The Parson and the Publican in Ledbury
PUBLISHED: 12:07 15 November 2010 | UPDATED: 18:10 20 February 2013
The Parson, The Reverend Ian Charlesworth, and the Publican, Richard Stockton, refresh their Christmas spirits at St Michael's Church and The Feathers Hotel
The Parson, The Reverend Ian Charlesworth, and the Publican, Richard Stockton, refresh their Christmas spirits at St Michaels Church and The Feathers Hotel.
St Michael's Church (in the words of the Parson)
Now Santa Claus may be checking his list twice to see who has been naughty and nice but as November slips away and I find myself lighting the fire in the sitting room earlier each evening it is time to go through my list to make sure that all is in place before the frantic rush that it is the run-up to Christmas begins.
The Christmas pudding, securely covered and tied, sits smugly on the pantry shelf. The Christmas cake, made along with the mincemeat and pudding in the October half-term, is looking a little hungry so a small feed of brandy is administered. A visit to my lay reader reassures me that the Christmas goose is looking very well indeed and is certainly in good voice as I get out of my car.
A quick look around the door reassures me that the Sunday School nativity play rehearsals are well under way and it will be another innovative presentation if the placement of the star on a stick being wielded by somebody's little angel is anything to go by.
This year the tableaux for our Nativity on the Green are being presented by various parish groups.
I am assured that the Mothers' Union have found a virgin and are ready to do the Annunciation; the Young Farmers are lined up, tea towels to the ready, to offer us their shepherds awatching their sheep and at the pub we wait to see how our landlord deals with the part of the innkeeper this year. With the choir in training for their annual stand-off with the brass quintet it looks like everything is in place for another memorable celebration.
With all in place I call upon the veteran of many a Christmas campaign, the Publican, only to find him a bit off colour. Senior management has been taking an inventory of things to do and finds that there are a number of presents that need to be purchased and his solution of bottles for the lot of 'em doesn't seem to have gone down too well. Since it would appear that a similar state of affairs exists at The Rectory a trip is planned.
Ledbury presents the very essence of Christmassy to the world with lights strung across the road and all the shops decorated to entice the shoppers. Ours are certainly enticed but since neither the Publican nor I are good at retail we retreat to the church. Set back from the main street up a cobbled lane St Michael's is an oasis of calm. There is a feel of a cathedral close to the churchyard with elegant residences just visible over the surrounding wall. The wind is a cool one promising rain and so it is with relief we step through the porch into the church.
Often when we see such things they are a little tired or out of date but these are full of the life of an active church community. Clearly it has been a busy year and the Hat Sunday pictures take my old chum's fancy particularly. He wonders if we might try something similar thinking, no doubt, of the deerstalker of dubious parentage that chill days see him tie down over his ears, or perhaps the straw boater with the old school colours around the band, somewhat battered and disreputable as indeed is its wearer.
I mumble something vague and draw his attention to the pillars of the nave. They are not straight. Given that the Old Licensed Victualler (OLV) has lived a lot of his life propping something up I thought to check whether it was my eyes or the architecture that were out of true and was somewhat relieved when the obliging steward reassured us both that it was indeed a feature of the church as was the somewhat slumped chancel arch.
The church is full of delights. The stained glass windows show a complete range of styles and methods. Picking out the personal details in the Benedicite Window gave a real sense of the people in whose memory it was donated. Standing at the chancel step we were much taken by the hidden sanctuary lamp and loved the idea of the good folk of Ledbury cocking a snook at the Reformation in this way. The Norman portholes are a particular feature of the chancel which are readily explained by the remaining stonework in south aisle that show the original roof line and height of the Norman aisle. The sanctuary is well supplied with memorials with a severe looking vicar of Ledbury high up on the south wall surmounted by a very fanciful tent and tassels.
The OLV pauses for some time before the depiction of the Last Supper that fills the wall behind the altar and we spend some time working out who is who. He comments that perhaps there is less difference between our two trades than might be thought for that table reminds him of many a supper he has served in his time with the interplay of emotions between the guests and the remnants of the meal scattered all around. He just knows that someone is going to walk out in huff soon and someone else will be left to foot the bill. We move on past the squint (not another name for the Publican this one but a way of seeing the high altar from the north aisle) and into the north transept. The space is perhaps the most remarkable in the whole church.
The excellent guide informs us that this was intended either as a chapter house when plans were afoot for monks from Hereford to set up in Ledbury or as a shrine for a local lady who it was hoped might be made a saint thus bringing pilgrims to the church. Although known as St Katherine of Ledbury she was never canonised. The monks didn't come either but what was created is a beautiful box of stone. Even on this dull day the light streams through the highly decorated windows that take up most of the walls.
It is hard to imagine the impact such a space would have had in 1330 but today it still leaves us awed. The tower clock reminds us that time is pressing on. As we make a move to leave the church and rejoin the
throng intent upon their Christmas shopping we reflect that amidst
such busyness this building has something to offer the bag laden shopper in reminding them what they are so busily preparing to celebrate.
The Feathers Hotel (in the words of the publican)
I always feel upon passing through the portals of the Feathers Hotel that it is like entering a rather grand gentlemans club. Spy prints adorn the walls along with copies of 18th and 19th century posters announcing impending sales of fine port wines and claret; whilst suspended from the ceiling hang highly polished brass jam kettles of diminishing sizes.
Over a sneaky snifter with the old ecclesiastical codger hogging a pew (old habits die hard) we peruse the lunchtime menus, awaiting the arrival of our ladies whilst watching other ladies snug in camel coats, collars upturned, laden with glitzy parcels meeting up as the gentle sound of convivial chatter and coffee spoons on fine china cups exudes from the front lounge.
Sitting at our table in the Fuggles Brasserie a little later we are told it was the old stables. Once the mail coaches would stop here whilst travelling between Cheltenham and Aberystwyth; here tired and weary horses would rest, at which stage of the conversation everyone turns to look at me which makes me rather cross.
As our starters arrive the aged steed reaches up and feels the bines of hops from which a shower of flakes descends into his risotto and delivers him a serious layer of dandruff; he receives a look from his CO. The sardines arrive filleted, glossy on a bed of tiny beetroot leaves; wild mushrooms stir fried in a soy sauce mix and served with cashews receive rave reviews. My potted crab however is rather a let down; what could have been a tasty subtle starter was simply crab meat spooned into a ramekin with unset butter as a topping, the whole overpowered with mace. Once the hop flakes had been removed the timbale of risotto rice, red onions, creamy Cornish brie and rocket is excellent, the rice with a good bite and cooked in a toothsome stock. The girls, eating light, choose smoked duck salad which is rather disappointing being chunks of breast rather than slices, mixed with tasty nuggets of mature Shropshire blue and diced pear which is very hard and served on sweet dressed mixed leaves; again an imaginative combination let down by detail. The star dish is placed in front of the smiling Parson; slivers of calves liver on mashed potato mixed with smoked bacon served with sauted leeks and topped with lightly battered onion rings. He is quiet for some time. My mussels are plump, evenly cooked in a tasty stock with plenty of shallots and seasoned well; the frites crisp and floury to the bite. Now as it is the festive season and the budget has bolted through the stable door we forget cholesterol levels and share three puddings: a tangy lemon tart, creamy panacotta and a memorable smooth posset topped with concentrated fruit compote.
We rise from our seats (we do try to be gentlemen) as our partners leave for some more retail and settle back to enjoy our coffee. Now, I can read the old codger like a book and I know why he keeps looking longingly towards the bar; not the attractive barmaid that seduces him but the mellow honey coloured bottle of fine Cognac. Trying to take his mind off the digestif I begin an interesting talk on the complicated reproductive process of the cultivated Hop Humulus Lupulus and just getting to the interesting bit about the asexual reproduction process involving the male stamen and the female ovary when I notice his eyes start to glaze over. Whilst thinking of Culpeppers notes upon the soporific tendency of the plant I retire to inspect the plumbing. Returning a few moments later after a posh wash I am alerted by a faint rumbling which increase in volume as I re-enter the dining room; it resembles the noise made by a contented boar lying by his sow. The friendly waitress with a rather cheeky smirk looks from me to the sleeping Parson. I give the clerical calves a kick hoping that as he rouses he forgets where he is and lets slip something salacious. I am disappointed when he just grunts.
Its dark and raining hard as we leave the warm and friendly atmosphere of The Feathers; the puddles on the pavement reflecting the Christmas lights as people hurry back to their homes and excited, eager children.
The Feathers Hotel,
High Street, Ledbury,
The Parson is The Reverend Ian Charlesworth, rector of five rural parishes centred on Llyswen in the Upper Wye Valley, co-writer and in the driving seat
The Publican is Richard Stockton, formerly innkeeper of a local hostelry of some repute, co-writer and watercolourist