2014 – UK – “In the footsteps of Maria Brace”

Walking in Herefordshire

My great grandfather, James, was born in 1850 in Manchester. His father was a Deansgate shopkeeper. James himself became a travelling salesman dealing mainly in dyed goods manufactured in the Lancashire cotton mills.

In 1870 James was on a business trip to Herefordshire (130 miles to the south) when he met a local tailor’s daughter Maria Brace (b1854).  They eventually fell in love, married in Manchester in 1873 and settled in the north of the city. After five girls they finally produced their only son, Herbert (my grandfather) in 1895. Herbert served in the Royal Signals in the 1914-1918 war and then met and married May in 1924. He followed his father into the dyed goods business.

In the 1940’s May developed life-threatening asthma and doctors advised the only option was to move from smoke-filled Manchester. They found cleaner air and happiness on the Lancashire coast. They purchased a small shop and settled in Lytham St Anne’s in 1941.

Interestingly, the whole James-Maria line will extinguish with my own death. I now have no known living relatives. Only by looking down through the line created by James’ older brother Alfred (born in 1848) do I have any hope of finding anyone I am related to. I have no interest in looking.

In fact, it is Maria Brace and her family that interest me the most. I am not sure why that is but it is possibly because they are the only part of my English ancestry who did not originate from Manchester / Lancashire.

Maria grew up in the countryside just to the east of the city of Hereford. Herefordshire is a relatively isolated part of England and sits on the Welsh border 50 miles to the south west of Birmingham about 150 miles north west of London.

I had a long-held ambition to walk around the area where Maria grew up. Quite some time ago I devised a rough 20-mile route linking Ledbury station with Hereford station. I promised myself that one sunny day I would do the walk.

Friday 13th June 2014 was that sunny day.


June 13th 2014

I travelled up from Otford and arrived at Paddington Station just before 8am.

There was just time to say hello to the statue of Paddington Bear before boarding the 8:22 to Hereford.

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The 3-hour journey from Paddington passed through some glorious scenery. It was all enhanced by the superb weather. The line cuts diagonally through the Cotswolds between Oxford and Worcester and is certainly worth travelling on.

At 11:20 we arrived at tiny Ledbury station 150 miles from Paddington. The station was opened in 1861 and would have been just 9 years old when James first visited from Manchester.

I set off walking immediately.

I wanted to make the 17:40 train back from Hereford.  I was allowing for 6 hours for the 20 or so miles with a few stops on the way.   The first 2.3 miles were on a quiet B-road and I made good progress.

I reached Staplow in less than 40 minutes. The Oak Tree Pub was just opening when I arrived. I ordered a pint of the refreshing local brew, Ledbury Gold, and drank it quickly. I carried on.

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The rest of the route was on cross-country footpaths. The first of these followed a filled-in part of the old Hereford to Gloucester Canal.  This is cider country and the line of the old canal (Closed in 1881) can clearly be seen running through the orchards

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I left the canal behind, and crossed field after field.   I never met another walker the whole day.   The weather was absolutely glorious and the walking was fantastic.

I finally arrived at the tiny hamlet of Stretton about 8 miles from Ledbury.   Stretton is where Maria’s grandmother Elizabeth was born in 1796. No doubt she was christened in this church and she must have seen this particular house many times during her life.

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I carried on but I soon hit a problem.   Herefordshire Country Council had neglected to maintain the footpaths properly.   My next 4 miles took much longer than expected. I was literally faced with wading through vegetation. In some places the vegetation came up to chest height.

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Imagine going across this field (below) in the direction of that single tree. You think you have gone wrong but then you finally find the stile gate and footpath marker on the other side in exactly the right place.Mobile Uploaded June 2014 098

It was truly horrendous.

In a lot of places the stile gates were missing and only the little footpath arrows remained.

I was well behind schedule when I finally arrived at Much Cowarne (12 Miles).   This is where Maria’s father, Stephen Brace, was born in the early 1820’s

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I had a quick Sandwich (luckily I had bought one at Paddington as I never saw a shop the whole walk) before heading west in the direction of Hereford.

The walking was better now and I was following the “3-choirs way”, a long distance footpath linking the 3 cities of Gloucester, Worcester and Hereford and named for the 3 choir festival, one of the oldest choir festivals in the world.

Even so, the path was not still really well marked and obviously it wasn’t used as much as I would have expected it to be.

A few miles on (14 Miles) is Ocle Pychard where Maria’s father, Stephen, had his tailor’s shop and where James obviously first caught site of Maria.

Stephen, Maria’s mother Alice (who died at 97) and her older sister, Alice Louisa, are all buried in the same grave at the local church here at Ocle.

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After paying my respects to my great, great grandparents I hurried on.   It was now already approaching 16:30 so I decided to give up of the 3-choirs way and make for the A-road into Hereford.

I got to the Cross Keys Pub (18 Miles) at 17:15.   It was less than 4 miles on from there to Hereford but I decided to call it a day.

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There was a bus stop just outside the pub and by sheer chance the next bus was due at 17:18. If that bus made it to the railway station on time at 17:35, I would just make the train for London.

I had just drunk the last drop of the 1.5 litres of water that I had carried with me the whole day. It was hot and I was really thirsty.  I stood at the bus stop in front of white fence and watched two chaps sitting in front of the pub drinking beer.

The bus was late. It got to 17:35 and still the bus hadn’t come.

I decided on a change of plan. I entered the pub and immediately ordered a pint of Otter Ale. I was just watching the head settle when the two chaps who had been on the porch shouted  “you been waiting for the bus?, cause it is here now”

I watched as the bus flashed past the pub.

I was past caring. That pint of Otter had tasted absolutely wonderful.

I soon got talking to the 4 friendly locals at the bar.   I ordered another pint and I was just about to call a taxi when one of them offered me a lift into Hereford.   I jumped at that.

He was a local builder and, as he drove me into the city in his transit van, he told me all about Hereford, cider making and the bankruptcy of the local football team. He dropped me just outside the station.   By 18:00 I was already on the platform. I caught the 18:48 and made it back to Otford just before midnight.

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It was certainly a great day out and I bet Maria would have loved it too!