Amongst the orchards lies a place of pilgrimage...
I hadn't been to Hereford for decades and, to be honest, remembered little of my visit.
So I thought I'd pootle over there one chilly (but dry) day. It's not too far ....around 2 hours' drive.......and it has a cathedral I wanted to explore.
Hereford is set in the Welsh 'marches', the borderland between England and Wales. An area of rolling hills (which are almost, but not quite, the beginning of baby Welsh mountains), the winding River Wye, beautiful valleys and good farmand. Hereford cattle are a famous breed, and the soil and climate are especially good for orchards...apples mainly. Hereford has a large cider factory (you can visit, but I didn't).
And there is mistletoe everywhere. Such a very strang thing, mistletoe.....a parasite plant, almost impossible to grow deliberately (its seeds are transferred by birds and lodge into the bark of the tree as the bird wipes its beak or defecates). Mistletoe is strongly associated with paganism......it was certainly the sacred plant of the Druids.and yet there is absolutely none in most parts of the UK. None near me at all, but the strip of land which runs along the Welsh borders and down into Gloucestershire seems to provide a perfect environment for it.
Prehistory abounds in this area..........and dragons! Well, sculptural references to dragons anyway ...I found lots of them on the misericords in the churches....and, of course, the Welsh flag has a dragon on it! The river Wye itself winds like a huge serpent through the landscape....
But the daylight hours are short in December, and my priority was the cathedral: the church of St Mary the Virgin and St Ethelred the King. There has been a church on this site since the 8th centruy, but the earliest part still visible dates from the 11th. The main part of the cathedral (the nave) dates from the 12th century, with later Medieval additions from the 13th and 14th centuries.
It's a small cathedral, as English cathedrals go, but has been a place of pilgrimage for over 1000 years. The remains of Saint Ethelbert (who was King Ethelbert of England) were placed in the cathedral in 794, and became the focus of a pilgrim cult. Later, Thomas Cantilupe, Bishop of Hereford, was canonised (made into a saint) in 1320. The shrine of St Thomas of Hereford became a place of pilgrimage, destroyed in Henry Vlll's Reformation but later reconstructed from its ruins.
The shrine has recently been fully restored to how it would have looked in Medieval times: garish to eyes used to the plainness of post-Reformation English churches, but one should remember that all our churches and cathedrals were brightly painted and highly decorated until Henry Vlll and, later, the Puritans came along. There are one or two large painted areas still remaining in Hereford cathedral (far more than is usual) and these help to put the brightness of the shrine into context.
Apart from the shrines of both saints, there are various Medieval tombs and chapels to explore within the cathedral. I'll make an album for these, and another for the rather beautiful Medieval misericords (the little bits of wood which stick out of choir stalls, for monk's to rest their bottoms on) which I saw in All Saints church.
What I didn't see (because I didn't realise the cathedral cafe, shop and exhibition would be closed) was the wonderful 13th century Mappa Mundi and the unique chained library, which contains manuscripts dating from as far back as the 8th century. I'll see them when I visit again, most definitely.
And what of Hereford itself? It's an ancient market town, originally walled and gated (thogh the gates no longer remain) with a huge market square. In Medieval times it must have been thronged on market days, with livestock and farmers, pedlars and streetsellers, everyone coming in from th surrounding countryside to buy and sell and enjoy themselves as best they could in what was, for many, a very harsh life.
Now, it's a typical English (or Welsh) town:all the major chains are there, there is a mixture of architectural styles from some very old 'black-and-white' houses (mostly dating from the 17th century) through Georgian brick to ostentatious Victorian and Edwardian sub-Gothic twiddliness. It was busy enough when I visited (a Saturday afternoon, with the post-Christmas sales in full flow) and clearly has enough normal 'footfall' to support several excellent cafes. It was especially interesting to hear both strong Welsh accents and strong English 'country' accents mixing together: a reflection of Hereford's border siting. Not quite Wales, but not really English either.
I liked Hereford very much. Whe the days are longer, I shall return to explore the area in more depth (especially its prehistoric sites, and its beautiful countryside).