This article first appeared in the Shropshire Star on 22 December 2016 as part of a feature on Ludlow.
It’s the time of year for publishing lists. Lists of the top Christmas tunes. Compilations of the best ways to cook brussel sprouts – if there are any. And, courtesy of the Halifax Bank, we have a gazetteer of the top 50 places to live in Britain.
But where, oh where is Ludlow in the Halifax list? It is nowhere to be seen. Surely this is an oversight? We must be better than Winchester, the overcrowded and fast expanding town that heads the Halifax’s rankings. And as for the Orkneys, which the Halifax claims is the second best place to live, Ludlow has just as bad weather.
As almost everyone knows, one time Poet Laureate John Betjeman described our town as “probably the loveliest town in England.” He didn’t need to say ‘probably’. We are the loveliest town in England. The tens of thousands of tourists that drop by Ludlow every year are bowled over by the beauty of our town centre and the hills that rise around it. We can boast more than 500 listed historic buildings. Our high street is full of great shops set amid welcoming pubs and restaurants. We have a thriving market, often open six days a week. And, of course, we extend Shropshire’s famous friendliness to everyone who comes here.
This is not a complete picture of our town. People who have time to pause a while to look behind the scenes will see a very different Ludlow.
We are a town of contrasts. Well-heeled and impoverished. Ambitious for the future and resistant to change. We have a dislike of speculative housing but want more affordable housing for our young people. We treasure our heritage and independent traders. But we also want to be a modern town with a wider range of shops catering for those on lower incomes.
These apparent contradictions are an essential part of “being Ludlow”. We are a workday town. We have pretty much full employment but we are a town where wages are low. We also have something of a posh image.
That image as a town of toffs has meant that we get our share of flack. A couple of years back, the Daily Mail accused Ludlow of being “too posh for pizza.” All we were objecting to was the décor for the restaurant frontage. Guardian cartoonist Martin Rowson recently declared the good people of Ludlow are living in an ivory tower. It doesn’t feel like an ivory tower when you live here.
A major part of being Ludlow that we are a good distance from anywhere else. That’s why we are doggedly independent. It’s why we have such a dislike of decisions about our town being made in Shrewsbury or, even worse, by planning inspectors in Bristol. That’s why nearly 1,200 of us recently turned out on a cold morning to march in support of our local maternity unit.
The distance we live from major conurbations also means we find it hard to attract the professionals we need, a problem we regularly face in youth work and health services.
Being a long way from anywhere means that some expanding companies don’t give us a second look. That doesn’t stop us being very successful in manufacturing. We may not make thousands of gloves anymore but we are the nation’s home to hedge cutters. We shape moulded plastics and supply wire baskets for supermarkets. We excel in hydraulic systems. Ludlow is home to the UK’s anaerobic digestion industry. It’s a green business that fits well with our setting amid beautiful farmland and it sustains around 150 local jobs. We have a myriad of small entrepreneurial businesses too.
On the downside, the Ludlow area lurks well below the national average in creating new businesses. And we are falling behind in the number of young people that apply for higher education courses.
We are getting older as a town. Two in five of us will be aged 65 or older by 2039. We don’t yet know the consequences of this. We haven’t worked out how we can make our town more attractive to younger people.
The older community we attract helps keep this town alive through volunteering. Our cultural sector, sustained by volunteers of all ages, is amazing. I am sure that it is possible to be bored in Ludlow but I don’t know how. We have a lot of meetings on the burning topics of the day. Do we argue too much? You bet we do but that again is part of being Ludlow.
The character of our town is always under threat. A recent retail analysis complained that our town lacks a Greggs. We don’t need a Greggs. We have no shortage of fine sausage rolls at all four of our independent butchers. By stealth, our unique shops are being replaced by national clone stores. We need more retail variety but proposals to build a supermarket on the edge of Ludlow have divided our community.
Being Ludlow is not easy. But it is without doubt rewarding.
Why doesn’t Ludlow make the Halifax list of the top 50 best places to live? I think that our town is too unique to be categorised. We are a real town with lots of real life and many difficult challenges. We don’t tick all the right boxes. But we do tick as town.
So, move over Winchester. The Orkneys have nothing on us. Ludlow is the loveliest place in Britain to live.