A Country Life: Life in the slow lane

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The Independent Online

The Assembly Rooms in Ludlow are a wonderful resource hereabouts.

The Assembly Rooms in Ludlow are a wonderful resource hereabouts. I have written before of the many things people can do there, and how my wife Jane felt disorientated having sat in front of Love Actually getting stuck into a strawberry cornetto, then to find herself in the same space not 12 hours later, stripping the willow or touching the void or whatever it is that they do in yoga classes.

Anyway, my affection for the Assembly Rooms was evidently noted by the good people who run the place, because last week I got a call from the fabulously named Dido Blench, who looks after public relations. She felt that the Assembly Rooms, and indeed Ludlow as a whole, had been traduced in an article in The Times, and wondered if I might see my way to sounding a counterblast?

The piece in The Times, it turned out, was about Ludlow's new status as a Slow City. The Cittàslow movement originated in Rome in 1986, when a journalist named Carlo Petrini lost his rag, or possibly his ragu, on seeing a branch of McDonald's near the Spanish Steps. As a protest against fast food, he started a Slow Food campaign, and from that grew Cittàslow, which is now established in 35 towns and cities around Italy, and has spread to 10 other countries. Cittàslow campaigns for such things as bicycle lanes, and against such things as car alarms. It promotes local produce and opposes GM foods. And it has chosen Ludlow, over Penzance and Totnes, to be Britain's first Slow City.

The man from The Times was indeed rather impervious to Ludlow's enormous charm, and downright disdainful of the tendency among local motorists to observe speed limits. He thought the townsfolk "inordinately" proud of Ludlow's four Michelin-starred restaurants and was not remotely enamoured of the Assembly Rooms, which he visited twice, once to find a table-tennis tournament for the over-50s in full swing, and once to find that he was too late for the tea dance. No wonder Dido blenched.

I am happy to sound my counterblast; the pace of life in Ludlow is unhurried all right, yet that does not stop it being a vibrant little place, with a lively market four times a week, and restaurants that are so much in demand that one of them, Hibiscus, is booked solid for every Saturday night until October. The town has a fantastic arts festival, and a terrific food festival, and, in the castle grounds, dozens of other events. I bet there's no other medieval castle in England that is put to such sustained contemporary use.

Moreover, to call Ludlow "middling-pretty", as the man from The Times did, is clearly to damn with faint praise. It is, by any reasonable yardstick, one of the most attractive towns in England.

Having said that, there are enough love letters to Ludlow in the national press, not a few of them penned by me, for we fans to acknowledge that he also had a point, especially when he wrote that: "Unfortunately for local youngsters, priced out of the housing market, many of the people who do buy into 'Ludslow' are elderly outsiders selling up from the rat race and seeking a quiet backwater ... there is very little for young people in the town."

Ludlow does have a sizeable contingent of disaffected youth and, away from the genteel market square, some serious social problems. Speed, if not speed, is not unknown in Britain's first Slow City. And Ludlow could clearly do with a place for those teenagers too young to go to the 16 pubs in the centre of town; a place for them to hang out into the evening, where they could eat fairly cheaply, or just sit around making a coffee last for hours. I wonder whether Cittàslow has a problem with Pizza Express?

On the borderline

After a year of nakedness, the long border under our yew hedge has finally been planted up to the nines. The planting scheme was devised and overseen by Julia Hancock, a highly regarded garden designer in these parts, and a woman who brims with so much cheerful enthusiasm for her subject, that next to her the late Magnus Pyke would have seemed like Jack Dee.

With the yew border now formally planted, Julia offered us some advice on what we should do with the border opposite. It should, she said, be a little more anarchic, stuffed with snowdrops, hellebores, acanites and witchhazel. "Oooh," she added, "it makes you want to lick your lips, doesn't it?"

It didn't, especially, although her enthusiasm is certainly infectious. She not only gave me the names of all the new plants, but even talked me through their personalities. Holly doesn't like getting its feet wet, said Julia, and the iris "likes to bake". I feel as though our family of five - 20 including the animals - is now a family of more like 80, and that the newly arrived toad lilies must be fed, watered and cherished no less than the children. But plants, like children, can be over-cherished. "Don't mollycoddle them," warned Julia, sternly.

She also warned me that a handsome plant called six hills giant gives off an aroma that "makes cats randy". As we have a rabbit who spends most of his day trying to mate with the hens, we already have more randiness than we need round here. It will break Julia's heart, but the six hills giant might have to go.

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