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4 miles north-east of Baldock
Ashwell, a long, large village set among huge elds and low hills, owes its existence and its ame to the springs that bubble up in a deli irrounded by ash trees at the eastern end of the main street. The springs, crossed by stepping-ones, give birth to the River Rhee, which later ecomes the Cam. Their waters are said to remain exactly the same temperature throughout the year.
Probably the first inhabitants of the area were he Iron Age people who built a hill-fort, the Arbury Banks, to command the Icknield Way, an ncient road linking south-west England and the ast coast Traces of their hut circles within the ort can still be seen from the air.
Few villages present so complete and continu)US a picture of human habitation and activity Ashwell was an important town long before the Norman Conquest; and having lived, only just, :hrough plague, tempest and fire, it looks what it is - an experienced, triumphant survivor. Five-hundred years of building styles jostle each other without apology, occasionally pushed aside by well-tended grass verges. Ashwell houses are for living in: medieval cottages with Elizabethan additions proved too small for Victorian families, whose improvements were in turn streamlined by the 20th century.
All the same, there is much that has escaped alteration Bear House, on the corner of Bear Lane, is mostly medieval; so is the Chantry House, which in the 1540s was the home of ‘John Smarte, clerk, a man of godlie conversation’. Several farms - Westbury, Dixies and Ducklake
- date from the same period, as does the Rose and Crown pub, with its overhanging gables and its ghost that opens windows and thumps about in the cellar
In Mill Street, in 1681, the Merchant Taylors’ Company established a school, largely financed by a local benefactor. It is now the local library. The same mixture of conservation and economy is apparent in the old Maltings, superbly converted into a pair of modern houses, and the Old Mill, restored in the style of the miller’s house It retains an ancient, gigantic water-wheel turned by a stream. Its function is entirely decorative, since none of the mill machinery survives.
The lovely timber and whitewashed Guildhouse in the High Street had little to do with crafts; it was the home of the Guild of St John the Baptist, a religious body, and dates from about 1510. It is common knowledge, too, that
the name of the Engine pub does not refer to the railway. Once it was called The Engine and Drum, because its landlord, in the 1850s, had a drum threshing machine for hire.
All Ashwell’s links with the past, from prehistoric times onward, are summed up in the village museum, which is maintained entirely by local people and contained in the Town House. There is a sense of continuity, for in the 16th century this handsome building was probably used as the local tithe office.
But commanding past and present, from any viewpoint in the village, is the 176 ft tower of the church. Gauntly buttressed and crowned with a spike, it rears from the great 14th-century hull of the church itself. Its very size proclaims Ash-well’s long-ago prosperity as a market town. Beneath the grass to the left of the path lie the victims of the Black Death that shattered the village in the mid-l4th century.
The interior of the church, all clear light and whitewash, is remarkably puritanical in effect. There are few furnishings and fewer official monuments; unofficial ones, however, abound. One thing that Ashwell men have had in common down the centuries is a wish to immortalise themselves and their thoughts in stone, and consequently the church walls are covered with whirls, scrawls and scratches dating from the last century (‘Wm Law 1873’) back to the days when the church was built.