Brian Viner: A Country Life

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Journalists are incorrigibly fond, when writing about historical events, of evoking the era by informing the reader who was Prime Minister at the time, which famous people were born or died in that year, what you would have paid for a semi in Esher ... you know the sort of thing. Well, when the shop in Ludlow that is now Bodenhams first started trading, Henry IV was on the throne, Owen Glendower seized Harlech Castle, Chaucer had been dead for only five years, the Battle of Agincourt was 10 years in the future, and a semi in Esher cost, at a rough guess, less than 100 groats.

Journalists are incorrigibly fond, when writing about historical events, of evoking the era by informing the reader who was Prime Minister at the time, which famous people were born or died in that year, what you would have paid for a semi in Esher ... you know the sort of thing. Well, when the shop in Ludlow that is now Bodenhams first started trading, Henry IV was on the throne, Owen Glendower seized Harlech Castle, Chaucer had been dead for only five years, the Battle of Agincourt was 10 years in the future, and a semi in Esher cost, at a rough guess, less than 100 groats.

You wouldn't want to try saying it after a couple of pints of cider, but Bodenhams is a phenomenon. An almost tear-jerkingly lovely, half-timbered building on the corner of Broad Street and King Street, it was purpose built as a shop in 1405, and has remained a shop throughout every one of the subsequent 600 years. Its current owner, Muriel Curry - the great-granddaughter of William Bodenham who took over the premises in 1861 - understandably thought that the sexcentenary of a shop was worth a bit of media attention, so a couple of months ago she sent a press release to every national newspaper informing them that on 16 May there would be a blessing of the timbers by the rector of Ludlow. Not a single national newspaper, to their collective shame, gave the story even an inch of coverage. And although a BBC Midlands television crew was dispatched to cover the celebrations, the item failed to make that day's bulletin which was dominated by West Brom's achievement in avoiding relegation from the Premier League.

Happily, it's not too late to put matters right; after all, what's a month after 600 years? So last week I went to Bodenhams - still a clothes shop, as it was in 1405, although the sackcloth cowls have regrettably been discontinued - to meet Mrs Curry, a splendidly feisty woman pushing 80, and her son Roger, a rather dashing, piratical-looking fellow with an earring.

Mrs Curry told me that the building had been commissioned by the Palmers' Guild, and that to be eligible to join the guild you had to have made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land and brought back a palm leaf. She speculated perfectly reasonably that some of the soldiers who fought at Agincourt in 1415 would have ridden off from Ludlow Castle and would therefore have worn longjohns under their chain mail bought from Bodenhams, or whatever it was called in the 15th century.

The Currys showed me a fascinating mail-order catalogue from about 1900, which I showed to my sons. Had they been born a century earlier, I told them, their Sunday best would have been a Bodenhams sailor suit. They decided that they were quite happy to have been born in 1995 and 1998.

Bodenhams, meanwhile, goes from strength to strength. My wife, who is to be trusted on these matters, tells me that the women's wear is "surprisingly funky" for a shop with uneven floors and ancient beams. And Roger Curry now wants to diversify into furniture, which the shop last sold just before the First World War. It is rather thrilling that an institution with so much past plainly has plenty of future.

Tales of the Country, by Brian Viner (Simon & Schuster, £12.99) is on sale now

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