May has burst upon us, blue skies. Swifts screaming over the bridges and by the eaves, bluebells coating the floors of budding up woods. The lambs of a few weeks ago, all gangly wobbly wool, have taken on the statue of stocky young things, daring to play follow the leader away from mum.
The green hills which hold Ludlow cupped in their hands are dotted with the white of sheep. Ludlow was founded on its wool trade. Since Neolithic settlers made their homes in the hills sheep have been farmed here, though the Medieval period was when Ludlow and the surrounding area really made serious money from their fleeces. During the 12th century Ludlow developed as a centre for the wool trade and cloth manufacturing, with mills being built all along the Teme. One landowner in particular, Laurence of Ludlow became fabulously wealthy, enabling him to build Stokesay Castle, and travel all over England, visiting also the Low Countries and a fair at Champagne in north-west France. Another beneficiary was Bishop Robert Mascall, the Carmelite Friar, who became King Henry IV’s confessor and founded the priory and other institutions in the town. The church was enlarged and beautified with wool money, as were many of the fine medieval buildings still prominent in the town.
We tend to no longer eat mutton, though I do remember mutton stew as a school dinner, which I thoroughly enjoyed.
Lamb on the other hand, especially local reared, grass fed lamb is still a popular spring and early summer treat. Pricked with garlic, and dusted with salt, pepper and rosemary, lamb steaks are one of our favourites, especially with an onion sauce and young carrots. It is a very versatile meat and can be used in Tagines, curries, hot-pots and casseroles. A great celebration dish is a guard of honour, two racks of cutlets, tied side to side with the bones interlacing. They often have frilled white caps on the ends of the cutlets.
As for the old song, “Mares eat oats, and does eat oats and little lambs eat ivy” it turns out to be true! Apparently, they love it and it is a good tonic for older sheep that are poorly as well. Any good shepherd welcomes it on his grazing land.
The farming of sheep has shaped our uplands for hundreds of years, and the care of flocks and their sale has shaped our town. You could be forgiven for calling lamb, Ludlow on a plate.