On Touring the Herefordshire Countryside in Tiaras
I don’t know how it transpired that the novelist/architect/gourmet cook Julia Hawkes-Moore and I decided that we should wear tiaras when she showed me around her home county of Herefordshire. Suffice it to say that it became a running joke between us from the moment we worked out that I would visit. Thus, when we headed out into the gray Saturday afternoon after a brunch of spaghetti carbonara, it was not at all a surprise when one of our first stops was in Leominster, at 4 Parties and a Wedding, the party and costume shop Julia’s friend Louise runs. There Julia chose a gold tiara for herself and a silver one for me, while Roger became, by turn, a stormtrooper, the Phantom of the Opera, and who knows what else.
Julia is an architect. On the way out of Bromyard, she showed me some homes she had designed, one of which she told me I could buy for £169,000 (I checked my wallet–no go.). What she really wanted to show me were the black-and-white houses, so, donning our tiaras, we set off in search of the suitable picturesque village. We found Eardisland on the River Arrow which, in the rain-soaked countryside, was running terribly high under the stone bridge in the center of the village. Roger, an accomplished photographer, wandered away in search of the perfect shot, while Julia and I walked along the river, admiring the houses. She told me of the house that had formerly been the mill, which had been converted by an airline pilot–I should like to have seen the mill’s wheel, under the glass floor, which sounded pretty awesome.
Julia had two maps in the car. I kept my finger running along the roadways as I stared out the windows at the wet green countryside; Roger, I think paid more detailed attention, as he’s a traffic engineer by profession, and Julia said his pet peeve was poor signage. Our next stop was in Pembridge, because Julia wanted me to see the bell tower next to the church. It predated the church, she explained. The bell originally had been used to warn the villagers of marauders, most of whom would have been coming from Wales; then the entire village, including livestock, would have huddled inside for defense–and there were arrow slits to prove it. We went inside and had a look at the huge timbers framing this extraordinary tower, and because both she and I have sympathetic imaginations, we talked in whispers about the children being shunted up into the framework to make
room for the cows and sheep below. This wasn’t the only place where Julia’s story-telling ability gave me shivers: outside, we went around to the great wooden front doors of the church, where she pointed out the holes the muskets of Cromwell’s men had made when they besieged the villagers seeking sanctuary during the Civil War. Cromwell was definitely the bad guy in this area of Herefordshire, if not this area of England.
We couldn’t leave Pembridge without some historical levity, though. Leaving the churchyard, we went down to the market hall, which has stood in the open square below the church since the early 1500’s (though the original market predates that by a couple of centuries. Without open to the air, the market hall now shelters several picnic tables, but Julia pointed out the door up in the eaves, where in (long) past years, drunken people were sent to dry out–or fall out, if they weren’t careful.
We took the scenic route back toward Bromyard, following narrow lanes that crept between towering hedgerows. At times we had to pull over to the extreme verge when we met oncoming cars. The route Julia chose, though, took us past Dunkerton’s Cider Mill, where Roger and I tasted some of their dry and medium-dry ciders–Julia abstained, because she was driving, and that’s deceptively powerful stuff–though they didn’t have an open bottle of perry to compare, sadly. I bought a bottle of their premium organic to share with dinner (though we forgot to open it!).
Our final stop on the way home was appropriate for women wearing tiaras in the Herefordshire countryside: Hampton Court Castle, which predates the royal palace of the same name by some 80 years. We didn’t go in–we saved that for the next day (more on that later).
As we were driving vaguely westward, Julia pointed out the line of hills which marked the Welsh border. Even as the sun broke out, the hills were dark and forbidding. Imagine knowing your enemy was up there, waiting to swoop down upon you, she said . Nowadays, Roger informed me, the only thing swooping down from there tended to be hang-gliders. Imagine the Welsh marauders swooping down to attack on their hang-gliders, I suggested. Ever-practical Roger would have none of it, though: hard to hang-glide back over the border with sheep and cows under your arms, he said. I had to admit he had a point.
Something I first noticed in Scotland, at Culloden, several years ago: in the Britain, the past isn’t past like it is here in the US. People are still living in it. As Julia and I examined the holes in the door of the Pembridge church, a man who joined us expressed disgust with Oliver Cromwell. A cruel man, he said, as though talking about his next-door neighbor, someone he knew personally and well, and could not bring himself to like.