Numerous studies from across the globe have revealed that many of us are carrying extra pounds since the start of the pandemic. I can personally attest to the truth of this – although my reaction may be different to most. When I was invited to eat and drink my way around bucolic Herefordshire, it struck me as an excellent opportunity to build on the past year’s dedication to my expanding waistline.
Ostensibly, I was going to explore the region’s Sip Drink Tour – a new route highlighting 18 of the county’s best cider makers, distilleries and vineyards – but my visit wasn’t just about the sesh. This oft-overlooked part of England is teeming with Good Taste awards and, as the home of Hereford cattle, one of the UK’s oldest native beef breeds, it’s a region that is rightly proud of its food and drink pedigree.
While the staycation boom currently engulfing the British Isles has seen a glut of holidaymakers descending upon popular destinations such as Cornwall and the Lake District, this peaceful county, bordered by Wales, Shropshire, Gloucestershire and Worcestershire, has been curiously and consistently overlooked by tourists. And though the balance between overtourism and responsible travel is notoriously difficult to strike, it was reassuring to know that we wouldn’t be jostling for elbow room; Herefordshire has the fourth lowest population density in England, meaning plenty of space for both social distancing and unwinding.
Turning off the M5 at Gloucester, I started to shake off my urban twitch. Blessed with a rare sunny day, we moved through a landscape of thatched cottages and rolling hills of greens and yellow, sound-tracked by spring bird song. Our path happily coincided with the official Black and White Village trail, a self-guided circular route of 40 miles that winds through the north of the county. Hundreds of timbered medieval monochrome houses peppered the Herefordshire countryside, making it a worthwhile sojourn for Instagrammers, history lovers and architecture aficionados alike.
You’d have to be fully committed to visit all 18 producers on the Sip Drink Tour trail, but the beauty of the route is the freedom to tailor it to your personal preferences. Our booze crawl managed to incorporate four stops over two days, in addition to other activities (but this will be largely dependent on your choice of transportation).
With only one motorway (the lone M50), this predominantly rural county’s pace of life is blissfully chilled out. Quiet country roads lined with cow parsley and wild flowers, and slow with farm traffic transporting the region’s bounty, made travel between the producers featured in the tour a treat: there were options to cycle, walk or drive (responsibly, of course). For all but the most energetic of cyclists, e-bikes are an advantage in this hilly region – but whether by pedal or motor power, whizzing down hedge-lined country lanes in the late afternoon sunshine to the sound of skylarks felt like the Enid Blyton childhood I never had.
Somerset may be synonymous with cider, but over 50 per cent of the UK’s cider is actually produced in Herefordshire. The divisively named Orgasmic Cider Company is home to 110 acres of orchards, which supply apples to Westons and Bulmers, as well as the biggest hazelnut tree in Great Britain. Wandering among these mature trees with a drink of their Camra award-winning sweet White Jersey cider in hand was just as delightful as it sounds.
Wandering among these mature trees with a drink of their Camra award-winning sweet White Jersey cider in hand was just as delightful as it sounds
Elsewhere, the shiny Chase Distillery, a family-owned, field-to-bottle business creating award-winning gin and vodka sourced from potatoes grown onsite, is a perfect example of local farmers done good; their vodka enjoys the coveted title of “the best vodka in the world” after beating 249 rivals at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition. And everywhere we went, we were utterly spoiled by sun-drenched views of hills and fields for days.
A recurring theme running throughout was a genuine commitment to locally sourced, sustainable produce. And the Oakchurch Farm Shop – “the Harrods of Herefordshire”, a one-stop shop showcasing the region’s best food, drink, plants and products – epitomised the trend. A food truck serving their Scoop gelato sat out front when we visited, offering a sensational selection of ice cream. Their raspberry sorbet secured a Great Taste award in 2020, while the queues snaking around the car park were testament to its popularity.
As the sun started to sink, we headed to The Riverside restaurant at Aymestrey, winner of the 2019 Slow Food award for the Best Restaurant in the UK. Surrounded by trees, the eatery’s al fresco tables were set alongside the burbling River Lugg. Sustainable, ethically sourced gastro grub is the team’s calling card, with the kitchen garden playing a fundamental role in menu creation. Don’t leave without trying the Chase Rhubarb and Strawberry Savarin with honeycomb and cream.
Bed for the night was Lowe Farm B&B, where we were hosted by the inimitable owner, Juliet. This 600-year-old property, set in 200 acres of rolling farmland, blends a traditional aesthetic with a thoroughly modern approach to sustainability that extends to the eco-compostable paint covering the walls. The sprawling, peaceful garden, complete with flowers and fruit trees, was the ideal spot to relax in with affectionate resident cat Miss Pringle, while the views of distant mountains and countryside were stellar. After spotting two hares close to the property and observing our first ever great spotted woodpecker, we fell asleep to the sound of hooting owls.
Visitors seeking slicker environs should head to Lemore Manor, where it seemed remiss – nay, rude – not to sample the local speciality, so a perfectly cooked Hereford beef fillet was promptly devoured. Previously only available for exclusive hire, this luxury country pile dating back to 1640 was an exemplar of high-end relaxation without stuffiness. Dining can be enjoyed in the stylish main house or in one of the lakeside glass pods, alongside spa treatments and a host of activities, from croquet to foraging. A visit from Wye Valley Falconry was the highlight though, with opportunities to handle a range of birds, including peregrine falcons and even a vulture (a victim of bad PR, apparently), all overseen by the ultra-informed and enthusiastic Luke. Later, we hopped in our very own wood burning hot tub attached to one of the property’s lodges and watched red kites soar overhead.
This county of beautifully curated gardens, exceptional locally produced food and drink and first-rate landscapes may not provide a wild night out – a quarter of Herefordshire’s population is aged 65 or over – but it certainly delivers on the quintessential English country break front. (Just don’t forget to wear an elasticated waistband.)
Rooms at Lowe Farm from £85, B&B.
Rooms at Lemore from £139 per night; lodges and huts from £209.
Visit eatsleepliveherefordshire.co.uk for more inspiration.