It must be said with a fair degree of accuracy that one’s first impression of a new place depends, in part, on how one got there. For the majority of our cast and crew, this meant a crowded bus to Birmingham that was late, a train that was missed, another train, and horse and cart at one point, I think. For myself, it entailed a leisurely drive through the countryside, stopping off for lunch in Shrewsbury. However, I think we all realised upon first laying eyes on the Shropshire market town of Ludlow, the others tired and fatigued, myself content and full-stomached, that we were in a rather pretty town.
First, a word on accommodation. The original plan had been to camp. Given that we were in the middle of a heatwave, that wouldn’t have been the worst thing in the world. But how were we to know this a month or so ago? So when the option to sleep in an unused office building was offered to us, we hurriedly took the opportunity. We weren’t exactly sure what we were going to get. A whole floor to ourselves? Just a cramped room? No, we got the whole office building of the Ludlow Fringe. A two-storey building that had the distinct smell of dry paint in high school art classrooms.
This arrangement had many upsides and downsides. For one thing, like I said, we had a whole building pretty much to ourselves. Whilst some people occasionally used downstairs to work, I myself never saw any employees there. And so the downstairs arts-crafts room (or, to us, the dining room) was a room we used throughout the night hours, playing charades, makeshift Pictionary, or for those deep conversations until sunrise that feel pretty natural around the fifth beer. As well as this, we had the quirky opportunity to be living in an office building, something which, if done for a lifetime, is a cause for concern, but if only for a few days, a funny story. Finally, unlike London, we were all together under the same roof once more.
However, despite the briefness of this particular tour stop, staying in an office building had its drawbacks. For a generic group of sweaty greasy-skinned 18-25 year olds (“young people”, as they’re reluctantly acknowledged by the government), two amenities, before running water and a roof, are of essential status. To be told that we would be staying in a building without shower or Wi-Fi for a night would be a struggle. For five, it should be a nonstarter.
But that’s how we found ourselves. Having to use the library for internet and the leisure centre for showers (link for those looking to find a lovely shower in rural Herefordshire) certainly added what I’d reluctantly call character to Ludlow, as well as an incentive to get out of bed (well, the sleeping bag on the air mattress) in the morning.
(A slight amendment needs to be added to one of the above points. Yes, we were alone in that building. For the most part. On the final two nights we were joined by an American couple, one an erotic poet whose show “Nerdfucker” involved, we learned from secondary sources, giving away sex toys, the other, a long-haired leather-wearing gentleman who looked like he’d just come from a Black Sabbath reunion. We were all aware that they would be staying with us. Well, except for Zoe, who discovered this fact just in the early hours of the morning, after opening the door to the bathroom and unexpectedly seeing the long-haired boyfriend.)
As for the town itself, it really is rather lovely. Whilst out of our element in London, the country bumpkins were now in their home territory in this small town setting, the conservative middle-aged couples and £3 pints serving as warm reminders of home.
There are hundreds of other towns just like Ludlow across Britain, but this one felt a little different. Its bridge was just a bit more striking, its river more beautiful, its castle certainly grander and imposing.
However, upon arriving, the town had a little ominous feel to it. Like everyone who resided there had a secret, or some terrible deed occurred upon nightfall. Like some town from a Stephen King novel. Or Hot Fuzz. This fear was not aided by what occurred on our first night. After eating dinner on the castle green and getting a couple of games of Vampires in, we crossed Ludlow’s empty streets to see a stand-up comic in a night run by the Fringe organizers. However, once we stepped foot into this attic room above the pub, the whole act stopped. Not only did the few audience members turn to us, but so too did the comic onstage.
“Are you the guys coming from Birmingham?”
“You guys Wood?”
Our arrival was ominously expected.
A side note, the comic was called Al Kealy, and while he divided opinions, Oli thoroughly enjoyed his sharp, politically charged humour. Check him out at the the Edinburgh Fringe if you get the chance.
Flyering in Ludlow turned out to be a little difficult. Of course, it’s a small town, not a large city, and with the added obstacle of the Fringe being in only its fifth year, we weren’t expecting a whole host of welcoming theatre-goers. But after the trauma of flyering in London- that is, flyering to a brick wall with expensive earphones- we were expecting something a bit easier. Friendly conversations, genuine enquiries about our travels and about our shows. And in many respects this is what we got. However, we were all quite struck by the number of people who, in capital city manner, managed to completely ignore us whilst on the street. Not even a “No, thanks” or sympathetic smile. Too much for the young and ambitious. Not everyone was like this, of course, and many people were courteous and polite and engaging, but it just goes to show that rudeness is a nationwide affliction.
Our performance space was perhaps the more wonderful of the tour thus far. Granted, whilst the rolling garden of Brighton had the indulgent view of sea and spark and sun, the frequent drug deals and pervasive smell of cannabis went someway to de-romanticise the venue. No such problems in Ludlow. (Or, if so, a much greater effort was employed to conceal them.) Next to an arched bridge over a strong river, with ducks, ducklings and swans lazily meandering on its surface, and under the watchful eye of Ludlow castle, we were honoured to perform on a lovely stretch of grass called the Millennium Green. (Presumably the newest thing in that town.)
After playing around in the new space for some time (playing hide-and-seek at aged twenty can bring untold pleasures, I assure you), we went on to perform. The first show ran for the most part smoothly. This being the first show we had done since our few-day holiday, we were all a little nervous. However, there were no major disasters, and the audience turnout was healthy.
However, just because we were performing next to the river didn’t mean we didn’t get our feet wet. The loveable Steve, who chairs the charity that owned the land on which we were performing, came and saw the show our first night and enjoyed it. He mentioned in passing the beauty of the area, spoiled somewhat by the intrusion of an unwelcome sofa resting gently in the running water. Us being young and mindful citizens (and after being forced to by Oli…) we dutifully made it a team effort to roll up our trouser legs and remove that lumbering, soggy sofa from Ludlow’s waters and carry it around the green until we reached a suitable disposal spot. The lower half of our legs were drenched and our arms and backs ached with the pains of manual labour (a new experience for many of the actors), but Steve was greatly appreciative, and bought us a round at the Rose and Crown, one of Ludlow’s many pubs.
Over drinks, we chatted with Steve about the theatre and life in Ludlow generally. It turned out that he had had quite a colourful life. He was a former actor himself, and not just amateur dramatics. After finishing RADA, he did work across the country, including at the National Theatre and with Alan Ayckbourn.
The second day wasn’t quite as a successful. After another demoralising flyering shift, we performed to an audience of- wait for it- two. And their dog. Yes, a little better than the one-man-audience we had in Brighton, but that was hardly a consolation. However, the day was not at all a waste. Em, Gab and I took a walk across the bridge, playing word games and having a general laugh. We found what we took to be a wheat field (in our hearts of hearts we knew it wasn’t, but for the sake of a good in-joke we supressed our rationality and common sense) and ran through it, damn to the farmers it may not entirely please. (Politics joke.) We lay in the field overlooking river, bridge and steeple, and thought ourselves tremendously lucky.
The third day was something special.
Zoe and I enjoyed a indulgently fabulous pub lunch. (Featuring what was accurately described to us as “the best cheese in the world” by the waitress, a Hereford cheese bought from the shop next door, with the firmness of a soft apple, with apple, grape and black pepper. Trust me friends, it truly was a fabulous cheese.)
After this, we headed to the town square to take part in Ludlow’s first ever PRIDE event! Amazingly, Wood was built in as the finale of the day. And so we marched from the town square to the millennium green and there a whole host of people- men, women, children, dogs- enjoyed the sunshine and the multi-coloured flags. The sun was shining and everybody seemed to be smiling, and we had a great full audience on chairs and blankets to watch our show about sexuality, gender and labels. It was a great end to a great day.
The next day we had a day to ourselves. We explored Ludlow castle, and absolute must see if you find yourself in this sleepy town. We walked around its grounds and imagined putting on Shakespearean plays, filming battle sequences from its towers, and what it must have been like to have lived in such a place in time and space when it was a functioning castle beyond tourism.
(Also, Oli decided today was the day to be on his worst behaviour. He was like a child on a school trip after consuming too much sugar. I weep for his teachers.)
We dined at The Blue Boar – a local pub with a stunning seletion of food and drink, and probably the group’s favourite. Oli and I shared a camembert- camembert being a relatively recent arrival in Ludlow- of such smoothness and richness and deliciousness it may even overtake the Hereford cheese as best cheese tasted in Ludlow. Maybe. It may have to be put to public vote.
We left Ludlow, knowing that what we had participated in and contributed to had been of great importance. The town was beautiful and of a perfect size. It had gorgeous Victorian buildings, green and pleasant lands, and wonderful architecture combining man and nature. We left the town tired, our arms full with equipment, and sad to be leaving Ludlow.
We had a day of travel ahead of us. What could possibly go wrong?