It might be the artful bend in the River Teme, or the ancient castle brooding above it. Maybe it’s the medieval streets, the atmospheric alleyways, the fine Georgian facades on Broad Street.
Of course, it would be rather banal to say that it’s the food. That’s the typical line used by the unimaginative, the standard trope about Ludlow: The Food Town. And who wants to be accused of being unimaginative, swayed by food culture, influenced by the obvious? Well, I’ll go first: me.
Hook, line and sinker, Ludlow’s food scene has me. Because, beautiful setting, fascinating history and lovely buildings notwithstanding, what really sets Ludlow apart is its foodie credentials, its grounded connection to the countryside, to local producers, specialty shops and great chefs.
And it’s largely why I’ve been back half a dozen times, all the way from Canada. That’s an eight-hour flight, Toronto to London, followed by the long trek into the Shropshire hills.
“Back to Ludlow? Again? Why?” That’s how the questioning will go, as it has multiple times before.
“ ‘Tell me what you read and I’ll tell you who you are’ is true enough but I’d know you better if you told me what you re-read,” said the French writer, Francois Muriac.
Muriac was onto something, and his theory applies just as tellingly to travel.
I’m not a bucket-list location ticker. Some places are worth returns visits. They just feel right, like going home. They’re a movie we want to see again, a poem that improves with many readings. For me, one of those places is Ludlow, and food has always played some part in the magnetic pull of this Shropshire town.
The Ludlow Food Festival is the longest running food celebration in Britain and has helped put the town on the world culinary map, attracting over 20,000 visitors every fall for three days of tastings and demonstration by top chefs.
Thanks to this and other festivals celebrating everything from beer to sausages to cheese, hundreds of local producers are given a showcase for the best independent food and drink.
This in turn has spawned a rich variety of food shops, restaurants and farm shops in Ludlow and the valleys close by. The connective tissue is an emphasis on quality, a connection to the land: terroir.
Some of the food people I talked to believe that a community’s food choices help maintain the landscape, that the famous “green and pleasant land” looks as it does because of food and farming. We help support that, and the quality of life in this town, by the food choices we make.
And those choices are bewildering in Ludlow. The market sets up in the square several times a week, and on “Local to Ludlow” days, muddy Land Rovers disgorge a bewildering array of goods, from just-laid eggs to delicate courgettes to scrumpy cider brews.
On surrounding streets, a jolly gaggle of food shops congregate, all within a few minutes’ stroll from the castle and each other. The Broad Bean, on Broad Street, sells the best smoked salmon I’ve ever tried and deservedly won the Farm Shop Deli of the year for 2019.
Henry Mackley, who runs the nearby Harp Lane Deli overlooking the market square, couldn’t abide us starting our Ludlow stay with something pre-packaged from the supermarket. He kept the shop open an extra 15 minutes and proceeded to set us up with a basket of great ingredients, conferred at length with Katy about pasta proportions, and generously decanted a custom amount of his best olive oil in return for a donation to a local charity.
We soon discovered that Henry's expertise, and his eagerness to share it, is simply how life rolls in Ludlow. Four family-owned butchers do a roaring trade.
We visited Andrew Francis on our second night in town looking for some local partridge. “Sorry, no,” said the friendly red-cheeked butcher, his trilby hat pushed back.
“No, you don’t want that. Partridge isn’t open until next week. What you’ll be wanting is a nice a haunch of venison”. He wasn’t going to sell game birds if they hadn’t been freshly sourced from the bushes of a nearby estate. We (and the birds) were fine with that. We traded him stories about eating bear roast and moose tenderloin. “O Canada!” he said, grinning. And the venison was lovely.
The Mousetrap, a cheese shop barely the size of our rental car, is bursting with over 150 varieties, may made less than a short country drive away. With expert help we settled on a wedge of Shropshire Blue and three others. (Okay, maybe six.)
The cheese people in turn directed us to a greengrocer for some of the freshest, plumpest produce I’d ever seen – much of it liberally caked with black topsoil from nearby farm fields, lush green with the frequent rains of the Marches.
Freshness and simplicity are at the heart of everything in this town, an original player in the Slow Food movement in England. Taste, freshness, provenance are the watchwords here.
And the restaurants follow suit. Fewer ingredients but better ones, quality rather than novelty.
To start the day, a street-side table at Chichettis is hard to beat. Avocado on toast and an authentic wake-me-up Macchiato kick-started our day nicely. The contemporary Castle Tea Room, ingeniously inserted in the castle wall, serves tea and a fresh scones complete with a complimentary medieval courtyard view, and sometimes even a bonus falconry demo.
Next to the castle, Elliot’s, a French bistro run by Olivier Bossut in the elegant Dinham Hall Hotel, capped one of our days in style. The cassoulet Toulosain was, to use a technical gastronomic term, scrumptious. Elegant dining in a classic Georgian House. My inner Mr Darcy approved.
Depth and new talent bodes well for the future. Karl Martin, the young chef at "Old Downton Lodge", created the most extraordinary meal we’ve ever eaten. Anywhere. The restaurant, recommended to me by Lucy of “Let’s Go Ludlow” fame, is set in a medieval stone barn hung with tapestries, a fittingly atmospheric setting for a three-hour dinner served with laid-back professionalism.
Like Shropshire itself, the food was at once both familiar and nuanced, simple but deliciously complex.
If finishing the day with a celebratory libation is on the agenda, “Ludders” continues to punch above its weight. You could visit the “The Blood bay”, a Victorian pub that will transport you back in time, or the tiny “Dog Hangs Well” parlour pub in Corve Street. (No sign, but you’ll know it’s open if the antique street light is burning outside.)
You could try one of the many thriving traditional pubs, like The Wheatsheaf which is built into the walls beside the town’s only remaining mediaeval gate or wend your way down the narrow alleyway that leads to the Rose and Crown Inn, one of England’s oldest, plying its trade for over 600 years.
Ludlow is a fine town to be confined in for a few days, or better yet a week, a great place to return to. Eating well definitely won’t be a problem.
To paraphrase Muriac: “‘Tell me where you travel and I’ll tell you who you are’." That is true enough, but I’d know you better if you told me where you return to time and time again.
For some, the travel experience is ten thousand miles wide and one inch deep, but I’d argue for a narrower focus and a deeper, more local experience. And no matter how predictable it might seem, I know I’ll be back in Ludlow again, exploring new cafes and foodshops, getting to know a beloved place a little better with each visit.