It helped put the tiny Shropshire market town of Ludlow on the gastronomic map, but after a decade delighting diners, the much-loved Merchant House restaurant has served its last meal.

The move, after the celebrated chef Shaun Hill and his wife, Anja, failed to find a buyer for the Michelin-starred restaurant, is bound to disappoint gourmands. Seating just 20, it has been regularly ranked among the top 20 restaurants in the world.

But success has not come easily. When Mr Hill moved to Ludlow in 1994, there was just one other restaurant. He planned to use a Jacobean building in the centre of town, but met with protests from residents concerned it would bring parking and drainage problems.

But he persisted, and within months his restaurant - staffed by just four (Mr Hill in the kitchen, his wife out front, a waitress, and someone doing the washing up) - was awarded a Michelin star.

Today there are two dozen restaurants and, despite a population of just over 9,000, it is the home of more Michelin-starred restaurants than anywhere in Britain outside London.

But for Mr Hill, a former head chef of Gidleigh Park in Devon, it is time to move on. He and his wife put the restaurant on the market eight months ago. Despite a price tag of £550,000, and adverts placed in London, New York and Paris, there have been no takers, and they will now have to convert it back to a private property.

"It's been the job I have enjoyed most in all the time I have been working. It is a wrench to do it, but I had started to become stale," he said yesterday.

"With a small restaurant, you are confined with what you can do. With no help, you can do some things better because you haven't got idiots to mess it up. But I feel I have done as much as I can do here."

Saturday evening was the restaurant's last night and, like almost every other night since it opened, it was fully booked.

Not one to dwell on the past, Mr Hill remains upbeat about the decision to close. "I always have music because in a restaurant so small there is the danger of people being disturbed by profanities coming from the kitchen," he said. "But instead of the refrains of Don Giovanni, I played a pre-war German harmony, Wochenend und Sonnenschein - Happy Days Are Here Again. No one got it, but I found it funny."

Not everyone was in such celebratory mood. "The place looks like a Mafia funeral parlour, there are flowers and cards everywhere. Everyone has said how sorry they are that we are going, but it is time to move on," he said.

The 57-year-old is anxious to start a new culinary enterprise. "Opening another restaurant is a possibility."

Ludlow will no doubt feel the effects of the closure, but Mr Hill remains modest about the impact he has had on the town. "Everyone thought I was crazy to come here. Ludlow wasn't seen as the obvious career move, but it had half a dozen world-class butcher's shops, which was a good sign. Ludlow has done as much for me as I have done for Ludlow."

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