TWO HERTFORDSHIRE VILLAGE CHURCHES
THESE two villages in north Hertfordshire are near the border with Cambridgeshire. The land is high.Looking east towards Cambridge and the low lying Fens the view is extensive; to the west these hills become the Chilterns. BothKelshall and Ashwell are served by the railway station of Ashwell and Morden which lies just over he border into Cambridgeshire. This gives the residents a quick and convenient route into London and that the property desirable and no doubt expensive.
Ashwell takes its name from the source of the river CAM which springs from a small chalk cliff in the village. Two or three gently trickling waterfalls feed a pond which turns into the fully fledged river. This well was surrounded by ash trees in Anglo-Saxon times, hence the name Ashwell. It is still pleasantly wooded. There are many well-preserved half-timbered cottages in the village dating from the 15th century. Near the centre stands the parish church dedicated to ST MARY. It was built in the 14th century when the village (in common with many others in England) suffered terribly from the Black Death. Latin graffiti in the base of the tower records this plague. The graffiti also mentions the great wind of 1361 which caused damage over a large part of Eastern England. Among other things this ‘Great Blow’ caused the collapse of Norwich cathedral’s first spire.
An interesting feature of the tower is a scratched sketch of Old St Paul’s Cathedral. How was this done? Surely such a detailed picture cannot have been done entirely from memory. It must have been done from a sketch or even a printed woodcut. These were produced in the 200 years between Caxton’s introduction of printing and the the destruction of old St Paul’s in the great Fire of London.
About three miles away is the smaller village of Kelshall. This of slightly later date than Ashwell church and has one of the earliest brasses to include an inscription in English. It has a beautifully decorated church; most of painting covering the roof was done in the in the Victorian Gothick style, but it has a fine medieval rood screen. Like most such screens this was reduced to under waist height during puritan times but it is still is a beautiful structure. There are four panels, two of medieval bishops whose names and eyes have been scratched out. But the two figures on the left remain more or less unscathed.
The figure on the far left is St Edmund (see the illustration). When the Victorians decided to install some heating to make the church less cold and forbidding to the congregation during the winter months they cut through the border of this picture to allow the hot water pipes into the chancel. We cannot be too severe on this vandalism because until 1979 all these medieval figures were obscured beneath a thick layer of brown paint. Not content with disfiguring the bishops, a later generation of reformers had decided to cover them up entirely. Rather that than remove them they merely painted them over. These puritanical churchmen did us a favour; now expertly restored, these fifteenth century figures once again appear in their pre-reformation glory.
I visited this church on the saturday after harvest festival and two sheaves of corn stood either side of the screen. The autumnal sun was shining through the clear glass windows (most of the stained glass had been smashed by those same puritans). The shingle path to the south door was thickly carpeted with beech nuts.
A third village, Therfield, is next to Kelshall. There my cousin William and I had lunch. From a bay window looking over the village green we could look out into the sunshine; it was just warm enough for a few hardy souls to drink their lunchtime pints outdoors.
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