Ashwell is a picturesque village in north Hertfordshire some 45 miles from the centre of London and a few miles from the A1(M) motorway. It nestles on the chalk scarp on the spring line. The springs, to be found in the village, are one of the sources of the River Cam.

A planned Saxon town, Ashwell has a range of vernacular buildings which are dominated by the impressive 14th century St Mary's Church. A market town at the time of the Domesday Survey of 1086 the street pattern still indicates where the market place was. During the medieval period the village stagnated and is one of the reasons for the wealth of timber-framed buildings to be found when walking down the High Street.

Today the village is home to about 1,700 people and is a hub of activity.  The shops and services cater of most daily needs and include a small supermarket, a butcher, a baker, a chemist, a post office, hairdressers, an estate agent and a florist.  There is a doctor’s surgery and a dental surgery.  Spiritual needs are catered for by a church, two chapels and three pubs.

Cultural life is active.  Ashwell Festival caters for music although there are concerts at other times of the year, Seven Springs Gallery, in its new premises, provides exhibitions of painting, pottery, prints and sculpture.  Ashwell Village Museum is a place to see artefacts , photographs and documents relating to the history of the settlement, while Ashwell Education Services provides research into the history of the parish and people who lived in it. Ashwell Primary School enrols children not only from Ashwell but also the neighbouring villages.  Ashwell Playgroup and Ashwell Toddler Groups cater for those too young for school.  Besides these there are a number of active societies which flourish: the Women’s Institute, Ashwell Theatre Club, Ashwell Horticultural Society, 4th Thursday Club, St. Mary’s Church Choir, Cub Scouts, Girl Guides and Brownies. For those interested in sport there are cricket, football, tennis, and badminton clubs.  Ashwell Show, on August Bank holiday, not only allow some to qualify for the Horse of the Year show and for Crufts but also provdes pleasure for thousands and much appreciated donations to local worthy causes.  Ashwell at Home, on a Sunday in mid-May, raises money for the museum, school and church restoration fund.  On this is a day gardens, shops and businesses are open to the public for a small charge.

Ashwell Parish Council publishes the Ashwell Year Book each year in time for the annual parish meeting which is held in late March.  Besides the minutes of the previous annual meeting and reports from the chairman of the council and the committees local organisations report on their activities.  There are also useful jottings, interesting photographs and a classified directory.  For a current or back copies see Publications

The History of Ashwell - in a Snippet

The village of Ashwell probably came into existence some time early in the tenth century. People have lived since the Stone Age leaving behind them artefacts and evidence in the landscape. Ashwell Village Museum has objects from all periods from the Stone Age to the present day.

It is in the Bronze Age that we first find evidence in the landscape. Aerial photographs show many Bronze Age burial barrows besides the one called Highley Hill, the only one which has not been ploughed out. Arbury Banks, a hill fort covering over 12 acres, was probably started in the Bronze Age before becoming the major site of the Iron Age in Ashwell. Once the Romans had settled in Britain in the first century AD fortifications like Arbury Banks were not needed and the site was abandoned. It appears that what is now the parish of Ashwell became a farming community based on the Roman town where Baldock is today. One such farm seems to be based on the building in what is now Pricems Field.

An artists impression of the villa in Pricems Field

An artists impression of the villa in Pricems Field

Little is known about the history of the area between the Roman period and the later Anglo-Saxon period. That people lived here is evident from graves that have been excavated and from place names.

The creation of present-day Ashwell was probably in the early tenth century. By 1086, when Domesday Book was compiled, it was the most important settlement, being a borough, a market town, in the area. The market place would have dominated the town and brought the wealth that is reflected in the number of quality medieval buildings, including St Mary's Church, that still exist today.

It would seem that the status of Ashwell did not last for long. Documents suggest that the sort of people one would expect in a thriving market town did not live here by the end of the thirteenth century.

By that time many other market towns had come into existence in the area, and would have taken trade from Ashwell, which was not ideally placed, not being on any main roads. This does not mean that Ashwell had become a backwater. The building of the greater part of St Mary's Church during the fourteenth century points to the wealth of those who could afford to pay for it. It was during this building that the Black Death devastated England and left scratched on a wall of the tower the cry of those who survived this tragedy.

Black Death Graffitti in St. Mary's Church, Ashwell  
Black Death Graffiti in St Mary's Church, Ashwell

From 1350 to the early part of the nineteenth century it would seem that Ashwell stagnated. It was during this period that the flourishing market declined, so that by 1799 there was no longer an official market, although the last reference that can be found to a market existing is in 1862. It was during this period that Ashwell must have come to rely on agriculture as a source of income. Even so it was still near enough to London for those who could afford it to move into the country and yet be near enough to town when needed.

The nineteenth century saw some changes, with the growth of three industries, brewing, coprolite digging and straw plaiting. As in most of England the population of the village grew during this period, reaching a high of 1,576 people in 1871, a size which was not overtaken until 1981 when 1,612 were recorded in the annual census. After 1871 the population held steady for two decades but declined between 1891 and 1901, when they stopped digging coprolites and the straw plait was not needed as much in Luton. In the twentieth century the two breweries closed - Pages in 1919 and Fordhams in 1966. In the latter part of the twentieth century changes in transport have brought a different life into the community. The motor car and rail travel mean that people can live in Ashwell but work elsewhere. These changes also bring traffic speeding through the village and parked cars fill the roads. But the village is a thriving, active community, where often it is difficult to find a night to hold a meeting or activity as there is likely to be something else already taking place.

This history and illustrations of the village of Ashwell is from Snippets of Ashwell's History by David Short, illustrated by Phil Collins and published by Ashwell Education Services. For more details see Publications

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Ashwell Education Services
59 High Street, Ashwell, Hertfordshire, England SG7 5NP
Tel: 01462 742385