Every listener to BBC Radio 4’s long-running drama The Archers has his or her own image of Borsetshire. I certainly do. It’s a rural haven created in my mind that I escape to the moment I hear the opening “dum-di-dum-di-dum-di-di…” of the soap opera’s instantly recognisable theme tune. Of course, the county of Borsetshire, the village of Ambridge, the market town of Borchester and the cathedral city of Felpersham only exist in the imagined world of The Archers. But, as the home county to the programme’s creator, the late Godfrey Baseley, Worcestershire certainly stakes the strongest claim to being Archers’ country.
With fictional Brookfield Farm modelled on Godfrey’s sister-in-law’s Summerhill Farm in Hanbury, many believe that this small village near the town of Droitwich Spa in mid-Worcestershire is the likeliest real-life candidate for Ambridge, the epicentre of goings-on in the radio drama.
But fuelled by the success of The Archers over the past 60 years, other villages in the area also vie for the status of being the real Ambridge. One of these is the village of Inkberrow, eight miles south of Hanbury, where Godfrey’s regular watering hole The Old Bull – a black and white half-timbered pub overlooking Inkberrow’s village green – is remarkably similar in name to the only pub in Ambridge, The Bull. And it wasn’t just the name of his local that inspired Godfrey; the bar at The Old Bull was also a rich source of stories. Rosemary Kennedy, a postmistress who lived in the village for 45 years, once said: “At one time, as soon as something happened in Inkberrow you could bet that it would turn up in The Archers a few weeks later.”
Lower Loxley Hall?
Archers-related landmarks are thick on the ground as you explore this richly agricultural area of central Worcestershire. The National Trust-owned Hanbury Hall on the outskirts of Hanbury village is thought to be a prototype for Lower Loxley Hall, the stately home of Nigel and Elizabeth Pargetter. It may not offer visitors falconry courses, a treetop walk or Nigel’s homemade wine as in the radio show, but the William and Mary-style house is worth a visit for the stunning 18th-century formal gardens and the enormous wall paintings by James Thornhill (1676-1734) that decorate the main stairwell inside the house.
Peeking through the trees behind Hanbury Hall is the hilltop church of St Mary the Virgin, reputed to be St Stephen’s Church in Ambridge. Over the years, this beautiful red sandstone building has been used for live broadcasts of several Archers weddings and as the backdrop for cast publicity photos. Recordings of the church bells have often featured in episodes too, making the bell-ringers just as famous as the church itself. John Ford, a sprightly local farmer “a year shy of 80”, remembers ringing the bells for the first Archers wedding between Grace Fairbrother and Phil Archer in 1955. “It was meant to have been kept a secret, but the location was printed in a national paper,” he recalls. “Some of the cast had to walk to the church because all the roads were blocked with cars.”
Of course, there’s more to Worcestershire than its association with The Archers. From its commanding hilltop setting, Hanbury church overlooks an expansive floodplain where the rivers Avon and Severn meander across a patchwork of verdant fields in the southernmost corner of the county. Just visible to the right is the distinctive humped outline of the Malvern Hills and, directly south, Bredon Hill rises majestically 300m (991ft), both forming striking landmarks in the largely gentle, farmed landscape. Geologically part of the Cotswolds Hills, Bredon Hill today stands isolated after years of erosion have severed its ties to its famous neighbours that now melt into the horizon on its eastern and southern flanks.
The Iron Age hill fort of Kemerton Camp crowns Bredon’s summit, and nearby you’ll discover a pair of standing stones known as the King and Queen Stones. Local legend has it that passing between the stones cures individuals of illness. Bredon Hill was immortalised by Worcestershire-born poet AE Housman in his celebrated works A Shropshire Lad, in which he penned the famous lines: In summertime on Bredon/My love and I would lie.
Immediately north of Bredon Hill stands the market town of Pershore – could this be the fictional market town of Borchester? This picturesque settlement on the banks of the River Avon, complete with medieval abbey and elegant Georgian architecture, is an ideal place for an afternoon amble after a walk to the summit of Bredon Hill. Particularly delightful is the old-world charm of Bridge Street and Broad Street, both lined with listed buildings displaying elaborate doorways and cast-iron balconies.
The plums of Pershore
Lying on the western fringes of the Vale of Evesham – a flat and fertile expanse of land sheltered beneath the Cotswold Hills and watered by the River Avon – the land surrounding Pershore provides perfect conditions for intensive fruit growing. It was in the early 19th century that wild plums were discovered growing in Tiddesley Wood near Pershore, leading to the widespread production of the plum variety Pershore Yellow Egg. This was quickly followed in 1890 by the Pershore Purple and more recently the Pershore Emblem; all of these local varieties are still available today. To celebrate the town’s historic association with this sweet juicy fruit, a Plum Festival (www.pershoreplumfestival.org.uk) is held each year in August.
But before the Vale of Evesham became the fruit basket of England, its fertile land was the setting for more violent activities: on a hill north of the market town of Evesham on the 4 August 1265, Simon de Monfort was slain and butchered by the royal forces of Prince Edward (later King Edward I) in one of England’s bloodiest battles, the Battle of Evesham.
Mini mountain range
Cross the imposing M5 motorway that cuts down the middle of Worcestershire to explore the mini mountain range of the Malvern Hills, stomping ground of the county’s famous son Sir Edward Elgar. It was this dramatic eight-mile-long ridge that inspired the composer to write some of his greatest works, including the first movement of the Pomp and Circumstance Marches, which later became the flag-waving anthem Land of Hope and Glory.
Equally enthralled by these hills is Trevor Harrison, the actor who has played lovable rogue Eddie Grundy in The Archers for three decades and who lives nearby. “What I love about the Malverns are the two different views you get from the top – the flat, expansive Severn Valley on the east side and the rugged, hilly landscape of Wales and the Brecon Beacons to the west,” he says.
North of the Malverns lies Leigh Brook Valley, where the Knapp and Papermill nature reserve is hidden away from all but the most intrepid visitors. It’s a gem of a place to visit and home to plentiful flora and fauna. Warden Fergus Henderson lives on site and has unrivalled knowledge of the species-rich habitats – orchard, meadow, woodland and river – that make up the 67-acre reserve. A guided tour is highly recommended.
Travel east from here and you reach the city of Worcester, nestled between the M5 and the banks of the River Severn. At the heart of the city is the magnificent 11th-century cathedral, where Henry VIII’s elder brother Prince Arthur is buried (if he’d lived, we would have had a King Arthur and, possibly, no Reformation in England), along with King John, signatory of the Magna Carta in 1215. Of course the city’s most famous export is Lea and Perrins Worcestershire Sauce, which is still made in the city to its original secret recipe.
Follow the Severn Valley north of Worcester and the area becomes much more industrialised as you edge towards the Black Country, with the towns of Redditch and Kidderminster displaying remnants of their industrial past: needle making and carpet production respectively. However, tucked in the far western corner, and a haven for nature lovers and walkers alike, is an ancient, wild wood that is largely unknown beyond Worcestershire’s borders.
Centuries ago, this woodland stretched all the way along the Severn Valley from Worcester up to Bridgnorth in Shropshire, but today all that survives is the 6,000 acres that make up the Wyre Forest. Yet, as Richard Boles, a ranger for the Forestry Commission remarks: “Natural England regards the Wyre Forest as being the third largest ancient woodland in England, after the New Forest and the Forest of Dean.”
Along with an abundance of birds, mammals, plants and fungi, the forest is also home to England’s largest colony of pearl-bordered fritillary butterflies. In early June, they are just one of many butterfly species you’re likely to glimpse delicately floating along the woodland rides.
Sixty years ago, Godfrey Baseley set out to create a “farming Dick Barton”, a rural version of the popular BBC radio programme about a special agent. The idea was to educate farmers on how to increase food production after the rationing years of the Second World War, but what The Archers has morphed into is a gripping entertainment series that authentically reflects rural life in the UK.
For those Archers fans reading this article: even if Worcestershire didn’t fit your idea of Borsetshire before now, take a trip to explore this Midland county and I’m sure you’ll find the atmosphere of the radio show in the real county’s agricultural landscape and rural communities – rich with history, wildlife and culture.
As for non-Archers listeners, exploring Worcestershire and its Archers-inspired landmarks might encourage you to tune in and listen to “an everyday story of country folk,” every night on Radio 4 at 7pm.