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Plague Strikes in Ashwell

See evidence of the bubonic plague before strolling along the chalky downs.

Distance 6.4 miles (10.4km)

Minimum time 2hrs 30min

Ascent/gradient 140ft (43m)

Level of difficulty Medium

Paths Tracks and paths, some lanes around Ashwell, 1 stile

Landscape Arable chalk downs and muddy plain

Suggested map aqua3 OS Explorers 193 Luton & Stevenage; 208 Bedford & St Neots

Start/finish TL 268396 (on Explorer 193)

Dog friendliness Mostly arable land, some cattle approaching Ashwell

Parking East end of High Street, outside United Reformed church

Public toilets Recreation Ground off Lucas Lane


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1 Walk west down Ashwell High Street, eventually curving left to ascend to a junction. Turn right into Hinxworth Road. Shortly after passing the gates to West Point, go straight on to a track at a bridleway sign, the road bearing right.

2 The track climbs Newnham Hill with fine views back to Ashwell church tower and long views northwards. Descend to a bridleway junction. Turn right alongside the hedge, then turn left at a footpath post to go through the hedge and continue westward.

3 Beyond some former farm cottages turn right on to a concrete road to walk past Caldecote Manor and St Mary's Church (not open to the public). Follow the road until just before Meadow Cottages. Here go left to skirt a copse, then go straight on along a track between fields. When you reach a deep ditch, go left a few paces to cross it. Carry on going straight ahead, aiming for the left end of a hedge, turning right to walk alongside it, and then through pasture.

4 At the lane go straight on past the medieval Hinxworth Place to skirt to the right of some scrub. Now go diagonally across some arable land, heading for Hinxworth Church. Go through a hedge to walk alongside a deep ditch and then left over a footbridge. Go along a field edge before turning right into the churchyard via a kissing gate.

5 Leave the churchyard along a short lime avenue, turning left to walk up High Street, past the quirky war memorial clock tower. Turn right into Chapel Street. At a footpath sign go right on to a cinder track which curves left to pass between two cottages, then through vast arable fields. At a crossroads go past some farm buildings to descend across more arable land. Having crossed a footbridge over the River Rhee, go diagonally left in a pasture to cross another bridge. Now turn left along the field edge.

6 At a lane go left past a cottage and opposite go right, with a moat in the field on your left. Turn right on to a lane and, where this turns right, go left, the path curving right through farmland to a stile. Once over this stile turn right and continue along a lane, carrying straight on into Rollys Lane.

7 At the T-junction go right into Mill Street and visit the church. Cross Swan Street to the path beside Ashwell Village Museum, and back to High Street.

One of the most moving things you will see on any of these walks is the graffiti on the north wall inside the tower of St Mary's Church in Ashwell. High up the wall is a graffito inscription in Latin which translated says 'The first plague was in 1349', and lower down a more desperate one, 'Miserable, wild, distracted, the dregs of the people alone survive to witness, 1350' while the last in the series refers to a great storm, 'At the end of the second (plague) a tempest full mighty this year 1361 St Maur thunders in the heavens'.

The graffiti bear a remarkable witness to the Black Death, the bubonic plague spread by black-rat fleas, that swept into England from the Continent and Asia in 1348. It was devastating, particularly as the harvests had failed repeatedly since 1314 and already large areas were unploughed. It is thought that a third of the population died in the first outbreaks. No-one was immune: the Abbot of St Albans, Michael of Mentmore, and 47 of his monks died of the plague in April 1349 alone. The scrawlings give an awesome insight into the state of mind of Ashwell's residents, but the January storms, which did great damage and would have seemed to be the final blow, probably cleared out the plague for a while and gave the community a chance to recover.

The church tower, under construction at the time of the plague, is in chalk stone and thus easily incised and carved. There are other equally interesting pieces of graffiti, including a 15th-century drawing of old St Pauls Cathedral in London and, elsewhere in the church, one by a bitter mason or builder which translates 'The corners are not pointed (mortared) correctly - I spit'.

The tower is an immense piece of work - one could speculate that it eventually rose as a defiance or commemoration of the tribulations of the village. At 176ft (54m), it is seen for miles around with its three storeys, massive angle buttresses and crowning 'Hertfordshire spike' spire. Ashwell itself is an exceptionally interesting village. There is a museum in an early 16th-century, timber-framed building, originally built as the local estate office for the Abbey of Westminster, which owned the manor until 1540. Ashwell was a market town and one of five in the county recorded in the Domesday Book. Ashwell's open fields remained unenclosed until as late as 1863. To the west, Caldecote is a deserted, medieval village whose economic viability probably received a serious setback from the Black Death. Owned by St Albans Abbey, it was deserted by 1428 and now consists of just a moated manor house (rebuilt around 1500) and a small church.

Where to eat and drink

Ashwell's several pubs include the Rose and Crown (also a restaurant) and the Three Tuns Hotel in the High Street; also here is the Thirty One Tea Rooms. You could try the Bushel and Strike in Mill Street. On the route there is the Three Horseshoes at Hinxworth.

What to look for

The Black Death that ravaged Ashwell may have fatally weakened nearby Caldecote, a small manor of 325 acres (132ha) owned by St Albans Abbey and deserted after 1428. The manor house, church and a cottage incorporating the old rectory are all that remain today. Many villages with 'cold' in their name were deserted in the late Middle Ages. Often they are located in bleak, exposed locations or on poor land.

While you're there

About 6 miles (9.7km) away from Ashwell, over the border in Bedfordshire, you could round off the day with a trip to the Shuttleworth Collection at Old Warden, west of Biggleswade. Started in 1928, it is a superb collection of vintage aircraft and road vehicles, all in airworthy or roadworthy condition.


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