Ashwell Springs into action

Damion Roberts visits Ashwell and declares it probably the most beautiful village in North Hertfordshire

LEAVING the A507 behind and passing the village of Newnham, there is a slight slow rise up a hill and at its crest is a picture-postcard view of Ashwell so lovely you just want to get out of your car to stand and admire its splendour.At its centre is the rising 170ft-plus spire of the 14th century St Mary's Church which stays in view as you approach Ashwell, possibly the most beautiful village in North Hertfordshire.The name Ashwell comes from the Anglo-Saxon Aescewellan, with 'aesc' meaning Ash and 'wellen' meaning well or spring and Ashwell Springs is without doubt the village's most loved and famous feature.The springs are tucked away - quite surprisingly as they are near the centre of the village - and can be accessed either from the town's High Street or via a 100 yard public footpath from Hodwell, which straddles the boundaries of St Mary's churchyard.'The springs have been there thousands of years. People have used them as a site for water all these years and they have also used them as a recreational site,' said Roger Pritchard, a local councillor and chairman of Ashwell Parish Council's Springs Committee.'The parish council has bought the land around the water, land which is used for picnics, and it is one of the most important recreational areas in the village.'The springs, the water of which feeds the River Rhee which is one of the sources of the River Cam, has been central to village life for many years.'We did a survey last year,' 57-year-old Mr Pritchard said, 'and the results showed that practically everyone in the village goes there at some point and although Ashwell isn't a big tourist village, a lot of people come here for the springs. I've lived here for 20-odd years and I don't know anywhere quite like it in Hertfordshire.'For a small village Ashwell is full of places to visit and enjoy, from St Mary's Church on Mill Street, which has the highest tower of any parish in Hertfordshire, to Foresters' Cottages (now houses) which date from the 14th century and the village's Lich Gate which is located near the church and whose purpose was to keep and shelter corpses on its bier before the body was taken for the funeral.There is also the Three Tuns pub, the only Queen Anne building in the village, and the Rose & Crown Inn which dates back to the 16th century.But if a tipple isn't your thing and you prefer a nice bite to eat instead there is the county-wide famous Days of Ashwell bakery which is located on the High Street and produces a wide range of cakes and breads which are made on the current premises, a building which dates back hundreds of years.It is the original, and the best, of eight county-wide and popular stores.Why not buy a pastry and take a walk to the Ashwell Cottage Garden in Swan Street which has been maintained over the years by local donations and gardening skills, a garden which was once described by former Poet Laureate John Betjeman as 'the best cottage garden I have ever seen'.Once you've finished off the pastry and taken in the garden, it is only a few steps to Ashwell's museum which is thought to be the oldest village museum in the UK.As museum curator Peter Greener explains, 'Everything in it is to do with Ashwell - that's what we collect. One popular item is the black mummified rat, which people come and see. It was caught in a chimney piece and became mummified. Black rats are associated with the plague and there are other references to the plague in the village, including the church.'The village now has its own goddess, too. Mr Greener explains, 'The goddess Senuna was discovered on votive plaques which have images on them and then people could have their names put on them and they date from 400AD. It is a Roman goddess which is unheard of anywhere else in the Roman Empire and although the plaques have been taken to the British Museum we now have replicas of them.'Mr Greener has worked at the museum since 1983 and said that in reality the building belongs to the people of the village. 'It's the village's museum, it's not mine, and everyone works together on it and knows that if they bring items along they are going to be safe. 'We advertise ourselves as the oldest village museum in the UK, open on Sundays and run entirely voluntarily. Forty or 50 people help out on a regular basis and I think that the work by villagers on various things are what makes this village special.'