Herefordshire People: Heather Hurley Takes Tour through Ross-on-Wye

PUBLISHED: 16:35 09 February 2010 | UPDATED: 15:02 20 February 2013

Ross on Wye Inns

Ross on Wye Inns

Heather Hurley takes a tour through Ross-on-Wye and its inns, past and present

Ross-on-Wye stands proudly between the river Wye and the wooded hills of Chase and Penyard. Its name is derived from the Welsh for 'promontory', but the 'on Wye' was only added in 1931 to help attract tourism and to distinguish the town from others of the same name.

At the time of Domesday, Ross was a manor of the bishops of Hereford with a priest and a mill. In the 12th century a charter was granted to establish a market, and later the town became known for its iron, cider and wool industries. From medieval times Ross developed into a prosperous market town on the main thoroughfare from Hereford and South Wales to London. Although the ravages of the plague and turmoil of the Civil War during the 17th century left their mark, the town survived, mainly due to the influence of John Kyrle (1637-1724). It became a popular destination for 18th-century travellers seeking 'the Picturesque', and it continues today to be a popular tourist centre.

Palace Pound and the High Street

The Royal Hotel in Palace Pound is an ideal starting point to explore the present and past inns of Ross. It stands on a superb site high up above the river, chosen by the bishops of Hereford in the 12th century to build their palace. By the 17th century part of the site was occupied by the Pounds Inn and the parish pound, where stray animals were kept until ownership could be established. In 1816 the inn belonged to a Widow Thomas, who advertised it 'to be Let - now in full business, capable of accommodating 16 or 17 Lodgers with Excellent Yard, stable, Garden, Outhouses and numerous Pens and Standings together with Pasture Ground called the Prospect'. The site was eventually purchased in the early 1830s by James Barrett, who demolished the old inn and replaced it with the grand new building which opened in 1837 as Barrett's Royal Hotel.

A number of early inns and taverns used to be in the High Street including the former Swan and Falcon, where the Hon. John Byng stayed while touring South Wales in 1787, and where Lord Nelson and his guests breakfasted before continuing their journey down the Wye in 1802. The Swan and Falcon become one of the principal coaching inns in Ross, and it also belonged to James Barrett; but it rapidly declined after he took its coaching business with him to his new establishment in the Pound.

On each corner of Church Street once stood the former Griffin and the Great Inn, both associated with traditional stories that probably contained some grain of truth. The Griffin was said to have been visited by King Henry IV in 1399 and by King Charles I in 1645, but the 'sleeping place' of Charles I was also claimed by Gabriel Hill's Great Inn. There is no known evidence to support these claims but in 1813 scholars wearing 'a slip of oak' from the Walter Scott School were marched to 'the old chamber on the East side of Church Lane, where according to credible tradition King Charles the Martyr slept on his journey from this place during his troubles in 1645'.

Fortunately the impressive King's Head in the High Street has survived. It is believed to date from the 14th century, but it certainly enjoys a documented history from the time of the Civil War when William Nicholls was the innkeeper. The present building is of three storeys with an early 19th-century front, but its interior reveals earlier features including beams, panelling, a 50-foot well and extensive cellars. From the 18th century the King's Head emerged as an important coaching inn when the 'London and Oxford Flying Coach' carried passengers to Oxford for 17s. or to London for 1 7s. In 1814 Mr. Collins took over the 'large and commodious House' with 'Wines and Liquors of the finest quality, well-aired beds and a good Larder. All set up for the Posting Business.'

The Market Place

The life of a town such as Ross revolves around its market place, where in the past a number of inns provided a cheerful place to gossip, make business deals and enjoy a tankard of ale. On the south side the 'Man of Ross House' became a coaching inn for a short period after the death of its owner, John Kyrle. Kyrle spent his long life in Ross beautifying the town and carrying out many charitable works. It was Kyrle who established the public garden beside the church, known as The Prospect.

His house became the King's Arms, 'the best inn in town' and in 1794 was visited by Samuel Coleridge, who was inspired to write 'Lines written at The King's Arms, Ross, formerly the House of the Man of Ross'.

On the north side of the mid-17th century Market House, now used as a Heritage Centre, is the former Saracen's Head, which closed in the late 1960s. The listed building with its 'string courses of oak, carved with Tudor roses, heads with pointed beards and moustaches, and foliage and grapes on the beams beneath the eaves' may be admired from the Market Place. It is understood that John Farne, a vintner, occupied the premises in the mid-17th century, and after his death in 1658 he was commemorated by an unusual monument in Ross church.

Before 1796 the old inn was divided into two, one part remaining the Saracen's Head and the other occupied by a 'gingerbread baker'.

On the corner of Gloucester Road there is a row of modern shops called George Place occupying the site of the former George Inn. As early as 1549 it formed part of the endowment of St. Mary's Chantry and was run by a William Tomes. A hundred years later, during the Commonwealth period, a notorious landlord of the George was reprimanded for fighting in the streets of Ross and for keeping a shuffleboard table in his inn. When the Gloucester Road was constructed in 1825 the inn was re-designed to face the new road. It was demolished in 1960 but its fascinating story, old photographs and its last sign can be seen in the Heritage Centre.

In the Market Place at the top of Broad Street is the Crown and Sceptre. This and the King's Head are the only inns dating from the 17th century that have survived without changing their names. In 1687 the Crown and Sceptre was kept by a John Hill, and its architecture reflects that period, although alterations have since been carried out. In the mid-19th century it offered 'Good Stabling and a Lock-up Coach House, Wines and Spirits and home-brewed beer'. In 1928 the inn was acquired by the Ross-based Alton Court Brewery, which was taken over by West Country Breweries in 1962.

Broad Street and Brookend

The King Charles II in Broad Street stands on the site of the 14th-century Black Lion. It closed at the end of the 18th century when Thomas Purchas rebuilt the premises as a wine and spirit merchant's above cellars hewn out of solid rock. In the 1930s the wine shop was converted into the King Charles Bar, which eventually took on its present name.

On the corner of Broad Street and Kyrle Street is the Eagle. The managers in 1969 decided that the New Inn was too commonplace, so it was renamed after the space module that had just landed on the moon. A plaque inside the building claims it was built in 1716, but it was certainly described as being 'newly erected' in 1790. From 1812 to 1867 the New Inn was run by the Wellington family as a 'Commercial and Agricultural House', but never quite made it as a coaching inn.

In the Brookend the Barrel dates from at least 1792 when it was advertised for sale as 'A Freehold Messuage or Public-House called the Barrel' kept by Mary Lucy. It later became the Barrel and Woolpack, reflecting its association with brewing and woolstapling. A 19th-century brewery alongside it closed down in the 1930s after the inn was acquired by Alton Court Brewery.

Down to the Riverside

At the top of Wye Street, which leads down to the riverside, is the Man of Ross, named in honour of John Kyrle. It emerged in the 1830s in a building dating from the 17th century which has been largely rebuilt and refaced. Around 1914 the publican was a 'sign painter, heraldic and scenic artist' who romantically named the pub 'Ye Man of Ross Inn'.

At the bottom of Wye Street the Hope and Anchor on the banks of the Wye seems an appropriate place to end our tour. In 1792 Stephen Lane was the modest victualler who shared the premises with a basket maker, glazier and a flax dresser. He would have served the thirsty bargemen and the inquisitive Wye Tourists of the 18th century, and eventually his beer house blossomed into this inn.

Of the 90 inn names recorded in Ross over the centuries only about 20 have survived. This is mainly due to cultural changes, licensing laws, drink and driving, smoking bans, loss of local breweries, difficulty of making a living from premises with high rents and overheads and the availability of alcoholic drinks elsewhere. Let's hope that we don't lose any more.

Heather Hurley is the author of The Pubs of Ross and South Herefordshire, Logaston Press

Richer than Miser o'er his countless hoards,

Nobler than Kings, or king-polluted Lords,

Here dwelt the Man of Ross! O Traveller, hear!

Departed Merit claims a reverent tear.

Friend to the friendless, to the sick man health,

With generous joy he view'd his modest wealth;

He heard the widow's heaven-breath'd prayer of praise,

He mark'd the shelter'd orphan's tearful gaze,

Or where the sorrow-shrivell'd captive lay,

Pour'd the bright blaze of Freedom'snoon-tide ray.

Beneath this roof if thy cheer'd moments pass,

Fill to the good man's name one grateful glass;

To higher zest shall Memory wake thy soul,

And Virtue mingle in the ennobled bowl.

But if, like me, through Life's distressful scene

Lonely and sad thy pilgrimage hath been;

And if thy breast with heart-sick anguish fraught,

Thou journeyest onward tempest-tossed in thought;

Here cheat thy cares! In generous visions melt,

And dream of Goodness, thou has never felt!

Lines written at The King's Arms, Ross, formerly the House of the Man of Ross by Samuel Coleridge

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