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Ashdon History

The name Ashdon means ‘hill of the ash trees’, and neighbouring Bartlow means ‘hill of the birch trees’ – this was hilly, wooded country and other clues are some of the local names such as Bowsers farm which means ‘land cleared by burning’, Rothe End showing a clearing, Thickhoe a thicket and Ridducks Hill from Red Oaks Hill. Not far from here is the source of the River Bourne which flows through the village to join the Granta at Bartlow and thence to the Cam. In the summer this is just a trickle of water, but it can swell dramatically in winter (p11).


Early settlement evidence was found in the 19th century when traces of a small Roman village emerged from a dig at Great Copt Hill – a coin of King Alfred was later found nearby. Another Roman villa was found later in Bartlow, and large numbers of Roman coins have been found. The most spectacular survivals are the Bartlow Hills – originally there were 8 but half of them have gone, leaving 4 extraordinary mounds up to 45 feet high – when excavated in the 19th century they turned out to be burial mounds of the first century AD, full of grave goods (p14).


More problematic is whether Ashdon was the site of the Battle of Assandun 18 October 1016, which enabled Cnut to claim the throne of England. Ashdon is one contender, the other is Ashingdon beside the River Crouch – this has been long argued over by historians (pp15 onwards). The battle is described in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. The earliest documents which definitely apply to Ashdon are two late Saxon wills. In Saxon times, there were already four hamlets in existence (pp33-4).  Domesday Book gives much information on Ascenduna, later to become Ashdon Hall (p37), and the later Lay Subsidy records also reflect the community (p44). The other manors were the Rectory Manor, Newnham Hall and Waltons, which each have their own mini-histories.


Like all the villages of NW Essex, Ashdon life revolved for centuries around agriculture, on which much information is given in the Tithe Award dated 1848 for Ashdon, based on a survey made three years earlier (p49).  At that time the population was 1,200 and land ownership divided between 111 different parties, many of whom owned merely a cottage and garden. Of the 4,825 acres in the parish, 2,110 were owned by Viscount Maynard, including Waltons Park, the most opulent house in the parish, and the 8 largest farms (p50).


From the mid-19th century further insights are offered by the Census returns, showing that in 1851 there were 1,195 people in Ashdon and Bartlow, having grown from 873 at the beginning of the century, and slipping back to just 800 by 1901. This was the general trend, as poverty and other factors drove people from the villages. A tradition of radicalism existed in the village, exemplified in the Ashdon labourers’ strike of 1914, a dramatic episode on the event of WW1 (chapter 9).


[The information above, as indicated by the page numbers, is taken from Annals of Ashdon: no ordinary village by Robert Gibson(1988)  ISBN 0-900360-72-0.]


There are considerable archives relating to Ashdon, reflecting the history of poverty, education, the gentry, courts, the church and other facets of village life, and the documentary record of the village is comprehensively analysed in Angela Green’s book, Ashdon. The village has also produced a huge amount of oral history and published reminiscences by Spike Mays, Reubens Corner and Five Miles from Bunkum. Visitors can explore Ashdon past at the excellent village museum, open one or two afternoons a week (apart from winter) in the old Labour hall in Church Hill. In my own book, Discover Walden, a book of walks around Saffron Walden, I could not resist including one of the many country rambles on Ashdon’s 100 public rights of way, and a particularly fine walk around this remarkable village can be read by following the link attached here.

Jacqueline Cooper