Secret Hereford by David Phelps
Seven secrets of Hereford
The Rotherwas Ribbon
It seems likely that Herefordshire was an important pre-Roman settlement area, given the large number of hill-forts. This was confirmed in 2006 when, in preparation for a new road, archaeologists discovered, just to the south of the city, a mysterious Neolithic structure made up of a single layer of stones, fire cracked (heated and then dropped into cold water to shatter, the earliest known example of this practice) and laid in a sinuous series of curves up a hill. They were interspersed with quartz pebbles so that, in sunlight, the ribbon would have glinted like a large white snake and, in the moonlight, it would have glowed as if the nearby river Wye was climbing up the hill.
Despite the Ribbon’s unique status, Herefordshire Council was determined to go ahead with the road and it was covered by tarmac.
The Saxon Wall
Hereford was a border town and, in the early ninth century, faced dangers from both the Welsh and Viking raiders. Aethelflaed, Alfred the Great’s daughter, set about making Hereford defensible, with strong stone walls behind which the county’s inhabitants could retreat. Over time, as danger seemed less likely, they fell into disrepair, only to be quickly repaired when a new threat appeared. However the original Saxon stone walls can still be seen, behind a block of flats, the only Saxon stone defences currently openly visible in England.
Hereford is where it is for two reasons. First was its strategic position at a major ford over the river Wye and the second that the Early Church decided that it would be a good place for the centre of a diocese, probably sometime in the middle of the seventh century. The first, wooden, building was burnt down by the Welsh in 1055 and re-built by the Normans in stone. It was enlarged over the following centuries whenever the cathedral came into a bit of money and so is a fascinating mixture of architectural styles.
It was not always as we see it today, but once had two towers and a spire. Unfortunately, on Easter Monday 1786, the West Tower collapsed and, during a subsequent survey, it was found that the spire on the Central Tower was unsafe and had to be taken down and was never replaced. This was a time when the diocese did not have access to a lot of money and it took many years for a shorter and more modest West Front to be built.
The Preaching Cross
Dominicans, called Black Friars from the colour of their robes, arrived in Hereford in 1246, but were not popular with the Bishop or the already established Gray Friars, who saw them as competition. After a certain amount of violence the Dominicans were allowed to build a priory to the north of the City which gradually became a major institution, but suffered the fate of all such religious bodies on the Dissolution of the Monasteries and privatised. It eventually became an almshouse for old soldiers, which might be the model for Chelsea Hospital, on the instigation of that most famous of Herefordians, Nell Gwyn.
The most substantial reminder of the Dominicans is the Preaching Cross, now tucked away from the hustle and bustle of the city in a quiet park, and the only surviving example of a friars’ preaching cross left in England.
The Black Lion
Built in 1575, it is the oldest surviving pub of Hereford. Naturally it is also considered the most haunted. Fourteen separate ghosts have been identified. The epicentre of the hauntings is the upstairs Painted Room, which contains Elizabethan depictions of the dangers of breaking the Ten Commandments as well as unexplained footsteps and noises. The story goes that the building was once an orphanage and one of the ghosts is that of a small girl that the pub staff have christened Alice. More threatening is the ghost of a man in a hat, who has been known to tap customers on the shoulder.
The Market Hall
Set in the very centre of Hereford, it was described by a visitor in 1642 as the stateliest in the kingdom. Built in 1576 when Hereford had a reputation for fine woodcarving, it had three storeys and was supported by twenty seven walnut pillars. The first floor was for the city magistrates, the top for meeting rooms for the fourteen guilds of the city and the open ground floor provided space for a market. By the middle of the eighteenth century it had fallen into disrepair and the decision was taken to remove the upper floor as a cost saving measure but no one liked the result and, in 1861, the whole building was demolished. Nowadays that would be considered a piece of short sighted vandalism.
When Admiral Nelson visited the city in 1802 the populace regarded him as the most important visitor since Charles I visited in the Civil War. Huge crowds turned out to watch him leave the house in Broad Street where he had been staying. Naturally there was severe shock when news reached the city three years later that he had been killed at the battle of Trafalgar.
A public subscription raised money to build a memorial in the Castle Green, but unfortunately the money did not run to a statue as was originally planned and the column was surmounted by a simple urn. Still it did mean Hereford had a Nelson’s Column thirty years before the one in London. Until the middle of the nineteenth century a muffled bell peal was rung by the city churches every year to mark the anniversary of Nelson’s death.
David Phelps's new book Secret Hereford is available for purchase now.