Simon Calder explores this modestly beautiful county, from the River Wye to the cider trail
Off the map?
No. Wedged between the Midlands and Wales, this fascinating county reclaimed its ancient status in 1997 after a short-lived romance with Worcestershire. Herefordshire has plenty to reward the explorer. It comprises accessible and attractive countryside, rich in green and gold, and has strong cartographical credentials. Roman roads run through it – the High Street of Leintwardine, in north-west Herefordshire, follows the line of the original via principalis of this fortified town. The Romans regarded the area as a lawless frontier zone; you can even walk a brief stretch of Offa's Dyke (01547 528753; offasdyke.demon.co.uk ) north and west of Kington. But over the millennia Herefordshire has mellowed into a modestly beautiful county.
In the 13th century, a cartographer named Richard de Haldingham created the Mappa Mundi, a map of the world, for Hereford Cathedral: a perfect circle of vellum with gold leaf, malachite and soot. Jerusalem lies at the centre of the Earth, Paradise is at the top (just beyond India). The soft tones inscribed delicately on the calfskin are enlivened by a forked tongue of scarlet representing the Red Sea. And the troublesome Scots, victims of political wishful thinking, have been cast off to an island on the edge of the world. "Hford", and a sketch of the cathedral, appear to have been pencilled in as an afterthought beside the Welsh border.
The earliest maps were not intended to get you from A to B, or from "Hford" to Paradise. They were encyclopaedias displaying the sum of knowledge. Hereford's map, one of the oldest in existence, depicts the Garden of Eden with Adam and Eve under an apple tree; Crete is shown with its labyrinth; and Babylon is marked by the Tower of Babel.
The Mappa Mundi was the cartographical centre of attention some years ago when it became a public limited company. The cathedral needed a new roof, and sought salvation from the Mappa Mundi – its most valuable asset. A threat to sell the map abroad gave way to a plan to sell shares in it. The sale was a flop, but the map stayed in the crypt and the roof stayed on. The Mappa Mundi is displayed alongside the cathedral's 1217 version of the Magna Carta.
The cathedral also boasts the largest collection of chained books in the world. For centuries the fund of knowledge has been preserved by chaining every one of the 1,444 books down. The library is almost a caricature of a reading room, with ancient texts from the first millenium secured to the shelves as directories used to be in telephone boxes.
Another highlight is King Stephen's chair. This austere, angular seat sits in a corner of the sanctuary, blackened by age. Stephen was the grandson of William the Conqueror and an early victim of royal intrigue; arriving from Normandy to claim his throne in 1135, he was imprisoned for six years by a rival to the throne, the Empress Maud. He was confirmed as monarch in Hereford, on this modest throne.
You can visit the whole cathedral (01432 374200; herefordcathedral.org ) any day from 9.15am until Evensong (donation of £4 requested); the Mappa Mundi & Chained Library Exhibition is open 10am-5pm daily except Sundays, though tomorrow and on three more Sundays this year it opens noon-4pm. Note that it will be closed during January 2011 for cleaning and conservation work.
Beyond the cathedral cloisters, Hereford has plenty of interest; the tourist office at 1 King Street (01432 268 430) is a good place to start. Eleven years before the Battle of Hastings, the Welsh sacked Hereford as part of a brief speculative venture into Mercia. The new Norman regime strengthened the city's defences by erecting a huge fortress on the north bank of the Wye, but this was demolished after the Civil War. The moat has become a boating pond, and the earthworks of the early defences have been softened for gentle recreation.
Hereford has plenty of ecclesiastical attractions beyond the cathedral. All Saints (which happens to have the world's second-biggest chained library) has a spire even taller than the 176-foot high cathedral tower, but is distinctly crooked because it was built on soft ground.
The city is wedded to the Wye, as is much of the county: a walk beside the languid river on a summer evening is a fine way to round off the day. You could stay within two minutes of the cathedral at Castle House (01432 356321; castlehse.co.uk ), a boutique town-house hotel with 15 individually themed suites and bedrooms, starting at £185 per double, including breakfast.
Beyond the city limits?
A ring of lovely towns and villages surrounds Hereford. The lanes which curl lazily around the county are lightly used, and a circular trip around the most attractive locations can be squeezed into a summer weekend. Leominster, the county's second town, has a notable priory – unique for having three naves, one built in each of the 12th, 13th and 14th centuries. As well as being a one-stop study of English church architecture through the ages, it features a ducking stool that was last used to immerse a scolding wife in 1809. The tourist office is at 1 Corn Square (01568 616460). A good accommodation option is the Royal Oak Hotel on South Street (01568 612610; royaloakleominster.co.uk ), an 18th-century coaching inn on the route between London and Wales. Doubles are available for as little as £25.
The nearby town of Ledbury has a market hall that seems to be a half-timbered cottage on stilts. The lower part, no longer used by traders in wool and wheat, has become an informal social centre. A cobbled alley runs up to the church, past the 15th-century Butcher Row House. This gently drooping half-timbered dwelling was moved from the raw excitement and danger of the main street to the peace of Church Lane, and it now houses Ledbury Heritage Centre (01531 635680; 10.30am-4.30pm, admission free).
Two miles outside the town, Verzon House has many attributes, starting with its address: Hereford Road, Trumpet (01531 670 38; verzonhouse.com ). This 18th-century farmhouse is now an elegant country-house hotel, with views across to the Malvern Hills. A "superior double" costs £175 including breakfast.
The index to a pre-war guidebook to Herefordshire has, as its last entry, "Yews, Notable". This directs you to the churchyard at Much Marcle – a village with three pubs, three cider producers and its own website, muchmarcle.net. The Norman church is shouldered aside by a tree so vast that a seat has been hewn from its gnarled old trunk. Inside the church are some exquisitely decorated tombs: the 14th-century effigy of Blanche Grandison has at her toeless feet a headless dog, while Walter de Hellyn, in an effigy of solid oak, has his legs folded casually with his dog (complete with head) faithfully at his feet.
Many other places of worship are included in the useful Visit Herefordshire Churches leaflet (free from 01432 268430; visitherefordshire.co.uk ), such as All Saints' in Brockhampton, inspired by William Morris. At Hoarwithy, St Catherine's constitutes a slice of Tuscany transplanted to the Wye Valley, with an ornate cloister and Italianate campanile. And the church of Saints Mary and David in Kilpeck is a masterpiece of Norman sculpture: dragon-heads project from the west wall, while all around the church splendidly expressive figures stand guard.
Halfway between Hereford and Hay, Moccas Court (01981 500 019; moccas-court.co.uk ) is a Grade I-listed Georgian house overlooking the Wye, with the feel of a family home. A midweek stay for two people in the Rose Room costs £137 (£14 more if you stay only for one night), including breakfast.
To get back to indulgent nature, try a "Feather Down Field Spa" (a sauna, hot and cold shower and hot tub in a field), one of the options on offer at Hollings Hill Farm, a working dairy farm of about 300 acres that is part of the Duchy of Cornwall estate. A week in a tent sleeping up to six during the school summer holidays costs £825 (01420 80804; featherdownfarm.co.uk ).
The great outdoors?
Wye Pursuits, based at Kerne Bridge near Ross-on-Wye (01600 891199; wye-pursuits.co.uk ), offers kayaking on the river, as well as climbing and abseiling on Symonds Yat; this towering rock of almost 400ft is actually on the Gloucestershire side of the river, accessible by a hand-hauled cable ferry from Herefordshire.
For extra height with no effort, Three Counties Ballooning (01432 851919; threecountiesballooning.co.uk ) offers one-hour hot-air excursions for £110 including champagne after landing and return transport. The launch site is Hampton Court between Leominster and Hereford on the A49.
Core industry: Cider
Half the apples used to make British cider are grown within the borders of Herefordshire, which produces one million gallons of the stuff each week.
A vicar's son named Percy Bulmer commercialised Herefordshire cider, and is celebrated in the Cider Museum at 21 Ryelands Street in Hereford, which occupies his first cider mill (01432 354207; open 10am-5pm from Tuesday to Saturday; £3.50).
The museum unravels the makers' jargon: "hairs" are the sacks in which apples are pulverised, rather than what cider puts on your chest. A stack of hairs – ready for squeezing – constitutes a "cheese". You also learn that, in the 18th century, hundreds died after drinking the stuff, poisoned by the lead in the pipes and presses; and that substances used to enhance the drink include beetroot (for colour) and rabbit skins (for nutrition).
In a piece of textbook marketing, Percy Bulmer sought to increase his sales by creating an entirely new product. By diligent use of the méthode champenoise, flat cider could be made sparkling. The racks in which the bottles were rotated by 45 degrees each day remain in the museum, which also contains examples of Mexican and Finnish cider.
Outside the city, new brown-and-white signposts lead you on a trail around 17 cider producers. The Herefordshire Cider Route website (ciderroute.co.uk) provides cycling routes as well as details of producers, retailers and events.