Sunday, 11 September 2011

Ashwell, Hertfordshire

Ashwell was evidently a wealthy town back in the day since St Mary is monumental, the tower is visible for miles around. Surprisingly for all its massiveness the main points of interest here are graffiti.

In the tower there's some Latin script and a drawing of a church both of which are interesting.

The Latin graffiti records the Black Plague in 1348 and the great wind of 1361 and reads:

There was a plague 1000 three times 100, five times 10 a pitiable fierce violent (plague departed) a wretched populace survives to witness and in the end a mighty wind Maurus, thunders in this year of the world, 1361.

The storm on St Maur’s Day blew down the spire of Norwich Cathedral. William Langland, the poet, who was about 30 years old at the time, wrote that the broad oak trees were ’turned upwards by their tailles’.

The church is supposed to show the north elevation of Old St Paul's cathedral. It shows a central tower and a tall spire with flying buttresses. The Rose window at the east end is turned 90 degrees so that it can be shown in the same drawing. It is thought to date between 1360, when Ashwell tower was built and 1561 when the spire of St Paul fell down.

On the westernmost column of the north aisle is another drawing of a church which is better preserved.

ST MARY. The glory of the church is its W tower, in four stages with tall angle buttresses. It is 176 ft high, crowned by an octagonal lantern with a leaded spike, the same pattern as at Baldock. * The tower is clunch-built and more ambitious than any other of a Herts parish church, and it has never been explained why just Ashwell should have gone to such an enormous expense. It was begun in the first half of the C14.* The church itself is of the same date, the chancel was apparently completed in 1368, and the whole building in 1381. The body of the church is of clunch and flint, relatively low and not embattled except for the chancel. Most of the windows are usual C15 Perp, but the clerestory windows and the tower W window prove that the Dec style was still alive when the building went up. The S porch is two storeyed, higher than the aisle, with a fine outer doorway and two-light windows (the vault is C19). The N porch of one storey has three-light windows. Both porches are of the second half of the C15. The interior bears out the building history surmised for the exterior. The arcades of the nave look indeed a little earlier than 1350. They change their details from E to W (piers with big attached shafts and thin ones without capitals in the diagonals, then piers with the big shafts slightly thinner, then with the big shafts of semi-octagonal section). The aisle roofs are good, solid C14 work. The chancel arch corresponds to the earlier parts of the nave, the tower arch to the later. To link up nave and tower a blank piece of wall was left standing and decorated with a blind two-light Perp arch as high as the whole nave. The clerestory windows stand above the spandrels, not the apexes of the arcade. The chancel is aisleless with large windows, and as these have no stained glass it appears very light. The whole church is indeed spacious and broad, rather than tall. The walls are whitewashed, the stone parts light. The effect is decidedly puritanical, especially as the church has surprisingly little of furnishings. -  PULPIT. 1627. The usual blank arches in the panels are made up of diamond-cut pieces. - LADY CHAPEL SCREEN. Very elementary C15 tracery. - STAINED GLASS. Small C15 fragments in clerestory windows. - PLATE. Paten, 1632; Chalice, 1688. - No monuments of importance. - LYCHGATE. Attributed to the C15.

* The leading was last renewed in 1948.

* This is proved by the extremely interesting graffiti inside the N wall of the tower. They say in Latin: ‘MCterX Penta miseranda ferox violenta . . .(? pestis) superest plebs pessima testis’ and ‘In fine ije (secundae) ventus validus . . . . . .. . Maurus in orbe tonat MCCCXI', 1350, wretched, wild, distracted. The dregs of the mob alone survive to tell the tale. At the end of the second (outbreak) was a ‘mighty wind. St Maurus thunders in all the world.’ The date of this exceptional gale was 1361. Higher up; on the tower wall (N) there is a further inscription, in much smaller script: primula pestis in MterCCC fuit l.minus uno. Also on the N wall a remarkably detailed and accurate scratching of the S side of Old St Paul’s cathedral.

Graffiti (6)

Graffiti (1)

Graffiti (14)

Ashwell. Set among trees in a countryside of open fields on the Cambridgeshire border, it is one of the pleasant surprises of this part of the county. As we look down from the low hills about it, it is a charming picture with its roofs clustering round a weather-worn church. Some of the many old houses have overhanging storeys and roofs of thatch and tile; some are timbered, and one has remains of ornamental plasterwork. The village also has an inn rejoicing in the quaint name of Bushel and Strike. Deep down below the road the River Rhee, a tributary of the Cam, comes to life. The ash trees growing about the spot, spreading their branches on a level with the road, are said to have given the village its name.

One of the old buildings near the church is the 17th-century Merchant Taylors School, now part of a larger school. Another is a timbered medieval cottage with gabled roof, quaint windows, old fireplaces, and huge oak beams - charmingly restored as a little museum for housing the collection of local relics of bygone days which was begun by two enthusiastic schoolboys, who collected antiquities and conducted excavations as if they had been learned professors on a happy hunting ground. A hundred years ago the cottage was a tailor’s shop, and before that it was the Tythe House.

In the museum are some bits of wool and a few wheat grains that were left in a crevice of the old building from the harvests of years ago. Old Ashwell is represented here in all its ages. There is a rare specimen of a polished Neolithic tool, coins from Roman days down through history, old straw plaiting tools, and a long metal harvest horn which woke the men of Ashwell from their beds at four in the morning. The museum is the pride of the village, and we heard of labourers hurrying off to it with fresh finds turned up by their ploughs. South-west of Ashwell are the entrenchments known as Arbury Banks, a vast circle of ploughed field, half-surrounded by broad deep banks, now cared for by the Ministry of Works. Once it was a Roman settlement, and earlier still the great banks protected the pit dwellings of an ancient people.

Reached by a worn lychgate, which may be 15th century, the great church reminds us of the time when Ashwell was a prosperous market town with four fairs a year. Very striking is the 14th-century tower, with rough and heavy stepped buttresses climbing nearly to the top, and crowned with a slight leaded spire set on an octagonal drum. Records of days gone by are cut on the wall of the tower and on the pillars of the nave, a Latin inscription telling of the days when terror fell upon the people of England and the Black Death struck dead one man in three: "Miserable, wild, and distracted, the dregs of the people alone survive to witness; and in the end a tempest." Ashwell tower stood out against the tempest, but the tower of neighbouring Bassingbourn crashed to the ground. Below the inscription on Ashwell’s tower is a fine though much worn drawing of 1350 showing a cathedral, very like Old St Paul’s, which was completed that year and must have been in every architect’s mind. It is scratched on the wall of the tower and the drawing of a simpler church is on a pillar of the north arcade. A sheet of lead in the tower, once on the roof, has an inscription saying that Thomas Everard laid it here to lie 100 years; he would be glad to know that it lay 200 years, and has only had to be replaced in our own time.

The church is as long as the tower and spire are high, and is chiefly 14th century, with porches added and some of the windows altered a century later. The clerestory is partly 16th century. The original window of the north aisle has beautiful butterfly tracery, with quaint heads of a man and a woman at each side. The high tower of diminishing stages has fine windows, and striking double buttresses stepped and gabled. The south porch, higher than the nave, has a niche in the gable, and modern vaulting. The old door within it opens to a stately interior full of light from clear glass. The nave arcades have clustered pillars on high bases, and among the figures of men, women, and animals between their arches are two men grimacing, and a man thoughtfully stroking his beard. The walling at the west end of each arcade is carved with tracery like windows, reaching from floor to roof.

Bright as a summer noonday, the beautiful chancel has fine sedilia and a piscina with only half a bowl, a stone panel carved with the Last Supper under the great east window, a niche in a window splay with an animal carved under the bracket, and the base panels of the 15th-century screen, with poppyheads of a griffin and a quaint fish at each side of the entrance. Rich medieval screen work encloses the north chapel. The pedestal pulpit is 1627, and a 17th century chest has carving and iron bands. A floorstone to John Sell of 1618 has these words: To God a Saint, to Poore a Friend.


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