Ashwell is a large village with many attractive, well preserved, mainly timber-framed buildings. Several buildings display pargeting, which is decorative fine patterned plasterwork. This is done whilst the plaster is wet and it originated in Elizabethan times. The village is situated forty five miles from London and a few miles from the A1(M) motorway. Its name is derived from the spring which surfaces in a dell, surrounded by ash trees, at the eastern end of the village. The spring feeds the River Rhee, which later becomes the River Cam. In 990 AD, the village name was recorded as “Aescewellan”.
The importance of the village is demonstrated by the size of the church. St. Mary’s Church is a 14th century building, with a high tower, topped by a leaded spike, reaching 176 feet. The tower bears a scrawled Latin inscription which translates as, “miserable, wild and distracted, the dregs of the people alone survive to witness”. This is a reference to the Black Death, a plague which killed one third of those who contracted it. Many victims lie in the churchyard. The lychgate, at the entrance to the church, dates from the 15th century.
The Town House, itself an ancient monument, is the Village Museum, containing exhibits showing the history of Ashwell from prehistoric times to the present day. The Town House was built around 1500 as a shop in the Market Place. It has been a museum since 1930. The Rose and Crown pub dates from the 1540’s. At one time, it had its own maltings attached and the brewery continued until the 1950s, when it was bought by Greene King. The Three Tuns in the High Street, was built in 1803 and contained “Assembly Rooms”, where weddings and auction sales were held. In Mill Street, the Merchant Taylors’ Company established a school in 1681. The Old Mill, restored as a miller’s house, but now a private dwelling, has retained an ancient water wheel turned by the stream.
Ashwell has a cottage garden which John Betjeman described as, “the best cottage garden I have ever seen”. This cottage garden was originally the site of three cottages which were inhabited until the 1920s. They fell into disrepair and were demolished. The site was turned into a garden by Albert Skerman and his wife, Alice, who were tenants of Swan Cottage. Albert maintained the garden until his death in the 1970s. Alice died in 1981. To prevent the garden being built on, the Parish Council initiated a fund raising committee to buy Swan Cottage and its adjacent garden. This was successful and Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother gave a donation. The cottage and garden were vested in the Hertfordshire Buildings Preservation Trust and a covenant was put upon the garden that it should never be built on. In 1986, the Preservation Trust transferred the majority of the garden to the Ashwell Village Trust. The garden is maintained by a team of volunteers from the village.
In the High Street, there is a row of four houses and a shop which, in the 15th century, was the Guildhouse. This was the centre for the Brotherhood of St. John the Baptist, a guild, but really a religious organisation established in Ashwell in 1476 under the patronage of the Bishop of Lincoln and the Duke of Clarence. It is a timber-framed building with wattle and daub infilling and an overhanging upper storey. The whole of the upper story originally formed one large room used as a dining room for the Guild. The building was divided into the separate buildings in 1951. Further down the High Street is Dixies Farmhouse, a timber-framed building dating from the 15th century. In the 19th century, Dixies Farm belonged to the Chapman family and extended to three hundred acres. Eighteen men and eight boys worked on the farm. Across the road were orchards.
The house, at 63 High Street, has the unusual name of The Adelong. The house was built by William Edwards for himself and his sister, Jane. William, an Ashwell resident, left for Australia in 1865 and made his fortune in only a few years in the gold fields of Adelong. Above the door of the house, there is a carving of an emu and kangaroo and bears the date, 1881. William and Jane are buried in St. Mary’s Churchyard.
Foresters’ Cottages are now a terrace of three buildings, but were probably five or six cottages in earlier years. They are Grade II Listed buildings which were saved from demolition in 1959 and restored in 1962 by Hertfordshire County Council. The cottages date from the early 15th century and were owned by The Ancient and Honourable Order of Foresters. In the Victorian period, they were divided into five cottages and thirty five people lived there.
Beams Cottage at 45 High Street, was built in the 16th century and formed part of The Bulls Head pub, together with numbers 47 and 49 High Street. The pub opened in 1667 and has changed in size and appearance several times over the centuries. The Bulls Head pub became a private house around 1950.
Ashwell still retains a building once used as the village Lock-up. It was built in 1809 with blocks of chalk taken from a disused chapel at St. Mary’s Church. The village constable imprisoned offenders overnight in the Lock-up prior to being taken before the magistrate the following day. It was used until the early 1900s.