Ludlow: the loveliest town in England?

Updated Tuesday, 19th July 2011
Gifted a beauty from its prosperous past, Ludlow must now find a future that recognises it as more than a museum piece.

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Ludlow has been a popular destination for visitors and settlers for hundreds of years, attracted by its idyllic situation — some of the finest scenery in England and the diversity of well preserved historic buildings.  In 1188 Giraldus Cambrensis, in the area on a recruiting mission for King Richard's Crusade, commented on the 'noble castle of Ludlow'; poet Thomas Churchyard (1587) offers an enthusiastic description of Ludlow:

The towne doth stand most part upon a hill,
Built wall and fayre, with streates both large and wide
And who that visits to walk through the towne about
Shall find things therin some rare pleasant things

More recently John Betjeman described Ludlow as 'probably the loveliest town in England'.  Ludlow's image has been given a contemporary slant by its association with food, gastronomy and artisan production.  This has led some to describe Ludlow and surrounding area as the 'English Provence'.

These descriptions are important in creating a popular image of Ludlow as an attractive place to live and visit. However, this particular identity does little to reveal the complex and at times contested processes that shaped Ludlow's past and influence the present.

It could be that we take our local towns for granted; they form a back-drop to our lives as places of consumption, leisure and work.  We use the facilities without paying too much attention to processes that determine the identities and purpose of towns. When trying to gain a more in-depth understanding of Ludlow, or any town, it is important to be mindful of the fact that all towns have to be created: they do not occur naturally.

The decision to build a given town in one location rather than another is often linked to geographical opportunities and constraints, to issues of defence, power and control.  Towns are also created by migration and wider social influences.  Ludlow is therefore a product of its wider interconnections not least in relation to issues and questions of migration. This contributes to the making and remaking of Ludlow as a place of diversity and of power.

Ludlow: History and Power

Ludlow is a planned Norman town based on a grid system, with a castle at one end of the town and the church at the other.  Ludlow's initial stage of development is inexorably linked to power, and regional control.  The castle, an emblem of Baronial power, was one of the first in England to be built of stone.  Roger de Lacy initiated construction of the castle in 1080.

Ludlow's early development as a centre of power, trade and migration owes much to its strategic position on the Welsh Marches, mid-way between Chester and Chepstow.  The word marches derives from the Anglo Saxon 'mearc' - meeting place. In the case of Ludlow's early history the meeting of the Welsh and English, under Norman rule, was characterised by conflict and antagonism.

Ludlow castle, one of the most powerful in a network built on the Marches, played a central role in Edward I campaigns to subdue the Welsh challenge to English rule.  For some Ludlow castle was a source of comfort and security at a time of border conflict, for others it symbolised oppression and domination.

The historian R.H. Davies links the castles to the tenacity and fortitude of the Welsh in resisting outside control. In his view the castles should be seen as 'eloquent testimony to the task of uprooting from Wales the rule of the Welsh'.

From its origins as a site of military and political power, Ludlow developed into a centre of commerce and migration.  In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries Ludlow became an important hub in the wool trade and the manufacture of cloth.

This aided the growth of a merchant class who grew rich from the export of these commodities.  Some of the fine buildings that attract visitors to the Ludlow area today were constructed on the proceeds of wool and cloth. These industries also attracted migrants, which led to the expansion of Ludlow's population, estimated to be 1,172 adults by the year 1377.  Migration to Ludlow at his time was fairly localised:

  • 57% came from within 10 miles of the town
  • 25% between 10 and 20 miles
  • 8% 20 and 30 miles
  • 10% over 30 miles

Source: Ludlow, 1085-1660 A Social, Economic, and Political History by M. A. Faraday, 1991

Ludlow's continued expansion in the fourteenth to sixteenth centuries had as much to do with trade and manufacture as it did with Baronial power.  In the sixteenth century glove production was an important source of income for the town.  The profits from this industry were substantial; in 1744 Samuel Waring (a Master Glover) earned £20,000, from glove production.  The income derived from the manufacture and export of gloves was not distributed evenly through society Nicholas Crane overlooking Ludlow Nicholas Crane in Ludlow

The Industry was controlled by the Stichmen's Guild, a body comprising six men (Master Glovers) from Ludlow's wealthy elite. They were in a position of power in an industry that by 1815 employed 735 people in various stages of production. 90 per cent of the workforce were women and children.  This affords an insight into the unequal power relations that are a part of Ludlow's story. Documentary evidence does not give much detail on the exact nature and consequences of the inequalities, but we can be certain that the rewards of Ludlow's manufacturing industry accrued to the most powerful in society.

This has to be seen in context of wider inequalities in the distribution of power and resources. The social structure of England at this time was controlled by 'an elite out of all proportion to its size, owning two-third of the acreage of England.

Connecting and Disconnecting Ludlow?

Ludlow, like all towns, is created by its connections to other places. Lacking a navigable river, Ludlow was dependent on a road system for trade and inward and outward migration. The roads in the sixteenth century were often in a poor state of repair, leading to long journey times to other centres of trade.

In 1664, for example, it took seven days to reach London from Ludlow.

Difficulties in travel led to the creation of turnpikes that charge travellers a toll for use of the roads. The revenues earned were invested in road maintenance so as to speed up communications between Ludlow and other urban centres.  Improvements to the road system reduced considerably the travel time between Ludlow and London; by 1774 a carriage leaving Ludlow at 6pm would reach London early the next day.

Construction of the railway in the nineteenth century brought Ludlow into wider and speedier connections of trade. In many ways these connections were stronger than they appear to be today; for instance reduced train services from London and Birmingham have contributed to a sense of Ludlow being difficult to get to, although that is also seen by some as an attraction.

Ludlow: Migration and Diversity

In terms of migration the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries are seen as a time of urban renaissance for Ludlow because of the growth and development of the town. Migrants from the rural areas surrounding the town were attracted by employment opportunities in agricultural and manufacturing production.  In Ludlow the population increased from 2000 in 1676 to 5253 in 1831.

Migrants of a different type were attracted to Ludlow at during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. At this time Ludlow became a fashionable destination for the wealthy. The 'Gentleman's Magazine in 1797 helped to build the town's reputation when it describe Ludlow as 'the most beautiful town in Europe.

These well-healed migrants left their mark on the town. The Georgian frontages on the houses in Broad Street reflect an architectural style popular in this era.  Even today, Broad Street is one of the most exclusive and sought after areas in Ludlow.

The built environment is one of the most tangible links we have to Ludlow's past; the castle, the church and the grand merchant houses help establish a sense of place.  Yes, Ludlow's buildings (over 500 of which have listed status) play an important role in the creation of the town's identity, but they are just one facet of a complex story.

Ludlow should not be seen as a museum piece whose development is unaffected by wider national and global processes. Ludlow Castle Ludlow Castle

In the contemporary world many rural market towns are under a great deal of pressure in relation to housing and employment - Ludlow is no exception.

House prices are higher than the regional average, making it very difficult for those on low incomes to live in central areas of the town.

This can be explained partly by the Ludlow's growing popularity as a place for retirement.

Data from the 2001 Census indicates that 36.9 per cent of people living in the St Laurence Ward of Ludlow are of retirement age compared to 18.4 percent for the rest of England.

Migration has seen Ludlow's population grow by 25 per cent since 1981.  Many of the new migrants to Ludlow are from South-East England.

James Caird (Head of Planning for South Shropshire District Planner) estimates that since the 1980's 66 per cent of Ludlow's housing stock has been purchased by people from South-East England.  The popularity of Ludlow as a place to live has to be seen in context to wider social trends.  A survey by (2000-2004) found that of the 352,000 respondents, 1 in 4 wanted to move from the city to a rural area.  As such, the more recent pattern of migration to Ludlow is representative of a modern trend termed 'green shifting'.

People are attracted to market towns like Ludlow by the lure of a slower pace of live, based on a different set of values that encompasses environmental and quality of life concerns.

Ludlow: Some Contemporary Issues

It would be wrong to assume that Ludlow is a rural idyll that has escaped the pressures and problems that impact on the lives of people in contemporary society.  Ludlow's dominant identity as a site of heritage should not obscure the fact that there have been, and still are, problems with the quality of housing, particularly for less well off sections of society. 

For example, in 1931 The Reverend R.G. Channer used a service in St Laurence Church to admonish his parishioners  'How could Ludlow residents sit and listen to the church bells playing Home Sweet Home, while they knew that yards away people lived in hovels where pools of water poured in though the roofs'.

The settlement pattern of Ludlow reflects the social make up of the town's population. The less well off tend to be located on the eastern fringe of the town in housing on the Sandpits estates; the more affluent live closer to the town centre, particularly in areas around the castle. 

Changing times have brought new challenges for Ludlow. The development of a large Tesco, on the site of a former livestock market, led to heated debate as to the effects this supermarket would have on local traders and the identity of Ludlow.  For some residents, Tesco symbolised the problems associated with the current developmental path followed by towns.

A message board set up on the web page of a local shop encapsulates the sentiments of the anti-Tesco campaign 'I think many of us saw Tesco as the thin end of the wedge that would take Ludlow closer to the homogeneous town centre that is the new Britain'.  Proponents of the Tesco development based their case on the idea that the supermarket would create jobs, lead to lower prices and greater choice for consumers. However, some locals feared that the arrival of Tesco would, as one resident put it, 'kill off small retailers as happened to Leominster 11 miles away.  Ludlow was at risk of becoming a “clone” town.'

Local resistance to Tesco coalesced around the notion of holding a food festival, within the grounds of Ludlow Castle, to celebrate the best the region has to offer in terms of food and drink produce.  The first festival was held in 1995.  It has become an annual event that attracts large numbers of visitors from the UK and abroad.  Ludlow's identity, as a place that champions ideals that run counter to those embodied in modern consumer culture, was enhanced further in 2006 when it become the UK's first Cittaslow (Slow Food Town).

The founding principles of this world-wide movement with the 'emphasis on local traditions and diversity with a view to improving the quality of life' are central to the type of place envisioned by many of Ludlow's residents.

The next stage in Ludlow's re-invention bears witness to the fact the town is not isolated from the globalisation of environmental problems. Concerns about environmental sustainability and global warming are factors that led to the development of an Eco-Park on the edge of town and the construction of an anaerobic digester to produce electricity from waste material.

This points the way to one possible future for Ludlow.  It also underlines the fact that towns should not be seen as static walled-in entities, instead they should be seen as the meeting places for a complex array of social processes — this is what creates their uniqueness.




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