‘Herefordshire is just as lovely as the Dordogne’

For author John Lewis-Stempel, winner of the Wainwright prize for nature writing, the county is heaven on Earth

Herefordshire is one of England’s most rural places. Cradled by Worcestershire against the wall of Wales, it is the last of England. My family have lived here for 800 years.

The west of the county is peregrine-stooped upland. The Black Hill, beloved of Bruce Chatwin and wilderness walkers, soars to 640 metres. The east is pastorally perfect: rich green fields for the famous Hereford cattle, and fertile red earth for hops. There are orchards too: this is the cider county, the home of Bulmers.

John Lewis-Stempel, with his new book, Where Poppies Blow
John Lewis-Stempel, with his new book, Where Poppies Blow Photograph: PR Company Handout

Red sandstone gives the local ploughland its carmine colour. It is also the source of the building blocks for Hereford’s gothic cathedral, home of the Mappa Mundi, a map of the world drawn in the 1300s by a monk with a forgivable parochialism. Hereford is one of the handful of places he deemed worth mentioning outside the Holy Land. Well, it is heaven on Earth.

There is a necklace of startling black-and-white Tudor villages north of Hereford. Postcard makers are ardent for Weobley, Eardisland, Eardisley and Pembridge. them. But the villages were conserved by poverty, because no one had the funds to modernise them.

George Orwell thought a quiddity of England was an old maid cycling through mist to church. Here’s another: three ladies of a certain age playing cribbage in the back room of a country pub. You’ll find them at The Crown, in Woolhope, just south of Hereford. Only Orwell’s fantasy pub, The Moon Under Water, tops it.

Hereford Cathedral and the Old Wye bridge.
Hereford Cathedral and the Old Wye bridge. Photograph: Alamy

Next door is Saint George’s church, with its 1581 timbered lych gate. Almost everywhere you turn in Herefordshire there’s a jewel of a church. Brockhampton’s Arts and Crafts church was built in 1901 with no expense spared. Even the nails were specially manufactured. Eccentric and utterly English, the church is next to (of course) a cricket pitch.

The Wye valley downstream from Woolhope is as lovely as the Dordogne, especially if you take the secret riverside lane through the hamlet of Hole-in-the Wall to Ross. From a distance, Ross seems pinned to its red cliff by the needle steeple of St Mary’s.

Half timbered buildings at Weobley.
Half timbered buildings at Weobley. Photograph: Stephen Dorey/Getty Images

Peeping from behind Ross is May Hill, and Edward Thomas country. In the early 20th century, Thomas was part of an informal poets’ and writers’ commune in the village of Dymock. The American Robert Frost was another luminary. The Dymock boys had a love of nature worthy of the Romantics.

Thomas became besotted with Herefordshire, where “the land was sweet”. He walked with Frost around Dymock, Much Marcle and May Hill. For him, Herefordshire was “This England”, and his love for it imposed a duty of protection. He enlisted in 1915, and was killed at Arras in April 1917.

Soon I’ll go over Dymock way, and walk along the lanes, following the Poets’ Paths. This will be my pilgrimage to Thomas, soldier and nature lover, the man who inspired my latest book, Where Poppies Blow.

John Lewis-Stempel’s Where Poppies Blow: The British Soldier, Nature, The Great War (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £20) won the 2017 Wainwright prize for nature writing. To buy a copy for £17, including UK p&p, visit the guardian bookshop

John Lewis-Stempel

The GuardianTramp

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