Cycling for cider in Herefordshire, the original Big Apple

Paul Bloomfield
·6-min read
Ross-on-Wye - Getty
Ross-on-Wye - Getty

Propping my bike against a handy fence, I loll in blessed shade beneath clusters of ripe red and green fruit. Striped hills swell and ebb to the horizon. From beyond a nearby cellar door seeps a lip-smack-sigh of a bottle opening, the effervescent whisper of fizz foaming in glass. A swirl, a sip, a swallow: bubbles dance on the tongue, a flash of fruit tang, a distinctive dry minerality, lingering tannins. 

No, it’s not France, nor Tuscany, and I’m sipping neither champagne nor prosecco. This is England’s most green and pleasant land, albeit tinted increasingly amber and russet, day by October day. I am in Herefordshire, where the signature tipple is the adult form of apple juice. 

“Herefordshire is to cider what Burgundy is to wine,” declares Susanna Forbes, co-founder of Little Pomona Orchard & Cidery (littlepomona.com) and a rising star in the county’s ­constellation of craft cider and perry makers, as she pours another generous tot. 

That’s no spurious comparison. Both regions are landlocked and undulating, with postcard-pretty medieval villages, castles and cathedrals, rich agricultural traditions and a long heritage of fermented fruit drinks. Here, too, you can feast on superb local beef, asparagus and cheese, washed down with elegant fizz, including méthode champenoise ciders and perries. In one notable category, though, Herefordshire lags behind its French ­counterpart: crowds. England’s third-least-densely populated county draws a fraction of the visitors that flock to Europe’s headline wine regions.

Aiming to remedy that is an Apples for Autumn campaign, based around two “Cider Circuits” – full-day cycle routes showcasing some of Herefordshire’s finest producers as well as ­scenic and cultural highlights. It’s a cute concept, reflecting the region’s pre-eminence in apples and pears. “With its fantastic terroir, excellent soils, mild climate and long rural heritage, Herefordshire makes more cider than any other region in the world,” explains “ciderologist” Gabe Cook.

In truth, cider’s just an excuse for exploring Herefordshire on two wheels. The county is a picture of rural loveliness in a striking frame, bordered to the west by the Black Mountains, the Shropshire Hills to the north, the ­Malverns to the east and the Wye’s meanders and the Forest of Dean to the south. In between, stretches a billowing sea of orchards and fields, cobwebbed by bike-friendly, traffic-light back roads. And while autumn’s a choice time to roam much of England, it’s particularly fine in this most rustic of counties: fall foliage, fruit harvests, cidermaking celebrations galore.

I test-rode sections of both fruit loops, each starting from the Big Apple itself, Hereford. A brief snuffle through its historic core unearthed a trove of cider connections, from historic artefacts at the 17th-century, timber-framed Black and White House Museum (black andwhitehouse.org) to the russet-hued cathedral, which, though best known for its extraordinary medieval Mappa Mundi, also houses a so-called Cider Tomb – the 1497 monument to one Andrew Jones, etched with a barrel – and Cider Bible, a 15th-century ­illuminated manuscript in which the word for “strong drink” has been substituted with “sidir”.

Hereford - Getty
Hereford - Getty

Aptly, both pedal-powered jaunts begin at the cathedral’s west front, where an apple tree mosaic is set into the pavement. From here, I scooted northwest on the “Newton Wonder” route through the city’s outskirts and past the vast Bulmers cider mill – the world’s biggest – into what might kindly be called “rolling” countryside: though climbs are never too challenging, there are plenty of them. Within a few miles, I was panting up the long haul to the ridge known as Raven’s Causeway, an effort rewarded with spectacular views – west towards the highlands marking the Welsh border, north and east across orchards and fields to forested hills – that made the following hayride descent all the more exhilarating. 

This northern loop tours several of Herefordshire’s famed “black and white villages”, their streets still lined by the timber-framed buildings so typical of the area. First came Weobley, its ­well-preserved centre studded with picturesquely shonky houses, many dating back 500 years. Beyond lay what is surely England’s most desirable aviary, the palatial 17th-century dovecote at Luntley Court, then the old Dunkertons cider mill. At Pembridge, I hopped off the bike to admire the curious free-standing 13th-century octagonal belfry, then succumbed to the charms of tiny Eardisland, straddling the snaking River Arrow. 

Cycling, of course, makes you thirsty. So, plunging between 30 acres of lush orchards to find Newton Court Farm, I was delighted to pull up alongside a sign bearing the legend: “Park here and honk for cider.” And what cider: though larger than some other local artisan producers in scale and reach – “Ours is the only cider in Monaco,” proclaims founder Paul Stephens – it’s rooted just as deeply in tradition. A sip of Stephenson’s flagship Gasping Goose dispelled preconceptions about the “scrumpy” of teenage overindulgence. Herefordshire’s craft creations are juice-heavy apple explosions: refreshing, tannic, properly appley – liquid landscape paintings. As one ­producer told me: “We don’t plant trees here – we plant recipes.”

The idea is not to swig gallons at each stop – drink and cycle responsibly, folks. Rather, as I discovered pootling the byways, the routes are designed to reveal the county’s character. And characters: behind each drop is a personality expressed in their own “golden fire”. On the “Redstreak” route I met genially rambunctious Tom Oliver, sometime sound engineer and tour manager for the Proclaimers, whose mixing-desk approach – a subtle tweak here, a boost there – produces masterworks such as At The Hop #11, a hopped medium-dry perry that’s a far cry from 1970s Babycham. 

At Little Pomona, live-wire innovator Forbes laid out sweet, soft local cheeses to pair with her cryo-conditioned cider made, like ice wine, from frozen fruit. 

And at Ross-on-Wye Cider and Perry Company, deceptively laid-back father-and-son team Mike and Albert Johnson shared their ­passion for historic apple and pear varieties with evocatively timeless names: Foxwhelp, Somerset Redstreak, Yellow Huffcap, Bartestree Squash. 

I spent two days meandering the back roads, pausing at a cheesemaker here, a castle there, dallying at a farm gate or a country inn, drinking in scenery and cider alike. And I returned to Hereford with clanking panniers and a thirst to go and explore more of its mellow fruitfulness. 

“Cider has a similarity with WD-40,” the late Jean Nowell, Herefordshire’s revered godmother of perry and cider-making, once said. “If you put some in the right places, it makes things happen.” Certainly it keeps the wheels turning in this underappreciated region. How’d you like them apples?

How to do it

For downloadable PDF route guides and Strava maps of the new Cider Circuits, visit applesforautumn.co.uk. Some producers offer ride-up gate sales, but it’s best to call ahead to check opening hours and book tours and tastings.

Castle House Hotel is a Grade II-listed Georgian villa located beside an ancient moat and close to Hereford Cathedral (double from £150 per night; telegraph.co.uk/tt-castle-house-hotel).