cloisters and an exhibition explaining the place of the map in its own world and the unique contribution it makes to our understanding of the medieval mind. So a casual observer would have found the Old Licensed Victualler (OLV) and I peering at what appears to be half-man, half-parsnip, but is in fact a mandrake. Time and lighting make it hard to discern the details. It matters little; it is enough to stand and stare at this remarkable survival from another time. The past is indeed another country, indeed another planet if the geography of this map is anything to go by.

The exhibition that leads one towards the viewing is very good. By the time we reach the hallowed portals of the viewing chamber we have gleaned something of the world in which the map was created and the philosophy it represents. I like maps and I like a map to tell me not only how to get where I want to go but to give me some idea of what I might see en route. With Jerusalem at the centre of a very flat earth I am not sure that I would trust the map to get me anywhere but I would really like to see some of what is on the way. A very good facsimile with original colouring allows us to understand the map and we spend a long time with noses pressed close, almost touching in the OLVs case, to appreciate the details and mythical beasts.

After the Chained Library we partake of a cup of the old hot and steaming in the Chapter House garden. It is a real delight, an oasis in the heart of Hereford. The ancient walls provide support and a sunny shelter for a range of well-tended flowers and shrubs which scent the air and delight the eye. Running off into the distance the chimneys of the College of Vicars Choral punctuate the skyline. Sitting on a bench we look up at the man-made, finely decorated cliff of pink sandstone that rises up above us. Really they do a magnificent job restoring and maintaining this place. I am about to point out to the OLV that it is no easy task staving off the ravages of time when all around is inclined to decay when he starts to arise from the bench and I realise that he knows all about it,
so I keep my counsel.

We make our way through the gift shop and into the body of the cathedral. I must confess that it always seems to me more striking to come into a space such as this from the smaller confines of cloister or shop. I am always impressed by the way the space opens up, how the light suddenly brightens the eye and the architecture makes an immediate impact. Here it is that the Norman columns striding from the west becoming increasingly more decorative as they approach the central crossing.

If there is one thing that the OLV and I have become particularly skilled at it is perambulation in such places and so we perambulate at an appropriate pace with a view to taking in the scenery, as it were. They are working on the organ at the west end and we are much taken with the complexity of pipes thus presented. We appreciate wall plaques and recessed tombs and the OLV particularly admires the large, black, cast iron stove still giving off some warmth; the bishop tucked in behind for eternity will certainly not feel a chill in his bones.

The two transepts provide a wonderful contrast of styles. In the north, high pointed arches rise above the wonderfully restored and colourful tomb of Thomas Cantilupe while in the south, solid Norman is a cliff face of stone broken by three tapestries by John Piper. This juxtaposition of old and relatively recent is carried through most successfully in the Audley Chapel.

Up in the Lady Chapel behind the High Altar a little chantry chapel offers the greatest surprise of our visit. Bearing the traces of rich decoration on the outside we enter a short narrow passage into the low, vaulted space and then the place erupts with colour. Four windows by Thomas Denny celebrating the life of Herefordshire priest and poet Thomas Traherne radiate colour and are full of details that gradually emerge from the background. This really is a remarkable space and we dwell for some time in appreciation before making our way to lunch.

In the words of the Publican

Hello, Diegos says the cheerful female voice on the phone.

We would like to come for lunch tomorrow do we need to book?

No, chuckles the response, we are just a cafe, come and see us.

She is very helpful explaining the menu and what specials are on the list of runners; so helpful and charming that I am moved to ask her name:

Orchid, like the flower.

What a beautiful name, I blurt out; there is a giggle at the other end of the phone, I am smitten.

There is a spring in my step as I take the labrador for her morning constitutional and whistling The Happy Wanderer, I make for the garden at the Big House to seek out Ezra Bay, the maestro of all things botanical who reigns over his green kingdom with ultimate power. His Lordship will gently knock upon the potting shed door for admittance and her Ladyship will slip off her heels when crossing the main lawn so as not to mark his pristine turf. I espy his aged tweed jacket hanging on the greenhouse door, baggy and creased from many showers, pockets stuffed with knives and balls of twine, tobacco pouch and boxes of Swan Vestas.

What do we know about orchids oh wise one? I ask. He continues to tie up the ascending trusses of tomatoes with raffia; blue spirals of smoke emanating from his well-polished cherrywood briar. I wait. The old sage is thinking. He straightens his back placing his knife and bind of straw coloured raffia in the front pocket of his cotton drill brown apron.

Glamorous, mysterious and elusive is his considered response ...

Diegos Cafe is situated in part of what was the Left Bank complex in Bridge Street. We eagerly approach down the lane from the cathedral and across the large terrace for sunny days. Inside is smart with a sense of the swinging sixties. White and ruby red plastic seats on chrome frames, brushed stainless steel, a black floor and a glistening, steamy coffee machine. They are busy with ladies meeting for coffee, men in suits having a working lunch hunched over laptops.

Two girls behind the counter smile a welcome while the chefs are busy aloft behind them. We are given menus and directed to the adjacent specials of the day board. We order a bottle of something white and cold from the sensibly priced wine list. When one of the girls comes back and asks us what we want my old chum the Parson rather embarrassingly states: What he would really like to know is which one of you is Orchid.

An understanding smile comes over her face, oh you phoned yesterday to book a table. We nod in anticipating unison.

Its her day off today, says she. The words of the old gardener come back to me ... elusive.

Well I suppose as the asparagus is related to the orchid we should kick off with that, says the ecclesiastical mastermind.

How on earth did you know that? I enquire as I am now the expert on
the species.

The orchidaceae is a morphologically diverse family of monocots in the order of asparagales which includes the delectable vegetable I have ordered for us to share.

Now I am really cross; surely they dont teach them that at theological college. I sit back with arms crossed unsure I want to share as his cherubic smile smugly covers his visage. But I change my mind when the dish is strategically placed between us. Two perfectly poached eggs adorn the al dente green spikes glistening in a balsamic dressing with coarse ground black pepper and parmesan shavings. There is warm ciabatta for mopping up and as there are seven spears the Parson delicately dissects the remaining one as deftly as a surgeon. I am tempted to inquire as to the botanical cellular structure but refrain from giving him the opportunity to pontificate further.

As my old chum tucks into his creamy lasagne, garlic bread and coleslaw declaring that there is just the right amount of nutmeg in the bechamel, Kenny the chef and owner comes around the tables. He is passionate about his cooking and the ingredients. Looking at my blue cheese, pear and walnut salad, he says that it was only because he was able to get some fine plump fruit that the dish was on the specials board. Opening just before Christmas the cafe has accumulated a strong following for its coffee which is roasted in Ross. The well thought out and executed dishes are excellent value at around 4. to 7. I throw cholesterol caution to the wind with a single scoop of the chocolate ice cream full of nuggets of dark brown chocolate. As the exchequer pays the bill Crystal (Kens partner) tells us we will have to return and meet Orchid. We assure her we will and not just to meet the elusive being but to sample more of their friendly hospitality.

As we trundle homeward in the old Wolseley my mind drifts back to the botanical lesson from the potting shed.

Did you know, says I, that orchis means testicle? By the way the vehicle suddenly veers it is quite obvious he does not. He doesnt know everything.

The Parson, pictured right, is The Reverend Ian Charlesworth. His
co-writer, and navigator is watercolourist and former innkeeper Richard Stockton. Their mission: to seek out interesting towns and good food across the region.

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