All in a Day's Walk

A month-long slow food walking performance

Wassail! Drink Hail!

Landlord Matt in costume outside the Crown

It’s my penultimate day and the sun is shining, weakly. I’ve got what feels like a long walk ahead of me as I set off – possibly more perceptually than literally because I’m walking to Ledbury and back over the lip of the Marcle Ridge (which organic dairy farmer, local historian and general polymath Will Edwards told me they believe may have originally formed the England-Wales border, an older and much more easterly Offa’s Dyke than the one we think of now and which would have put at least half of what is now Herefordshire into Wales). The wooded ridge pouts broodingly on the farm’s eastern horizon and makes whatever lies beyond seem laboursome to reach.

I set off purposefully, scuttling across to Sollers Hope Church and up the road past Whittlebury Farm, a neat inversion of my first day’s walk. On the long diagonal slide of road that strokes the flank of the ridge I’m almost surprised to pass a solitary walker (I’ve not had many walking encounters this month). And then I’m dropping down over the other side and the flat expanse of fields opens out between me and the spire and sprawl of Ledbury. This is comparatively uninhabited country for Herefordshire – looking at the map as well as the landscape in front of me I’m struck by its blankness: the absence of roads, dwellings and farms in this stretch of countryside. The sleeping blue dragon of the Malvern Hills form my easterly horizon now, towards which I’m directly headed. It’s a strange flat trek across endless arable fields. Absentminded or brain-numbed, I lose the footpath and accidentally trespass past the dramatic silhouette of oasthouses in a farmyard – the owner reminds me – I shouldn’t be crossing. Then roads and more clay-heavy arable field crossings until I reach the industrial outskirts of Ledbury.

My destination is the Three Counties Cider Shop (not far from the iconic black-and-white market house) the town outlet for Once Upon a Tree cider, but which is also passionate about supporting other small, local cider producers from these adjacent counties (Herefordshire, Gloucestershire, Worcestershire). I’m greeted by the enthusiastic Sam Pardoe who explains the shop’s ethos, recommends and allows me to sample some of the excellent produce (including the cider on tap with which they will fill any receptacle; decadently I give him one of my empty Sigg water bottles for some Gwatkins Stoke Red to fuel the walk back) and then engages in lively conversation ranging from growing up locally on, as it happens, the UK’s then largest organic farm, to ethical meat production, to bartering and skills exchange as the way forward for local sustainable living.

Audio Track: Sam at Three Counties Cider Shop – perry-making and ice-wine dessert cider tasting

Audio Track: Sam at Three Counties Cider Shop – on supporting local artisan producers

Audio Track: Sam at Three Counties Cider Shop – on growing up on a fruit farm, bartering and meat

It’s nearly 3 pm by the time we’ve finished talking, and I’ve a long walk back over the ridge to Woolhope where I’m bound to the wassail at The Crown for 6 pm. I’ve arranged to meet my friends and don’t want to be late. Carrying rather a lot of cider and perry in my rucksack, I flounder back through the clay again, enjoying – as symbolic of this whole month’s Tolkeinesque ‘there and back again’ walking mission – the refinding of my footprints from the outward journey. This – Ledbury/Aylton/Kynaston – is orchard country and I also enjoy the neatness of this day, seeing the sunset through the apple trees while carrying cider to a wassail (for those not in the Herefordshire know, a pagan ritual of the cider-growing counties that traditionally takes place on or around Twelfth Night (whether that be 5th, 6th or 17th Jan) to drink, sing and dance the health of the apple trees). After nearly 3 hours of walking through the gloaming into darkness I arrive with 15 minutes to spare, to find Matt, the The Crown landlord tending the braziers in the car park and blacking his face with a cork (wassailers traditionally had a cork-blacked face so that they could not be recognised as ‘beggars’) ready for, what he explains articulately, is going to be a ‘very rustic, DIY wassail’:

Audio Track: Woolhope Wassail

It is indeed: hearty, life-affirming, community-building and magical; a wonderful celebration of what is good about local community and local food production.

We return to the pub – where they have a cider menu of over 30 local varieties here as well as local meats from adjacent farms – for more local food conversation and rambling chat:

Audio Track: Local Food at The Crown 

And then my friend Lucia and daughter Esme kindly take my cider-heavy rucksack (which they will deliver back to my doorstep on their way home to Hereford) clip my bike light to my hood and set me off walking, not entirely in a straight line (‘tacking’ as Matt would have it), through the orchards and across the fields for home, the stiles miraculously hoving into view in my headtorchlight as I now know the paths like the back of my hand).

From farm to orchard to town to wassail to pub to farm: all in a day’s walk… I am euphoric.

Whittlebury Farm Hall Court, Kynaston for free range eggs Cross country to Ledbury Lillands oast houses Free range children Ledbury Market Three Counties Cider Shop There and back again...2 Sunset over Lillands Lillands orchard Aylton Hamster baskets Turnip Lights of Ledbury from Marcle Ridge Woolhope The Crown Inn Crown landlord Matt prepares for Wassail Brazier at The Crown Crown's own very local perry Very local drinks 2
Matt in costume again..  Milling at The Crown Milling at The Crown 2 Fire at The Crown Esme with wassail torch  Wassail torches Lucia with wassail torch
Tracktivist sound recording One of the twelve fires (in a cardboard box) Wassail fires Apple tree apple tree we are here to wassail thee   Wassailers approach the tree Around the tree 1  Wassailed tree with toast in its branches, cider on its roots  Lucia and Esme in torchlight

Gwatkin's Yarlington Mill  Preparing for the last walk home Home by headtorchlight, navigating by luck

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