Perched on a hill above the picturesque River Teme in South Shropshire, this 900-year-old market town is a visitor’s delight. Medieval and Georgian buildings at every turn, winding streets, independent shops and lots and lots of sausages. There are more butcher’s shops than you could shake a chipolata at and, despite a population of just 10000, at one point had four Michelin-starred restaurants, more than anywhere else outside London.
Ludlow is the Epicurean capital of England and has taken the rather smart decision to market itself as a destination for those who care about what they eat. The Ludlow Food Festival takes place every September and there are few more prestigious titles in the country than Sausage of the Year. Ludlow also hosts the national HQ of Slow Food UK.
Not for nothing did Sir John Betjeman label Ludlow “the most perfect town in England”.
Where to Eat
Basically you can’t go far wrong.
The Feathers Café is the rather smart foodery part of the Tudor hotel of the same name. The food here is actually very good — we could recommend the Finnan Haddock and spinach risotto if it didn’t sound quite so camp to do so — but be warned, the service is slow. That is as in sloooooooooooooooow. However, treat this as an opportunity rather than a handicap. Pop in and order a meal, stroll over to The Compasses and sink a couple of pints of Old Hooky before strolling back an hour or so later to enquire why the food still hasn’t arrived. There ought to still be time to go back over the road to The Bull and have a jar of Hobson’s before anything is served. A splendid arrangement and we don’t understand why they don’t advertise themselves this way.
The Church Inn has surprisingly very good pub food, almost to the point where it flouts a Plumber’s maxim (pubs are for drinking in, restaurants are for eating in). Truly excellent pate and a fine lamb shanks number high among their offerings.
Mr Underhills wears its Michelin star with considerable pride and rightly so. Its daily tasting menu, running to seven or eight courses with wine, is locally sourced and everything made in house by Chris Bradley. By the time you have finished you are likely to be just one wafer thin mint from explosion but you will rarely have dined better. It’s a big plumber’s thumbs up to the whole shebang but a particular mention to the Highland Parfait which could only conceivably be improved by being spread liberally on the downy skin of a certain Chinese barmaid.
De Grays Tea Rooms serve scones. You might feel this is all you need to know to inform your decision whether to go or not. This place is a “historic Ludlow institution” serving up home-made cakes, bread and patisserie by an army of waitresses dressed straight out of Upstairs Downstairs. If you like that sort of thing (the scones that is, not the uniforms) then this is as good as you will get.
Otherwise check out La Becasse (the former Hibiscus), Koo, the best Japanese restaurant this side of Tokyo, and The Clive, another in the Michelin Guide.
Where to Drink
In the interests of providing a comprehensive review of Ludlow’s public houses, The Midnight Plumbers endeavoured to visit as many of them as possible. On the whole, we found them a welcoming bunch with a very good and varied selection of local ales. Ludlow has real pubs and there is a noticeable dearth of designer bars, theme pubs and trendy bars. This is a good thing.
The Charlton Arms is in a great spot overlooking the Teme and is a friendly pub serving a fine selection of local beers and home-cooked grub. It’s a haven for walkers in the summer months. If you are really lucky then the evening might be rounded off by mine host Dave doing his renowned Sooty Sings Sinatra routine. Not even the grand hotels of Paris or the showcase nightspots of Vegas can offer a man wearing a Sooty puppet and miming to the strains of My Way. If Harry Corbett were alive today he’d be turning in his grave.
The Church Inn at Buttercross is a top pub and has maybe the best kept beer in town. If that weren’t enough there are hops hanging above the bar and some attractive barmaids behind it. It also does food (see above/below) and accommodation and is well worth a visit.
The Bull is a supposedly haunted pub on the Bull Ring. A lively place dating back to 1199, it is the oldest pub in Ludlow but of an evening it caters for a very young crowd. Like many Ludlow pubs it looks much better outside than inside.
The Horse and Jockey in Old Street is perhaps not the most salubrious alehouse in town but it’s none the worse for that. If you ask nice they let you change the channel to watch whatever football match you like. Therefore totally undeserving of the comment passed by Andy Plumb.
Ye Olde Bull Ring Tavern looks like it is falling down and for all we know it might have by the time you read this. If it isn’t suffering from subsidence then there was definitely something wrong with our eyes. Actually, both were probably the case. A bit of a letdown given the frontage, more chewed on than Tudor.
The Globe. This is what passes for lively in Ludlow and may well be your personal cup of Rosie Lee but that’s only likely to be the case if you like it loud and proud and don’t mind running the risk of being duffed up by the heavies of the local ladies pool team.
The Feathers on the Bull Ring is as Tudor as Henry V111’s codpiece. It was described by no less than the New York Times as “the most handsome inn in the world”. If you are American you will love it. We aren’t American.
On the recommendation of locals, we made our way to the Nelson Inn at Rock Green, about halfway between the town and the racecourse. We were told it would be worth the trip as it is “unique”. They weren’t wrong. It is a long time since we were in a pub ran by a man with more wives than arms but this is such a place. Big Al is the landlord in question and he can perhaps best be described a cross between Lord Nelson, David Bellamy and a collection of hallucinogenic drugs. Whether he had one of his arms strapped under his jersey as a result of some accident or whether he was just playing up to the name of the pub wasn’t immediately clear. More doubt was cast when he pulled the good arm from its hiding place to pick up empty glasses. Wide-eyed Al seemingly had two small, wide, wives who wore matching bottle glasses — which is illegal in most western states but probably fine and dandy in Royston Vasey from whence they have surely relocated. If this hasn’t given you enough of an insight into how the Nelson qualifies as unique then try the fish tank and the hairdryer in the lounge, the boxes of Jacob’s cream crackers or the scary outside loo. Then there is the indefinable atmosphere which can only be defined as odd. Think The Slaughtered Lamb meets The Clangers. Excellent beer though and let’s face it, that’s all that matters. Apart from its “uniqueness”, The Nelson is apparently best known for its own cider but we didn’t try it for fear of a massive hangover and the possibility of ending up in a pie.
Where to Stay
In an effort to give you even greater insight into the town of Ludlow we actually stayed at two different lodgings. We do hope you are suitably grateful as it was a decision that was not without suffering on our part. But more of the Cliffe Hotel later.
The aforementioned and afore-drunk-in Charlton Arms was the first place in which the Plumbers laid their weary and somewhat fuzzy heads. The rooms could do with a bit of redecoration (unless you have a penchant for ripped wallpaper) but they are a decent size and come in at just £40 a night. What the Charlton lacks in intact furnishings it makes up for in character, good beer and a lock-in. Dave (he of Sooty Sings Sinatra fame) will happily serve you alcohol all night as long as the local cops don’t intervene and his wife is away in Spain.
The only real downside to a stay at the Charlton are the evil housekeepers — cleaning ladies who will set rabid dogs on you if you are not out the room by the appointed hour. Dave would be better to get Sooty and Sweep doing the cleaning and send the evil housekeepers back to Macbeth, Act One, Scene One.
Actually, he might be better sending them to, or over, The Cliffe. At first glance it is a fine looking rural hotel set in its own gardens and more attractive accommodation you couldn’t wish to see. Until you step inside. It smells. It really does. Once you get past the sentry post/reception you cannot avoid it. The good people of Chanel might try to market this odour as Victoriana but we think the term “biscuity pish” is more accurately descriptive. Wild horses wielding Kalashnikovs couldn’t make us eat here.
The rooms were small although some did have large adjoining bathrooms which smelled positively fragrant in comparison to the hallways. Tiny bedroom, large bathroom, go figure.
For those not deterred by the smell — perhaps the insane, the nasally challenged or the elderly — the Cliffe does indeed serve bar meals. This seems to attract a cardigan-clad crowd from the nearby caravans (not gypsies) who are more than happy to put up with the pong in exchange for a gin and tonic and chicken in a basket.
The Cliffe gets a big Plumber’s thumbs-down.
What to Avoid
The Cliffe Hotel. It really does smell bad.
Getting to Ludlow, from Scotland at least, is fearsome. Part of the reason that the town retains much of its original charm is that it has not been sullied with immediate proximity to the key transport networks. Indeed almost all of Shropshire is rural idyll, which is nice, but don’t count on getting anywhere fast.
By car, it’s about 40-odd miles off the M5 via Kidderminster or 30 miles down the A49 from Shrewsbury.
By air, nearest airport is Birmingham, which has good connections around the rest of UK and beyond. Ludlow is about 90 minutes drive from here through one of the most congested parts of the UK road network. The train takes around two hours from New Street in the city centre. Bristol, to the south, is just over two hours drive and three hours away by train.
By train, the plumbers elected to let the train add to the strain and left ourselves at the mercy of the combined forces of Virgin and Arriva Trains Wales. The journey from Glasgow/Edinburgh involves a change at Crewe to catch Arriva’s Cardiff bound service which calls at Shrewsbury, Church Stretton and every sheep farm and hill station in between en route to Ludlow’s tiny station (actually, it’s only an hour from Ludlow up to Crewe, but when there is a danger of missing your connection, it feels much longer). Tickets can be had for as little at £11 (one-way) from Glasgow to Crewe, but you’ll need to be quick and booking Virgin trains is never easy, further complicated by the fact that the west coast main line is blighted by engineering works. However, things worth having are never easily come by and be assured the delights of the town will reward the persistent traveller.
One tip from those who know, train services between Cardiff and Crewe (and therefore to Ludlow) can be adversely affected by sporting events at the Millennium stadium in Cardiff. I know, it’s unbelievable, but it’s true and a quick check could save you a world of hurt.
We recommend that, if travelling in a party, that you leave all the arrangements to one person. That way, when things go even slightly awry, you can while away the journey by giving the poor sap endless grief over how it should have been arranged. Hours of fun.
By bike, cycling is definitely an attractive option in this area. There are a number of routes and trails into the Wye valley and around the Welsh border country. Relatively quiet roads, not too many steep hills and plenty of country inns to keep you refreshed would suggest this is an area that cyclists would enjoy. Organised trips and cycle hire can be had at Wheely Wonderful Cycling at Elton, just outside the town.
Getting to the Course
It is about two miles north-west of the town so we jumped in a taxi. If you are driving, take the A49 from the north via Shrewsbury or via Hereford from the south. From the west take the A4113 and from the east the A44 from Worcester followed by the A49.
About the Course
Racing here dates back to 1729 and there’s now around 16 jump meetings a year. It labels itself as “Britain’s friendliest racecourse” but of course we know that title actually belongs to Kelso.
What to Wear
Please yourself really. It’s a bit of a mixed bag so anything from tweed or trackies depending on your personal preference.
The Midnight Plumbers recommend Mr Charles Pitt, 16 Normandie Close, Ludlow, SY8 1UJ