diamond geezer

 Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Gadabout: HEREFORD

Earlier this year I spotted there were only two English counties I'd never blogged about. So three months ago I decided to do something about it, and bought advance rail tickets for the missing pair, which is how I got to Hereford for £6. It's a long way by rail, almost to the Welsh borders, chugging slowly through the Cotswolds via Oxford and Worcester. I took the first through train of the day, and arrived just before noon. Here's some of what to see.
[15 photos]

Hereford Cathedral
One of England's Norman cathedrals, Hereford's seen a lot of change over the years, most notably when the west tower collapsed in 1786 and considerable reconstruction was required. It's nicely sited, with a large cathedral green on one side and the River Wye not far away on the other. It's also quite a friendly place (free entry, photos allowed, approachable clergy). The nave is lofty and grey, with gold highlights, climaxing with an unusual gold chain suspended above the central altar. Even on a dull day there was a sparkle to the stained glass, some of it appealingly modern. But none of this is really why people come.

The cathedral cloister starts off as a gift shop to squeeze through, then becomes a cafe serving quiche and cake, laid out with tables for lunch and tea. But turn the corner, and pay your £6, and it becomes a museum gallery leading up to proper ancient treasures. The first of these is the Mappa Mundi, the world's largest surviving medieval map, thought to have been created (possibly in Hereford) around the year 1300. First come the interpretation boards, including a more legible version of what you're about to see. Then (as a bit of a sideshow) there's one of the oldest surviving copies of the Magna Carta (alas currently a facsimile, with the 'rested' original due to return in a week's time). And then you turn left into a dark anteroom and bang, there's the actual sheet of vellum on the wall.

The Mappa Mundi depicts the-world-as-it-was-then-known as a circle, with Jerusalem and the Holy Land wholly out of scale at the centre and the rest of Christendom pushed towards the circumference. Almost everything's the wrong shape but somehow present, from countries to seas to islands, with the British Isles resembling some kind of embryo in an amniotic sac to the lower left. Look carefully and you may spot Noah's Ark, the minotaur's labyrinth and a host of fantastic animals including unicorn, phoenix and mandrake. It helped no end having an expert guide alongside to point out some of the stranger peculiarities, including the sad fact that the cartographer accidentally wrote EUROPE across Africa and AFRICA across Europe, but because he did so in gold leaf there was never any chance of amendment.

Through the next set of doors is the Chained Library. It's not the original because this is an extension to the cloisters opened by the Queen in 1996, but the shelves and books are the real thing, dating back to a pre-print era when every volume was extremely precious. Books could be lifted down and opened at an adjacent bench, although in practice the entire casing had to be unlocked and the chosen volume shuffled to the end of the shelf and de-chained for perusal in a separate reading room. The collection includes some rare early Caxtons, a lot of Latin and numerous theological tomes. Some days you can even see the cathedral's original 1217 Magna Carta, but it's precious and susceptible so I only got to see a facsimile - the real thing's back next Monday.

Black and White House
A lot of towns are uncommonly proud of the buildings their forefathers somehow managed not to demolish. The Black and White House is a case in point, it being the last structure standing in a row of shops erected in the very centre of Hereford in 1621, and a rare Jacobean survivor. You can't miss it because a) it's black and white b) most of the neighbouring shops aren't c) it's located in a fork up one end of the high street d) a full-size bronze statue of a Hereford bull stands outside, genitalia dangling.

The B&W House is a £2.50 kind of museum, representing less than a pound a floor. Downstairs is the historical display explaining how the house manages still to be here, plus the obligatory tiny giftshop. Upstairs is all historical recreations showing the rooms as they might have been in the 17th century, although to be fair a little posher than you'd expect given the original occupants were butchers. It's nicely done, especially the period furniture, wood panelling and characterfully uneven floorboards. And from the very top floor there's a good view of the Apple Store, which alas sells iPhones rather than local cider, plus the latest demolition/rebuild job across the road for a far newer residential/retail development.

Hereford Museum and Art Gallery
I've been in excitinger museums. This one lurks above the library in a long, lofty Victoria chamber, subdivided into 'the museum bit' and 'the art bit'. The exhibits make a good stab at reflecting the history and culture of Herefordshire, and are well worth a peruse, although with agriculture and trade and music and brewing and everything to cover it can only be a light touch. The gallery's a bit more experimental or, in terms of the paintings of local artist Brian Hatton who died in his 20s during the Great War, brief. But free to enter, and worth every penny.

Three Choirs Festival
Every three years, in conjunction with Gloucester and Worcester, Hereford hosts this annual celebration of choral music. It was their turn in 2018, but the Three Choirs is a midsummer event so it's all over now. The festival particularly celebrates Edward Elgar, the great English composer, born in Worcester-ish, but who lived in Hereford-ish during some of his most productive years. A famous statue of Elgar leaning on a bicycle can be found in the Cathedral Close. A further canine statue by the River Wye marks the spot where his bulldog Dan fell down the bank, paddled upstream and barked on landing, inspiring Enigma Variation number eleven.

The River Wye
Hereford's the biggest settlement on the River Wye, and is located along one of the sections where it isn't the English/Welsh boundary. The river's quite wide by this point, hence Hereford has the only two road bridges for miles, one 15th century (sandstone, six piers, vehicular access limited) and the other 20th century (busy, dualled, thundering). A short pleasant walk runs along the riverbank through Bishops Meadows opposite the Cathedral, returning to the northern bank via an ornate Victorian footbridge. As well as the nice view, watch out for the labyrinth, the pot smoking teens and the aforementioned bulldog.

Hereford Cider Museum
Fractionally out of town, on the other side of Sainsburys. If I'd had two extra hours, obviously I would've.

Postcards from Hereford
Almost 60000 people live in Hereford. There's no town even half the size within 20 miles.
I alighted from the train behind a huddle of posh country youth, one in a pink corduroy jacket.
Lest you get the wrong idea about Hereford, the tattoos'n'trackies count was also high.
Lest you swing too far the other way, several shops sell sensible green outdoor clothing and firearms.
As a Hertfordshire boy, I couldn't walk around the town without misreading the county name everywhere I saw it.
There was once a castle of Windsor-esque proportions surrounded by a moat. Now there's a park with a memorial, a bowling green and a lake.
The tourist information centre has been recently relocated, I suspect for budgetary reasons, to a market stall.
Spotted at lunch: the new Lower-6th-formers from the Cathedral School strutting back from the sandwich shop like the cock of the walk.
The very last printed Herefordshire bus timetable expired on 1st September.
Actor David Garrick was born in Maylord Street in 1716, between Neal's Yard Remedies and the Fone Shop.

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