On the morning of 19 February 2013, Ludlow awoke to learn that a section of the town walls behind St Laurence’s Churchyard had collapsed. There was a further collapse two days later at which point Shropshire Council stabilised the wall with bags of sand. The collapses happened after a prolonged wet period followed by a plunge in temperatures to -10C. Nine years later, the wall is still in a state of collapse though there has been slow progress towards getting this collapsed section of wall rebuilt.
After a dispute about who was responsible for the repairs, Ludlow Town Council accepted responsibility in October 2015.
Nothing much happened for a few years. Different options for repair and reinstatement have recently been discussed following a report to Ludlow Town Council from the Morton Partnership. They involve different levels of disturbance to the churchyard and different potential costs. The repairs could cost between £3m and £5m. The council will need to apply for a grant. If it must fund the work itself, the council’s precept could rise by 65%.
Ludlow’s town walls stand out from those of many other towns because they are not built as a single construction. Burghers and bodies such as the church built the stretch of wall needed at the end of their plot from 1233 onwards. This has led to a patchwork of building materials and quality of construction. The walls have been robbed for building materials and patched up here are there with the wrong materials. Nevertheless, they remain one of the most complete town walls in Europe.
There have been many repairs over the years, some more effective than others. There is no single scheme for maintenance of the walls. There is no heritage management plan for the walls or the town centre, which has more than 500 listed structures.
The walls behind the church collapsed on 18 February 2013. The weather had been dire. It had rained for weeks. Then temperatures plummeted to colder than -10C. The walls behind St Laurence’s Church could not take the thermal tensions and pressure. That was at least partly due to that stretch having been patched up with Portland cement, not lime mortar. Under stress, lime mortar stretches, Portland cracks. And that is what happened that February.
Initially, it seemed straightforward. Shropshire Council announced at a packed public meeting that the council would repair the walls, digging into reserves if necessary. That soon turned out to be nothing more than blagging. No one was sure who owned the stretch of wall that had collapsed. While an adjacent stretch of wall that collapsed nearby at the same time was quickly repaired by the Diocese of Hereford, work on the church wall stretch was limited to measures to prevent a further collapse.
Shortly after the collapse, builder’s bags full of sand were dropped at the site to prevent further collapse. These decayed within months and had to be reinforced. I remember the arguments with Shropshire Council on trying to get better reinforcement as recommended by its consultants. It refused as the fallen section was at the end of a narrow road and the council said delivery would collapse the drains. Obvious nonsense because refuse and recycling trucks use the road every week.
The trees in the churchyard above the collapsed section are leaning and have been for a while. The highways manager said they had to come down. I had them checked out by a tree expert and after a short protest, the idea was dropped. I am not sure they they will be allowed to remain after the wall is rebuilt.
The highways team was leading for Shropshire Council at that point, not heritage experts. That was a significant error but the council chief executive was concerned to keep all costs to a minimum.
Behind the scenes, an almighty row was going on. Despite Shropshire Council’s promise to repair the walls, it’s legals had said it did not have responsibility for the walls. St Laurence’s churchyard was closed and on closure care of churchyards usually passes to the municipal authority. It wasn’t that certain initially whether the transfer of St Laurence’s was to Shropshire Council or Ludlow Town Council as no one could find the paperwork. The bigger question was: “Is it a town wall or a churchyard wall?” There were claims and counterclaims and tempers at time became fraught.
Shropshire Council and Ludlow Town Council battled it out in public and in private. Lawyers were engaged. Eventually, the town council gave way and accepted in October 2015 that it had responsibility for the collapsed wall.
Morton Partnership was appointed by Ludlow Town Council in 2021 at a cost of around £50,000. It has borrowed the money over 30 years from the public works loan board.
Next year will see the tenth anniversary the collapse. As it takes up to two years to secure a major heritage grant, I am not holding my breath of the wall being rebuilt before 2024 or 2025. If the town council has to fund the repair itself, we can expect a significant surcharge on the council’s precept for the next thirty years.