Celebrating 11 centuries in Ashwell village
PUBLISHED: 10:09 04 September 2017 | UPDATED: 10:09 04 September 2017
The north Herts village of Ashwell is enjoying a special year marking 1,100 years since its founding. Bianca Wilde looks at its rich history and ongoing celebrations
Picture-postcard Ashwell has been a hive of activity this year with events to mark its 1,100th anniversary. Everything from street parties to a major Ashwell at Home event have been held to celebrate the history of the north Herts village.
But where did it all start? Evidence of activity in the area can be found much earlier than the 917 date chosen for this year’s celebrations. Ashwell historian David Short has written extensively on the period and notes that during the Roman occupation of Britain (before the sacking of Rome and the withdrawal of Roman administrators and soldiers in 410), Roman presence was felt in the area. In 2002, in a field in Ashwell End at what is now the outskirts of the village beside the river Cam, a source of which rises in the village, a metal detectorist uncovered 26 silver and gold plaques and jewellery – votive offerings at a shrine complex to a previously unknown goddess. The goddess was Senua (or Senuna) – a Celtic diety with elements of the Roman Minerva.
After the Romans, incoming Anglo-Saxons settled and built houses scattered around the countryside, populations grew and estates were formed. Ashwell, with its freshwater springs, was the centre of such an estate, which also included nearby Hinxworth, Caldecote, Newnham, Radwell and Bygrave. The church serving the estate would have been a minster – something between a parish church and a monastic house.
The 9th century saw a spell of Viking inhabitancy in the country, but this was to come to an end when Edward the Elder, son of Alfred the Great, reclaimed the land and created burhs and towns, including Ashwell in 917.
A new town needed infrastructure including homes, a market place and people to govern it. Plots were marked out and these were then leased to a town council. Each plot would have been large enough for a house, farm and commercial buildings and fields for livestock. The front of the plots were mostly on today’s High Street, sometimes referred to as Front Street, with the ‘back street’ being Ashwell Street. Kingsland Way and Bear Lane were probably created in the early medieval period, David Short suggests.
The historian says it’s probable that the High Street did not twist around at West End, past the present entrance to the village hall and on to Newnham Hill, but carried on straight past Westbury Farm crossing Hinxworth Road and then becoming Caldecote Way, the main road to the west. The other road west from the village was the south spur on Ashwell Street that went south of Arbury Banks to the barns at the sharp corner between Newnham and the A507.
At the parish church in the heart of the village, dating to 1218, rector Robert Evens says St Mary’s remains an important part of village life, ‘We have all sorts going on at the church for Ashwell’s celebration year. We’ve had a quilt festival – this year there were 50 quilts on show, all locally made. We also have a strong choral history, and have beautiful music here, including that from Ben Goldscheider.’
Ben, a French horn player from the village, was a finalist in the 2015 BBC Young Musician of the Year. He will perform at a special 1,100 celebration concert at St Mary’s this month alongside fellow musicians Richard Uttley and Callum Smart.
As well as a site of celebration, the church bears the signs of horror. The Black Death that swept across Europe, arriving on England’s shores in 1348 and Ashwell the following year, is recorded here. It is thought as many as half the inhabitants of the village died in the plague. The victims were buried in a pit next to Mill Street.
In the north-facing wall of the tower within the church there are inscriptions in Latin from the time: ‘One thousand three hundred five tens terrible, fierce, violent, the plague has gone away, leaving alive as witnesses the most unfortunate people.’
Rev Evens says the writings hold a strong fascination: ‘I go into the church several times a day and you always see someone at the graffiti. People come from all over take a look.’
Many of the other buildings in the village are almost equally rich in history. Ashwell still has three pubs, The Rose and Crown and The Three Tuns, both on the High Street, and The Bushel and Strike – opposite St Mary’s. Long before the Bushel, in 1633 a wine tavern called The Wheatsheaf was kept on the same street – Mill Street – by Valentine Lee. In 1854 it was owned by the village’s own brewery, Fordhams – founded by George Fordham and his son Edward in 1836. The Wheatsheaf was eventually pulled down and the Bushel in the adjoining house was started as a small beer house more than 60 years ago.
Unusually, and reflecting its deep and significant history, Ashwell has its own museum. Ashwell Village Museum was founded in 1930 but its origins go back a decade earlier when pupils of the Ashwell Merchant Taylors School chanced on archaeological curios – coins, clay pipes and a beer mug – which they displayed in a garden shed. In 1928 the growing collection accumulated by the boys was shown at a church fete. This was a great success and a committee was formed to find a permanent home for it and other finds from the village. The near-derelict property - a half-timbered Tudor house - was bought from a butcher and restored.
Today, the museum tells the story of everyday life in the village from the Neolithic to the present day. One exhibit is particularly striking – the mummified remains of a black rat, a carrier of the fleas which bore the Black Death.
But it’s not just its physical remains that Ashwell has to remember its past, there are also annual events that pay homage to village life, and this year has been a bumper one.
Ashwell at Home has been held on the second Sunday in May each year since 1983 and this year’s was based around activities themed from 917 onwards. A model of the village as it may have looked in its founding year was displayed, records of Ashwell’s Doomsday entry were on show at St Mary’s, there was Tudor music and dancing, and a showcase of the village’s important straw-plaiting trade, to name a few. A summer street party in July last was attended by hundreds, while the much-loved Ashwell Show takes place on August Bank Holiday Monday.
The emblem of the celebratory year is based on an Anglo-Saxon coin from that year designed by Ashwell resident and illustrator Cathie Felstead who has Radio Times and book covers to her name.
‘In 917 there wasn’t anything like what we have now, it was an unstructured society,’ she said. ‘So what I needed to do was find something that was important then and now, something visual to link the two eras. Inns came in much later so currency was what I went with. I did lots of research and found a coin from the time to base it on.’
The coin also denotes something of value, and Ashwell is certainly that.
More events marking Ashwell’s 11 centuries
Centenary Walk, Saturday August 19
Meet 10am at The Three Tuns. Walk to Dunton for lunch at The March Hare. Return to Ashwell around 5pm. Terrain is easy-moderate. Round trip is eight-10 miles.
Ashwell Show, Monday August 28
Alongside great attractions, and classic family fun this year there are new food and drink stalls to tantalise visitors’ tastebuds, including gourmet toasties, delicious pulled meat, Sri Lankan cuisine, Lebanese treats, and wood-fired pizzas.
National Heritage Weekend Friday September 8 to Sunday September 10
Ashwell Museum will be open free of charge and taking guided walks around the centre of the village.
Ben Goldscheider Concert, Friday September 15
The celebrated French horn player leads a concert at St Mary’s Church.
Jazz Concert, Saturday October 28
St Mary’s Church