- Ledbury - a brief history
- 1 - Once upon a time…
- 2 - Why is Ledbury where it is?
- 3 - The built-environment
With many buildings of national importance, including 173 Listed buildings, including three Grade I and eighteen Grade II*, many of which are within the town centre, visiting Ledbury is like a journey into the past. Dominating High Street is the St Katherine's Hospital site, with the Master’s House, hall and chapel: a rare surviving example of a 13th century hospital complex; opposite is the outstanding Market House, built in 1617, and still in regular use. The narrow cobbled Church Lane, one of the most photographed streets in the UK, includes 16th century frescoes in the "Painted Room" inside Ledbury Town Council offices; and reigning supreme is the church of St Michael and All Angels, the "premier parish church of Herefordshire”, and thought to date from the 11th century;
Ledbury has many people of national importance, including poet William Langland, poet laureate John Masefield, and Elizabeth Barrett-Browning lived on the outskirts; other poetic visitors included William Wordsworth, and the 'Dymock Poets': Lascelles Abercrombie, Rupert Brooke, John Drinkwater, Robert Frost, Wilfrid Gibson, and Edward Thomas. Joseph Guy, author of school text books was born in Ledbury. Eleanor Farjeon, the English author of children's stories and the hymn 'Morning has Broken' has, along with WH Auden and Robert Browning, been immortalised in local street names.
Please read the next three sections to get an overview. After that, I suggest browsing Snippets of Ledbury History for information on items of interests.
'Ledbury' - or whatever it was called before Liedererge as was recorded in the Domesday Book - belonged to a powerful Saxon whose name was Edwin of Magonsaete.
Magonsaete was a sub-kingdom of Mercia, the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of central England, whose boundaries were thought to be the same as the Diocese of Hereford. The name 'Mercia' is Old English for "boundary folk" and the traditional interpretation is that the kingdom originated along the frontier between the native Welsh and the Anglo-Saxon invaders.
Edwin had been ill and had sought help from the Christian church. Christianity arrived in Herefordshire in 7c. The Diocese of Hereford, created in 676, is one of the oldest in England. In keeping with Chantry, (a monetary trust fund established for the purpose of employing one or more priests to sing a number of masses during a stipulated time for the benefit of the departed soul of a deceased person to help speed it to Heaven), the priests convinced Edwin he had been cured of palsy through the intercession of St Ethelbert and in return Edwin should donate the land to the Church. And so it came to pass that Ledbury was transferred into the ownership of the Church.
To a 21st century sceptic, the probability that was how the Church ended up owning Ledbury may seem far fetched. But in those days the Church was considerably more influential and it was common for wealthy people close to or on their death-bed to donate real estate and other property to the Church in exchange for prayers and the offer of safe-passage to life beyond the grave.
The ecclesiastical version of events could be considered one-sided. The donor's view of the matter is rarely proffered, unless the facts are known. Whether or not Edwin was especially religious, there are for wealthy people advantages in giving their wealth to the Church which to someone not privy to a person's thinking may not be obvious.
Assuming the person did not achieve a position of power and wealth without annoying others along the way, or that the relationship between the particular individual and their family may not have been harmonious for all concerned, it is a reasonable assumption that the moment the person died all the aggrieved or enemies would be wanting to get their hands on the deceased's estate. Therefore, to the imminent departing, the thought of pre-empting by removing valuable assets from those itching to grab a share of the spoils would be tempting. So too would be the prospect of immortality through being remembered by future generations, a reasonable certainty given that the Church's existence is likely to continue in perpetuity.
The name 'Ledbury' is said to have derived from the River Leadon - the 'bury' or 'bur' may have been a place of defence or a religious enclosure, an interpretation that ties in with Ledbury having been developed by the Bishop of Hereford as an ecclesiastical centre - but it is unclear whether or not the water had a name: 'river' in Latin originally meant the banks of the water. In Gaelic and Archaic Gaelic, Leadon stems perhaps from liath 'grey (smoke) ' + don meaning 'water'. Another possibility is that either Ledbury or Leadon may derive from the Lydas district near Hereford. Lyde comes from an Old English stream name Hlydee, 'the loud one'. Perhaps the Bishop of Hereford had the sound of the river in mind when planning the town!
The church, formerly St Peter's and nowadays St Michael's and All Angels, was recorded in Domesday Book but the present building was completed in 1140, (later extended and modified in the 12c and 15c), and replaces an earlier building whose foundations may still be seen. However, the church tower, which is detached, dates from about 1230 (the spire from 1733).
Another possibility, and in my opinion, the best place to begin to understand the unfolding story of Ledbury is from the bridge that links Bye Street and Bridge Street.
From the pavement, (the north side, on the left of the picture), and looking away from Ledbury in a westerly direction towards Wall Hills, in the near distance. After soaking in the atmosphere, turn around towards the town centre in an easterly direction and direct your gaze beyond the church spire to the hills beyond. Now imagine what the scene might have looked like before there were any buildings between the respective hills, when all that existed was a river, marshland and trees.
The land upon which Ledbury has developed is overlooked by hill-forts/camps on Wall Hills and the spire of the detached tower next to the church of St Michael's and All Angels is on the route of an ancient track on the southern side of Dog Hill, at a natural gap on the eastern range of hills in the vicinity of Upper Hall, between Bradlow Hill and Frith Wood in the north; and Coneygree Wood and Dunbridge Wood at the southern end. To the west of Ledbury is Wall Hills, to the east Kilbury camp; and in between Wall Hills is the River Leadon and the Leadon valley.
The hills themselves are within sight of British Camp, (also known as Herefordshire Beacon), the largest man-made mound in the area. It is suggested that British Camp began life as a large ritual earthwork and later expanded repeatedly. British Camp also seems to have been used by the Romans to control the salt trade to the south of Droitwich. There seems to be some evidence that local hills in the vicinity were also used for religious purposes. Evidence has been uncovered of a fortress or castle on British Camp in 1148 when British Camp was under control of the Earl of Worcester.
Much of Ledbury is on a flood plain, the marshland surrounding the river Leadon. A tributary of the river Severn, in olden times the river Leadon was considerably wider and wilder, and likely the sound of the water flowing would have been much noisier. In 1989, the river Leadon was narrowed and deepened and the course of the river altered when the Leadon Way (by-pass) was constructed.
Although river Leadon nowadays is about half-a-mile from Ledbury town centre, the marshland would have formerly extended all the way from the river to much of the western side of High Street and all of The Homend. At a time when methods of building construction were primitive, the availability of materials mostly timber, from the forests and woods in the Leadon Valley, any building on a flood plain would have been of a temporary nature, not designed to last. The only way for buildings to have been constructed in the knowledge the foundations would be stable would be to build on higher and upper slopes of firm ground.
I think it apparent Ledbury was developed from the east. In a line from the tower and Church, then Church Lane, along east side of High Street before crossing over to the west side of The Southend including the eastern top end of New Street, thereafter in a downward southerly direction finishing just short of what is now Mabel's Furlong. That I think is the extent of the firm ground upon which foundations for structures could rest safely. Everywhere else was soft unstable ground, marshland and flood plain. A brook recorded on a map of 1788 shown running along the middle of Bye Street was culverted in the early 19c. (That High Street did not extend along the east of The Southend but west would not I suggest be explained by the presence of Ledbury Park. Ledbury Park, or New House, was built a few centuries later. More likely, east side of The Southend was comparatively hilly and sloping ground.)
It was only after methods of building construction improved including availability of better materials, beyond the basics of timber and wattle, that building on the flood plain began in earnest. Debate nowadays about building on a flood plain focusses on the problems caused by displacing the natural overflow when rivers and streams are unable to cope with the volume of excess water. Modern building methods have by and large overcome the practical difficulties in actually building on a flood plain. But in the past, the life-expectancy of a building on a flood plain was considerably shorter. Hence, the quality of construction of the many older buildings in Ledbury that are on the flood plain of the River Leadon is inferior.
After heavy rain in Ledbury, surface water in the streets on the flood plain is noticeable; for example along The Homend south of the junction with Knapp Lane. On New Mills Estate, residential properties backing onto the by-pass (Leadon Way) can suffer waterlogged back gardens as water from underground streams and ponds and the nearby river Leadon seeps out. Occasionally it all gets too much. Thursday 9 April 1998 was a day to remember. Almost all routes out of Ledbury were blocked by rainwater, it was the day Ledbury became an island. The rain was so torrential that it caused widespread flooding around Ledbury. Bosbury, a village 4 miles away was 3 feet underwater. People were stranded in Ledbury.
One reason the older buildings have survived, despite being mainly of timber-frame construction, has much to do with a change in attitude towards the function of property. The Reformation of the Church and Dissolution of the Monasteries by Henry VIII led to the creation of the property market, as a modern consequence of which the buying and selling of property generally has led to properties being thought of not only as somewhere to live or work from but also as store of value.
To maintain a store of value, a building has to be kept in habitable repair and condition and maintained to a reasonable standard to enable the use for which the building has been designed or adapted. To increase in value, for property to be capable of fetching a price over and above the cost of the building materials and land, demand has to exceed the supply. To inflate the value of the property beyond the replacement cost of the building and the cost of the land, the price has to be helped by the method of purchase. In other words, what we have nowadays, what is known as the 'property market' is a system of valuation pricing of the end result (the built property) that may bear little or no relationship to the cost of construction or the land.
It wasn't always like that. In the 16c, when Ledbury was sold by the Church to four families who between them carved up the ownership the total price of the combined purchase would have seemed like an absolute bargain even by today's standards. It was not that much of Ledbury had not been built, or that it was perhaps a buyer's market. On the contrary, there would surely have been rich pickings to be gotten from the sale of land and property to those wealthy enough to afford what was on offer.
The next best place from which to understand the story of Ledbury is in front of the church of St Michael's and All Angels. However, I suggest not spoiling the experience by heading straight there; instead, take the back way.
Assuming starting from the bridge in Bye Street (as recommended), walk towards the Town Centre and at the T-junction with The Homend/High Street turn right along High Street towards the pedestrian-controlled traffic lights. At those lights, cross over High Street and then turn right towards the traffic lights at the intersection of High Street/New Street/The Southend/Worcester Road. At those lights, turn left into Worcester Road and continue walking along the pavement on the left-hand side past the entrances to the Priory and Masefield solicitors offices until you reach the gravel path on the left just before the police station. Turn left along that path and straight ahead you'll see the southern flank of St Michael's and All Angels church. Turn left on the path alongside the church until you get to the wider path in front of the church, with the church gates in front of you. Stop there.
Unlike a hill-fort/camp, where the design might be constrained by the natural landscape, Ledbury is a planned town. Generally, ancient town-planning used a combination of the straight line and the right angle. In Ledbury, the shape of the town, which is modelled on Hereford, was laid out by Robert de Capella, Bishop of Hereford (1121-1127), as a single thoroughfare west of the Church, thereafter extending at right-angles north to south with a wider wedge-shape at the northern end.
With the church behind you, look beyond the church gates down towards a cobbled street. That cobbled street, nowadays Church Lane, was originally Ledbury's main street and at right angles to the High Street. (Originally, High Street was called Middletown and was only a short stretch along to the south of Church Lane.)
Extending High Street to Upper Cross (also known as Top Cross) would have been done later when The Southend and the top end of New Street were built. On west side of High Street was Bye Street, formerly Bishop Street. Bye Street was the main route to and from Hereford. It is suggested The Homend was built before The Southend, New Street and Bishop Street, but that would presuppose The Homend more important then than has naturally evolved since, also that building on the flood plain would have been more desirable.
Street-names in Ledbury town centre are not especially imaginative. Church Lane is the lane from the church. Hall End, now Church Street, was named after Lower Hall (or Nether Court), one of the two portionary estates, the other being Upper Hall (or Over Court). (The portionists, a left-over from the Anglo-Saxon priests, were local rectors appointed by the Bishop: they enjoyed portions of the endowments and revenues of the church, and whose duties were by 1311 the nomination of the vicar and payment of his stipend.) The high street is High Street. The Southend is self-explanatory, as is New Street. Bye Street is a corruption of Bishop Street. The Homend was probably the route into Ledbury for The Homend, a private landed estate in Stretton Grandison,
During the Middle Ages, especially between the 12C and 14th centuries, many ‘new towns’ were established on previously unsettled land. The towns were intended to become centres of commerce and locations for markets and fairs. Many towns achieved the status of ‘borough’ and were often created by lords of the manor and local bishops hoping to increase their revenue through expanding populations and the development of trade; no different to property developers.
For the building of houses, the king or lord of the manor and in the case of Ledbury the Church would allocate long narrow strips of land to persons considered best suited to generate revenue for the landowner. Revenue could be in the payment of money or performance of services. The strips of land were known as burgage plots and by the 13th century a burgage plot was a well-established medieval term for the management of land.
At this point, it is useful to mention that unlike nowadays when the description 'house' is associated with a residential dwelling, a 'house' in medieval times was any building or structure that functioned as a habitat for humans or other creatures. Nowadays, to distinguish between a house for residential accommodation and business premises or for creatures, the technical term ‘dwelling house’ or the more popular ‘home’ is commonly used. It was from house or rather how a house was used that the shop evolved and in turn how the act of visiting the house/shop became known as shopping.
The importance in ownership of a burgage plot was not limited to use of the land in that particular town. Burgage was also used as the basis of the franchise in many boroughs sending members to the House of Commons before 1832. A ‘borough’ was a town that possessed a Royal charter giving it the right to elect two members (known as burgesses) to the House of Commons. In boroughs the right to vote was attached to the occupation of particular burgage tenements. Since tenements could be freely bought and sold, and since the owner of the tenement was entitled to convey it for the election period to a reliable nominee, who could then vote, it was possible to buy the majority of the burgages and with it the power to nominate the members of Parliament. Moves towards reform culminated in the Great Reform Act 1832 and Reform Act 1867 which applied a uniform franchise to all boroughs.
Forgetting the historical value, and fast-forward to the present day, the only relevance in the ownership of a burgage plot is the benefit of its whereabouts. Land and buildings are assets, but are also immoveable. A building which is fixed in a particular spot may as the years pass end up being in a better place or the wrong place. Unlike buildings that are by construction inflexible, so must be physically adapted and extended, the people for whom buildings are designed for are by nature flexible, but not necessarily adaptable. In the context of shops and shopping, the challenge for any retailer is to synchronise with customer reality. Therefore, the position of a burgage plot when allocated originally would have made a difference to the value and relevance of that particular plot at any point in future. A merger of neighbouring plots might have offered advantages in grandeur, but size isn't everything. It is not only individual buildings that can end up in the wrong place, entire streets, towns even can lose out as a result of change to the built-environment.
This completes the overview. Under Snippets of Ledbury you'll find more information.