Location: Ludlow, Shropshire
Perfect for: Country walks, culture, pubs and fantastic food
Ludlow is one of those places that people can’t point to on a map – if they’ve heard of it at all. But when you get there, it’s like being wrapped in a fluffy shroud of green and pleasant Englishness, unchanged for centuries, refined, tranquil and understated.
The smart little market town lies at the foot of a mighty Norman castle, now a deliciously crumbling ruin, with around 500 listed buildings lining the dead-straight streets, an impossibly picturesque combo of medieval, Georgian and Tudor half-timbered.
And then there’s the countryside: it’s close to the Welsh Marches, with all the rolling hilliness and remote villages that goes with it.
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We hoof on down to Euston station to catch the 11.10am, only to find that M2 has forgotten to bring the booking code for the tickets. I do worry about his grip on life sometimes. The poor lamb has to hop back on the tube to get it, and I settle down in the bar for a cheeky glass of chardonnay and a scan of the paper. He arrives back hot and bothered; I’m chilled and slightly pinkish.
After a trip just shy of three hours and a change in Crewe, we emerge on Ludlow station, M2 slightly crumpled but me victorious after a couple of knockout rounds of sudoku. A 15-minute cab ride later and we’re crunching up the gravel drive of Fishmore Hall.
The Georgian country house is just north of town on a little hill, with plenty of Jane Austen pillar-and-stucco graciousness. By the time we push open the mammoth front door and track down someone to check us in, we feel like we own the place. They’re justifiably proud of their 3 Red Star status by the AA (that’s better than the common old black stars), for hotels that are the most outstanding examples in each star category and the best in the British Isles.
We hoik our bags up the staircase and negotiate the warren of steps and corridors, finding our door and flinging it open in slightly breathless expectation: it’s a nice big room with a vast sash window overlooking the Shropshire countryside, high ceilings and nicely chic décor. Plus the biggest bed known to man.
M2 pops a Nespresso pod into the coffee machine and flicks on the wall-mounted TV, slumping on aforementioned kingsize bed in one deft movement. I torpedo into the bathroom. Nice. A huge tub for two, vast walk-in shower and black slate everywhere. I flick on the tap for a soak and check out the pampering situation: Elemis bath products, white fluffy bathrobes. M2 even brings me coffee and offers to scrub my back. That’s country air for you.
Our usual 45-minute power nap must have been working overtime, so we practically gallop down the stairs. These long journeys are notoriously hunger-inducing, and Fishmore Hall is known locally as a big cheese food-wise. So we’re mortified that the Forelles restaurant isn’t open on Sunday nights. How stupid are we?? Chef Andrew Birch produces some of the finest dining in Ludlow, with a seasonal nine-course tasting menu using the finest local ingredients from producers from all over the Shropshire Marches… all the right buzzwords. We repeatedly kick ourselves – and each other – and pick up the brasserie menu, which is simple but respectable.
M2 chooses the Classic Crayfish cocktail and I go with Smoked Salmon, Caper, Lemon and Crème Fraiche. Simple but good. Then we follow it up with Wild Boar and Apple Burger (superb and with fries to die for) and Braised Beef Cheek with Mash; Mango and Passionfruit Eton Mess with Mango Sorbet plus a Sticky Toffee Pudding with Butterscotch Sauce. If the brasserie menu is this good, what does the main dining room promise?
We get back to our room to find a newly printed weather report on the bed. Nice touch.
M2 flings the curtains open with great ceremony and drinks in views of lush green fields peppered with sheep. Then a charming, friendly waiter serves us breakfast of locally sourced sausages and bacon, Eggs Benedict and fresh pear and orange juice. Guilty bliss.
We’re booked in at the hotel’s SPAshell, a brand-new Scandinavian-inspired larchwood nirvana in the garden, with two thermal cabins, steam room and sauna, outdoor cedar jacuzzi and an outdoor bucket and monsoon drench shower. It’s all very plush and new-smelling, and we slip into robes and scan the ELEMIS men, from Biotec (that’s skincare to you) and Lava Shell Thermal treatments to Body Wraps, Manicures and Pedicures.
There are four treatment rooms that convert into two couples rooms, so we choose a simple head and shoulders massage, and lie face down on treatment benches next to each other for an extremely professional, relaxing, heavenly, stress-busting, glorious… you get the message.
Straight from massage to the steam room, where we relax even more (if possible), then we scuttle across the outdoor decking and into the Jacuzzi, with splendid views over the fields. A glass of bubbly would go down a treat at this point, but M2 points out it is a wee bit early in the day. Killjoy.
Blissfully de-tensed and brimming over with this season’s mindfulness, we decide on a jaunt into Ludlow. We don tweed and brogues (well, it is the country) and walk the 20 minutes into what Sir John Betjeman described as “probably the loveliest town in England” (didn’t he say that about everywhere?). Ludlow is pretty close to perfection, as streets of pristinely kept architecture lead the eye to the rolling green of the surrounding countryside. We tick off our checklist one by one: romantically crumbling castle with royal connections (M2 gets very little-boyish leaping in and out of garderobes); bric-à-brac in the market square; exquisite medieval stained glass in St Laurence’s church; independent shops with locally sourced food, artists and potters; and a Buttercross at the centre of it all.
We do it all, even venturing across the 15th century bridge to sample the local countryside and taking tea in a traditional little clotted-cream-and-scone emporium. M2 picks up an oil painting in the market for £3; I assure him it isn’t an original Constable, but he knows best.
Little Ludlow has yielded all its treasures, so there’s only one thing for it: a medieval pub crawl. And the pickings here are rich. We start at the Blue Boar for a fast-track Trivial Pursuit-athon (where you give any answer that’s vaguely coherent and get another go), onto the Rose and Crown through an impossibly picturesque courtyard, dinner at the half-timbered Wildwood Kitchen, and nightcaps at the tucked-away Unicorn, where an 80s soundtrack cause an impromptu singalong. Well, we joined in.
We walk through the countryside in the black of night trying to perfect the tune of ‘Take on Me’… only to find we’ve been locked out (did the Unicorn ring on ahead?). M2 whips out his mobile, and after a stern few words, a worried-looking face opens the front door and lets us in. Yes, we really should have read the warning in our room: the front door is closed at 10.30pm and locked for the night at 11.30pm. And that you should take your key out with you. Well, they could have reminded us.
They say you can get too much of a good thing, but I’ve never really subscribed to that train of thought. So it’s with a heavy heart that we tuck into breakfast and drag our bags back downstairs for exit stage left. Farewell to thee, fair Ludlow!
Good to know
If you’re going out of the hotel for an evening meal, take your key with you! They lock up at 11.30pm and you will be stranded outside.
On a lighter note, you can take over the entire hotel’s 15 bedrooms for 4 to 7 days from £100 per person per night, including 3-course dinner each evening.
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