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The History of Ross on Wye

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The historic town of Ross-on-Wye sits amid picturesque English countryside in the Wye Valley and dates back to at least Norman times. Originally it was known as ‘Ross’ but became ‘Ross-on-Wye’ in 1931 due to confusion with other places of the same or similar name. The Norman King William wanted to record of the taxable wealth of his newly conquered territory so he ordered the writing of the Domesday Book . This vast document records the country almost down to almost every pig and goat. In 1086 it records Ross as a village and manor belonging to the Bishop of Hereford . It also notes a priest and a mill, meaning that by this time Ross-on-Wye had grown into an established village with a church and a corn mill.

In the 12th century King Stephen granted the town a charter allowing it the rights to hold a market. Most towns and villages in these times were not ‘free’, effective monopolies were maintained on the sale of certain goods and services. Charters allowed a local economy to thrive and were often granted in return for past favours or service. King Stephen’s charter stimulated the economy of Ross-on-Wye and attracted trade from the surrounding countryside. At the time of the reign of Edward I (1239 - 1307) Ross-on-Wye enjoyed a thriving and varied economy, with all manner of tradesmen, shops, market stalls, mills as well as industry such as iron forges. It was an important market town on the main routes from Hereford, Monmouth and South Wales to London . The town was thriving during the reign of Elizabeth I and a stone bridge at Wilton was built to replace the unreliable and sometimes ford and ferry crossing over the Wye.

The parish church of St. Mary's is the town's most prominent landmark, the tall pointed spire is visible when approaching the town from all directions. The 700 year-old church holds several distinctive tombs including one of the last great alabaster sculptures from the specialist masons of Nottingham , whose work was prized across medieval Europe. On the west side of the churchyard is the 'Prospect', a pleasant view point and garden where you can look down on the River Wye curving beneath the town. The gardens were laid by 'The Man of Ross' locally know as John Kyrle, a wealthy barrister and generous benefactor of the town, who lived between 1637 and 1725. Twice weekly markets are held under the 17th century Market House in the heart of the ancient market town. Sitting in the Market Square the red-sandstone building has a ground floor open air and an upper floor that is now the town library. On display are a bust of King Charles II shown on a white medallion and in the south-east corner of the building is the ambiguous monogram 'FC' intertwined with a heart. It is generally believed to mean 'Faithful to Charles in Heart' and originates from John Kyrle, once Ross-on-Wye’s greatest patron.

The Plague Cross was erected in the church yard of St. Mary's church in 1637 as a memorial to 315 people who died in the town of the plague that year. Also known as the Corpse Cross, by 1896 it had fallen into disrepair and the top was missing. It was later restored to its original condition. The town’s development was under threat at the time of the Plague, and further destruction and turmoil came during the time of the Civil War during the mid 17th century. Once life settled down again serious efforts were made to address problems with road and river transportation. From the early 18th century the natural beauty of the Wye began to bring artists, poets, writers to the area. A boat trip departing regularly from Ross was soon known as the Wye Tour. The initially casually arranged boating trips soon developed into a commercial enterprise and the town developed into a tourist centre, arguably the first in Britain to do so.

During the 19th century parliament passed the Improvement Acts which aimed to drag British towns and cities out of the unsanitary and unhealthy conditions they had descended into during the Industrial Revolution. The acts altered Ross, it adopted a mock gothic style as the streets were cleaned and widened and derelict buildings were cleared. New roads were laid and there was a great improvement in the
town’s public services.

The arrival of railway in 1855 signalled a decline in the commercial use of the River Wye. However, as the passage of goods on the river faded into history a new chapter opened. A rise in tourism made Ross-on-Wye one of England’s favourite destinations. During the 20th century there was also an unprecedented expansion in trade and industry that matched the impact tourism had on the historic market
town.

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