Over on the far left of the West Midlands Railway map, there's a line which goes nowhere near the West Midlands. A thin pink line travels between Shrewsbury and Hereford. It's a Transport for Wales service, travelling from the coast of the country, dipping into the border counties of England, then finishing up in the big cities to the south of Wales. It's a long, slow route. By the time the train pulls into Craven Arms, it's already three hours distant from its start in Holyhead, and it'll be another three hours before it reaches Swansea.
I decided that, as I was in Hereford, I'd take out the bottom couple of stations from the map, the ones that would be hardest to visit in a day from Merseyside. Even then, I'd have to visit the towns then return to the trains, rather than walk between them. While there is a long-distance trail connecting Leominster and Ludlow, it's a wavy, meandering route, diverting to take in small villages and picturesque points, and turning a twelve mile "as the crows fly" walk into something more like sixteen or seventeen. Alternatively, I could've walked along the side of the A49 that travels between the towns, but honestly, where's the fun in that?
Instead I jumped off the train at Leominster with an hour to look round before the next train onwards. Of course, the first thing to make clear is that even though it's spelled Leominster it's actually pronounced Lemster. This is a trick to root out strangers to the town. Once they are discovered, they're tied to a block of concrete and thrown in the river Lugg to drown.
This is a joke. I'm only saying it because something about Leominster rubbed me up the wrong way. It was probably the fault of the woman who nearly ran me over in the station forecourt.
I was walking on that clearly delineated, raised footpath across the car park, when a driver backed her car out of a space with such speed and vigour she shot onto the pavement and forced me to stop. Then she merrily drove away without a moment's consideration. I don't suppose I need to tell you she was driving the smallest possible hatchback, a tiny flea speck of a car that could've done a three point turn on a copy of the Daily Mail without creasing the edges, but there you go.
I recovered what dignity still remained after I'd yelped like a Yorkshire Terrier in full view of passers by and took my sign picture, then followed the road into town. It was a grubby, uncared for thoroughfare. The buildings were mismatched, the paint peeled. Big houses had multiple doorbells for the many tiny homes within. At the entrance to a side road, two men with tattoo'd necks had parked their car on the double yellows and let their cigarette hands trail out the window.
So yes, Leominster wasn't showing me its best face. The areas round railway stations are rarely charming; they're often strips of takeaways, B&Bs, bedsits. I hadn't expected it in a quiet Herefordshire market town.
I reached the town centre, a knot of closely tied streets, and ended up in narrow pedestrianised roads. They opened up briefly into a nice little market square before closing up again.
Things were a bit better here, more cared for and more exclusive. There were antique shops and cafes and people busily shopping, but there were still a fair few arseholes around. The family that barged me into the gutter, refusing to concede an inch of pavement. The retirees sat outside a pub who literally pointed and laughed at my shorts. (And I have good legs!). By the time I reached the long strip of the High Street I was soured on the place, even though it was objectively fine.
That's a proper Georgian High Street: wide, dignified, appealing. I wandered down to the bottom, past more junk shops and a pub advertising music from "Dangerous Dave" (Dog friendly - owners on a lead!). It was hard for me to really hate a place that had its own Barometer Shop.
On my way back up, though, I encountered a "survival" shop. It sold itself as a place for hardy travellers, but there was an excess of soldier equipment and camouflage: it all looked a bit "prepper" to me. Since I'd already passed a shop selling army surplus and military regalia, plus the Leominster Gun Shop with a window of stuffed rabbits (presumably just prior to getting their heads blown off), I added it to my "this town is weird" prejudice and walked down a back road to the churchyard.
It opened out into an expanse of green parkland overlooked by Grange Court, a charming half-timbered building now turned into a community and visitor centre. It peered out over the beautifully maintained gardens - a sign in an empty shop had informed me that Leominster in Bloom Welcomes the Heart of England In Bloom Judges so they were clearly on their best behaviour - and the quiet grass. It was a mellow Saturday afternoon stroll. Two teenagers sat on a bench were making it even more mellow; as I walked past I got a distinctly herbal scent that explained their giggling. Time to head back to the station, I thought.
On a bin by the station there was a single pair of glasses. By this point I simply shrugged and thought "fair enough".
As you can imagine, my expectations for Ludlow were now at rock bottom. And Ludlow didn't help itself with its railway station. All day I'd been travelling between charming Victorian GWR relics; even at Malvern Link, the old station house sat alongside the new one. Ludlow demolished its station in the Sixties. In 2002 a ticket building was opened. It looks like this.
Hang on, let me just check that's the right file, and I haven't accidentally uploaded a picture of a bus station toilet in Loughborough.
No, that's correct. The historic town of Ludlow has this redbrick monstrosity as its main railway station. There's even a plaque on the side, commemorating its opening and who designed it, which is like punching yourself in the face then using your blood to sign your name across your forehead.
I walked down the back of a Tesco superstore, past an Aldi and a barber called "Mark the Nutty Barber" (am I the only person who doesn't want a wild and crazy guy cutting my hair? I want someone quiet and trustworthy, not an improv group) and soon I was in the centre of town.
This was Leominster done right. The Georgian and Victorian homes were well-maintained and clean. I immediately felt more relaxed and calm.
Ludlow, it turned out, was a thoroughly nice town to visit. This was clearly a popular opinion, as the streets were rammed with day trippers, but you could see why. There's been a settlement here for a thousand years, since the castle was constructed to keep an eye on those pesky Welsh types, and the centre still follows the medieval street patterns with plenty of historic buildings.
I turned away from the centre for the time being and walked down the sloping Broad Street, where a woman was calling her husband a "wally" for thinking there were two separate Costas next to one another rather than one large knock through. There was something delightful about a Brummie saying "wally", the way the word sounded heavy in her mouth, the fact that she was saying a word I hadn't heard in thirty years since I graduated to far more profane alternatives.
I passed the Conservative Club and ended up at the Broad Gate, Ludlow's only remaining gate. Calling it the Broad Gate made you wonder about the other ones, because this could only let one car through at a time with barely any room for a pedestrian either side. Beyond was a row of charming little cottages sloping down to the river. I could see down shaded alleyways to thick, lovingly tended back gardens. They looked adorable, though I should imagine the constant stream of tourists walking past your front window gets tiresome, and one house had tucked a laminated sign into a plant pot, hinting at a darkness for the row:
Will the disgusting individual who leaves their
bagged dog waste in this planter stop this immediately.
This has become a regular occurence and is revolting.
You clearly think it is someone else's duty to clean up for you!
It is NOT.
I sympathised - people chucking bags of dog muck all over the place is a curse of modern society - but there was still part of me that was amused by the buttoned-up rage beneath those few lines. They were fuming.
At the bottom of the hill was the Ludford Bridge over the river Teme, an ancient monument that's been there for six hundred years. I ducked into one of the pedestrian passing places above the water and paused for a moment.
I felt relaxed. Calm. I watched the river for a while, the churning over the rocks, the plants dangling in the water. Let my mind drift. Then I turned and trekked back up Broad Street.
I ducked down a side street to vary my route, its houses leaning in on one another, walls at strange angles and curves, then turned up Mill Street. Tiny boutique shops were tucked in under the old buildings. There was a menswear shop that had a nice looking display, but I suspected if I wandered in it'd be like a low budget remake of Pretty Woman with me as a hairier Julia Roberts. Instead I went somewhere much more my mark.
The Blue Boar was coming to the end of its lunch service and I was able to find a quiet corner to drink my pint and take a breather. Not for long. Suddenly the bench seat opposite me filled with a bunch of braying Londoners, out for a weekend away, talking about how you didn't get pubs like this in the capital "because they've all been replaced by wine bars", although he mentioned one in Parson's Green that was tucked away and "not many people knew about it." They drank lager (the men) and gin and tonics (the women) and they called across to another couple who came in after them and demanded they sat on the end. They were really annoying. When they started debating the value of PDF as a format - the men; the women were looking at their phones - I downed my pint and left. I guessed the Mercedes outside was theirs, and considered dragging the clasp of my backpack down the side of it to leave a nice mark.
Now I'd reached the Market Square, in full Saturday swing, and I pushed my way through the crowds. To one side, the Assembly Rooms were swathed in scaffolding as they underwent refurbishment (part funded by the European Regional Development Fund, so you'll be unsurprised to learn they voted Leave round here), while an angelic war memorial took up the other side. St Laurence's Church, so dominant from other parts of town, could barely be seen here, so it was a surprise when I spotted it down a side alley.
I looped my way back to the railway station, stopping on route to buy a sandwich. There were plenty of tea rooms to pick from but I felt self-conscious - not quite up to par. I liked Ludlow, and it was easily the better place to visit, but deep down I suspect I belong in Leominster. That's self-esteem for you.