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It's Always Festival Season in Ludlow!

by Jane Gilbert

Broad Street LudlowFew towns contain such a wealth of atmosphere, history and legend as the ancient market town of Ludlow. Nestling on the border between England and Wales, its turbulent history stretches back to the Norman invasion of England, when the aristocracy had to fortify their newly-acquired lands, and the fiercely independent Welsh were a force to be reckoned with.

Nowadays you are more likely to find craft shops and knitwear than crossbows and knights. And fine foods too: Ludlow's reputation as The Gastronomic Capital of England has put it firmly on the map for discerning diners and international visitors.

With its winding cobbled streets, timber-framed medieval buildings and imposing castle renowned for its connections with Richard the Third, Ludlow has always been popular with travellers at any time of the year. Though lively and bustling in every season, it is at Christmas that the whole town comes alive with an eclectic mixture of the past and the present. Laced with a good bit of seasonal cheer and some fine food and drink, the Ludlow Medieval Christmas Fayre drenches you in history and leaves you all revved up and ready for the holiday period.

A highlight of the Ludlow calendar for many years, the Fayre draws an ever-increasing crowd. Renowned as a town which keeps tradition alive, Ludlow enjoys a 'fresher' climate than the southern half of England, and so it's easy to imagine yourself transported back in time to the days when it always snowed at Christmas time. The Fayre takes place in the castle, whose medieval origins can still be seen. It's an imposing sight at any time of the year, but when it is swathed in seasonal greenery, it's easy to get into the spirit of Christmas Past.

Christmas DrinksLast year, traditional entertainers, minstrels, singers and craftsmen, all dressed in medieval costume, thronged the castle and the square outside. This year promises to be even better, with the return of old favourites as well as some exciting new acts -- a feast for all the senses. Traditional games will be on offer, you can have a go at archery, or even design your own family crest.

Ludlow has a reputation for being the home of craftsmen and women. The Christmas Fayre is the perfect opportunity to sample their exquisite crafts, traditional and modern . From jewellery to houseware, leather goods to fine art, from the medieval-themed and the not so medieval, you'll find a never-ending supply of Christmas gift ideas at the Fayre.

And it doesn't stop there. Hot on the heels of the internationally acclaimed Marches Festival of Food and Drink, it's another chance to taste the wide selection of seasonally themed and locally produced goods that give the town its gastronomic reputation. Since 1995, when the first food and drink festival took place, Ludlow has gone from strength to strength in the catering arena. From venison to cider, chutney to candy floss, you can try whatever takes your fancy. And it's not every day you see a sausage maker in medieval costume. In medieval times, your Christmas menu depended on how rich you were: it might consist of soup and stew or it could be wild boar and figgy pudding. The wild boar may be long gone from Shropshire's wooded hills and valleys, and meat slowly roasted on a spit may have been replaced by gourmet burger vans, but the spirit of fine food lives on at the Fayre for everyone to enjoy.

Christmas in medieval England was a time for singing, dancing and carousing by people of all classes, a tradition continued at the Fayre. This year top medieval musicians 'Hautbois' will be presenting their special Christmas show, alongside old favourites such as The Stanchester Quire. This group of over sixty voices has proved a popular attraction. From Somerset in the West Country, they lead the Medieval Christmas court show after dark on the Saturday.

Half-timbered building, Ludlow'Mumming' is another popular Christmas tradition which lives on at the Fayre. In Medieval times, local actors performed irreverent plays or dances in village squares or castles, a tradition which probably pre-dates Christianity. In modern Ludlow, wandering minstrels and street entertainers promise to keep this tradition alive. And that's not the only fusion of the old and the new in the entertainment line-up this year. Unusual quartet 'Wynndebagge and The Baggettes' will be entertaining the crowds with their unique combination of medieval music with rock 'n' roll attitude. They'll be using authentic medieval instruments, and offering members of the audience the chance to join the band! And if you're still on your feet after all that carousing, then on Saturday evening there will be a collection of minstrels playing traditional music for everybody to join in the dancing.

If Medieval England conjures up images of knights on horseback winning the hands of ladies with their exploits and derring-do, then you won't be disappointed at Ludlow. Battle re-enactment specialists The Plantagenet Society will be demonstrating spectacular medieval combat with swords and axes, as the knights battle for the title of the Champion of Ludlow. And they'll be bringing their squires and courtly ladies with them, ensuring visitors get a taste of the romance we associate with medieval life.

But the Christmas Fayre is by no means not the only seasonal event Ludlow has to offer. The Ludlow summer festival boasts a three week long programme of events culminating in the open air Shakespeare production set in the castle grounds. The Fringe and Jazz festival provides live music at the Bull Hotel, including jazz, rock, folk and blues. The September Marches food and drink festival is growing more popular by the year, attracting international interest, and with a well-deserved reputation for being the top food and drink event in Britain.

In spring, the May Fayre hosts a traditional funfair. Over spring bank holiday weekend, Ludlow Carnival, with its decorated floats of traditional entertainments meandering through the town, makes a colourful start to the Shropshire summer.

Even after taking part in one of these events, Ludlow is a place where you will want to linger. And there is plenty to see and do even after the minstrel music has faded away. The obvious place to start is the castle. Strategically situated on high land overlooking the rivers Teme and Corve, Ludlow castle was built by Walter de Lacey, one of William the Conqueror's trusted men, who came to England in 1066. It was designed to keep the Marches (the borderlands between England and Wales) safe from attacks from marauding Welsh invaders.

Ludlow CastleBut the castle is perhaps most famous for its connection with the infamous Richard III, who spent much of his boyhood there. Richard's nephews, Edward and Richard, more commonly known as the Princes in the Tower, were also living in Ludlow Castle when they heard of their father's death. This meant that the eldest, Edward, would accede to the throne. However, he was never crowned, as on his arrival in London he was imprisoned in the tower with his brother. Soon after, they were murdered. Following this, their uncle became King Richard III, and although history has blamed him for the boys' murder, there are some today who hotly contest this. We can never be sure of the boys' fate, but it's easy to soak up the atmosphere in the castle and imagine the times of political intrigue and betrayal that make up the fabric of medieval history.

A visit to Ludlow would not be complete without visiting the shops. Antiques, books, gifts and local produce can all be found in the town centre, and the thrice-weekly market in the castle square, which dates back to the 12th century, offers more than 40 stalls selling everything from incense to cheese. There are also antique, craft and farmer's markets throughout the year.

Even an aimless wander through Ludlow will unearth a wealth of history and culture from the town's medieval heyday to its status as a fashionable 18th century destination. There are hidden charms and oddities around every corner. In an idyllic setting, with numerous options for exploring the local countryside, Ludlow is always a bustling town, surrounded by history, old and new. You just have to open your eyes to see it.

Ludlow Castle

More Information:

Ludlow Christmas Fayre

Ludlow Tourist Information

About Ludlow

Writer, teacher and psychologist Jane Gilbert comes from Devon, England, and lives by the sea in Italy. After studying English Literature, she ran away to Brazil where she travelled extensively and cuddled sloths. She likes giraffes and curl reviver.

Article and photos © 2006 Jane Gilbert
Drinks photo courtesy of Britainonview.com


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