I am not really one for visiting churches, but Hereford Cathedral houses two of England’s most important historical documents and so if you are in the border country then a trip here is essential.
Made in around 1300, to the modern eye the Mappa Mundi provides an unusual view of the world, but one which would have been far more familiar to contemporary viewers. The perspective is a god’s-eye view, looking down on the globe and then flattening it out. But the Mappa Mundi combines religion, history and geography in one depiction and so the map is meant to be read in chronological order from top to bottom, more than it is supposed to be an actual guide to where things are in the world.
Thus Jerusalem is at the centre of this circular picture, with the story of creation at the top of the inner circle, and heaven and hell suggested above that. Despite having been made to order to hang in Hereford Cathedral, Britain is a fairly insignificant set of blobs in the bottom left hand corner, albeit with the symbol for Hereford itself now rather smudged from centuries of “that’s us!” finger pointing.
In an unprepossessing glass cabinet opposite the Mappa Mundi lies a 1217 edition of the Magna Carta, largely regarded as a founding document of modern democracy. The original was signed by King John in 1215, as a compromise agreement with unhappy barons, but was quickly rescinded once the monarch felt he had regained the upper hand. Two years later, the shorter version on display in Hereford was published, restating the limitations on royal power over the rest of the ruling class, but also enshrining many common rights, such as to a fair trial by one’s peers, that lasted for hundreds of years to come.
A neolithic burial chamber near Dorestone that also benefits from marvellous views of the Black Mountains. King Arthur is reputed to have successfully battled a giant here, the fallen goliath is said to have landed on the tomb, causing the crack in the roof that twenty first century visitors will witness.
Hay on Wye is simply book heaven. Every other building sells reading material, old and new, and each May literature lovers fill this small Welsh town for the annual Hay Festival. I remember being brought here by my parents as a small, bookish boy, and being simply overwhelmed by it all. It’s a shame that the record shops that used to provide the proper accompaniment to a day of book browsing have now disappeared, but Hay and the surrounding hillsides has everything else that is needed to sustain a happy life!
Bars, restaurants and B&B
The Barrels, Hereford
Nestled away on Owen Street, the Barrels is an eighteenth century coaching house selling Herefordshire’s greatest beer – Butty Bach. A bitter with the something approaching the strength of flavour of a Californian IPA, this is a pint to be savoured. The murals (below) in one of the out-houses is also worth a look, even if it is a bit on Whicker Man side of country-strange..
The Pandy Inn, Peterchurch
A low-beamed village pub, which of course serves Butty Bach, along with decent pub grub and top notch desserts (go for the poached pear or lemon mousse).
The Skirrid Inn
Claiming to be Wales’ oldest pub and dating back to the 1100s, it’s a pity about the woodchip on the walls, but there’s a proper bit of history here, including a period where the Skirrid doubled up as the local courts of justice. In a somewhat grim nod to those day, a noose hangs from the beam where unfortunate lawbreakers were hanged for crimes as serious as poaching a rabbit or stealing the king’s timber. One to visit after a ramble up Sugar Loaf mountain or, of course, Skirrid Hill (which also gives it name to a wonderful book of poetry by Owen Sheers).
The Old Vicarage
The finest bed and breakfast in England is no longer taking new customers and so its precise location cannot be revealed, but this home of Elfest, Old Vicarage jams and marmalade, and top-drawer chutneys also provides stunning views of the Golden Valley, along with resident peanut-loving woodpeckers, a pheasant priest called Simon, and a happily hopping Jay.