In search of a 19th-century workhouse in the glorious Golden Valley.
Distance 8 miles (12.9km)
Minimum time 3hrs 45min
Ascent/gradient 540ft (165m)
Level of difficulty Medium
Paths Meadows, tracks and woodland paths (one stony, awkward descent), 24 stiles
Landscape Quintessential Herefordshire
Suggested map aqua3 OS Explorer OL13 Brecon Beacons (East)
Start/finish SO 386302
Dog friendliness Mostly on leads, can run on common if no sheep
Parking On east side of B4347, south of lychgate, facing south
Public toilets None on route
© AA Media Limited 2015. © Crown Copyright Licence number 100021153
1 Cross the B4347 at the lychgate. Slant left up fields. Beside a dwelling go up a path, to a third field, then a corner stile. In 20yds (18m) turn right up a hedged lane to Ewyas Harold Common.
2 This is the prescribed route but dozens of paths and tracks criss-cross here. Across the immediate concrete track take the left diagonal ride. In 65yds (60m) take the slightly left option. After 45yds (41m) bear right. In 325yds (297m) take the right-hand option. After 70yds (64m) move left slightly to resume your line. In 160yds (146m) move 10yds (9m) left on a wide track, then turn right. In 55yds (50m) turn left on a big gravel track. Just beyond a seat fork right, down a rutted track. After a cluster of three houses swing right, over a cattle grid.
3 Down in the village, turn right then right again. At the sharp bend ascend some steps. Aim left of a spinney. After old buildings ascend three fields, finding a corner stile. When the trees end, swing up and left to a boundary corner. Keep field edges on your right, to Plash Farm.
4 Get behind the farmhouse by turning right twice. Go down to the bottom corner. A sunken lane leads to a road. Turn right, then left to Dulas Court. Cross the brook by a bridge beside new buildings. Turn right in 30yds (27m). Go diagonally up the meadow into conifers. Walk uphill for 50yds (46m) to a track, but, within 30yds (27m), a clear path bears right, uphill. Out of woodland, aim for a pole, then pass between the buildings of Cot Farm.
5 Walk with a hedge on your left. Keep this line across fields, to regain the common. In 70yds (64m) join a track (left part of the hairpin), then 70yds (64m) further go straight ahead on a green sward, soon joining another track. Some 50yds (46m) before a house, which you should recognise from earlier, turn left. Stiles over deer fences lead to the lane by Cwm Farm. Turn right. Before Abbey Dore Court Garden find a stile at a tiny bridge. In the third field after 300yds (274m) move right to cross a bridge.
6 Waymarked stiles lead to Riverdale. Retrace your steps to Point 6. Now keep on the east side of the river. Turn left at the road. In about 60yds (55m) take a well-waymarked route between the military fence and the gardens. Finally, a concrete footbridge, a meadow and an agricultural graveyard lead to the abbey.
You may find yourself sipping tea in the conservatory of the Abbey Dore Court Garden. There is no particular history attached to the present building, but it stands on the site of the former Red Lion public house. Here, in 1837, took place the inaugural meeting of the Board of the Dore Union Guardians, and weekly meetings for two years thereafter. It was their job to commission, construct, and manage a workhouse in the locality. The unworkable law, under which each parish was meant somehow to cope with its own poor, had been replaced by the Poor Law Act. Thus the 'Union' was a group of 29 parishes. Another facet of the 1834 legislation was compulsory provision of schooling for workhouse children. At that time there were five workhouses within the bounds of Hereford City, one of which subsequently served as part of the County Hospital. Right up until its demolition in 2002 the building still bore the stigma, among elderly people, of having been 'a poorhouse', raising their reluctance to be admitted to it.
'Riverdale', as the Dore workhouse buildings are marked on the map today, is a remote place, well away from Abbey Dore itself, which has never been a metropolis. The most disliked rule, and perhaps the least necessary, was the one that forbade 'inmates' to leave the premises. The rules of the workhouse - in fact, taken from one in Hereford - were strict but not Draconian; criminal acts were rare. Breaches were often punished by reducing diet (but such punishment could not be given to children). The diet's key elements were bread, gruel (an inferior porridge, of oatmeal and water) and potatoes. Five ounces of meat per person were allowed two days per week and one-and-a-half ounces of cheese on four days per week. One wonders if they might have been more productive had they eaten more! Most of the residents were aged or infirm; many had additionally suffered some other misfortune: blind persons, abandoned wives, unmarried mothers, and so on; and many in the workhouse were children.
In 1929 legislation transferred responsibility for residents of poorhouses to county councils. During the Second World War the Dore workhouse was used for tractor assembly. The buildings were subsequently converted into a modest number of private dwellings, but in the height of their workhouse days they had accommodated between 80 and 100 men, women and children, reduced to 68 in the 1870s. Nevertheless, the physical conditions inside the workhouse may have been little worse, if at all, than those of many agricultural workers living within its 29 parishes, who endured the discomfort of damp and cramped cottages without a solid floor.
Ewyas Harold has the Temple Bar Inn and the Dog Inn, a bar, bistro and free house. In Abbey Dore the Neville Arms serves cask ales (and fine meals). At Abbey Dore Court Garden tea rooms, tea and wonderful cakes are served in the courtyard or the conservatory.
Aside from the scenery, it's primarily Dore Abbey that draws people to this part of Herefordshire. Originally part of the great Cistercian abbey, much of it was built between 1175 and about 1220. It was restored and re-roofed as a parish church by the somewhat philanthropic Viscount Scudamore in the 1630s; he also added the tower. The roof is currently (2003) being re-tiled using local sandstone. In Ewyas Harold St Michael's Church, apart from being a fine building in its own right, contains a 13th- or 14th-century effigy of a lady holding her heart in her palm.
Beyond Ewyas Harold a spinney conceals a Norman motte and bailey, with a maximum height of 42ft (13m). Looking east, over the rooftops of the abbey, is a stationary train. Resting where the railway has been disused for 45 years, it is used as military training equipment.