Herefordshire: The slow road to the good life

The 21st century has barely touched Herefordshire. The pace in England's 'lost county' is gentle, the landscape welcoming. But there's a real will here, says Mark Rowe, to show off its natural assets

Attempting to locate Herefordshire on a blank map of the UK is rather like the children's game of pinning the tail on a donkey. Where you place your thumb may well be Shropshire, Powys, Monmouthshire, or even Worcestershire. Herefordshire is off the radar; visitors stop short of the county border in the Cotswolds of Gloucestershire; they may fleetingly pass through en route to Wales. Herefordshire happily slumbers on as the 21st century passes it by. It could easily be called "the lost county".

Yet those who steam ever westwards are missing out one of the last unexplored counties in England. It's a place where not everyone seeks ways in which to part you from your tourist pounds, and where talk about the pace of life being slower holds true and becomes a phrase that is dismissed as a cliché only by metrocentrics who know no better.

Herefordshire tends to make the news only when the Wye floods. While this is likely to remain the case for many years, the county may feature more in the public domain if rumours that Prince William is to set up home there prove to be true. It is suggested that the heir to the throne may move into Harewood End, a ghost village with 900 acres of arable land located on the A49 between Ross-on-Wye and Hereford, which is being restored by his father.

Despite its sleepiness, Herefordshire still manages to attract 12 million visitors a year. Just where it puts them all is unclear, as I've rarely seen them in any meaningful numbers about the county. The majority are day-trippers from the Midlands and the South, and the county is popular with Americans and Australians looking for their ancestors; antipodean visitors are drawn by the historical exports of Herefordshire cattle to Australia.

So what pulls visitors in? Primarily it is the sheer rural nature of the county: only 170,000 people live here; Hereford is home to 70,000 but none of the market towns holds more than 10,000 people. Historically, this is an unsettled area; it was an attractive proposition for both the Saxons and the Welsh. The Norman lords who built castles here to pacify the rebellious hinterland never felt less than uneasy. Herefordshire was not industrialised and the population actually declined in the 1870s as people migrated to industrial cities.

Areas such as the Herefordshire Marches are one of the few remaining peaceful backwaters of Britain. The graceful and scenic Wye coils its way through the county, poking through valleys and around rolling hills and farmland. The north of the county is dotted with black-and- white timbered villages, such as Bromyard, which have maintained their medieval street pattern, and hidden gems such as the exquisite ancient yew hedges of Brampton Bryan. Agriculture chugs along on a smaller scale than is typical elsewhere and the natural environment is what the county does best.

This landscape is emerging as the focus of Herefordshire's tourist industry. The county held its first food festival in Shobdon earlier this year and plans to establish a second, larger one, around Hereford. The whole county joins in the British Food Fortnight, while there are monthly farmers' markets in Hereford, Leominster and Ross-on-Wye which offer local produce. The phrase "locally sourced" is a badge of honour in these parts. The county's only Michelin-starred restaurant, the Stagg Inn at Titley, emphasises the extent to which it draws on local suppliers for its beef, hams, poultry and cheeses. To reinforce the point, the county has launched a "Flavours of Herefordshire" award scheme, and a "Gourmet Herefordshire" campaign, which both promote the use of seasonal local produce in its pubs and restaurants. There are plans afoot to make the county a Slow Food destination.

"It's a rural county," said Jane Lewis, the county's principal tourism officer. "We're awash with fantastic produce. But it's not just about cider and the other 'apple-ly' things. It's Herefordshire beef, nice cheeses and vegetables that have been picked from people's gardens. It's about the outdoors and the fantastic countryside. You slow down when you enter Herefordshire, not because there's a tractor in front of you - you have to slow down to take in the views."

Right now, the cider season is in full swing. For 350 years cider production in Herefordshire has ridden something of a roller-coaster, periodically rising to become an industry of great reputation. In all, cider orchards cover 9,500 acres of the county, and this figure is growing by more than 600 acres each year. One of the most charismatic celebrations is the "Big Apple", a weekend of cider-tasting, apple sales and lunches and suppers, which takes place in Much Marcle in October, while the village also holds the Apple Blossom festival in May, which runs on similar lines.

The county has the longest complete footpath in the UK, the Herefordshire Trail, which loops for 154 miles through countryside, characterful market towns, pretty rural churches and castle ruins, occasionally flirting with the border between England and Wales. Three other long-distance routes pass through the county, the Wye Valley Walk, Offa's Dyke path and the Mortimer Trail through the Marches. Walking festivals are held at Christmas and in summer.

Literary types will not be disappointed either. Hay-on-Wye, officially in Wales but thrust right upon the national border with a Herefordshire postal address, draws tens of thousands of visitors each year but somehow seems to cope with the influx. Bruce Chatwin was perhaps the most unlikely literary figure to turn up in the county. Better known for his wandering journeys with nomads, he stayed in the Olchon Valley, between Abergavenny and Hay-on-Wye, where he wrote On the Black Hill.

Just beyond the Black Mountain looms Lord Hereford's Knob, which, schoolboy jokes aside, is a mountain ridge that frames the Welsh side of the county border. It's likely to be beyond the scope of a weekend break to this part of the world but is reason enough to come back.

The desire to return is the sentiment most people seem to take away with them.

"Go round the visitor's books of accommodation and sights in this county and that's what you'll find," said Ms Lewis. "Everybody writes that. 'If only we'd known there was so much to do we'd have stayed another night.'"

For more information on Herefordshire contact the tourist board (01432 260621; or www.visitherefordshire.co.uk).

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