There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Thursday, 17 August 2017

Wuyishan (1) Xiamei Ancient Village: Part 8 of South East China

This a new post though it describes the events of the 19th  of  November 2016.
It will be moved to the 'right place' in a few days' time.

Chinese high-speed trains are extraordinarily well organised. Every ticket has a carriage and seat number, and if you stand where that carriage number is marked on the platform floor the appropriate door will arrive right in front of you.
Train G1653 arrived on time from Shanghai at 09.01 and whisked us the 456km from Hangzhou to Wuyishan in 2hrs and 44mins, an average speed of 167kph. It would be much quicker but for the 6 intermediate stops – is frequent stopping the best way to use a high-speed train?
Train G1653 arrives in Hangzhou
We disembarked at Wuyishan, or rather at Wuyishan East Station at 11.46. Emerging from the echoing barn of a station, we found our guide, M, and the young man who was to be our driver and looked around, wondering where Wuyishan was.
The train took us from Hangzhou in Zhejiang to Wuyishan in Fujian Province
According to Wikipedia, Wuyishan is a county-level city within the prefecture-level city of Nanping. We could see hills and trees, and a few buildings but nothing that resembled a city of any level.
Wikipedia further informs me that Nanping City contains 2 districts, 5 counties and 3 county-level cities (including the elusive Wuyishan).
How can one city contain 5 counties and 3 county-level cities? What is going on here?
I was bewildered until I read that Nanping City (population 2½ million) has an area of 26,000km² and realised that makes it twice the size of Yorkshire (pop: 5 million). Clearly the Chinese word shi ()always translated as ‘city’, can mean ‘city’ as we understand it, but also a much wider area administered by a city, like a county or prefecture.
Nanping Prefecture, aka Nanping City, in the north east corner of Fujian Province
There is a sizeable city of Nanping (pop: 400,000) in Yanping District, but the whole prefecture can be referred to as Nanping City. The differences between districts, counties and county-level cities is opaque. Yanping is the most urban part of the prefecture, while the other district, Jianyang, is rural. 'County-level cities' seem to be counties administered from a city of the same name (like Staffordshire or Worcestershire), while 'counties' have no eponymous city (like Kent or Devon). Wuyishan City is similar in area to Staffordshire, Wuyishan itself, when we finally arrived, is rather smaller than Stafford.
Anybody want to know more about Chinese local government areas?
I thought not.

At the time, I knew none of this but would soon discover that Wuyishan East Station (actually in Jianyang District) is over 30km from Wuyishan - and 30 fear-filled kilometres they were too. Chinese driving is often unruly but of the many professional drivers we have encountered in our various Chinese trips, the vast majority have been reliable and prudent, coping calmly with whatever is thrown at them. Today we encountered a member of the minority, a young man who believed in his divine right to overtake, even - perhaps particularly - on a blind bend beside a sheer drop.

Tucked away in the mountains (shan means ‘mountain’) Wuyishan consisted of a single main street lined with tourist shops and a few residential areas. Our hotel, squarely aimed at the Chinese tourist market, was off the main street. We dumped our bags and let M lead us to lunch

It is a local practice (we have never seen it anywhere else) for restaurants to lay their wares out on a trestle table in the street. M took us to one where the mushrooms looked interesting, the vegetables tired and meat like it ought to be in a fridge. We like a written menu even if we can read little of it, but here we were reliant on M, whose English, we were discovering, was limited. Prices were high – the mushrooms astronomical – and perhaps we should have bargained, but that is not usual in restaurants. We settled for some duck which was overpriced and more bones than meat.

Lunch was unsatisfactory, but on the plus side we had now travelled far enough south to eat outdoors and sweaterless.
Afterward we reluctantly re-placed our lives in the hands of the driver for a 6km trip to Xiamei Ancient Village
Xiamei Ancient Village, Fujian
At first sight Xiamei looks like a genuine slice of old China, but this is not just an old village, there is a £5 entrance fee to be paid which includes the services a local guide.
Entrance to Xiamei Ancient Village, Wuyishan
We had spent the last week in jam-packed Jiangsu* and Zhejiang. By contrast rural Fujian is relatively empty, but there was modern housing nearby. I wondered if the people we saw were genuine residents of the ‘Ancient Village’, or were they employed as local colour. Am I really cynical enough to believe they brought their washing here so tourists could watch it dry? Probably not, but the Chinese tourist industry makes you think that way.
They put foodstuffs out to dry as well as clothes
(pity I have forgotten what this is!)
Xiamei is, however, picturesquely strung out along the Dangxi River (actually a canal) connected to the nearby Meixi Brook – which is larger than anything I would call a ‘brook’...
The Dangxi 'River', Xiamei, Wuyishan
…crossed by any number of bridges of varying antiquity.
Old bridge, Xiamei, Wuyishan
The local guide was loquacious, and we looked to M for translation, but she was clearly not up to the job, providing two or three words for every hundred spoken to her. Fortunately, the Zou Family temple was captioned in English and in two languages written in Cyrillic, Russian and, er…another one.
Zou Family Ancestral Hall.
Xiamei prospered on the tea trade during the 18th century when it sat at one end of the Tea Road from China to Moscow. The houses are not as grand as those in the water town of Nunxun (was that only yesterday?) but as village houses go, they are impressive.
Village house, Xiamei ancient Village, Wuyishan
Other ancestral halls with intricately carved doorways vie with the Zou’s for prominence. I like the way they can be adapted for Taoist, Buddhist or Confucian ceremonies as required, an ecumenical harmony we had observed in 2013 at the memorable Hanging Monastery near Datong.

Stone carvings at the entrance to an Ancestral Hall
Xiamei ancient Village
At the end of the row we found the village blacksmith hard at work…
The village blacksmith, Xiamei Ancient Village, Wuyishan
…then we crossed the Dangxi and walked down the other side.

Starting down the other side, Xiamei Ancient Village, Wuyishan
We soon encountered the local guide’s house where his mother set about making us a cup of tea - actually several cups. Wuyishan is the home of Lapsang Souchong, a black tea dried and smoked over pinewood fires. Worldwide demand for Lapsang Souchong has become far greater than the Wuyi area can provide, but although there is no Chinese concept of appellation controlée, Wuyi Lapsang Souching still commands a premium price. She made us a pot of Lapsang Souching and one of Jin Jun Mei (lit: golden beautiful eyebrow), an early spring picked Lapsang and even more highly prized. I like an occasional Lapsang, but I would struggle to drink it every day. Jin Jun Mei was gentler, sweeter, slightly less aggressive. We bought some. We also tried a superior Jin Jun Mei but that seemed to give little more for a higher price. She did not brew us any Da Hong Pao (big red robe) 20g of which can cost up to US$20,000, unless you source it from one of the original six bushes, in which case it becomes seriously expensive.
Making tea, Xiamei Ancient Village, Wuyishan
We moved on through another impressive house…
One of the grander village houses, Xiamei Ancient Village, Wuyishan
…with a strange door. Allegedly this is a template against which a mother can check a future daughter-in-law, a sort of Chinese glass slipper though without the foot fetishism. It was treated as a joke, but it embodies an attitude to women some might have difficulty laughing at.
Bride template, Xiamei Ancient Village, Wuyishan
At the end of the village a woman was de-husking rice using a hand powered machine. This was certainly not being done for the benefit of tourists, and the more I had seen of Xiamei, the more genuine it felt and the more I warmed to it. It is though, undoubtedly part museum and part living village. I have nothing against museums, on the contrary, at the Black Country Museum, for example, I watched with interest as blacksmiths and chain-makers demonstrated their crafts, but they and I knew it was a demonstration, there was no pretence; in China you cannot always be so certain. [We were almost the only visitors. I read it can be very crowded at holiday time or when school groups descend. I might have liked it less then.]
Husking rice, Xiamei Ancient Village
The short journey back to Wuyishan brought no accute threats to life or limb.
We took a walk round the town, looking for a promising restaurant. There were plenty of shops selling wood carvings and more selling tea, but few restaurants. Even the little grocery shop offered tourist tat, but we did note a couple of possibilities.
Later, as we set out to eat, the rain descended so, ignoring our research, we ran for the nearest restaurant. Menu excerpts were displayed outside and we had earlier noticed we could read most of one of them, so we ordered it by pointing, just to check we were right.
The unexpected plate of fresh, crunchy, just-roast peanuts, was a definite bonus. The strips of pork, mushrooms and potatoes were what we thought we ordered and the celery was obviously the unknown word. The stock in which everything had been cooked gave it a touch of class and the price was reasonable. We felt well pleased with ourselves.
Drinks cupboard in a small restaurant in Wuyishan
I often take pictures of our meals, but just for a change, here is the restaurant’s drinks cupboard. Bottom right is fruit juice and beer (though our beer came from the fridge), above that cola, Red Bull and interestingly wrapped spirits. On the next shelf is Chinese red wine (generally avoided by locals and tourists alike) and a few bottles of Chinese vodka. The top two shelves in the centre also have vodka and more expensive rice and sorghum based spirits, their bottles made special by hiding them in decorated boxes. The contents of the big bottles at the bottom are considered medicinal and are best not scrutinised too closely.
Wuyishan at night
*Jiangsu Province’s 79.8 million people live at a density of 780 people per km² (c.f. United Kingdom 270, USA 91) and this does not include the mega-city of Shanghai which is a province in its own right.

Wednesday, 26 July 2017

The Checkers, Montgomery: Dining with the Frenchman and the Farmer's Daughters

Tradition dictates that for our wedding anniversary I organise a day out culminating in a meal at a top class, usually Michelin starred, restaurant while Lynne remains ignorant of where we are going until we arrive. The 26th is our anniversary and this year’s restaurant is The Checkers, just over the Welsh border in the small town of Montgomery. I intended to write a post entitled Montgomery and The Checkers, but my plan seriously underestimated the charm of the tiny town (pop 1,300) which deserves a post of its own – so there are two this year, the previous one for Montgomery, this one for The Checkers.

Montgomery, the former county town of a former county
The Checkers is owned by the self-described 'Frenchman and two farmer's daughters.'

Agen born Stéphane Borie, previously worked at the Waterside Inn in Bray under Michel Roux Snr, where he met his partner, pastry chef Sarah Francis, the daughter of a Shropshire farmer. In 2008 they acquired the Herbert Arms in Chirbury, and were joined by Sarah’s sister Kathryn working front of house. In 2011 the family team crossed the Welsh border (a distance of 3 miles) to The Checkers in Montgomery, won a Michelin star within the year and have maintained it ever since.

Sarah, Kathryn and Stéphane
(Picture stolen from their own website)
The 17th century inn is in Broad Street, effectively Montgomery’s main square. Next door is the Montgomery Fish Bar, which is how an advertisement for Pukka Pies comes to stand outside a Michelin starred restaurant.

The Checkers, Broad Street, Montgomery
Like many of Montgomery’s old buildings, an unassuming exterior hides a surprisingly large interior. We checked in and were shown to our room on the first floor.

At 7.15, as instructed, we presented ourselves in the lounge for drinks, canapés and perusal of the menu. The latter took very little time as all diners get the same six course set menu (variations are possible if coeliac sufferers, vegans, pescatarians and fussy buggers identify themselves when booking). Each course is served at the same time to all tables. The only choice was whether to go with their recommended wines and, as no single bottle could suit the whole menu, we did.

Lynne ordered a gin and tonic and after a recent drowning incident requested the tonic be brought separately. The request was unnecessary, this practice is routine at The Checkers and I applaud them for it. My dry martini was good too, perhaps because I have returned to specifying Tanqueray, rather than trying out yet another new wave gin.

Canapés consisted of Roquefort cream on a parmesan biscuit, and ballotine of duck topped with pear chutney. The cream was exquisite, the biscuit delightful if structurally suspect and shameless finger licking was required after its collapse. The duck was well flavoured, though Lynne was unsure the pear chutney made an ideal accompaniment.

Ballotine of duck and parmesan biscuits with Roquefort cream
We moved from lounge to dining room
Just a part of the spacious dining room, The Checkers, Montgomery
The first course was an amuse-bouche sized Smoked Tomato Velouté with Goat’s Cheese Cream and Dried Olives. The velouté was rich and deep if not very smoky and the goat’s cream cheese a perfect complement though I was unsure of the point of the, almost flavourless, specks of dried olive. At the bottom was a little peeled fruit. ‘A grape’, I suggested tentatively, mainly on size – obviously not, it was a tiny cherry tomato (I think).

Tio Pepe sherry would have made an interesting accompaniment but ours tasted musty, so we sent it back, asking them to open a fresh bottle. Our complaint bought a visit from Kathryn with an apology and the information that they had no other bottle of Tio Pepe (really?) or any other comparably dry sherry. After a little discussion, we settled for a glass of Sancerre, which was pleasant but lacked the weight the sherry would have bought to the combination.

Being ludicrously over-privileged, this was our second Michelin starred meal this month. A fortnight ago at Restaurant James Sommerin in Penarth I wondered why bread is routinely served at this juncture. In France good, ordinary bread is always on the table, some often eaten with the first course, occasionally more with the second. British bread does a different job, but restaurants have an atavistic need to ‘put bread on the table’; fine restaurants scratch this itch with specialist breads. The Checkers, offering modern and classic French cuisine to a largely British clientele, compromises by serving a French quantity of British speciality breads. If there was a danger of us going hungry this would be brilliant, but there isn’t, so although it is excellent bread (we nibbled!) we had no real use for it. A stated aim of the ‘one menu for all' policy is to cut food waste, so what do they do with the surplus bread?
A platter of wonderful bread - for which we sadly had little use
The Checkers, Montgomery
Salmon is out of fashion with the chef fraternity (quite rightly, in Lynne’s opinion) so seeing Rotolo of Confit Salmon with Red Peppers and Basil Dressing on the menu was mildly surprising. A Rotolo (I had to look it up) is a pasta sheet wrapped round a cylinder of something, a sort of non-planar lasagne. Neither of us thought it did the salmon any favours, but I at least found the cube of salmon with the crispest possible skin very much to my taste. Neither the fragments of red pepper, nor the basil dressing contributed much and the little blobs of what look like tomato ketchup might have been better if they were.

Rotolo of confit salmon with red peppers and basil dressing, The Checkers, Montgomery
The rotolo (left) was standing on end before I started messing with it.

The Domaine Rougie Viognier was exactly the same wine James Sommerin selected for his beetroot dish. A Vin de Pays d’Oc, it is far classier than its ranking but unfortunately I am not a Viognier fan.

Passion fruit, lime and ginger granite was a tiny bowl of deliciousness, the passion fruit cream topping a prelude to the well flavoured granite below, where sharp lime and fresh ginger cleansed and freshened the palate. One of our neighbours found the lime over-acidic, another the ginger too aggressive (people speak louder when tables are well separated) but we thought it close to perfection.

Lynne with the small, but perfectly formed granite,
The Checkers, Montgomery

Although James Sommerin’s six course tasting menu consisted of half a dozen equally sized courses, I could not resist calling the guinea fowl the ‘main course’. The Checkers offered a ‘six course set menu’ rather than a ‘tasting menu’ with no suggestion the courses were of equal size or importance, the velouté and granite had been miniscule, Trio of Neuadd Fach pork, pomme fondant, artichoke and braising juice was a true main course, indeed a mighty meaty platter.
Trio of Neuadd Fach Pork, fondant potato and artichoke
Lynne has a strange prejudice against fondant potatoes, but cooked to perfection, soaked through with butter and braising juices I thought this humble spud was almost sublime. I was less impressed with the artichoke, both heart and purée, because I am less impressed by artichokes. James Sommerin gave us artichoke too; although ‘vegetable of the moment’ they taste of little and have an unappealing texture – I will be happy when the fashion changes. The (uncredited) asparagus, however was a delight, gently cooked and full of flavour.

I have left the best to last. Neuadd Fach Baconry in nearby Llandinam is a small-scale producer of high quality pork products and Stéphane Borie’s sympathetic treatment produced a plate of piggy heaven, the braised meat richly porky, the sumptuous belly pork crowned with the finest crackling. The black pudding completing the trio was at the soft, herby end of the black pudding spectrum, not my favourite, but a good example of the style.
Dark chocolate and raspberry cardinal with vanilla ice cream, was as pretty a dessert as one could want. The cardinal was lovely – dark chocolate and raspberry as advertised - though I am unsure what makes it a ‘cardinal’, presumably not the pope. I love vanilla ice cream, that is ice cream tasting of vanilla not ‘vanilla’ as a synonym for ‘plain’. This was very sweet, but had little vanilla flavour, which was disappointing.
Raspberry and dark chocolate cardinal with vanilla ice cream

Toro Albalá’s 1986 Dom PX Pedro Ximénez Gran Reserva is something else. Not so long ago Montilla was sold as a cheap alternative to sherry; it was never anything like this. Almost black and thick enough to coat your palate – if not quite stand a spoon in – its sweetness and intense flavour of figs and liquorice lingered for ever. I could not drink much of this – nor could I afford to, it is appropriately expensive – but a small glass is a big privilege.

Lynne, the dessert and a glass of PX
In another of the Frenchman’s compromises with British preferences ‘A Selection of Cheeses’ was the final course. It is tempting to compare his cheese board with James Sommerin's, who being Welsh has no difficulty in doing things the French way and putting cheese before dessert (or, in his case, desserts). Sadly, there was no comparison; instead of selecting from 32 cheeses we were presented with three. This accords admirably with the policy of minimising food waste, but the cheeses could have been more adventurously chosen. Roquefort, once a treat is now a commonplace, though theirs, cut from a large wedge, avoided the sliminess of much supermarket Roquefort. Vignotte is more unusual, but hardly unknown and despite its triple-cream sumptuousness fails to excite. The smoked cheddar should have stayed at the wholesalers. No complaints, though about the glass of Churchill Graham  2012 LBV port, the third fortified wine of the meal - but so what?

Selection of Cheeses, The Checkers, Montgomery
I had coffee and we shared the petit fours, and that was the end. As at James Sommerin I eschewed a digestif; this is either wisdom, or lack of staying power, either way it is a function of age.

After 42 years of marriage this was our 13th anniversary meal and the 8th to be recorded on this blog. It was very good, but not the greatest; the first Michelin starred meal I ate so blew me away I thought it perfection, these days I have become picky.

'Fine Dining' posts

Montgomery: Punching above its Weight

Tradition dictates that for our wedding anniversary I organise a day out culminating in a meal at a top class, usually Michelin starred, restaurant while Lynne remains ignorant of where we are going until we arrive. The 26th is our anniversary and this year’s restaurant is The Checkers, just over the Welsh border in the small town of Montgomery. I intended to write a post entitled Montgomery and The Checkers, but my plan seriously underestimated the charm of the tiny town (pop 1,300) which deserves a post of its own – so there are two this year, this one for Montgomery, the next for The Checkers.

The Historical Counties of Wales
Montgomery, only just in Wales and the former county town of a former county

Our visit to the Welsh Marches did not start well, but by Welshpool the sky had a few blue patches and the rain was no longer continuous. South of the town I swung confidently into Glansevern Gardens only to discover they were closed. Their website clearly says the gardens will be closed for 2017, but I missed it. Ah well, next time.
Instead we headed straight for Montgomery only to meet a ‘road closed’ sign. A diversion onto single track roads, including a do-it-yourself level crossing, brought us into Montgomery at The Cottage, the visitor centre for Monty’s Brewery. Things were starting to look up.
Lynne outside The Cottage, Monty's Brewery Visitor Centre
Inside we met Pam Honeyman, the head brewer who founded Monty’s in 2008 with her husband Russ, the commercial director. She left for the brewery a mile down the road while a charming and knowledgeable young lady talked us through the beers and sold us three ⅓ of a pint tasting glasses each.

Talking us through the beers while pulling a ⅓ of Old Jailhouse
The Cottage, Monty's Brewery Visitor Centre, Montgomery

Cascade hops give Monty’s Sunshine (4.2%) floral and citrus aromas. It is a very good beer and (for my taste) a little more bitterness would make it a great beer. Monty’s Pale Ale (4.0%), lighter in colour, alcohol and flavour is, at first sip, a tad underwhelming, but it grew on me. Old Jailhouse is a darker, maltier brew and at 3.9% as good a session beer as you will find.
Left to right, Sunshine, Pale Ale and Old Jailhouse
The Cottage, Monty's Brewery Visitor Centre, Montgomery

Lynne’s trio consisted of Sunshine, Pale Ale and Best Offa. Best Offa (4.0%) is a clever name and each pint triggers a donation to the upkeep of the Offa’s Dyke footpath, which passes a mile or so east of Montgomery but, for me the fine balance of hop and malt left it short of personality.
Lynne with Sunshine, Pale Ale and (left of picture) Best Offa
The Cottage, Monty's Brewery Visitor Centre, Montgomery
Monty’s beers are interesting, individual and worth seeking out. The same cannot be said of their ‘gourmet' sausage roll, a stodgy relic of the 1970s and best avoided.
We drove into town and took the road that winds up the hill to the castle.

After 1066 William the Conqueror quickly established control over England, but having left Wales for another day he needed a strongman to guard his western flank, so in 1071 he made Roger de Montgomery* Earl of Shrewsbury.

Like the Romans before him, Montgomery realised that controlling the broad valley of the little River Camlad, which flows into the Severn at a fording point, was the key to blocking Welsh marauders from English lands. The Romans built their fort on the lowlands near the confluence, Montgomery built a wooden motte and baily castle on high ground overlooking the valley. When Roger de Montgomery died in 1094 the castle soon passed to Baldwin de Boulers whose family held it for the next hundred years.

The route into England. The River Camlad flowing along the far side of the valley (aka the Vale of Montgomery) marks the English border
The town that grew below the castle became known as ‘Montgomery’ in English and ‘Trefaldwyn’ (Baldwin’s Town) in Welsh.

The weakness of King John encouraged Llywelyn ap Iorwerth, Prince of Gwynedd to flex his muscles, and he destroyed the castle in 1215.

John died the next year and his son, Henry III, became king at the age of 9. With a boy king to the east and a clever and ambitious Welshman to the west a stone castle seemed a good idea. Architect Hugh de Burgh chose a new site, a prominent outcrop immediately above the town, which by 1227 had become important enough to receive a Royal Charter. In 1228 the inner ward was completed and another attack by Llewelyn was repulsed, but for more security, middle and outer wards were added. By 1233 Llewelyn had established himself as the first ruler of a united Wales, so he had another crack at Montgomery and failed again.

The inner ward of Hugh de Burgh's Castle, Montgomery
Our visit started with a sit in the car park while large raindrops belaboured the car roof. The path to the castle, through the long gone outer ward uses the only level approach to the outcrop. The ditches, now spanned by modern bridges, made the castle impregnable to any medieval army, and a well, hacked through 25m of solid rock, meant they could hold out almost indefinitely.

A little damp and windswept, Lynne stands on the bridge between the middle and inner wards, Montgomery Castle
After treaty negotiations here in 1267 Henry III granted Llewelyn ap Gruffud, the grandson of Llewelyn ap Iowerth, the title of ‘Prince of Wales,’ though it was more a recognition of reality than a 'grant'. 15 years later an army gathered at Montgomery before marching south and killing Llewelyn ap Gruffud, the last indigenous Prince of Wales, near Builth Wells.

Montgomery Castle, the inner ward on its impregnable rocky outcrop
With Wales subdued, for a while, Montgomery castle lost its importance. In 1402 however, during the uprising of Owain Glyndŵr (who also has a claim to be ‘last indigenous Prince of Wales’) the castle was attacked, but again could not be taken. The town, though, was destroyed and remained abandoned for almost 200 years.
In the Civil War, the castle was surrendered to the Parliamentarians in 1643, and like so many other medieval castles, subsequently demolished.
From the car park a sign points up Town Hill to the Montgomeryshire War Memorial. Starting steep and overgrown the path soon reaches a larger track…
Towards the Montgomeryshire War Memorial
….which eventually leaves the woods and heads for the hill top memorial. The 6m tall Portland stone column was dedicated in 1923 to Montgomeryshire’s 1914-18 dead. It has since been re-dedicated to the victims of all wars.
The Montgomeryshire War Memorial (from this angle looking more like an industrial chimney) on the top of Town Hill
Returning to town we dropped into the Old Bell Museum. The 16th century building, which has previously been a slaughterhouse and a temperance hotel among many other things, is like the TARDIS, larger inside than it looks from the outside. Its eleven rooms are crammed with exhibitions of local history including many fascinating old photos. Local medical practices, the Cambrian Railway, the workhouse, the castles including models and artefacts from excavations and even the architecture of the building itself are all covered. Run by Montgomery Civic Society volunteers, it’s the sort of quirky local museum every self-respecting town should have, but very few do. And it only costs £1.

The Old Bell Museum, Montgomery
After looking at the old pictures we walked outside to find the town has changed remarkably little. Of its two main streets, Arthur Street has gained some parked cars, but little else..

Arthur Street, Montgomery
…retaining its timber frame buildings…
Timber framed buildings, Arthur Street, Montgomery
…and Bunner’s Hardware store which is well into its second century. Another Whovian enterprise this TARDIS stocks everything from a coffee cup to a lawn mower.
Bunner's Hardware store, Arthur Street, Montgomery
The Dragon Hotel, a 17th century coaching inn, still provides food drink and accommodation.

The Dragon Hotel, Montgomery
While Broad Street, the other main street ends at what looks like the town hall.

Broad Street, Montgomery

The Checkers is also in Broad Street and we went there next. It is the subject of the following post, so this one skips nimbly forward to ….

After an excellent breakfast – and more delicious pork products from Neuadd Fach - we walked down Broad Street, across the B4385 (the ‘main road’ through Montgomery) and up Church Bank…

Looking down Broad Street for Castle Bank, Montgomery
…to St Nicholas’ Church. The photo below was taken across the town from near the castle, about the only place you can see the building in its entirety. The nave is early 13th century (c1227) and the transepts were added around 1275. A spire was added in 1543 but that was taken down and replaced by the current tower in 1816. That late addition looks wrong to me and spoils the exterior….

St Nicholas, Montgomery
…but the interior is wonderful. The western part of the nave has a 15th century hammer beam roof, visible at the top of the photograph below, while the central part has a slightly later barrel ceiling.

Hammer beam ceiling (top of picture) and barrel ceiling, St Nicholas' Church, Montgomery
The rood screen is 15th century and was brought from nearby Chirbury Priory at the dissolution of the monasteries. The ceiling beyond is part of the 1865 restoration.

Rood screen and barrel ceiling, St Nicholas, Montgomery
In the South transept is an Elizabethan canopy tomb.

Elizabethan canopy tomb, St Nicholas, Montgomery
The occupant is Richard Herbert, Lord of Chirbury who died in 1596. His family were the last to hold Montgomery Castle and it was his eldest son Edward (b 1583) who surrendered the castle in the Civil War. His 7th child was the poet George Herbert while Thomas (the 10th and last) was born posthumously. The tomb also contains an effigy of his wife Magdelene, though she is not buried here. She must have been a tough lady; despite giving birth to 10 children in 14 years she survived her husband by 31 years. She remarried and is buried in Chelsea.

Richard Herbert (present) and Magdelene Herbert, née Newport, (absent)
Canopy tomb, St Nicholas', Montgomery
Beside the canopy tomb are two more tombs with heavily restored effigies.

The one with the helm is said to be another Richard Herbert who died in 1543, though the carving probably dates from earlier. The man with the flowing locks is Edmund Mortimer, who died in 1408 supporting Owain Glyndŵr at the siege of Harlech. He married Glyndŵr’s sister Catrin, while his sister Elizabeth was the wife of Henry ‘Hotspur’ Percy. He features in Henry IV Part 1 as Hotspur’s brother-in-law, though Shakespeare conflates him with his nephew the Earl of March.
Richard Herbert (possibly) on the far side #, Edmund Mortimer, nearest the camera
St Nicholas, Montgomery
In the cemetery is the ‘Robber’s Grave.’ John Davies (not my father-in-law but a man of the same name) was sentenced to hang for highway robbery in 1821. Protesting his innocence, he said God would prove him guiltless by not letting grass grow on his grave for a hundred years; and so it came to pass (allegedly). There is, of course, plenty of grass on it now, except where it has been worn away by the feet of tourists. I wondered as I took the photograph if the virtuous people in the surrounding graves ever get the hump that the only one to get any visitors is the convicted felon.
The Robber's Grave, St Nicholas, Montgomery
And finally…

On our way home, having crossed the Vale of Montgomery into the Shropshire Hills we stopped at Mitchell’s Fold Stone Circle, or rather we stopped on the road and walked to it, a mile there and back, across an increasingly exposed and windswept moorland. And was it worth it? Of the 1,000 or so Neolithic/Bronze Age Stone Circles in Britain and Ireland, it probably ranks in the top 950, but only just. Of the original 30 stones, 15 survive, not all of them vertical. The largest stone, was once one of a pair.
Mitchell's Fold stone circle
It is difficult to appreciate what our ancestors saw in sites like this. We look down from the moor onto rich agricultural land, but when Mitchell’s Fold was erected all they would have seen was forest. I find it easier to understand the storyteller who dreamed up the medieval explanation. As the plaque at the site tells it ‘during a time of famine a fairy gave a magic cow that provided an endless supply of milk. One night an evil witch milked her into a sieve. When the cow realised the trick, she disappeared. The witch was turned to stone and a circle of stones was erected around her to ensure she could not escape.
Looking back towards Wales from Mitchell's Fold stone circle
If you are in these parts I would not bother with Mitchell’s Fold, but little Montgomery has an important Marcher Castle, an impressive church, more old buildings than you can shake a stick at, a Michelin starred restaurant, cheaper places to eat and drink, a fascinating little museum and its own brewery. Many much bigger places have less to offer.

*Roger de Montgomery came from what is now the Calvados department of Normandy where the villages of St-Foy-de-Montgommery and St-Germain-de-Montgommery (both with two ‘m’s) can still be found. Nearby Colleville-Montgomery (one ‘m’), previously Colleville-sur-Orne, changed its name in 1946 in honour of Field Marshall Sir Bernard Montgomery, commander of the invasion of Normandy in 1944.

Although born in London, Montgomery’s family came from Ulster and were members of the Clan Montgomery who had emigrated from lowland Scotland to form part of the Protestant Ascendancy. The Clan Montgomery had emigrated to Scotland in the 12th century from the Welsh border country as vassals of the FitzAlans, so Viscount Montgomery (as he became) took his name from the Welsh town, though not from the family of Roger de Montgomery