Ledbury and the Malvern Hills - My Family Travels

We recently explored the towns around Ledbury and the Malvern Hills in historic Herefordshire and Worcestershire counties. Whether you have a week or a weekend, there’s plenty of local culture and recreation to keep all ages busy. The region is an ideal country alternative to Britain’s big cities, because it’s just 90 minutes by train from Birmingham and 3½ hours from London.

Eastnor Castle, Herefordshire
Eastnor Castle seen at dawn.

Eastnor, the Castle of Ledbury

Ledbury appeals as a picture-perfect, modest market town, yet one of its top attractions is impressive Eastnor Castle. The country castle, like LEGO’s interpretation of medieval manors, has belonged to the Hervey-Bathurst family for 200 years. Public tours allow you to stroll through towering rooms done in a mock-Gothic style, full of medieval armor, noble portraits, handcrafted wood paneling, tapestries, and inherited riches from the 16th century till today.

Among 5,000 acres, much of it leased by the family to pheasant hunting groups, are manicured gardens with perfect hedges of privet, vineyards, a Knights’ Maze, playground and walking paths around the estate’s lake. In addition to starring in the HBO series “Succession,” Eastnor is a popular wedding destination. Groups can enquire about spending the night, a real treat. Eastnor is open to the public (and dogs on a leash) from Easter to late September, with many scheduled weekend events, outdoor theatre and festivals. The annual Chilli Festival, typically the first weekend in May, is a local favorite.

If your princes and princesses are taken with British castles, English Heritage has a directory of other historic properties (many open summer only) such as Hellens Manor, in the region.

A Day in Ledbury

Allow a few hours to explore the commercial heart of Ledbury, which is centered around a black and white Market House ca. 1653, supported on tall dark chestnut columns. The market comes alive Tuesdays and Saturdays from April to October, and occasional winter weekends.

Another historic highlight is St. Katherine’s Hospital, founded in 1231, and the nearby Masters House, home to the doctor who ran what was a home and soup kitchen for the local poor. The doctor’s house, now the town’s sophisticated little public library and museum, dates to the mid-1500s. Made of a clay-like wattle and daub, it’s said to be the oldest remaining example of its era in England.

Kids will enjoy the few costumes, drawings, and multimedia “books” on display at the Master’s House / Ledbury Library. The books are actually bound iPads playing stories by costumed re-enactors who worked for the Master back in the day.

Up the narrow, pedestrian only cobblestoned Church Street are delightful examples of 17th century style: the Butchers Row Folk Museum, the Painted Room and Heritage learning center. Continue on to the Insta-worthy red brick Parish Church of St. Michael’s with its freestanding 200-foot-tall Clock Tower.

Downtown Ledbury with Market Building.
Black & White Market Building dominates downtown Ledbury.

Shopping, Dining and Exploring Ledbury

On High Street, West Midlanders support local bakers, butchers, posh haberdashers, thrift shops and pricey Euro-style home interior showrooms. Dine at the Cameron and Swan Deli or, if the weather’s nice enough to eat outside, at Codfather Part 2 for a delicious mini fish n’ chips platter. Number 1 Coffee is a favorite for its fine coffees, teas and snacks, plus there are many more classic tearooms on the side streets.

Rooms book up for an English Festival to mark St George’s Day, and the July Poetry Festival that celebrates the work of local poets John Masefield (Britain’s poet Laureate), Elizabeth Barret-Browning and William Langland. And not least for a good scare, check out the Saturday night Ghost Walks put on by LedburyWalks.com, recommended for ages 10+.

History buffs may want to stay at the black and white 17th-century Feathers Hotel on the main street, or the smaller Talbot on New Street, part of which opened in 1550. Expect the cramped charm of small rooms with sloping floors and crooked windows. Both hotels have been well restored and have popular pubs; Feathers has a health club and pool as well.

Great Malvern is Impressive

The historic town of Great Malvern straddles a hill with the famous mineral spring that catapulted the rolling Malvern Hills into wellness fame. Discovered by Doctors James Wilson and James Gully, the region’s hydrotherapy reputation began when they cured a “64-year-old, gout-ridden drunkard” of his ailments, and told the world. His treatment -– repeated drenching in buckets of freezing water interspersed with being wrapped in cold, wet sheets –- became the rage. Think of it as the prequel to cryotherapy.

Dr. Gully’s impressive red brick mansion, next to the Splash indoor aquatic complex, is testament to their success. An elixir that Queen Victoria imbibed daily, Malvern’s natural spring water is still bottled and sold as Holywell Malvern Spring Water, although since a 2006 drought, it has been filtered prior to bottling.

Great Malvern is today known for its beautiful Abbey and the standing room only Abbey Road Coffee shop.

You can’t miss the Malvern Theatre, which shows art films as well as live theatre, and serves as a community center. Parents will appreciate their robust programs of children’s theatre. Little ones will have fun staying at the ivy-covered, stone clad Abbey Hotel whose 103 tidy rooms make everyone feel they’ve traveled back in time.

Great Malvern Abbey
Abbey in Great Malvern.

We didn’t have time to pause at every village in the Malvern Hills, but each has its unique charms and options for golf, cycling or horseback riding. Home to artists and writers, music lovers will appreciate that the region inspired Sir Edward Elgar, composer of “Land of Hope and Glory” and many British standards.

A Lesson in Classic Quality

Several British traits are evident in the Malvern Hills: unfailing politeness, passionate nationalism, quiet British resolve and a devotion to quality. A visit to the Morgan Motor Company’s factory, where you can see these custom cars made from ash wood, aluminum and leathter as they have been since 1909, exemplifies all of them. Weekday guided tours (book ahead) welcome guests older than 5 years to watch the traditional sports car manufacturing process. Their classic cars can also be rented for the day beginning at GBP 220.

Worcester, the College Town

All roads, buses and trains lead to the more urban Worcester. Home to the University and Worcester College of Technology among other schools, it has its fair share of vegan restaurants, Chinese buffets and tattoo parlors, plus a High Street with many European chain stores.

A pedestrian walkway along the River Severn leads past many natural attractions and historic architecture to the imposing Worcester Cathedral, similar in style to many others seen in the Malvern Hills. While not as ornate as some, this medieval landmark is the resting place for local royalty with ornate tombs, a crypt and cloisters.

Medieval tombs at the Worcester Catedral.
Tomb of Sir John Beauchamp and Elizabeth Pateshull, ca. 1389 at Worcester Cathedral.

In town, stop by the small Commandery, a museum of local history, and the Tudor House Museum, for insights into life during the 17th century.

Families with younger children and train buffs will get a kick out of the historic, steam-powered Severn Valley Railway, which traverses the countryside.

A Healthy Home Base

Malvern Spa Hotel is adjacent to a tech industrial park, certainly not scenic. For older children and adults, it offers stylish modern rooms and a spa with access to the famous Malvern waters. Hotel owners claim to have bored down to the source to provide medicinal benefits in their thermal pool, hydrotherapy showers and other water facilities. Bathrobes and flip flops are the always appropriate wardrobe, even in their dining room, where delicious and healthful local game, fish and produce are served.

Outdoor and indoor thermal pools at Malvern Spa Hotel
Thermal spa pool and indoor whirlpools at the Malvern Spa Hotel.

Driving and Getting Around if you don’t want to drive

Having a rental car makes your exploration of Herefordshire easier, and there are everyday low rates at Enterprise.  However, the challenge of having to drive on the left side of narrow, winding roads without street lights discourages many visitors.

Instead, use local taxis or scheduled public bus service between the main towns, and the West Midland Railways trains go from main street to High Street in almost every village.

In towns like Ledbury, you can rent a bicycle through ComeCyclingLedbury.com.

You’ll want to limit biking to the trails however; the busy little country roads have no shoulder or sidewalk making them scenic but dangerous for cyclists.

Share your Malvern Hills discoveries in the Comments field below.

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