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Historical Hereford - get off the beaten track!

​Get off the beaten track and you'll be rewarded with world famous, and not so famous, sites you'll be glad you made the effort to visit!

Hereford Cathedral

Hereford Cathedral, a beautiful and historic building well worth visiting in it's own right, is also the home of 4 notable world treasures; the Mappa Mundi, the Chained Library, the Hereford Gospels and a copy of the 1217 Magna Carta (the significant revision to the original 1215 version). You can see all of these except, currently, the Magna Carta which is on rest after being exhibited heavily during the 800th anniversary year in 2015.

People have gathered here to worship for over 1300 years and although it's a long history it is not, unfortunately been a peaceful one. Hereford's proximity to the Welsh border made it vulnerable to marauding groups like that in 1055 when Welsh and Irish forces breached the city walls and burnt down the Cathedral buildings. Many of the priests were murdered and it's treasures stolen.

Stained glass windows (1923) in the Stanbury Chapel depict the founding of Eton College by Henry VI. Bishop John Stanbury had been confessor to the King.

Mappa Mundi and Chained Library Exhibition

It is quite astonishing that the Mappa Mundi and the Chained Library exist today for use to see. The fact that they do, are testimony in the first instance to the quality of the vellum chosen for the map and the books. Vellum, being animal skin, although treated is still at risk of decay over time.

The Mappa Mundi and the books of the chained library were not cared for until relatively recently and had been left to their own defences, kept unprotected in various parts of the Cathedral.

What is the Mappa Mundi?

It is staggering to think that the, now world famous, Mappa Mundi was only recognised as aunique masterpiece and treasure relatively recently.Drawn on a single piece of vellum (calf skin) this map depicts the world as Christian scholars understood it in geographical and spiritual terms. Created around 1300, Jerusalem is at the centre with the British Isles at the lower left, Hereford is even depicted. Noah's Ark, the Kingdom of Cleopatra, Tower of Babel and the Egyptian sphinx's also feature on this, the largest known map to survive from the Middle ages.

It's author, 'Richard of Haldingham or Lafford', saw fit to write a plea to all who read or saw the map to pray to Jesus on behalf of his soul so that he may "be granted bliss in heaven."

The Mappa Mundi Scandal!

In the 1980's the Cathedral needed to find a way out of financial difficulty. The tough decision was made to put the Mappa Mundi up for sale as it would attract about the right amount of money that the Cathedral needed. The map was looked on, at the time, more as a curiosity as opposed to a significant artefact. Media interest and publicity around the sale quickly changed this and it now became a great concern to many that the Mappa Mundi would be lost to it's home of Hereford and maybe, even, to Britain. A committee of local people was set up with the purpose of finding a way to solve the Cathedral's financial problems without selling the map.

Money from the National Heritage Memorial Fund was sought, and granted, and a significant donation from John Paul Getty, meant that the newly formed Mappa Mundi Trust could engage architects to build a new space to house the Mappa Mundi and also the chained library. The new library building was officially opened by Queen Elizabeth II on 5th May 1996.The money from entrance fees to the exhibition now funds the conservation of the map, library, manuscripts and the Cathedral building.

Can't visit? All is not lost! You can explore the map online, CLICK HERE

The Chained Library

This is the largest chained library in the country. The 17th century bookcases were all handmade, as were the chains.

You will notice how the books are all placed on the shelves with their binding facing in. This is because the weight of the books being great, repeated pulling on them to remove the book from the shelf would cause damage. This leaves a problem, how to identify the book you want? The vandalism from impatient students is visible on some books where they have actually written on the closed book ends in order to identify them next time!

The books would also have had metal clasps to protect them, a few examples still exist.

Before the construction of the New Library, theses books and their book cases were scattered across various parts of the Cathedral. It is a treat to see them all together now.

The Hereford Gospels

Not only are you treated to the world famous Mappa Mundi and the incredible chained library, but this exhibition also houses the Hereford Gospels. This extraordinary book dates from around 800 AD and is the oldest book in the Cathedral's collection, being the only book to have survived the sacking by Welsh and Irish forces in 1055. It is as old as the Lindisfarne Gospels and has been unfairly compared as 'not as pretty'. Indeed, maybe it's not but the reason for this, the fact that is was a 'working' book, only serves to embellish it's character. It's pages have been thumbed and turned over for centuries by clergy reading to a congregation. It is, in fact, still in use today for bishops and deans to take their oaths on.

The Old House

In one word, 'captivating'!


If you love the feeling of stepping back in time then you must visit The Old House while in Hereford. This beautiful building, completed in 1621, is furnished with contemporary furniture, wall paintings, plate and toys.

There is evidence of the various uses that the building has had over it's 400 year history including a little door from the room now know as the Kitchen, into the vault below, which was added when the building became a bank in 1882 as a branch of the Worcester City and County Banking Company.

When all other buildings were demolished, The Old House managed to survive to become a symbol of the city and one of it's finest buildings. Originally a butchers, this Tardis-like building has also been a saddlers, a fishmongers and a bank until becoming a museum in 1929!

The furniture and wall paintings inside the museum are fascinating.I couldn't help but be moved by the sight of the wooden baby cradles and walkers. None of the artefacts are original to the house, except one wall painting on the ground floor, however all are contemporary and many are from the local area. The large table in the main room of the ground floor actually dates back to before the house was built and was being used as a pub table until someone, thankfully, identified it's importance and rescued it!

If you are visiting Hereford for it's Civil War connections you may be interested in a small object in the fireplace of the smaller room on the ground floor. It's a 3-legged pot, also known as a skillet, with the inscription "C.V.B.LOYAL.TO.HIS.MAGISTEIE" which was retrieved from Goodrich Castle, down the road in Ross-on-Wye, a centre for royalist activity during the Civil War. The inscription translates to "See you be loyal to His Majesty"

The staff here are wonderfully friendly and very knowledgeable and will be happy to answer any questions you may have about the house.

Accessibility: The ground floor is accessible to wheelchair users and there is a virtual tour terminal so that users can see the upper floors, including the attic which is not open to the public.

There is also Tactile area where people with sight impairment can feel a model and images of the house.

Families: This would be a fascinating place to bring the children, there are dressing up clothes, a 3d jigsaw of the house and they will also be able to see toys used by children in centuries gone by.

Entry Price: FREE (there is a donation box). Guide Books: £2

Look out for this: An 18th century bronze plaque illustrating a lawsuit between 2 farmers, over ownership of the cow - you will see that the lawyer is the only one 'milking' any profits from the situation!

Do you have a trip to plan? Do you want to make sure you don't miss a thing? 

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Philippa writing for British History Tours

"I hope you've enjoyed this article.  Have a look at our other interesting reads. We cover a wide range of historical topics and places to visit as well as book reviews and some behind the scenes looks too!"

Philippa - Owner and tour manager

© History Holidays Ltd. Under no circumstances may this blog be reproduced, in part or full, without prior permission of British History Tours or without citing British History Tours as the source. Please direct any enquiries to Philippa at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Sources: P Brewell visit, The Old House Hereford Guide Book, written by Catherine Willson; Herefordshire Council 1998. Goodrich Castle, English Heritage Guide Books; English Heritage 2005. Hereford Cathedral, written by The Very Reverend Michael Tavinor; Hereford Cathedral.

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